Planck spacecraft’s map of ‘almost perfect’ universe could point to new physics
By Stuart Clark The Guardian
Thursday, March 21, 2013 19:26 EDT
Today is a great day. The European Space Agency has released the most precise map so far of the oldest light in the universe. The best news is that is reveals an ‘almost perfect universe‘. By that they mean it almost conforms to expectations – but not quite.
While the basic ‘big bang’ picture of our universe’s birth is confirmed, the unexplained aspects of the data are where the real excitement lies because these could be signposts to new physics. At the press conference this morning, Professor George Efstathiou, University of Cambridge, UK said that the Planck data showed that, ‘Cosmology is not finished.’
In an accompanying video, he even speculates that some of the strange data could be evidence of physics that took place before the big bang. This explosive origin has traditionally been thought to be the beginning of space and time.
Although now called the big bang, Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaître, who was the first to mathematically investigate the origin of the universe, wistfully referred to it as the ‘day without yesterday’. If Efstathiou is right, however, the big bang did have a yesterday after all.
ESA say that this new map of the cosmic microwave background ‘challenges some of the fundamental principles of the big bang theory.’ It does this by confirming the existence of features in the map that cannot be explained by prevailing theory.
The first strange feature is that the universe’s temperature appears to fluctuate more on one side of the universe than the other.
Secondly, there is definitely a ‘cold spot’ in the universe that extends over an area of space much larger than expected.
A third challenge is that the large scale temperature fluctuations across the entire universe are smaller than those expected from the fluctuations measured at smaller scales.
The theory that these observations challenge is called inflation. It postulates that a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe underwent a sudden catastrophic expansion. This behaviour was invented to explain why the temperature of the microwave background appeared, at the time, to be so uniform across the entire universe, and on all cosmic scales.
Now, Planck is showing that the temperature, and the fluctuations in it, are not as uniform as thought.
Another problem with inflation is that it lacks a theoretical underpinning from fundamental physics. In other words, no one can find a convincing explanation for why the universe would suddenly expand just after the big bang.
The anomalies in the Planck map announced today could be the extra clues that are needed to urge inflation into a fully fledged theory, or they could provide nails for its coffin.
Time will tell, and either way, we will have made progress.
More data is expected from Planck in about a year’s time.
• Stuart Clark is the author of The Day Without Yesterday (Polygon).
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Astronomers map how light of the big bang scattered across the universe
By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Thursday, March 21, 2013 12:34 EDT
Most detailed ever chart of cosmic microwave background confirms remarkable accuracy of current cosmological models
The most detailed map ever made of the oldest light to shine through the universe has been released by scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA).
The view of the heavens in red and blue speckles confirms with astonishing accuracy the theories cosmologists draw on to explain the evolution of the universe from a fraction of a second after the big bang.
The map reveals tiny variations in the “cosmic microwave background” or CMB – the faint glow of radiation that is left over from the earliest light to illuminate the cosmos. These primordial photons are all around us, and account for 1% of the “snow” that could be seen on untuned television sets.
The red and blue spots reveal areas where the radiation is slightly hotter or cooler than the average temperature. Areas that are cooler (blue) are more dense and become the seeds of stars and galaxies.
Scientists compiled the map from more than 15 months of observations by the ESA’s Planck telescope. The map improves on data gathered by two previous Nasa missions called Cobe and WMAP.
The director-general of Europe’s space agency, Jean-Jacques Dordain, described the new map as “a giant leap in understanding the origins of the universe.”
The size and variations in the CMB have led the Planck scientists to tweak their estimates both of the age of universe and the nature of the matter and energy strewn throughout it.
The latest data suggests the universe is expanding at a slower rate than thought, making it roughly 80m years older at 13.82bn years.
Scientists have made minor changes to the estimated make-up of the observable universe too, with normal matter now comprising slightly more, at 4.9%. There is a little more dark matter, at 26.8%, and less dark energy, at 68.3%.
In the latter cases, “dark” is synonymous with “unknown”. Dark matter is an invisible substance that appears to cling to galaxies, but whose existence can be inferred only by its gravitational pull. Dark energy is equally mysterious, and thought to drive the expansion of the universe.
The CMB is what remains of light that spread through the universe as soon as it became transparent, around 380,000 years after the big bang. Before then, a fog of particles prevented light from shining through the fledgling cosmos. As the universe expanded, that visible light was stretched into longer-wavelength microwaves.
The map provides strong support for a theory called “inflation”, which describes a brief and hair-raising period in which the early universe expanded faster than the speed of light.
“The sizes of these tiny ripples hold the key to what happened in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second,” said Joanna Dunkley at Oxford University. “Planck has given us striking evidence that indicates they were created during this incredibly fast expansion, just after the big bang.”
Some features of the map may take many years to explain, though. The Planck map confirms a strange asymmetry in the CMB that has mystified cosmologists. The planets in the solar system all orbit in the same plane, but the microwave background looks different above and below. Just on the horizon in the northern hemisphere is an unusual “cold spot” in the CMB that is equally baffling.
“Our ultimate goal would be to construct a new model that predicts the anomalies and links them together. But these are early days. So far, we don’t know whether this is possible and what type of new physics might be needed. And that’s exciting,” said George Efstathiou, a Planck scientist at Cambridge University.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
[Bing bang via Shutterstock]
In the USA...
Joe Biden: White House is not going to rest until gun laws passed
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 21, 2013 17:04 EDT
The White House will keep pushing for tough new gun ownership laws despite lack of support in Congress, Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday, urging politicians to show “courage” for the sake of shooting massacre victims.
“I’m not going to rest and nor is the president until we do all of these things,” Biden told a press conference in New York, where he joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg and bereaved parents from Newtown, where 20 elementary school children were shot dead in December.
“For all those who say we couldn’t or shouldn’t ban high capacity magazines, I ask them just one question: think about Newtown,” Biden said in a brief, but emotional speech in which he referred to the “beautiful little babies” killed in the school.
Senate Democrats have conceded that their proposed ban on assault rifles, like the gun used by a deranged intruder in the Newtown slaughter, has no way of passing in Congress.
Other measures under consideration — and that may have a better chance of being enacted — include requiring background checks for all gun sales.
Turning to face the parents of the school teacher who was killed when she tried to confront the Newtown shooter, Biden said: “It’s time for the political establishment to show the courage your daughter showed.”
Bloomberg, a billionaire who has focused heavily on reducing crime in New York and on a broader anti-gun campaign across the United States, also hammered Congress.
“The only question is whether Congress will have the courage to do the right thing,” he said, highlighting the huge, barely reported death toll from gun violence around the country.
“It has been 97 days since Newtown. In that time, we estimate that more than 3,000 Americans have been murdered.
“If Congress does nothing, another 12,000 people will be murdered with guns this year alone.”
Despite the divide in political circles, polls show Americans overwhelmingly support universal background checks on gun purchasers, among other new regulations.
“We remain optimistic Congress will take action… because the American people could not be more clear about where they stand,” Bloomberg said.
Gun control is one of the most politicized issues in a country rich in gun lore and where the Constitution is interpreted as guaranteeing the right of citizens to bear arms.
Opponents to any new gun laws, including the politically powerful National Rifle Association, argue that legal restrictions are the thin end of a wedge into constitutional rights and that criminals can in any case buy weapons illegally when needed.
However, Biden said Americans back “common sense” measures like background checks and alerts to the authorities when someone tries to amass weaponry.
“Not one (new rule) infringes on anybody’s Second Amendment constitutional rights,” he said.
One of the weapons used in Newtown, the popular military-style Bushmaster .223 rifle, is “a weapon of war,” Biden said. “That weapon of war has no place on American streets.”
The vice president also asked whether the shooter would have been capable of spraying so many bullets had he been forced to use smaller ammunition clips — as the White House wants — rather than the monster 30-round clips that allowed him to keep firing for longer.
Neil Heslin, whose young son was killed in Newtown, had difficulty keeping his composure as he addressed the press conference, saying: “Quite honestly, I’m really ashamed to see that Congress doesn’t have the guts to stand up.”
Chuck Schumer: Senate close to finalizing ‘pathway to citizenship’ for immigrants
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 21, 2013 17:02 EDT
Eight US senators crafting an overhaul of immigration policy are on the verge of finalizing a deal that could bring 11 million undocumented migrants out of the shadows, one of the lawmakers said Thursday.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the leading Democrat in the bipartisan Gang of Eight, said the plan, which members of the group said will include a “pathway to citizenship,” was on track for completion by the end of the month.
“We are very close to agreement,” Schumer told reporters after the senators met for two hours in their ongoing effort to forge the biggest reform to immigration laws since 1986.
“We’re meeting again this afternoon. And we expect to meet our goal of having comprehensive immigration reform… supported by all eight of us.”
Schumer was speaking after protesters supporting immigration reform entered his office in the Hart Senate Office Building demanding a timely unveiling of the senators’ plan.
“I understand people’s frustration. People have waited a long time,” Schumer said. “But we are real close for the first time to coming up with a bipartisan agreement that has a darn good chance at becoming law, and we’ll need all the support we can get.”
The sensitive and highly complex issue has gained currency since last November when Democratic President Barack Obama won re-election with overwhelming Hispanic support.
Earlier this week the Republican National Committee issued an election “autopsy” and stressed that the party must “champion comprehensive immigration reform” as part of its effort to attract Hispanic voters.
The White House is putting together its own backup plan in the event the senators fail to produce, and some of the provisions are said to be similar.
The Gang of Eight, including Republican Marco Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential prospect, announced in January that their plan would aim to offer a pathway to eventual citizenship, taking up to 13 years or more, for millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.
Such a move would be contingent on pre-conditions including steps taken to better secure US borders and institute an employee verification program.
But sticking points have stalled the plan’s final roll-out, notably the issue of the “future flow” of immigrants into the United States and the number of guest worker visas that Washington will provide, particularly to highly skilled people in technical, scientific or medical fields.
Should the bill pass the Senate, its steepest hurdle may be in the Republican-led House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner says he backs comprehensive reform, but it could prove difficult to bring conservative members on board.
A new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution shows 63 percent of Americans, including 53 percent of Republicans, favor a path to citizenship — with conditions — for the millions of undocumented immigrants.
Just 21 percent of respondents thought the illegals should be found and deported.
Despite the optimism, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy has denounced the delays by the lawmakers huddling in “secret” over their plan.
Leahy wanted time for members and the public to review the proposal over a two-week congressional recess.
But without legislative language to debate, the committee “will not be able to report a comprehensive immigration bill by the end of April, which was my goal,” he said.
March 21, 2013
Chicago Says It Will Close 54 Public Schools
By STEVEN YACCINO and MOTOKO RICH
CHICAGO — After weeks of uncertainty, principals at 54 public schools here officially learned from city officials on Thursday that their schools would close, with 11 more to share space with other schools. The closings represent the largest group of campuses to be shut down at one time by a city in recent memory.
Throughout the day, principals, teachers and parents were notified that their schools were on the closing list, their frustration and anger growing. But until late afternoon, neither the mayor’s office nor Chicago Public Schools officials would confirm the numbers.
Just before 5 p.m., the district released details. “For too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, in a statement.
The district said that it would save $560 million over 10 years by reducing investment in the closed buildings and cut annual operating costs by $43 million.
The closings represent about 8 percent of the 681 public schools in Chicago, the third-largest school district in the country. More than 400,000 students are enrolled in public schools, a large majority black or Hispanic and from low-income families.
After an extensive review, the district said that it had taken 276 schools out of consideration for closing. The final decision came just two weeks after a state commission in Pennsylvania announced a decision to close 23 schools in Philadelphia. Districts in Detroit, Newark and Washington have also closed schools in recent years.
In Chicago, where about 100 schools have already been closed since 2001, Ms. Byrd-Bennett has said that the district needs to reduce a $1 billion deficit. “By consolidating these schools, we can focus on safely getting every child into a better performing school close to their home,” she said Thursday.
Union leaders and parent activists protested the decision, saying that closings can undermine neighborhoods and cause safety problems for students who may as a result have to cross gang lines.
“We’re going to have abandoned buildings,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, in an interview. “They destabilize the neighborhoods around them.”
“They are moving people around on spreadsheets,” Ms. Lewis added. “And children are not spreadsheets.”
Some parents worry that their children will not get the attention they need once schools are consolidated and class sizes expand.
“This is the first time in a long time this school has actually got a reasonable amount of kids in the classrooms,” said Torrence Shorter, a parent who sends four children ages 8 to 14 to Martin A. Ryerson Elementary School, which is on the closing list. Mr. Shorter is particularly concerned that his 8-year-old son, Joshua, who is in a special-education class with just 11 other students, will be forced into a much larger class.
At Joseph Stockton Elementary on the North Side of Chicago, another school on the list, Claudia Pesenti, a first-grade teacher, said she did not believe the school was “underutilized.” With 22 students in her classroom, she said, “I even think there should be a better ratio just because of the needs of 5- and 6- and 7-year-olds. We’re fortunate to have 22 in the sense that other schools have over 30, but I still think it’s really criminal.”
Rebecca Carroll, a spokeswoman for the city schools, said that schools are funded with the expectation of an average class size of 30 students. But she said that was a “budgetary, not academic decision.”
