December 24, 2013
Change Comes Slowly for Bulgaria, Even With E.U. Membership
By ANDREW HIGGINS
SOFIA, Bulgaria — As Ukrainian protesters camp out in their capital to demand closer ties to Europe, Boris Rangelov, a student protest leader in Bulgaria, has a sobering message from the cold capital of his country, another former Communist nation but one that, unlike Ukraine, joined the European Union years ago: Change takes a long time.
While the protesters in Ukraine have been out on the streets for just a few weeks demanding that a government they see as corrupt and discredited resign, Mr. Rangelov has been protesting on and off since February to get rid of his own country’s seemingly deeply corrupt political and economic masters.
“We should be in the Guinness Book of World Records,” said Mr. Rangelov, a first-year student at Sofia University, which has become the center of a rolling protest movement that first ousted a conservative government and now wants the same for its even more unpopular Socialist-led replacement.
Bulgaria’s demonstrators have discovered just how difficult it can be to bring change, even in a country that has been a member of the European Union for six years. Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, snubbed the union in November in favor of deeper ties with Russia, setting off the protests by Ukrainians who see a brighter future through closer ties to Europe.
The endless political deadlock here has fueled deep disillusionment among frustrated Bulgarians who had hoped European membership would mean an open road toward a more prosperous, equitable and transparent system. And it has given them a more realistic sense of what membership in the union — an option not even on the table yet for Ukraine — can bring.
It has also underscored the seeming powerlessness of the European bloc, despite sharp rebukes from Brussels and its diplomats and the suspension of some aid, to leverage its influence in Bulgaria for change.
Meanwhile, Bulgarians and Romanians, whose nations both joined the union in 2007 and who gain the right to work anywhere in it as of Jan. 1, are abandoning their homelands for wealthier corners of the bloc in numbers so large they are provoking stirrings of regret among some member nations wary of the competition for jobs.
“I never thought my country would be in such a bad situation right now,” said Meglena Kuneva, who, as Bulgaria’s minister of European affairs from 2002 to 2005 and then as a senior official in Brussels, negotiated the nation’s entry into the European Union. “I thought we would go further, better and faster.”
Virtually nobody in Bulgaria thinks that the European Union membership has not brought many benefits or that it was a mistake. Roads, parks, water treatment plants and numerous other sites carry big signs emblazoned with the union’s 12-star blue flag and trumpeting the money Brussels has pumped in. Unlike in Western Europe, there are no noisy euroskeptics clamoring for exit. Without the European Union, Ms. Kuneva said, “Bulgaria would have been worse than Ukraine.”
But Bulgaria has consistently remained at the bottom of the European Union’s poverty tables. In December, Transparency International, a Berlin-based advocacy group that monitors corruption, ranked Bulgaria as Europe’s most corrupt country after Greece.
For too many members of Bulgaria’s political class, Ms. Kuneva said, membership “was just about European funds and how they could steal from them,” never about European values and the importance of accountability and the rule of law.
“I am ashamed and frustrated,” added Ms. Kuneva, who over the summer joined an alliance of six small Bulgarian parties to form the Reformist bloc, which supports protesters’ calls for a clean break. European Union officials, she added, have tried to bring change through aid and advice, “but they cannot come here and govern” to expunge the corruption that “is poisoning everything.”
Citizens of other former Communist nations tend to agree that their countries have made big strides since joining the European Union in 2004.
“Society is very disillusioned,” Nikolay Staykov, the boss of a small tech company in Sofia who has set up a website, noresharski.com, a reference to Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, to help organize protests and provide an alternative source of information to pro-government news outlets. “There were lots of unrealistic expectations. We no longer expect that a magic European wand will change everything.”
Mr. Staykov said he was not sure whether, after so many new governments and false starts, Bulgaria might finally be joining the rest of Europe in more than just name. “The optimist in me says the problem is our politicians,” he said. “The pessimist in me says the problem is much deeper.”
Indeed, when Mr. Oresharski, a mild-mannered former academic and onetime finance minister, became prime minister in May, many Bulgarians and European diplomats looked forward to a new start. Four years of scandals under the previous center-right administration had peaked just before the May elections with allegations that the government had illegally bugged political opponents and, in some cases, its own supporters.
Mr. Oresharski, who heads a fragile coalition led by the Socialist Party, promised a government of cleanhanded experts, free of the skulduggery redolent of Bulgaria’s Communist past, when the intelligence service became infamous as a subcontractor for the K.G.B. and earned a grim reputation for its particular expertise in “wet work,” the assassination of enemies.
After less than a month in office, however, Mr. Oresharski set off outrage when he appointed Delyan