The district says that with the money it saves from closing schools, it will invest in air-conditioning for all classrooms; libraries; expanded math, science and fine arts curriculums; iPads for all students in grades 3-8 and programs for advanced students.
Some studies have shown that savings are often less than anticipated.
“Our research found that school districts tended to save under $1 million per school” closed, said Emily Dowall, a senior associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts who has studied school closings. “So in some ways that’s not a game changing amount.”
Critics say that even more significant than cost, school closings tend to affect the poor and minorities disproportionately. In the 100 schools that have closed in Chicago since 2001, 88 percent of the students affected were black. Over all, black students make up 42 percent of the city schools enrollment.
It is not clear that students displaced from shuttered schools end up attending better ones. In one study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago of 38 schools closed between 2001 and 2006, the researchers found that only 6 percent of the students who were originally enrolled in schools that closed were sent to academically strong schools.
After school let out Thursday at Robert Emmet Elementary School, one of the campuses slated for closing, students emerged clutching enrollment forms for the schools to which they will transfer. “This is a horrible school to go to,” said Heaven Briggs, 13, a seventh grader whose grandmother, Yvette Gardner, agreed that Emmet was “a bad school.”
Heaven is scheduled to attend Edward K. Ellington Elementary School next year, a school rated in “excellent standing” by the district. Emmet, by contrast, has a “low academic standing” rating.
Steven Yaccino reported from Chicago, and Motoko Rich from New York.
March 21, 2013
States Urged to Expand Medicaid With Private Insurance
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — The White House is encouraging skeptical state officials to expand Medicaid by subsidizing the purchase of private insurance for low-income people, even though that approach might be somewhat more expensive, federal and state officials say.
Ohio and Arkansas are negotiating with the Obama administration over plans to use federal Medicaid money to pay premiums for commercial insurance that will be sold to the public in regulated markets known as insurance exchanges.
Republicans in other states, including Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Texas, have expressed interest in the option since Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas, a Democrat, received a green light from Kathleen Sebelius, the federal secretary of health and human services.
Valerie Jarrett, a top White House aide, has been a catalyst in talks with Ohio and other states.
The idea of using “premium assistance” to buy private insurance for new Medicaid beneficiaries is a sharp departure from the 2010 health care law, in which Congress expanded Medicaid to cover the poorest Americans and assumed that people with higher incomes would obtain private coverage through the exchanges.
In many states, Republicans are trying to create a hybrid of the two alternatives, taking federal money for the expansion of Medicaid but using it to help people buy commercial insurance instead.
State Senator Jonathan Dismang, a Republican from central Arkansas, said the idea appealed to him because it would “use the markets to provide better health care and to increase competition in the health insurance industry,” which could drive down costs.
The Arkansas Medicaid director, R. Andrew Allison, said the state had obtained “conceptual approval” from Ms. Sebelius to use Medicaid money to help low-income adults enroll in private insurance through the exchange in 2014. This arrangement, he said, could double the number of people in the exchange, to perhaps 500,000, while shrinking enrollment in the traditional Medicaid program.
The idea appeals to many doctors and hospitals because they typically receive higher payments from commercial insurance than from Medicaid.
“We supported the expansion of Medicaid before this idea came up, and we are more excited now,” said David W. Wroten, the executive vice president of the Arkansas Medical Society. “Providers of all types would be paid at private insurance rates, and that will help recruit physicians for Medicaid, especially in rural areas.”
Advocates for beneficiaries are torn. On one hand, they want to provide coverage to as many people as possible, and the use of private insurance may be the only way to entice Republicans to support the expansion of Medicaid.
On the other hand, they say, private insurance will often be more costly than Medicaid, in part because it pays higher rates to health care providers. They said they feared that higher federal costs would fuel demands in Congress for cutbacks in Medicaid.
In addition, many advocates prefer Medicaid because it has strict limits on co-payments and deductibles and provides benefits that may not be available in commercial insurance. These include long-term care, dental services, medical equipment and even personal attendant services for some people with severe disabilities.
Federal officials said state Medicaid programs could provide these extra services as a supplement to private insurance.
In Ohio, Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican, wants to expand Medicaid, citing the biblical injunction to help “the least among us.” He wants to provide coverage through private insurance for many of the new beneficiaries, including those with incomes from 100 percent to 138 percent of the poverty level ($11,490 to $15,856 a year for an individual).
Greg Moody, director of the governor’s Office of Health Transformation, said Ms. Jarrett called Mr. Kasich in late January and indicated that the Obama administration was receptive to his ideas. Federal and state officials are working out the details.
“Every day I am a little more encouraged that we can put together a package that is compelling to the State Legislature and can be approved by the federal government,” Mr. Moody said.
Erin Shields Britt, a spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said, “Our goal in working with states has been to be as flexible as possible within the confines of the law.”
In Florida, state legislators rebuffed a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, to expand Medicaid, but are exploring alternatives that would use Medicaid money to help people buy private insurance.
The 2010 health care law generally required states to make Medicaid available to people under 65 with income less than or equal to 138 percent of the poverty level. The federal government will pay the cost for newly eligible beneficiaries from 2014 to 2016, with its share gradually decreasing to 90 percent in 2020. In upholding the law in June, the Supreme Court ruled that the expansion of Medicaid was an option for states, not a requirement. The ruling touched off ferocious debates in statehouses around the country.
Arkansas Republicans, who control both houses of the Legislature, opposed a straight expansion of Medicaid, but have warmed to the idea of subsidizing private insurance for the same people.
“The feds have agreed to do what my legislators in various conversations have asked me to go ask them to do,” Mr. Beebe said. “Basically they’ve agreed to give us about everything we’ve asked for. What that really amounts to is to take the Medicaid population and expand it all the way to 138 percent of the poverty level and use federal Medicaid dollars to purchase insurance through the exchange.”
“It will probably cost the feds a little more money to do this,” Mr. Beebe said. Arkansas officials said the increase would be less than 15 percent.
Alan R. Weil, the executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy, an independent nonpartisan group, said he saw nothing inherently wrong in expanding Medicaid by paying the premiums of private health plans in a state insurance exchange.
With that approach, he said, low-income people can stay in one health plan even if their income fluctuates, so they lose Medicaid and become eligible for subsidies in the exchange, or vice versa. “How better to assure continuous coverage and continuous access to the same doctors?” Mr. Weil asked.
However, Leonardo D. Cuello, who represents poor people as a lawyer at the National Health Law Program, said the use of private plans could lessen protections for beneficiaries and increase costs to the government.
“Congress authorized premium assistance more than 20 years ago as a way to save money, by allowing Medicaid to pay premiums for people who had access to private coverage through an employer’s group health plan,” Mr. Cuello said. “It will now be used to provide individual coverage that is more expensive than Medicaid.”
Republicans Return to the Scene of the Crime and Threaten to Hold The Debt Limit Hostage
Mar. 22nd, 2013
It is not often, if ever, that law enforcement knows in advance of future crimes, and if they did it is safe to say the deterrent value alone would make the crime rate plummet. Without futuristic technology and foretellers of future events, pre-crime knowledge would be entirely dependent on criminals broadcasting their intended crime, victim, motive, and location that informs they were confident they would never face justice. Two years ago, Republicans in Congress told the American people they would hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage, and despite foreknowledge of their intended crime, they held the debt limit hostage for a ransom of devastating spending cuts with impunity, and after celebrating their success, announced their intention to hold the debt ceiling hostage again when raising it became necessary. True to their word, Republicans are threatening to hold the debt limit increase hostage and they can hardly wait to present their ransom demands to President Obama.
One of the reasons Paul Ryan’s budget passed in the House was a pledge by Republican leadership to eliminate the federal deficit within a decade, and besides being absurd on its face, ultra-conservative deficit hawks in the House are serious and warned leadership they will not tolerate anything less than follow-up legislation to implement the budget’s job and economy-destroying reforms. On Wednesday, Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said “It’s not just passing the Ryan budget. It’s actually implementing and passing legislation that gets us to balance in 10 years. Some people believe the plan is just to pass the Paul Ryan budget and once we pass the Ryan budget, then we have met … all of our goals. If this is something where they’re trying to placate the base, then no-one here is going to support the raising of the debt ceiling. My goal is not to pass a meaningless document by itself.”
The Republican leadership, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, held fast to the hostage terms during the 2011 debt ceiling fiasco that any debt limit increase be accompanied by equivalent spending cuts and reforms, and although they were successful causing a credit downgrade, gained $2.1 trillion in cuts, and imposed another $1.2 trillion in sequester cuts, it was an insufficient ransom for conservatives. Another Republican, Thomas Massie of Kentucky criticized Ryan’s budget and said he expected the leadership to find “a bright shiny object” (dollar-for-dollar spending cuts) to attach to the debt limit to attract conservative support, but they are not going to be fooled this time around and demand real entitlement reforms on top of Ryan’s Medicare privatization scam and domestic programs cuts.
When Republicans say entitlement reforms, they mean using the debt ceiling as a ransom for privatizing Medicare, drastically slashing Social Security, and repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and as Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) says “Any increase in the debt ceiling needs to be tied with a solution to stop us from spending money we don’t have.” When they talk about “money we don’t have,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), means “addressing the mandatory side of the spending equation, and I think we would probably do that in the debt ceiling debate.” Subsequently, the two largest mandatory spending programs are Medicare and Social Security and they will be part of the payment for raising the debt limit despite the damage to seniors, the poor, and the economy.
Republicans have been passionate for a big battle over the debt ceiling, and as if their last victory in 2011 was not severe enough, they are panting to hold the debt limit hostage again to slash Social Security that does not affect the deficit whatsoever. Some of the other mandatory spending programs Republicans intend on cutting are Departments of Education and Veterans Affairs, SNAP (food stamps), unemployment compensation, and earned income and child tax credits; all programs that affect most Americans, but especially the working poor and poverty level Americans. Republicans have long dreamt of eliminating the Department of Education to keep Americans stupid, and what better way than cutting more from education spending through holding the debt ceiling hostage. Cutting food stamps, unemployment benefits, earned income credits, and child tax credits will affect nearly all families that do not belong to the one-percent club who benefit from Ryan’s Draconian budget with a 15% tax cut while the middle class and working poor will see their taxes increase; it is criminal.
Holding the debt limit hostage is criminal, especially when Republicans raised it at least nine times for George W. Bush who with Republican support own the lion’s share of the debt for two wars, tax cuts for the rich, and the GOP’s prescription plan which were all unfunded and still increasing the deficit. The cuts in Ryan’s plan will not eliminate the deficit in ten years, but they will eliminate millions of jobs, and the mandatory spending cuts Republicans want will decimate seniors, Veterans, and the poor. However, the American people, both Republicans and Democrats, overwhelmingly support increased government spending for domestic programs and infrastructure improvements to create jobs according to a very recent poll. In fact, 77% of Democrats and Republicans believe federal jobs creation plans are necessary and should be mandatory spending, and yet another recent poll reveals the American people oppose nearly every spending cut in Ryan’s plan and side with the President on practically every issue. The mandatory spending cuts Republicans will hold the debt ceiling increase hostage for, and Paul Ryan’s budget proposals, are opposed by large majorities and they particularly cited strong opposition to Medicare, safety net, and education cuts Republicans will use as a ransom for a debt limit increase.
Republicans are criminals, and like criminals, their intention to impose the most severe austerity possible is far outside the mainstream morality. In 2011, after causing a credit downgrade and nearly a credit default, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell promised Republicans would definitely hold the debt limit hostage again, and his cohort intend to keep his word. As drastic as major cuts to mandatory spending on Social Security and privatizing Medicare are, Republicans are also calling for deeper cuts to safety nets than Ryan proposes plus ending the ACA as part of their ransom, and although one cannot imagine the President repealing his signature health law, the full faith and credit of the United States is too high a price to pay to prove he can prevail over criminals in the Republican party.
The tragic aspect of another debt ceiling standoff is Republicans will succeed in winning cuts to Medicare and Social Security because the President showed willingness to put so-called entitlements on the block in meetings with Republicans last week. It is too bad, and too sad, that the GOP convinced the President Social Security affects the deficit, but that is the price one pays for consorting with criminals who yearn for a fight over the debt ceiling and have nothing whatsoever to lose. For the American people though, whether Republicans win cuts that kill jobs and people, or send the nation into a credit default that bankrupts the government, there is nothing in America’s future that looks rosy and it is what happens when criminals are given ultimate power with nothing to lose and no-one to stop them; even when they know what’s coming.
Cyprus bailout deal closer after MPs vote for bank shake-up
Savings tax back on the agenda as island's finance minister returns empty-handed from talks in Russia
Helena Smith in Nicosia and Ian Traynor in Brussels
The Guardian, Friday 22 March 2013 23.59 GMT
After a day of high drama, Cyprus's parliament approved legislation on Friday night to restructure its banking sector and create a national solidarity fund that could save it from crashing out of the eurozone.
Following 12 hours of tortuous debate, Nicosia's 56-member house endorsed the legislation, seen as central to raising the €5.8bn (£4.9bn) that international creditors have set as a condition for a €10bn bailout.
MPs also agreed to imposing capital controls although they stopped short of voting on a highly contentious levy on bank deposits, now expected to take place on Saturday. If it is approved, Cyprus's leader is expected to head to Brussels for talks with top officials.
As the news broke, eurozone finance ministers announced that they would meet again on Sunday to discuss the Cypriot government's latest bid to halt a crisis that has sent tremors through the 17-nation bloc.
The race to secure a bailout from the EU and IMF intensified as the country's banks remained closed. Demonstrators rallied outside parliament after the island's finance minister, Michalis Sarris, returned empty-handed from two days of talks in Moscow.
Cyprus needs €17bn and is in negotiations to get €10bn from the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank. The remainder must come from the country's own resources. The original bailout plan, announced last Saturday, would have raised €5.8bn by skimming nearly 7% off all bank deposits of less than €100,000, and 9.9% of bigger bank accounts. A package of austerity measures was also planned to take the total to €17bn.
The re-emergence of the savings tax proposal, despite its unanimous rejection by the Cypriot parliament earlier this week, came after Sarris returned with the news no one wanted: that talks with Russia had failed to produce a result.
"I think that [the savings tax] is clearly on the table, that it is something that needs to be discussed to see whether a levy on deposits of some sort … would make a contribution to finalising the package," Sarris said.
On Friday night it was expected that the levy will focus only on accounts with more than €100,000, a move that will almost certainly stoke tensions with Moscow. Russian investors have €30bn deposited in Cypriot banks – the island is a tax haven – and the initial plan provoked anger at the highest levels of government in Russia.
President Nicos Anastasiades had proposed that small savers be included for fear of driving away the Russians, whose deposits are vital to keeping the Cyprus banking system afloat. The Russian government has already extended a €2.5bn loan to Nicosia, which the Cyprus government needs to retain.
The volte-face on the bank levy followed mounting criticism of MPs for rejecting the first bailout accord. Prominent former MPs accused the island's political elite of pandering to populist sentiment in the maelstrom of outrage that the proposal triggered. Critics said that, had the levy been passed, the government would not have been forced to draw up alternative plans. These now include the restructuring of the island's second biggest bank, Laiki, a move that its chief, Takis Phidias, described as a "disaster not just for the bank but for the economy of Cyprus". The basic plan is to split the bank in two.
Earlier in the day Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, appeared to reject the alternative scheme of a solidarity fund, saying it would not be sufficient to raise the money required to unlock €10bn in aid. The fund will pool national assets including hypothetical returns from offshore gas and oil reserves, nationalising Cypriot workers' pension funds, and revenues from the sale of assets belonging to Cyprus's affluent Orthodox church.
The Anastasiades government proposed the creation of the fund after the ECB threatened to cut off emergency aid to Cypriot banks by Monday if the country failed to convince creditors it could meet the onerous conditions of the bailout accord.
George Vassiliou, the former president of Cyprus, told the Guardian it was imperative that the banking system was not allowed to collapse.
"Cyprus is not just an island in the sun," he said. "We have developed a unique service sector based on confidence in the banking system. If that confidence is lost then you have nothing left. Everything that has been created will be destroyed with formidable repercussions."
He said there was "no doubt" that ordinary people should contribute to the island's financial rescue. But he criticised the lack of foresight ministers had shown in announcing the levy.
With German elections looming in the autumn, Merkel has adopted a tough stance. She told German MPs the Mediterranean island's business model was obsolete and that the bailout would need to be structured in such a way that it could be repaid. Cyprus, she said, could no longer depend on its reputation as an offshore tax haven.
Greece also weighed in, announcing that its local lender, Piraeus Bank, would buy branches of Laiki and the Bank of Cyprus in Greece.
The move came as officials in Athens expressed consternation over Germany's apparent determination to cut Cyprus loose if need be.
'Cyprus must be saved,' says president
Nicos Anastasiades warns of pain to come as savers with more than €100,000 face losses of up to 40%
Graeme Wearden, and Helena Smith in Nicosia
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 March 2013 14.22 GMT
Cyprus said its future would be decided on Friday as frantic negotiations with international lenders continued.
The Cypriot government was forced to delay a vote on legislation to restructure its banking sector and introduce stringent new controls, as rumours swept the country of a plan to inflict heavy losses on wealthy depositors. Insiders said Cyprus could introduce legislation to force losses on savers before the weekend, but there were hopes that those with under €100,000 (£85,000) would be protected.
Government spokesman Christos Stylianides said parliament had just a few hours to take tough decisions to save its economy and banking sector, and avoid "social misery".
"In a few hours we will be called upon to take the big decisions and reply to the hard dilemmas," Stylianides told reporters in Nicosia. "The next few hours will determine the future of this country. We must all assume our responsibility."
President Nicos Anastasiades also urged MPs to pass the legislation, tweeting: "There will be painful aspects but country must be saved."
Cyprus's hopes of creating a solidarity fund to raise the €6bn demanded by international lenders appeared to be sinking fast on Friday, after its finance minister failed to secure a deal with Russia. Michalis Sarris said he had not won new support during a two-day trip to Moscow, and was heading home "because things are getting serious".
Angela Merkel also rejected the idea that Cyprus could use state pension assets to assist its own bailout, telling MPs in Berlin the prospect was unacceptable.
Instead, savers with more than €100,000 in the country's second largest bank, Laiki, face losses of up to 40% if it is broken up into "good" and "bad" banks. According to Bloomberg, eurozone finance ministers are pushing for similar losses at Bank of Cyprus, the country's biggest lender.
Cyprus has until Monday to secure a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund and the EU, after its MPs rejected the original plan to raise €6bn from savers across its banking sector.
The capital controls legislation before the Cypriot parliament will, if passed, mean draconian restrictions for Cypriots and businesses in the country. They include limits on daily cash withdrawals, a total ban on accessing cash in "timed" savings accounts (ie, with a 90-day notification limit), limits on cashing cheques and restrictions on movements of capital.
03/22/2013 05:06 PM
Iron Chancellor Returns: Merkel Can't Contain Anger over Cyprus
By Severin Weiland and Philipp Wittrock
Angela Merkel is known for her measured approach to even the most controversial issues. The crisis in Cyprus, however, has enraged the German chancellor. In parliamentary meetings on Friday morning, she did little to disguise her fury -- though she shoulders some of the blame herself.
Coalition parliamentarians have rarely seen Chancellor Angela Merkel so upset. Whether it has been election defeats, internal bickering in the government or the euro crisis, she almost always finds moderate words even as others panic. She has earned a reputation for being cool and calculating.
But the situation in Cyprus appears to have frayed her nerves. In meetings with parliamentarians from her conservative faction and later with those from her junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), it quickly became clear on Friday that her patience with Cyprus is running out. Together with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, she left no doubt as to her frustration with Nicosia's new plan for raising €5.8 billion in badly needed capital.
Merkel disapproves of the Cypriot proposal, which involves bundling state assets into a "Solidarity Fund" that includes the country's retirement fund to back bond issues. According to reports on Friday, she is not alone. The troika, made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, agrees with her assessment.
What happens next? "I hope that it doesn't result in a crash," Merkel told FDP parliamentarians according to a meeting participant. Merkel has long warned of a potential domino effect should a euro-zone member state enter insolvency. But now, her government is no longer excluding the possibility.
The chancellor is particularly frustrated by the lack of communication with Cypriot leaders even as the situation worsens dramatically. Some in her party have even used the word "autistic" to describe Nicosia's apparent unwillingness to communicate with Berlin. "What we have never experienced before is that, over a period of days, there has been no contact with the EU or with the troika," Merkel reportedly told the parliamentarians.
Sliding into Insolvency
And they have been critical days. On Tuesday, the Cypriot parliament rejected a euro-zone bailout package which included €10 billion from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the permanent euro-zone aid fund, and €5.8 billion to be raised via a one-time levy on savings accounts held with Cypriot banks. Since then, Nicosia has frantically been trying to assemble "Plan B." But they have provided little in the way of reliable information about that plan to those who will ultimately be responsible for preventing the country from sliding into insolvency.
Even without precise details, however, Berlin is adamant about one aspect of the Solidarity Fund: Plundering the country's retirement fund is out of the question, Merkel said, according to conservative parliamentarians present at the Friday morning meetings. She also issued a clear warning: Cyprus should not test the troika's patience. Volker Kauder, a leading member of Merkel's Christian Democrats in parliament, had previously said that "Cyprus is playing with fire."
"We want Cyprus to remain in the euro zone," Merkel emphasized during her meeting with FDP parliamentarians. But, she said angrily according to participants, the country is "taking things further than we have ever seen before." Europe, she said, must not abandon its principles, otherwise "the whole thing" will be in doubt. She was referring to the principle that she has followed as the euro crisis has progressed: Europe will offer countries solidarity and aid, but only in exchange for efforts to improve fiscal responsibility. Merkel made clear that she hasn't seen those efforts from Cyprus. The country hasn't yet realized that its business model has come to an end, Merkel told parliamentarians on Friday.
Cyprus is not comparable with previous euro-zone bailouts primarily because of the inflated size of its banking sector. Many rich Russians have deposited their money in banks on the island. Some €70 billion are sitting in Cypriot savings accounts -- against an annual gross domestic product of just €18 billion.
That is one reason the original bailout package included the controversial levy on savings account holders. The EU was also eager to avoid inflating Cypriot sovereign debt to unsustainable levels. On Friday morning, Merkel defended the levy once again, saying that interest rates on savings accounts are much higher in Cyprus than they are in Germany and that such a one-time tax was thus acceptable. She did admit, however, that smaller accounts should be excluded from the tax.
In the original plan they were not excluded, though. Germany was opposed to making exceptions -- which has justifiably triggered criticism of both Schäuble and Merkel. Indeed, it wasn't just the Cypriots who found the tax on smaller savings accounts to be inexcusable, to the point that trust in banks threatened to erode across Europe. The German government has since admitted that communication was suboptimal at the European level. Had it been better, it is possible that the entire Cypriot drama could have been avoided altogether.
Now, time is running out. It seems unlikely that any sort of levy will be part of whatever package is put together to help ward off Cypriot insolvency. But hopes for such a package -- one that is acceptable to Germany and Europe -- are disappearing. Coalition parliamentarians in Berlin are becoming increasingly pessimistic. When asked whether he thought a Cypriot bankruptcy was possible, senior CDU politician Norbert Barthle said: "It cannot be ruled out."
Merkel, for her part, managed to force herself on Friday to return to the moderate words for which she has become famous. She insisted she will try to "be emotionally wise." On this particular Friday, it wasn't easy.
Eurozone's mistakes could destroy Cyprus, warns former president
Widely respected ex-leader George Vassiliou says whole European system may suffer if corrective measures not taken
Helena Smith in Nicosia
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 March 2013 19.53 GMT
When George Vassiliou is worried that is a worrying thing. Widely seen as Cyprus's most effective president in modern times, the 82-year-old is now viewed, even by his enemies, as the voice of common sense.
Today, Vassiliou is so anxious about the state of the country he governed between 1988 and 1993 that he is worried saying anything at all will only make matters worse.
It's not just the partitioned island's membership of the European Union, which Vasilliou deftly negotiated back in 2004, that is now at stake, or the imminent threat of national bankruptcy. It's what happens next if Cyprus is to have a scintilla of a hope of restoring confidence in the financial services sector that, alongside tourism, underpins the tiny nation's economy.
"Cyprus is not just an island in the sun. We have developed a unique service sector which was based on confidence in the banking system," he told the Guardian.
"If that confidence is lost then you have nothing left. Everything that has been created will be destroyed, with formidable repercussions."
As such, he warned, it was wrong to brush Cyprus off as an insignificant outpost whose economic meltdown would not be felt elsewhere.
"They [world leaders] shouldn't think Cyprus is a small island and it doesn't matter if its banks collapse as they are nothing like Lehman Brothers. The difference is its two major banks are the banks of Cyprus as they hold more than 50% of deposits."
Vassiliou, an ardent supporter of the euro project, is the first to say the island's exit from the single currency would be disastrous. But, he avers, the decision to slap levies on depositors in the quest to save the Mediterranean island from economic armageddon had also been "a bomb to the foundations of the banking system".
And because of that it was now imperative that the EU and IMF, the architects of that decision, sent out the right message.
"The most pressing priority is to ensure that Cyprus gets help but also, more importantly, that the confidence of foreigners and depositors is restored in its banking system," he insisted. "If you take a decision that undermines that confidence you have to correct it."
While, he allowed, there was "no doubt" ordinary people should contribute to the island's financial rescue, the lack of foresight the euro group ministers had shown in announcing the measure had also been astonishing.
"Often when [officials] meet in closed rooms and under pressure with their calculating machines there is no cool thinking about what the repercussions of a decision will be," he said. "In this case the decision to impose an unprecedented tax or haircut on ordinary people and businesses. If, tomorrow, the services sector collapses, as a result there will be unemployment over 50% and total lack of prospect."
Barely two weeks into the job, the island's leader, Nicos Antasasiades, had been put in an almost impossible position when he attended last Friday's now notorious meeting in Brussels, said Vassiliou, the former British colony's third president.
"There was almost no time to look or study [the options]," he said. "They were placed under tremendous pressure and faced huge dilemmas, and it all happened between 2 and 4am before the decision was taken at the last moment."
With Cyprus's fate dangling by a thread, whatever the government now did would not be enough, said Vassilou.
"It can do nothing by itself. Without the support of the EU and IMF whatever it does won't be enough. "The issue was never to look to Russia."
Vassilou has always maintained that if Moscow were to step in, aid should be given solely within the framework of an EU-IMF financial assistance programme.
"We are not in the cold war days where you are either here or there."
Vassiliou, who governed as an independent with the backing of the communist Akel party, does not differ from many on the island who vehemently believe Cyprus has been unfairly treated. After all, he says, it would never have found itself in this predicament if its banking system had not suffered almost €5bn in losses overnight when Greece restructured its own debt load last year.
"They gave all this [bailout] money to Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal in the hope that it will help those countries start recovering but in the case of Cyprus they say there is a limit and they take a measure that undermines confidence in the banking and services sector" he said, shaking his head.
"With that decision they are ensuring the destruction of Cyprus … an event, that if it happens, will have huge effects on the whole European system."
Russians flock to troubled Cyprus in attempt to protect finances
Cyprus has become the offshore haven of choice for wealthy Russians choosing to keep their money abroad
Miriam Elder in Limassol
The Guardian, Friday 22 March 2013 19.25 GMT
They clustered in small groups on the plush couches dotted around the lounge of the Four Seasons hotel in the port city of Limassol. Nervous whispers and furtive glances revealed these were no ordinary tourists revelling in the sun on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
They were Russians, who have been flocking to the city for urgent meetings with lawyers and financial advisers, fearing for their personal finances, with sums at stake ranging from the low thousands to hundreds of millions of euros and totalling more than $32bn (£27bn).
"Everyone has flown in hoping to use contacts with locals to pressure the leadership, the deputies," says a man who identifies himself only as Vladimir. "We are all very worried, very scared."
The 45-year-old businessman refreshes his iPad incessantly, seeking news from the parliament in the capital, Nicosia. If the country's banks go bust, he stands to lose €58m. Where the money came from, he declines to say.
A large sliver of Russians has grown amazingly wealthy since the Soviet collapse, buoyed by the oil boom at the turn of the century. How the money was obtained in a country plundered by corruption is often anybody's guess.
Well fed on graft at home, most wealthy Russians choose to keep their money abroad, safe from prying rivals and over-zealous government officials seeking a piece of the pie. Cyprus has become their offshore haven of choice.
The EU plan, pushed strongly by Germany, to raise €5.8bn towards the bailout via a levy on accounts was widely seen here as a means of forcing Russians to pay for the luxury of keeping their ill-gotten gains safely inside the EU.
Vedomosti, Russia's leading financial newspaper, saw the charge going to the very top, citing President Vladimir Putin in all but name in an editorial published on Friday: "It's hard to believe, but it seems that European politicians are ready to take big risks to put pressure on a certain influential politician, who secretly harbours money in Cypriot banks."
Michael Sarris, the Cypriot finance minister, left Moscow on Friday after three days of negotiations failed to result in any Kremlin aid.
On the Mediterranean island, there are fears that the loss in confidence will prompt wealthy Russians to withdraw their cash en masse once transactions are allowed. Vladimir, the businessman, plays down those fears: "To take out a big sum and place it elsewhere – people will ask questions about where it came from. Everyone knows there's plenty of money here that smells bad."
Behind the billions lies a solidly entrenched Russian community of about 50,000. Their base is Limassol, a sprawling city that lines the coast and stretches into inland foothills.
Signs of financial crisis abound – tattered posters reading "for rent" hang on half-finished buildings. Many shops are closed. Cafes and restaurants, once bustling, sit largely empty.
"It's been like this for a while, but has got worse in the past few days," says Lara Avakian, 29, a physiotherapist working in a beauty salon. "Everyone is waiting to see what will happen." And everyone has begun to think of the long-term consequences of a crisis that has struck at the very heart of Cyprus's economy: "If the Russians take their money, we're doomed."
A sign outside Larnaca airport greets visitors with "welcome to Cyprus" in Russian. Russian-language billboards for Visa cards, luxury properties and Moscow-based banks line the road to Limassol, the country's second largest city. Petrol stations belonging to LUKoil, Russia's biggest private oil company, dot the roads.
The city's main stretch of seaside road boasts Russian groceries, their shelves packed with jars of pickles, vodka and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, a super-sweet take on champagne. There are Russian-language bookshops and schools, and two Russian-language newspapers and radio stations, and Orthodox churches catering to the country's Russian community.
At Rus Market, Russian émigrés load up on sunflower seeds, Soviet-era chocolate brands and veniki, bound birch tree branches that Russians use in the bathhouse in order to beat the body's circulation into high activity. Videos by Russian pop stars blare from its television sets.
"We've lived here a long time, so we're taking it like Cypriots," says Olga, the co-owner of Afrodite Furs, one of four shops selling row upon row of fur coats in a city that lives in a near perpetual state of summer. "This is my second motherland."
She moved to Limassol after visiting Cyprus on holiday 12 years ago and meeting the man who would become her husband. "
"I'm ashamed of Russia, they've just dropped us," she says. "They've all lived in Cyprus; they've fed on its low taxes and high interest rates. If you've already swarmed in here, you should lend a helping hand – all the more since we are both Orthodox, we have the same faith."
Since the crisis broke, Russian oligarchs have been coming out to declare they hold no funds in Cyprus.
Mikhail Prokhorov, a metals magnate, bank owner and politician, insists his holdings are zero. Alexander Lebedev, owner of the Independent and Evening Standard, says his holdings on the island are negligible. Yet the bulk of Russian oligarchs – from Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich to Arsenal FC owner Alisher Usmanov – are believed to control their firms via Cyprus-registered vehicles.
Many Russians have also invested heavily in real estate on Cyprus, buying luxury properties around the island. But many of the year-round Russian residents are not wealthy and have spent several days queuing up alongside Cypriots at bank machines in a desperate attempt to withdraw cash in the event of a bank collapse.
Alexandra Zimakova, 38, a small business owner originally from St Petersburg, has just under €100,000 in Laiki Bank, the country's second largest and most troubled. "I already lived through one default, in Russia," she says, referring to the 1998 crisis when Russia defaulted on its debt, devastating its economy. "Now we have to see what will happen next. So far it's terrible panic, people talking about horrible things, rumours everywhere, very little real information."
Cyprus was meant to be different. In Russia, successful businesses are regularly raided by corrupt government inspectors and then stolen by well-funded rivals. Banks are still seen as insecure; many keep their savings at home.
Eight years ago, Zimakova bought a house outside Nicosia for €150,000. She does not know how much it is worth today, with real estate prices steadily dropping. In the past few days, neighbours have reported three robberies as people begin to store more cash at home.
"We don't know what will happen," she says, echoing the sentiments of everyone across the island, be they Russian or Cypriot.
Cyprus: deserted island
Four and a half years ago, the American Treasury secretary was worn down by rescuing reckless institutions, and so decided to get tough with one. Its name was Lehman Brothers
The Guardian, Friday 22 March 2013 22.17 GMT
Four and a half years ago, the American Treasury secretary Hank Paulson was worn down by rescuing reckless institutions, and so decided to get tough with one. Its name was Lehman Brothers, and the world is still living with the consequences. The problem was not that his concerns about indulging companies that took dangerous risks were silly; they were well founded. No, the problem was that in his impatience to impose some discipline on an unruly system, he lost sight of the reality that all financial order is based upon the foundation of the banks being able to honour their debts. Watching Europe's bumbling response to the crisis in Cyprus this week, it has felt as if the lessons of 2008, or something very like them, are having to be learned over again.
Since Lehman, we've grown familiar with the phrase "too big to fail". In responding to a small island, a mere quarter-percent drop in the eurozone ocean, the continent's institutions initially acted as if following a dangerous corollary – too small to care. There are disputes about whether President Nicos Anastasiades was following orders, in proposing to rescue banks by helping himself to a chunk of every deposit within them, including those below €100,000 which Europe had previously sworn would be safe everywhere. But even if the idea had a Cypriot genesis, Brussels and Frankfurt should have known that the Cypriot people would never wear it, and yet the plan was pushed all the way to parliament in Nicosia where, attracting zero support, it collapsed and died. Once again, in connection with a currency supposed to bind a continent together, the democratic will of a southern nation has been considered as an afterthought. Far too late, it was remembered that all economic arrangements rely on consent, but at least a scrap of the trust has now been rescued by the apparent shared understanding that any levy will now respect that promised €100,000 guarantee.
The crucial question, however, is whether the scrambled rethink this weekend will be bold enough. On Cyprus's part, capital controls are reportedly under consideration, an extraordinary departure within a single currency zone. As with Mr Paulson's reluctance to stand behind Lehman's dodgy dealings, the reluctance of the Germans to stand behind stricken Cypriot financial institutions is understandable: they have grown bloated; they have acted imprudently; they have relied too much on funds from Russian tax-dodgers, whom bizarrely the Russian state has been defending all week. German politicians are doing no more than respecting the will of their own people in trying to ensure that all this does not go unpunished. But again, as with Mr Paulson, they need to stop and do a commonsensical check on the consequences of being bloodyminded about extracting a price – in this case €6bn – which could soon look paltry in the scale of things.
For if the doors of Cypriot banks were to open on Monday without this thing being resolved, Europe as a whole should wake up scared: for panic can be contagious. If the consequence, as is possible, were the island to slip out of the euro and Cypriot pounds being printed, then the spell of the single currency's permanence would be broken for good. The consequences would even go beyond Europe. Since 1970, of 147 banking crises tracked by the IMF, none have imposed a blanket loss on all depositors. The next year, Richard Nixon broke the dollar's link to gold, since when the value of money has been underpinned by nothing but the word of government. We live with the uncomfortable truth that there is never enough money in the vaults to pay every depositor, largely because we trust the authorities to see to it that – when the pinch comes – the cash would be there. That promise may only ever have been implicit, but it does not follow that there would not be grave consequences from the world seeing that it can be broken.
03/22/2013 04:08 PM
Unrest in Bulgaria: New Casualty in Wave of Self-Immolations
A 40-year-old Bulgarian set himself on fire to protest poverty and corruption in his country on Friday, becoming the sixth self-immolation in the EU country in less than a month.
A Bulgarian man died Friday after setting himself on fire to protest poverty and corruption. The incident was the sixth in a recent series of similarly motivated self-immolations in the country. The Naval Hospital in Varna announced that doctors could not save the 40-year-old, who ignited himself at a gas station in the northeastern village of Sitowo.
The unemployed father is the fourth person to die of self-immolation since February in Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union, where one in five people live under the poverty line.
On February 19, a man from the central village of Veliko Tarnovo sat down in the middle of a crosswalk and set himself on fire. At the end of February a father of five in the southern village of Radnewo said he was driven to self-immolation by unemployment and poverty. In March, an unemployed blacksmith threw gasoline over himself outside the presidential palace in the capital of Sofia. Security guards extinguished the flames and he survived.
Since the end of January, mass demonstrations against high prices, poverty and corruption have spread through Bulgaria, leading to the resignation of the center-right government of Boyko Borisov.
Warning against Hopelessness
Public self-immolations are not new to Bulgaria and have occurred throughout the world and in many different cultures. Dozens of Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest of Chinese repression. The 2010 self-immolation of a young Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, was the catalyst for the wave of unrest ultimately leading to the Arab Spring. Czech student Jan Palach ignited himself publicly in 1969 as a political protest against the Warsaw Pact and the resulting invasion of Czechoslovakia. Both Bouazizi and Palach became symbols of resistance in their countries.
Bulgaria now has its own symbol of resistance: Plamen Goranow. On March 3, the 36-year-old activist set himself on fire in front of the Varna municipal building in protest against the organized crime group TIM and the TIM-controlled Varna mayor. Goranow died from his injuries, and the mayor, Kiril Yordanov, subsequently resigned from office.
The church is concerned about the recent wave of self-immolations. Orthodox Church leader Neofit urged the Bulgarians to "under no circumstances" take their own lives. "The Bulgarians must not fall victim to hopelessness," he said.
The new interim government, made up primarily of technocrats, met on Friday with employers and unions to discuss urgent measures to help the disadvantaged and prevent further such incidents.
Italy: ‘Bersani to be invited to form government today’
22 March 2013
President Giorgio Napolitano will ask today Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani to form a government after coming first in the February 24-25 election.
Bersani, whose coalition lacks a majority in the Senate, will use the next few days to establish whether he believes he can win a confidence vote in both the Parliament’s chambers. Until now, he has tried hard to persuade Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement to support a centre-left government, but the anti-establishment party has made clear it will only vote in favour of policies which match its manifesto programme.
Speculation about the possible composition of any new government is rife, but many fear no coalition will win a confidence vote, further underlining the perception of Italy as ungovernable.
Government, Bersani try the final bet:
"No mess-ups, but with PDL possible reforms"
ROME - The bet Bersani is played throughout the next three days. "You have to start the car, start the legislature. Based on the majority that there is in the House." Since the evening after the vote, the victory in the middle that had paralyzed for 24 hours, the secretary has focused on minority government, led by a team of himself that he could seek the necessary votes in Parliament, especially in the Senate. This afternoon will Quirinale hand to play and will start in a first round of consultations with the political forces, without exception.
The new fact is that the package of office, at the request of Napolitano, Bersani has put reform of the institutions and the electoral law to discuss and vote with the PDL and Berlusconi. "If you want to start an institutional process affects everyone, not just our business. But this has nothing to do with the majority supporting the government: there is no room for broad understandings or governissimi," were the words spoken by the Secretary in the interview difficult, at times tense, had yesterday with Giorgio Napolitano.
At the end of the tour of the horizon, the premier party will need to return to the Hill to report the outcome of his meetings. Because today the formula will be the prudential acceptance of "conditional". In short, must somehow secure an agreement on some key issues that are of concern to the Head
State, starting with the implementation of international commitments. Need to be very careful - as was highlighted at the Quirinale - because Europe is aware of what our country will do these days. One of the indicators of this attention are the statements of the Swedish Finance Minister, who said that the greatest danger to the eurozone us, not Cyprus. In any case, any government agreement will be certified with precise numbers before Napolitano Bersani send the government in Parliament for the trust. "The president wants to know even the names of the senators ready to support the government," jokes a democratic leader. In fact, the leader of the Democratic Party is preparing for a walk up the hill and try to put in the abacus of the crisis also possible abstentions - or rather exits the courtroom of the Senate - some groups or a squad of MPs. "I'll come to the whole Parliament. Grillini not chase or grilloni", announces to his colleagues. The same Napolitano told the delegation of the Democratic Party have made search for "case studies on trust," pointing to examples of votes obtained with outputs from the courtroom, previous governments were born with a "no confidence" or abstentions targeted.
During the hour and a half compared to the Quirinale, Napolitano probe the hypothesis of a mandate "exploratory", maybe entrusted to someone else. But the answer is quite dry Bersani: "If there is to explore, I'm not the explorer right. Reconnaissance I can not do it on me. I already know what I think: it is impossible that there is a government us, the PDL and maybe Monti. no return to the past. " The stakes this time, Bersani is to put them: "Let me be clear that any explorer should work within this groove. Because we have in mind a government to do things the right has prevented you did in the last few years."
The Secretary-democratic work on two tracks. What reforms to be approved by the mechanism of Article 138 of the Constitution, namely the double reading and a two-thirds majority then enlarged to the PDL. With three main points: Senate autonomy, reducing the number of MPs and electoral law. The other plan is that instead of the government. Here, the challenge will be given to all grillini and Monti. Already in its consultations Bersani provide a sketch of the ministerial team: external, competent, new faces using the "Fat-Boldrini" and the willingness for the vice-chairs of the Chambers and Quaestors involving the machine Parliamentary Movement 5stars.
When unites the faithful in Largo del Nazareno after the interview, Bersani acknowledges that he has left on the desk of Napolitano "quite a puzzle to put together." From today the puzzle falls into his hands. And if the reservation shall not be dissolved positively, if the numbers do not jump out at that point will only have to return to the polls. But not before he found a majority to elect a new head of state. To this hope clings someone like Casini, still believe in broad agreement, "building them right on the profile of the new president."
Police suspect former french president Nicolas Sarkozy of accepting millions from mentally ill heiress
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, March 22, 2013 22:19 EDT
Just as rumours about a potential bid by Sarkozy to recapture the presidency in 2017 were swirling, the former French president finds himself suspected of accepting millions in cash from a wealthy heiress suffering from poor mental health.
Having announced his retirement from public life in the wake of his defeat to current President François Hollande, Sarkozy has recently hinted that he may take another shot at the presidency in 2017.
Still popular with right-wing voters, he has framed his future decision as a matter of duty to his country, telling right-leaning French magazine Valeurs Actuelles earlier this month: “There will unfortunately come a time when the question will no longer be ‘Do you want to?’ but ‘Do you have any choice?’.”
But Sarkozy’s hopes of moving back into the Elysée Palace in four years appeared damaged Friday morning, after the former French president was placed under investigation for illegal party financing.
Specifically, he is suspected of accepting envelopes stuffed with cash (up to four million euros or $5.2 million) from 90-year-old L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt – the world’s richest woman – to fund his 2007 election campaign, while Bettencourt was suffering from mental deterioration.
If the formal inquiry finds enough evidence, the 58-year-old Sarkozy would faces charges of breaching electoral spending limits and taking advantage of an individual weakened by poor health.
Bad timing for Sarkozy
“The investigation is likely to be lengthy and to damage the right’s natural candidate in the 2017 presidential election,” Bruno Cautrès, of France’s Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po (Cevipof), told FRANCE 24.
Cautrès also pointed out that “the news comes just as the [centre-right party] UMP was emerging from its bitterly divisive leadership battle”. That face-off saw former Prime Minister François Fillon and former party head Jean-François Copé locked in a stalemate over who would lead the UMP, and Sarkozy increasingly viewed as the most viable option for the next presidential election.
Recent polls had even shown the French preferring Sarkozy to Hollande, a stinging rebuke of the current president who has been portrayed as ineffective in tackling France’s economic difficulties.
Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, slammed the decision to investigate his client as “legally incoherent and unfair” and said he would immediately move to have the investigation dropped.
Though French presidents enjoy immunity from prosecution while in office, they often face investigations after their terms. Former President Jacques Chirac was convicted in 2011 of corruption while mayor of Paris several years earlier, though he was ultimately excused from attending his trial for health reasons and handed a two-year suspended prison sentence.
Right rallies around one of their own
Various right-wing figures leapt to Sarkozy’s defence, with Lionnel Luca, a member of parliament from the southeast Alpes-Maritimes department, leading the charge on Twitter. “The only chance FH [François Hollande] has in 2017 is by eliminating by any means possible the candidacy of the only opponent who can beat him,” he tweeted.
Laurent Wauquiez, a party heavyweight who served in various ministerial posts under Sarkozy, told radio station Europe 1: “The timing is no coincidence. This lands at a moment when the French are transferring their trust back to Nicolas Sarkozy, compared to a disappointing François Hollande…I don’t like it when the judiciary is used for political ends.”
Meanwhile, the French regional press generally saw the situation as a serious strike against Sarkozy’s future political plans. “While his party was splintering, Nicolas Sarkozy was moving his chess pieces forward,” Raymond Couraud wrote in L’Alsace, a daily newspaper in eastern France. “Now this legal turn of events will provoke sighs of relief from UMP leaders who were hoping to become his official successor.”
But other editorialists noted that with the next election four years away, the famously combative Sarkozy could bounce back. “The former president just took a hit,” wrote Christophe Bonnefoy of northeastern daily Le Journal de la Haute-Marne. “But the game is far from over. Nicolas Sarkozy likes battles.”
[Photo above of Nicolas Sarkozy via AFP]
March 22, 2013
Teeing Off at Edge of the Arctic? A Chinese Plan Baffles Iceland
By ANDREW HIGGINS
GRIMSSTADIR, Iceland — Struggling to stand upright against a howling wind, Bragi Benediktsson looked out over his family’s land — a barren expanse of snow and ice that a Chinese billionaire wants to turn into a golf course — and laughed. “Golf here is difficult,” said Mr. Benediktsson, a 75-year-old sheep farmer.
It was 11 a.m., and a pale sun had only just crawled sluggishly into the sky. The snow, which began falling in September, will probably continue until May. Even for Icelanders accustomed to harsh weather and isolation, Grimsstadir is a particularly desolate spot.
But thanks to a poetry-loving Chinese tycoon with a thing for snow, it has become the setting for a bizarre Icelandic saga featuring geopolitical intrigue, tens of millions of dollars and a swarm of dark conspiracy theories. At the center of the drama is Huang Nubo, a former official in the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department who, now a property developer in Beijing, wants to build a luxury hotel and an “eco golf course” for wealthy Chinese seeking clean air and solitude.
“It never seemed a very convincing business plan,” said Iceland’s interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, who last year rejected a request that Mr. Huang be exempted from Icelandic laws that restrict foreign ownership of land. “I put many questions and got no answers,” the minister added.
Prodded by diplomats from the United States and other countries to take a hard look at Mr. Huang’s intentions, Mr. Jonasson questioned what might lie behind China’s curious interest in Grimsstadir. “One has to look at this from a geopolitical perspective and ask about motivations,” Mr. Jonasson said.
Rebuffed in an initial attempt to buy a vast area of wilderness covering more than 100 square miles, Mr. Huang’s Beijing-based company, the Zhongkun Group, is now pushing for a long-term lease arrangement instead — and counting on the prospect that elections in Iceland next month will lead to a new, and perhaps more welcoming, government.
The current government in Reykjavik, a left-of-center coalition, has mostly given Mr. Huang the cold shoulder. Even ministers who favor Chinese investment wonder what is really going on.
Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson said that he saw no reason to block Mr. Huang’s hotel venture, which is expected to cost more than $100 million, but that he was puzzled by Mr. Huang’s desire to build a high-end resort in a place so isolated that “you can almost hear ghosts dancing in the snow.” As for playing golf, Mr. Skarphedinsson added, “that doesn’t seem very sensible.”
Such bafflement has stirred much speculation about what the Chinese tycoon and perhaps the Chinese authorities are up to. A proposal by the Zhongkun Group to renovate a small landing strip in the Grimsstadir area and buy 10 aircraft led to anxious talk of a Chinese air base. The area’s relative proximity to deep fjords on Iceland’s northeast coast near offshore oil reserves fueled speculation about a Chinese push for a naval facility and access to the Arctic’s bountiful supplies of natural resources. Far-fetched rumors about Chinese missiles and listening posts led to worries about military personnel pouring in disguised as hoteliers and golf caddies.
Mr. Huang could not be reached for comment: he was off climbing a mountain, his company said. In response to written questions, Xu Hong, a vice president at the company, dismissed speculation of a military purpose or other ulterior motives as “the guesswork of post-cold-war thinking.” Ms. Xu said Grimsstadir had been chosen because “there is market demand in China” for peace and quiet. “Most Chinese now don’t like to travel to dirty, noisy places,” she said.
Mr. Skarphedinsson scoffed at a widely held belief here that Mr. Huang is leading a plot by Beijing to secure a strategic foothold in Iceland, a NATO member that is entirely bereft of military muscle. Iceland also sits astride what will become important shipping lanes as ice-choked Arctic waters warm.
China has openly declared its interest in shipping routes through the Arctic and in using Iceland as a future transport hub, Mr. Skarphedinsson said. But these goals, he added, have been hurt, not helped, by the cloud of suspicion generated by Mr. Huang.
“One thing the Chinese Communist Party never failed at since Mao is public relations, but the P.R. in this venture has failed miserably,” Iceland’s foreign minister said.
Beijing’s keen interest in Iceland, nearby Greenland and the wider Arctic region is well known. China is negotiating a Free Trade Area accord with Reykjavik, its first with a European nation, and last year it sent its prime minister at the time, Wen Jiabao, for a two-day visit. A Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, stopped off last year as part of a push by Beijing to gain entry as an observer to the Arctic Council, a body comprising the United States, Canada, Russia, Iceland and Nordic states in or near Arctic waters.
China has also opened what, physically at least, is the biggest foreign embassy by far in Reykjavik, even though it has only seven accredited diplomats.
“Nobody knows what the devil they are up to,” said Einar Benediktsson, Iceland’s former ambassador to Washington and a critic of his country’s expanding ties with Beijing. “All we know is that it is very important to China to get a foothold in the Arctic, and Iceland is an easy prey.”
Mr. Huang’s enthusiasm for Iceland at first stirred little concern. Nobody paid much attention when, in 2010, he suddenly popped up in Reykjavik to renew a long-dormant friendship with Hjorleifur Sveinbjornsson, a translator of Chinese literature he had roomed with at Peking University in the 1970s.
Mr. Sveinbjornsson doubts his old roommate is part of an elaborate gambit by China. “If we had not shared a room he would never have even heard of Iceland,” he said. He is not sure that Grimsstadir will work as a resort: “It is not the first place I would have chosen.” But, noting that Mr. Huang “is not an idiot,” Mr. Sveinbjornsson said that “maybe it takes somebody from the outside to see the potential.”
During his first trip to Iceland in 2010, Mr. Huang made no mention of any business plans but focused instead on poetry, announcing that he would put up $1 million to establish and finance the China-Iceland Cultural Fund. Led by his former roommate, the fund has since organized two meetings of poets, the first in Reykjavik in 2010, the second a year later in Beijing.
A third planned in Norway for last year was scrapped after Mr. Huang’s company declared Norway unacceptable as a site. Mr. Sveinbjornsson said no reason had been given, but he linked the move to Beijing’s continuing fury at Norway over the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in Oslo, which went to Liu Xiaobo, a jailed dissident Chinese writer.
Less than a year after his first visit, Mr. Huang returned to Iceland and offered Mr. Benediktsson, the sheep farmer, $7 million for his land and that of some relatives and a second family. A business plan submitted later to the government by the Zhongkun Group said “the location fitted perfectly with our strategic plans for developing environmentally friendly eco resorts in remote locations.” The company said it would build a 100-room five-star resort hotel, luxury villas and the golf course.
While exotic golf courses are all the rage now, this one seemed to many here a long shot. “I’ve looked at this very closely and gone through all the documents, and I’m just aghast,” said Edward Huijbens, director of the Icelandic Tourism Research Center in Akureyri, the main town in northern Iceland. “The whole project is fundamentally not credible.”
But Mr. Huang’s business strategy has apparently impressed the state-owned China Development Bank, which, according to the Zhongkun Group, last year reached a “cooperation agreement” with the company worth about $800 million. Ms. Xu, Zhongkun’s vice president, said the Chinese bank “will provide loans and financial support to concrete projects by Zhongkun, including, but not exclusively, in Iceland.”
There is now talk that some local mayors will buy the Grimsstadir land — with money provided by Zhongkun — and then lease a portion of it to Mr. Huang, but Mr. Jonasson, the interior minister who refused to give a green light to Mr. Huang’s plans last year, is still suspicious.
“There are so many loose ends,” the minister said. Changing a purchase into a lease does not change the fact that the hotel-golf complex “makes very little sense,” he added. Mr. Jonasson said Mr. Huang “is not just a simple poet wanting to find peace of mind in the mountains of Iceland.”
Mr. Benediktsonn, the sheep farmer, has been swinging back and forth on whether he wants to sell his property. He does not like the idea that the area would be flooded with Chinese tourists and golf carts, but doubts that the resort will ever materialize, and, mindful of his own advanced age, calculates that if it does he will not be around. “When the hotel goes up, I’ll be down in the ground,” he said.
March 22, 2013
Myanmar Troops Sent to City Torn by Sectarian Rioting
By THOMAS FULLER
BANGKOK — As a picture of chaos and anarchy emerged from a city in central Myanmar on Friday, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the area and ordered the military to assist in quelling rioting that residents say has left at least 20 people dead.
Deployment of troops in the city — residents reported seeing soldiers entering on Friday — carries heavy political implications in Myanmar after five decades of military rule until Mr. Thein Sein inaugurated his civilian government in 2011.
The religious violence in the city of Meiktila has underlined what local residents say is a vacuum of authority in a country that only two years ago was a police state.
Rioting and arson attacks spread on Friday to villages outside Meiktila, as mobs of Buddhists, some led by monks, continued a three-day rampage through Muslim areas. Witnesses reached by phone said security forces did little to stop the violence.
“Mobs were destroying buildings and killing people in cold blood,” said U Nyan Lynn, a former political prisoner who witnessed what he described as massacres. “Nobody stopped them — I saw hundreds of riot police there.”
News services, which had reporters in the city, said that Buddhist homes had also been set on fire and that while thousands of Muslims had fled to a stadium for safety, at least some Buddhists were also taking shelter outside their homes, in shrines.
Images from Meiktila showed entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, some with only blackened trees left standing. Lifeless legs poked from beneath rubble. And charred corpses spoke to the use of fire as a main tool of the rioting mobs.
“I can’t handle what I saw there,” said Daw Nilar Thein, a human rights activist. She described the violence as anarchic and unspeakable.
One video posted to Facebook by Radio Free Asia on Friday showed Muslim women and men cowering and shielding their heads from flying objects as they fled their attackers. Onlookers are overheard shouting, “Oooh! Look how many of them. Kill them! Kill them!”
The three days of violence have been too chaotic to establish a precise death toll — and officials reached by telephone refused to answer questions about casualties. But estimates among witnesses rose as high as 50, with one news photographer counting 15 corpses in the streets on Friday morning alone.
Some witnesses also wondered whether the violence had been organized. State news agencies in Myanmar said the fighting began on Wednesday after a dispute in a Muslim-owned gold shop. The Associated Press said the customers were Buddhist. But the severity of the violence suggests that deeply held hatred in the city, buried during five decades of military rule, is surfacing with the country’s newfound democratic freedoms.
Just as in western Myanmar, where more than 150 people have been killed in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims over the past year, those behind the violence in Meiktila tried to stop images of the destruction from getting out. On Friday, a group of Buddhist monks threatened news photographers, including one who works for The Associated Press, with a sword and homemade weapons. With a monk holding a blade to his neck, U Khin Maung Win, the A.P. photographer, handed over his camera’s memory card.
“We are trying to leave the town,” Mr. Khin Maung Win said by telephone. “They are now after journalists, too.”
The notion of Buddhists, especially monks, rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods with weapons is jarring to the outside world. But it follows the same pattern of violence seen in western Myanmar over the past year, where radical monks have helped to stir up hatred against Muslim ethnic group members who call themselves Rohingya.
Compared to the Rohingya strife, the violence in Meiktila is considered by many Burmese to be more threatening to the democratization process because it is in the country’s heartland.
After two years of civilian rule, Myanmar harbors both the optimism of opening its economy to the world and the pitfalls of ethnic and religious strife.
A visit to Myanmar on Friday by Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, underlined the country’s chances for greater prosperity after the disastrous socialist rule of previous military governments.
Mr. Schmidt told an audience in Yangon, the commercial capital, that the country was cementing its new freedoms by connecting itself to the world. “The Internet will make it impossible to go back,” he said, news agencies reported.
But the freeing of the Internet, which was heavily censored during military rule, has also helped spread hatred and intolerance in the country, especially against Muslims. Although predominantly Buddhist, Myanmar is a patchwork of ethnicities and languages, especially in cities, where it is not uncommon for a Buddhist pagoda, mosque, church and Hindu temple to be within blocks of one another.
While some signs Friday night pointed to a calming of the situation, many Muslims and Buddhists in the affected area remained wary and separated.
Muslims have been put in Meiktila’s sports stadium, where, according to one report, food and water are scarce. Photographs show frightened-looking people rushing to the stadium, clutching belongings and carrying their children and the elderly.
There have been a number of voices of restraint in Myanmar as the violence escalated. U Min Ko Naing, a prominent former political prisoner, pleaded with a crowd in Meiktila in the video posted on Friday.
“We need the full security of our lives and property,” he said. “Our children and women must not live in fear.”
A leading monk in the country, Ashin Nyanissara, also called for restraint, saying in an interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma on Thursday that “all religions should live peacefully with loving kindness and tolerance.”
Wai Moe contributed from Yangon, Myanmar.
March 22, 2013
China’s New Leader, Visiting Russia, Promotes Nations’ Economic and Military Ties
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and CHRIS BUCKLEY
MOSCOW — President Xi Jinping of China arrived here on Friday for his first trip abroad as his country’s top leader, using talks with his counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, to promote deeper cooperation with Russia while the United States has been shoring up ties with its own allies across the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite a history of unease between the two neighbors, which share a 2,600-mile border, China and Russia have found increasing camaraderie in recent years, forming a bulwark against what each country, for its own reasons, often views as the liberal political juggernaut of the West.
And Mr. Xi’s visit to the Kremlin, just eight days after his installation as president, sent a clear message that China can turn to its own sources of support, to partially counterbalance the United States when necessary.
“China will make developing relations with Russia a priority in its foreign policy orientation,” he said in a written statement issued upon his arrival in Moscow, the Chinese state-owned news agency Xinhua reported.
The Russian government rolled out a red carpet, and state television broadcast the arrival live as Mr. Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, were greeted at the airport by an honor guard. They waved and posed briefly for the cameras before being whisked downtown for the start of a busy two-day itinerary that includes meetings with Mr. Putin and other top officials and a visit to a Moscow university.
But the trip was also intended to be more than symbolic, with plans for the signing of a deal with Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, worth up to $30 billion.
In their talks, Mr. Xi told Mr. Putin that the two governments should “resolutely support each other in efforts to protect national sovereignty, security and development interests,” Xinhua reported.
For months, China has been engaged in a bitter dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries, and Russia has been among China’s strongest diplomatic supporters in the quarrel.
Mr. Xi’s reported comments did not mention Syria, Iran, North Korea or other international flash points over which China and Russia have sometimes joined forces in the United Nations Security Council to resist Western pressure for a firmer response. Mr. Xi said they would “closely coordinate in international regional affairs, protecting the shared strategic security of the two countries,” Xinhua reported.
Mr. Putin thanked Mr. Xi for choosing Russia for his first trip abroad. Mr. Xi in turn talked about Russia and China as good friends who treat each other “with open souls.”
Mr. Putin, in an interview with the Itar-Tass news agency timed to coincide with Mr. Xi’s arrival, stressed the countries’ shared role on the Security Council.
“That is why the strategic partnership between us is of great importance on both a bilateral and global scale,” said Mr. Putin, adding that Russia-China relations were “the best in their centuries-long history.”
“They are characterized by a high degree of mutual trust, respect for each other’s interests, support in vital issues,” he said. “They are a true partnership.”
Since returning to the presidency in May, Mr. Putin has distanced Russia from the West while putting a new focus on Asia, particularly relations with China — a point he stressed when Russia played host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Vladivostok in September.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi are headed to South Africa for the fifth summit meeting of the so-called Brics bloc of emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Mr. Xi, who was appointed China’s president last week, concluding a leadership transition begun when he became Communist Party chief in November, sought to distinguish himself from his immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao. But on domestic issues, he has continued Mr. Hu’s wooing of Russia for diplomatic support and energy supplies. Russia was also Mr. Hu’s his first foreign destination after he was appointed president, in 2003.
“The fact that I will visit Russia, our friendly neighbor, shortly after assuming presidency is a testimony to the great importance China places on its relations with Russia,” Mr. Xi told a small group of invited journalists at a briefing on Tuesday in Beijing. “The two sides have had closer strategic coordination on the world stage.”
Recently, both governments expressed misgivings that the United States, in response to threats from North Korea, plans to deploy 14 new missile interceptors in Alaska, where 26 of the existing 30 are already in place,.
A joint declaration issued by Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi after their talks repeated those qualms, without singling out the United States by name. It said that their governments “oppose a country or a bloc of countries unilaterally and without limit strengthening antimissile capabilities, harming strategic stability and international security.”
The deal said to be in the works with Rosneft would potentially entail a loan of $30 billion from China, to be repaid in oil. A similar loan in 2005 for $6 billion helped finance Rosneft’s purchase of a subsidiary of Yukos, once Russia’s largest oil company. Western critics said that deal made China complicit in the Russian government’s takeover of Yukos.
In 2009, another loan, of $25 billion split between Rosneft and Transneft, the state-controlled pipeline company, is to be repaid with about 2.5 billion barrels of oil through 2030.
The agreements signed by the two presidents included promises of cooperation on numerous fronts, among them travel and tourism, agriculture, education, scientific research and banking. The greatest focus was on energy development, not only the oil deal with Rosneft, which will sharply increase the amount of oil supplied to China by Russia, but also an agreement to move forward with a deal on natural gas, something the two countries have been struggling to negotiate for years.
Despite the increasing ties on energy and other issues, and the recent displays of good will, experts say the relationship is still burdened by Russian wariness and Chinese frustrations.
Some Russians worry that China’s growing economic and military strength could eventually displace their country’s influence, especially in the sparsely settled regions of the Russian Far East.
China has long sought to draw Russia’s Gazprom into agreeing to supply natural gas along a proposed pipeline from east Siberia.
“Pipeline oil and gas cooperation is a good thing that benefits both sides,” the Chinese vice foreign minister, Cheng Guoping, told reporters in Beijing this week. “It suits both sides’ energy security needs and national interests.”
But longstanding disagreements over pricing have frustrated the proposed gas deal, and Mr. Putin’s spokesman said on Thursday that an agreement was unlikely during Mr. Xi’s visit.
For the Chinese leader, the visit appears to be as much about consolidating his stature at home and abroad as about bilateral ties. The domestic fame of Mr. Xi’s wife, a professional singer, once overshadowed his own, and popular Chinese newspapers and Web sites have dwelled as much on her planned activities as on his.
Like Mr. Hu, Mr. Xi describes himself as an admirer of Russian culture. During his news briefing this week, he reeled off the names of Russian authors whose works he said he had read as a youth, including Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov, and he praised Mr. Putin, whom he has met before.
“We found a lot in common during our talks,” Mr. Xi said.
David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Andrew Roth contributed reporting from Moscow.
03/21/2013 04:37 PM
Plenty for Few: India's Economic Miracle Bypasses Poor
By Wieland Wagner
Unlike in China, India's economic miracle has failed to benefit the poor. Instead, the rich are getting richer in this notoriously divided land, and government support fails to reach those in need.
"I'm Princess Shahnaz Husain," India's cosmetics diva says with a hoarse voice as she welcomes guests to her palatial villa in New Delhi and kindly invites them to sit down. Her brown-toned hair is teased into a fiery mane, and her striped red robe glitters just as golden as her high-heeled sandals.
Just a few moments earlier, it seemed unimaginable that anybody could stand out against the florid splendor of this Indian living room. Gilded porcelain swans sparkle under glass coffee tables on Persian carpets. A ceramic dog crouches with its puppies in front of the fireplace. The walls gleam with brightly-colored paintings of floral arrangements in massive, ornate golden frames.
Yet, oddly enough, she alone dominates the entire scene: Princess Shahnaz, who rules over more than 400 beauty salons in India and around the world. Her name adorns beauty creams and shampoos made with ayurvedic medicinal plants, and she sells her products through upmarket stores from London to Tokyo -- in packaging embellished with her image from younger days.
Shahnaz won't reveal her age, but for over four decades she and her company have embodied the Indian economic miracle. Although she grew up in affluent circumstances -- her father was a judge and her mother was allegedly a princess in a royal dynasty -- she owes her commercial success to the rise of India's middle class.
Her customers are primarily nouveau riche Indians. Shahnaz recently began to offer them a miracle cream that is supposed to stop the skin from aging. "That will be a hit," she says.
Shahnaz belongs to India's Muslim minority but, like her fellow Indians who are Hindus, she is making provisions for her life after death by performing good deeds that benefit the poor.
When she is chauffeured through the streets of New Delhi in her silver Rolls-Royce, beggars rush up to the vehicle at each intersection. "They are, of course, familiar with my car," she says "and I always have a few rupees on hand for them."
Recently, she says, she helped a man with no legs begging in front of a traffic light. She arranged a job for him in one of her cosmetics production plants. "I found him a job as a watchman at the gate where he can sit," she says.
Shahnaz tells many such stories. For instance, there is the tale of a female road worker with dark spots on her face, who waited in front of her villa every morning until Shahnaz took pity on her. She gave the poor woman a cream for skin spots -- a product that would be prohibitively expensive for the average Indian. What's more, she financed her education in one of her cosmetics schools.
Even now, during the cold time of the year, the rich philanthropist says she has wool blankets placed at the entrance to her villa for the shivering poor. She sounds as if she were moved by her own efforts to help those less fortunate than herself.
She doesn't see poverty as a specifically Indian problem, though. "There are beggars everywhere in the world," she says, "even in London and Paris."
Growing Prosperity, Persistent Poverty
An analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds that the blatant gap between poor and rich is growing in India almost faster than anywhere else on the globe. Although the world's largest democracy amended its constitution in 1976 to declare that it was a socialist state, the fact of the matter is that the country is failing to give the huddled masses a fair share of the country's economic miracle.
This is one of the main differences between India and China, its rival up-and-coming Asian economic powerhouse: In China, some 13 percent of the population subsists on the equivalent of less than $1.25 (€0.97) a day, while one-third of all Indians have to make do with the same amount.
Experts at the University of Oxford have concluded that the level of poverty in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is roughly equivalent to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African country that has been ravaged by years of civil war. To make matters worse, if the comparison is restricted to nutrition, Madhya Pradesh is significantly worse off than the DRC.
Critics such as Atul Kohli, a political scientist who teaches at Princeton University, contend that India's rapid economic growth, which began in the 1980s, has not led to a decline in poverty. Kohli's 2012 book, "Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India," has attracted worldwide attention.
Shankar Singh is one of those who dreams of a better life in vain. The 53-year-old works a few blocks from Shahnaz' residence as a security guard at Panchsheel Park, an enclave for the rich surrounded by walls and gates. He protects the villa of a Sikh businessman.
Shankar's boss has amassed a fortune selling sinks and toilets, but his security guard still lives with his wife and six children in an impoverished hovel right behind the gated community -- beyond the walls, where stray dogs and cows rummage through the refuse of the rich.
This is where the gardeners, cooks, chauffeurs and chambermaids of the nouveau riche live. Their neighborhood may be in one of Delhi's better slums, but they live in constant fear that they will slide back into abject poverty if they get sick or are fired. According to the results of the OECD analysis, informal jobs without any protection against dismissal are more prevalent in India than in virtually any other emerging economy.
Longing for Home
It is early afternoon, and Shankar is resting in his windowless dwelling in preparation for the night shift. He is wearing the same dark baseball cap he wears on duty. A small Hindu altar hangs on the wall. Shankar worships the god Shiva, the "auspicious one," who brings good fortune.
Shankar and his family are still waiting for their luck to change. They do not even have a washbasin. He and his sons wash up in front of the door every morning, while his wife and daughters somehow bathe inside. Water only flows between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., so that's when all the neighbors quickly fill up buckets and pots.
When Shankar moved to Delhi from the province of Uttar Pradesh 32 years ago, he dreamed of a better life. He hasn't been back to his home village for seven years now because he can't afford to travel there. Shankar earns 8,000 rupees a month, or the equivalent of €110. He pays 2,000 rupees a month in rent, and lives off the rest.
He can't even honor the Hindu gods with a modest display of fireworks at Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Instead, he gazes in amazement at Panchsheel Park, where well-heeled Indians stage increasingly extravagant firework displays year after year.
Shankar says he longs to see his relatives back in his village. And while he talks about the mustard fields, which are currently blooming with yellow flowers, the reporter strikes upon the idea of accompanying him to his village, at SPIEGEL's expense.
But first Shankar's boss has to be convinced to give him one or two days off. He agrees, but only under one condition: Shankar will only be allowed to travel by train, and in the cheapest class, not by plane. He says that his employee should not be allowed to get used to a life of luxury.
The intention here is to avoid blurring the differences between poor and rich. Shankar's family belongs to the lowest caste of farmers and, to make matters worse, he comes from Nepal, giving him an even lower status in Indian society.
A Journey Back in Time
Uttar Pardesh is one of the poorest states in India, and people here are particularly trapped in their traditional dependency on large landowners. The fragmentation of Indian society into castes and religions thwarts modernization -- and it prevents India's poor from jointly rising up against the rich.
Driving through Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, Shankar marvels at the monumental structures that were built by the former state governor, a woman named Mayawati. She governed here for nearly two decades before resigning in 2012. Mayawati belongs to the caste of the "untouchables," and she is an example of how populist politicians woo the poor -- and disappoint them over and over. Elephants carved in stone, the symbol of Mayawati's centrist Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), stand guard at the gate of a gigantic new park. A few blocks down the street, there is a statue of Mayawati herself.
It's roughly a four-hour drive on the highway from Lucknow to Rautpar, Shankar's village near the city of Gorakhpur. There are straw huts and roadside food stalls on both sides of the highway. The only signs of India's high-tech ambitions here are the ubiquitous mobile phone masts that dot the wheat fields. Over 800 million Indians use mobile phones, yet more than half the population has no access to sanitary toilets. That corresponds to conditions in the Central African Republic.
Shankar has to travel the last few hundred meters to his village on foot. A path between fields leads to huts made of tiles and clay. A crowd of neighbors gathers around him. They see him as the rich uncle from Delhi.
It's like a return to the Middle Ages, as nearly everything here is made of clay: the floor, the walls and the hearth where his sister-in-law cooks outdoors. Mahatma Gandhi would have approved. After all, it was in India's villages that the legendary freedom fighter sought a national identity. But his agrarian romanticism still continues to put the brakes on industrialization.
Shankar unpacks used clothing from his travel bag and, with a smile on his face, distributes it among his relatives. For just one moment, he is standing at the center of attention. Most of the young men here would like to follow his example and move away. However, unlike China, India has too few factories with low-paid jobs for the rural masses.
Not Poor Enough for Help
Indeed, it is the relatively well-educated who primarily benefit from the Indian economic miracle: IT engineers and college graduates who speak fluent English and work in call centers.
Out in the countryside, though, the only hope is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). This 2005 law guarantees every adult in the country 100 hours of paid work every year. Under NREGA, the government currently pays the country's poor over $7 billion to improve roads and build bridges. That's better than begging.
Furthermore, India helps its poor with food rations and other subsidies. But the aid often doesn't reach those in need. In a bid to cut out corrupt middlemen, the government has been making money transfers since January. It now directly pays scholarships and pensions to the accounts of some 245,000 needy individuals in 20 districts.
But what the governing Indian National Congress party praises as a "pioneering reform" is criticized by the opposition as a political trick to buy votes in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections.
In any case, Shankar receives none of this planned bonanza. His salary is too high to benefit from this program, but it's still not enough. In fact, he urgently needs to see a doctor and have a stubborn growth removed from his nose. "It costs roughly 4,000 rupees," he says, "and I don't have that much."
The Limits of Philanthropy
Meanwhile, his rich neighbors in Panchsheel Park come up with increasingly creative ways to spend their money. Dijeet Titus, a top Indian lawyer who represents foreign clients, loves to cruise along the streets of Delhi in his 1957 red Chevrolet Bel Air. In the southern part of the city, where the local moneyed aristocracy likes to spend the weekends at lavish country residences, the 48-year-old is building a museum for his growing collection of vintage cars -- a hangar with over 2,000 square meters (21,500 square feet) of space.
The luxury neighborhood with the so-called farmhouses is located on a dusty road. The wealthy residents use walls and barbed wire to seal themselves off from the misery outside their villas.
"First, I bought a house, then a second one, and then I asked myself: What do I buy now?" Titus is wearing an elegant pair of gold-rimmed glasses as he caresses the shiny grill of a silver Buick 90L from the 1930s.
By collecting such fine vintage cars, he has found a hobby that attracts attention even among the affluent of India. Years ago, Maharajas had themselves chauffeured around in many of these historic vehicles. Soon, the moneyed aristocracy in today's India will gather here under palm trees, enjoy cocktails and admire Titus' cars. He has already collected the appropriate antique furniture and stored it in another section of the huge hangar.
Like Princess Shahnaz, Titus thinks of the poor. He occasionally visits slums to help children there receive a better education. Sometimes he invites them to his home, shows them his antique cars and delights in the wonder in their eyes.
But Titus admits that even he can't change India. "My philanthropy is just a drop in the ocean," he says before walking further and showing off his next vintage car, a 1934 Rolls-Royce 20/25, a particularly impressive example of his exclusive collection.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
Australian ministers resign over leadership showdown
Julia Gillard's government facing crisis after several departures, including two cabinet members and a junior minister
Associated Press in Canberra
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 March 2013 19.44 GMT
Three Australian government ministers have resigned in the continuing fallout from a bungled leadership showdown earlier this week. The departures reinforce perceptions of a crisis in Julia Gillard's government six months before the general election.
The cabinet ministers Chris Bowen and Martin Ferguson, as well as Kim Carr, who was a minister outside cabinet, resigned yesterday over their support for Kevin Rudd, the man Gillard replaced as prime minister in 2010.
Gillard called for a leadership ballot of ruling Labor party MPs on Thursday after weeks of speculation. Rudd decided against running, although his supporters say the result would have been close.
Senior minister Simon Crean, who demanded the ballot, was sacked by Gillard and junior minister Richard Marles, a Rudd backer, resigned on Thursday.
Kurdish families separated by decades of conflict hold their breath for peace
Fatma watches historic ceasefire call she hopes will one day reunite her with the daughter she has not seen for 20 years
Constanze Letsch in Istanbul
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 21 March 2013 17.43 GMT
Glued to the TV screen in her small Istanbul home, Fatma watches the Kurdish new year celebrations in faraway Diyarbakir, witnessing a historic ceasefire call that she hopes will one day reunite her with the daughter she has not seen for 20 years.
"I am so excited," said the 56-year-old, who prefers not to use her real name, as she listened to a message from Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed Kurdish guerrilla leader.
When Fatma's daughter was 15 years old, the Kurdish teenager took to the hills to join Öcalan's Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK), enlisting in their 30-year guerrilla war against the Turkish state.
"I have not seen her since," Fatma said. "Sometimes we talk on the phone, sometimes her friends call me. I know that she is now a commander, that she trains fighters. But once the ceasefire is in place, once there is peace, I will go and visit her in the mountains. I will finally see my daughter again."
On Thursday, Kurdish politicians read a message from Öcalan, who has been held in solitary confinement for 14 years on a Turkish island prison.
Öcalan's message proclaimed: "We are at a point today when the guns will fall silent and ideas will speak. It is time for armed fighters to move outside [Turkey's] borders. This is not an ending, but a new beginning." He talked of Turks and Kurds acting together after decades of human rights abuses, communal strife and violence.
"Turks and Kurds fought together in Çanakkale [during the first world war], and launched the Turkish parliament together in 1920," he said. "The basis of the new struggle consists of ideas, ideology and democratic politics."
As the peace overture was read out in Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish city in southeast Turkey, Fatma and her two other daughters fell silent.
"I can hardly breathe," said Hatice, 25, clutching a scarf in red, yellow and green, the PKK colours. "I wish we could have gone to Diyarbakir too. Imagine what the atmosphere on that square must be like now."
In Diyarbakir itself, hundreds of thousands thronged the streets to mark Newroz, the new year, a celebration made more joyous by the possibility of peace after decades of conflict.
The peace talks began gingerly last October, the first time a Turkish prime minister had openly engaged in dialogue with Öcalan, deemed the state's enemy No 1 by many Turks. And Thursday's ceasefire announcement was the biggest development yet.
Öcalan did not announce a timeframe, but, according to Turkish media reports, it is expected that all of the PKK's estimated 3,500 fighters based in Turkey will withdraw within five months.
Clad in a bright red Newroz dress, Fatma's other daughter, Nilgün, listened intently to Öcalan's message.
"I wanted to join the PKK when I was 13," she said. "But they sent me home saying I was too young. I cried so much, but they did not let me join. My friend and I were caught on the road back to our village. I spent almost five years in jail."
The family moved to Istanbul 20 years ago, after Turkish security forces burned down their village as part of the scorched earth policy aimed at eradicating Kurdish rebel fighters. They lost their home and most of their belongings. Shortly after, Fatma's then 15-year-old daughter ran away from home and joined the PKK.
There are thousands of Kurdish families who share the same anxiety and the same joy. "Both my uncle and his son died fighting for the PKK. Almost every family here has someone in the mountains," said Nilgün.
The ceasefire and the withdrawal of PKK fighters are the most critical moves yet in the peace talks. If they succeed, a settlement would end a bloody conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives, seen thousands jailed and tortured, and displaced millions of Kurds from their homes.
Koray Çalışkan, of the Istanbul Bosporus University, said the ball was now in Turkey's court: "The Turkish government will now likely carry out a number of legal reforms that will set free many of the people currently jailed under arbitrary Turkish terrorism laws."
More than 8,000 Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists are presently in jail, most of them for voicing their opinions peacefully.
"We all remember bad things happening in Turkey only months ago," Çalışkan added, referring to arbitrary arrests, the hawkish stance towards Öcalan and the Kurdish issue of Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a hunger strike by more than 700 Kurdish prisoners last year. "But now is not the time to remember. Now is the time to let peace happen. It has to work, we simply have no other choice."
Hatice felt that Thursday was a milestone. "Millions of people have waited for this day. The war will end, and both Kurds and Turks will be better off." She hopes to finally meet the big sister she has never seen.
"She will be watching this with us in Qandil," said her mother, referring to the PKK mountain headquarters across the border in northern Iraq. "All the guerrilla fighters are watching this. And just like my daughter, they hope to be able to reunite with their families after all these years."
Nilgün nodded. "Kurds want peace. We are tired. We have longed for peace for a very long time. We didn't have a childhood, we suffered so much. Kurds suffered so much. But it was all worth it when I hear this now."
In the 20 years of their separation, Fatma has caught sight of her fighter daughter only once – in a video clip on a Kurdish pro-PKK satellite channel.
"Every time that the names of martyrs were announced, my heart tightened with fear. But now the fighting will stop. I am so happy, so relieved."
The women's names have been changed
March 22, 2013
With Obama as Broker, Israelis and Turkey End Dispute
By JODI RUDOREN and MARK LANDLER
JERUSALEM — Under persistent prodding from President Obama, Israel and Turkey resolved a bitter three-year dispute on Friday with a diplomatic thaw that will help a fragile region confront Syria’s civil war, while handing the president a solid accomplishment as he closed out his visit to the Middle East.
The breakthrough took place in the most improbable of surroundings: a trailer parked on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion International Airport. Moments before Mr. Obama left for Jordan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and apologized for deadly errors in Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was trying to bring aid to Palestinians in Gaza.
After years of angrily demanding an apology, Mr. Erdogan accepted Mr. Netanyahu’s gesture, and both sides agreed to dispatch envoys to each other’s nations, having recalled them in 2011.
The president’s involvement, a senior American official said, was crucial to both leaders, which is why Mr. Netanyahu scheduled the call before Mr. Obama’s departure from Israel. Mr. Erdogan insisted on speaking to Mr. Obama first before the president handed the phone over to Mr. Netanyahu. In the end, the call produced a win-win for all sides.
Mr. Obama achieved reconciliation between two of the United States’ most important allies, while Turkey and Israel won good will with the White House, important for two nations that have made ties to the United States central to their foreign policies. Turkey and Israel, along with Jordan, have also been three pillars of stability for the United States as it confronts a civil war in Syria that threatens to spill beyond its borders and destabilize the broader region.
“Both of us agreed the moment was ripe,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Netanyahu at a news conference later in Amman, Jordan. He cautioned that the détente was a “work in progress” and that Turkey and Israel would continue to have significant disagreements as they mended fences. American officials say both countries are still “working the issue” of dropping criminal charges against four current and former top Israeli military officials that Turkey had indicted in the flotilla raid, and of determining Israel’s compensation to Turkey.
Mr. Obama reiterated his support for Jordan, too, announcing after a meeting with King Abdullah II that the United States would provide an additional $200 million in aid to help Jordan with the burden of caring for 460,000 Syrian refugees who have flooded into the country.
Israel and Turkey have a host of shared economic and security interests, and both are concerned about the unraveling situation in Syria. Turkey also could play a strategic role in Washington and Jerusalem’s efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, as well as in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It was the Palestinian issue that opened the rift between the two, when Israeli commandos raided the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, as it was trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza to deliver supplies. Nine people were killed in clashes on board, prompting an international outcry, several investigations and a rebuke by the United Nations.
“The prime minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life,” a statement issued by Mr. Netanyahu’s office said.
Mr. Erdogan’s office, in turn, said he had accepted the apology “on behalf of the Turkish people,” and that in his conversation with Mr. Netanyahu he had emphasized their nations’ shared history and prior eras of friendship and cooperation.
The call’s timing came as a surprise after a visit by Mr. Obama that was intensely symbolic and, publicly at least, tightly focused on Iran, Syria and the peace process. Mr. Obama used his trip to convince the Israeli public that he was a strong supporter and ally — credibility he then hoped to use to persuade the Israelis that it was safe, and wise, to earnestly embrace negotiations with Palestinians. Public reaction suggested that Mr. Obama did win the public trust, but it was not at all clear that he would achieve the second goal and prompt any significant movement in the long-stalled peace process.
Though important, the Turkey-Israel feud was less complex than those other problems. Defusing it may be the only immediate, concrete achievement Mr. Obama can claim from his visit here, beyond a broad sense that he has improved his standing with the Israeli public.
Still, the Obama administration has been working intensively for months, even years, to repair the breach, according to Israeli, American and Turkish officials. Mr. Obama said he had raised it regularly with both leaders, as did former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Mr. Netanyahu had resolutely refused to issue an apology, despite having coming close to agreeing before the recent election in Israel.
Changes in Mr. Obama’s cabinet and in the makeup of Israel’s new government helped ease the situation, officials said.
The new secretary of state, John Kerry, made it a focus of his visit to Ankara, the Turkish capital, this month, officials said. American diplomats prodded Mr. Erdogan to step back from his recent comments comparing Zionism to fascism, which in turn made it easier for them to get Mr. Netanyahu to make a move. The worsening situation in Syria, officials said, was also a catalyst.
“Obama and Kerry worked on it the last two months, and they made the difference,” said Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey. “With the whole region in such turmoil, it was very difficult that the two allies of the United States in the region were not cooperating. There was no dialogue whatsoever on the high political level and even on the high diplomatic level.”
Ersin Kalaycioglu, a foreign policy professor at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, saw the ice-breaking as an American move to strengthen Israel’s position among hostile neighbors.
“America does not want to leave any conflicts behind as it confines its power projection in the region,” he said. “Israel’s good relations with Turkey would put more pressure on Iran.”
In addition to the apology, the two leaders also discussed further easing the restrictions on imports to Gaza, which had been the goal of the Mavi Marmara, one of a series of flotillas Israel that has blocked from approaching the Palestinian coastal enclave.
There was no specific new arrangement made, but Israeli officials said they would consider allowing more goods in as long as rockets were not fired from Gaza into their country, as they were Thursday morning.
“The two leaders remained in consensus to work together for the improvement of the humanitarian situation on the Palestinian soil,” said the statement from Mr. Erdogan’s office.
Izzet Sahin, a leader of the I.H.H., an Istanbul-based charity that led the Mavi Marmara flotilla, said the apology, compensation and discussion of import restrictions amounted to “an important statement,” but added, “We have to see the implementation before we honor our dead.”
Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister who many saw as an obstacle to an Israeli apology, on Friday called it a “grave mistake” that would undermine his nation’s military.
While a renewed alliance with Turkey could eventually lead to progress on other fronts, Mr. Obama left Israel on a wave of good will but lacking public, tangible take-homes on Syria, Iran and the Palestinians.
Mark Regev, Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman, reiterated Friday that the prime minister was ready to resume negotiations if President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority would do so without preconditions. But he said that Mr. Obama’s visit had not shifted Israel’s position.
“We want to see a peace process where both sides are playing a part to move the process forward — we want to see a process that is a two-way street,” Mr. Regev said. “It can’t just be that one side makes demands and the other side makes concessions.”
Mr. Obama also made three symbolic pilgrimages on Friday: meeting with Christian leaders at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; laying wreaths and stones at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the slain prime minister and peacemaker; and visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
Jodi Rudoren reported from Jerusalem, and Mark Landler from Amman, Jordan. Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul.
Obama: post-Assad Syria of Islamist extremism is nightmare scenario
President warns 'extremists thrive in chaos' as he resists US lawmakers' calls to involve US any deeper in Syrian uprising
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 March 2013 21.38 GMT
Barack Obama delivered a grave warning on Friday about the danger of post-Assad Syria becoming a haven for Islamist extremists.
He portrayed a nightmare scenario in which Syrian institutions were destroyed beyond recognition and the country divided by sectarianism, with jihadists filling the gap.
"Something has been broken in Syria, and it's not going to be put back together perfectly immediately, even after Assad leaves," Obama said. "But we can begin the process of moving it in a better direction, and having a cohesive opposition is critical to that."
He was speaking at a joint press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, on the last leg of his Middle East tour.
Obama is resisting pressure from some in Congress as well as the new secretary of state John Kerry to become more involved in Syria. A handful of Republican and Democratic senators are urging him to impose a no-fly zone to keep president Bashar al-Assad's air force grounded, while Kerry is advocating arming Syrian rebels.
Having presided over the withdrawal of US forces in Iraq and with American forces due to leave Afghanistan next year, Obama is reluctant to become embroiled in another war. In Libya, he let France and Britain take the lead.
But the prospect of Islamist jihadists being able to operate freely in Syria is worrying, he said.
"I am very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism because extremists thrive in chaos," Obama said. "They don't have much to offer when it comes to actually building things, but they're very good about exploiting situations that are no longer functioning. They fill that gap."
In the run-up to Obama's trip, foreign policy analysts in Washington warned about Syria turning into a failed state, with one saying that about half the country's economy had collapsed since fighting began. If Syria became a power vacuum in which jihadists could operate freely, this could pose a threat not only to Israel but to neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.
Asked why the US is not more involved, Obama said: "I think it's fair to say that the United States often finds itself in a situation where if it goes in militarily, then it's criticised for going in militarily, and if it doesn't go in militarily, then people say, why aren't you doing something militarily?"
Obama said there was no longer any doubt that Assad would go. "It's not a question of if, it's when," he said.
He urged the international community to help build a credible alternative to Assad by bolstering the opposition. "We can't do it alone, and the outcome in Syria is not going to be ideal. Even if we execute our assistance and our coordination and our planning and our support flawlessly, the situation in Syria now is going to be difficult," he said.
"We haven't just led with words, but we've also led with deeds," he said. "We have worked diligently, in cooperation with the international community, to help organise and mobilise a political opposition that is credible, because in the absence of a credible political opposition, it will be impossible for us to transition to a more peaceful and more representative and legitimate government structure inside of Syria."
Referring to reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria, he reiterated that he was awaiting a report from a UN investigation.
Obama announced an extra $200m in aid to Jordan to help cope with the influx of 460,000 refugees from Syria.
Abdullah echoed Obama's concerns about the danger of instability, citing the refugee problem and warning that the number of Syrians in Jordan double by the end of the year.
After touring the abandoned desert city of Petra on Saturday, Obama is scheduled to return to Washington.
Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda in custody at International Criminal Court
"The Terminator" flown to The Hague to stand trial on charges of overseeing atrocities
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 March 2013 18.32 GMT
The Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda was taken into custody by the International Criminal Court on Friday after giving himself up in Rwanda earlier this week, and was last night being flown to The Hague to stand trial on charges of overseeing atrocities in eastern Congo a decade ago.
The announcement brought to an end Ntaganda's time as one of the court's longest-standing fugitives nearly seven years after he was first indicted, and was a crucial step in bringing to justice one of Africa's most notorious warlords.
Nicknamed "the Terminator" because of his reputation for ruthlessness in battle, Ntaganda became a symbol of impunity in Africa, at times playing tennis in eastern Congo apparently without fear of arrest.
Despite his 2006 ICC indictment, Ntaganda joined the Congolese army in 2009 as a general following a peace deal that paved the way for him and his men to be integrated into the military. He was allowed to live freely in the provincial capital, Goma, where he also dined at top restaurants.
Last year, however, the agreement between the former warlord and the Congolese government disintegrated, and he and his troops defected, becoming known as M23 and battling Congolese government troops in the country's jungle-clad east.
Ntaganda is believed to have turned himself in after becoming vulnerable when his M23 rebel group split into two camps last month over the decision to bow to international pressure and withdraw from Goma late last year. Ntaganda and another rebel leader, Jean-Marie Runiga, had opposed any pullout, but a rebel general, Sultani Makenga, ordered a retreat and initiated peace talks with the Congolese government.
Ntaganda was turned over to ICC staff in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where he gave himself up at the US embassy on Monday. He is the first indicted suspect to surrender to the court's custody voluntarily.
Ntaganda was taken out of the embassy amid tight security. Armed forces were stationed along the main road to the airport, and there were more troops at the airport.
An official at the US embassy in Kigali, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorised to speak publicly, told the Associated Press that ICC officials arrived aboard a private jet.
"They were given time to ask Ntaganda a few questions. At noon, all embassy workers were asked to leave to allow a clear passage," the official said.
Ntaganda faces charges including murder, rape, sexual slavery and using child soldiers in brutal fighting in the eastern Congo region of Ituri in 2002-03. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The court's prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, welcomed his transfer as a great day for victims in Congo.
"Today those who have long suffered at the hands of Bosco Ntaganda can look forward to the future and the prospect of justice secured," Bensouda said in a statement.
When he arrives in the Netherlands, Ntaganda will be taken to a cell in the court's detention unit to await his arraignment, which is likely some time next week, before a panel of judges. He will be given a medical checkup and a defence attorney will be appointed for him.
The court thanked the US and Rwanda – neither country is an ICC member state – for their role in Ntaganda's detention.
"This operation would not have been possible without the support of the Rwandan authorities," the court said in a statement.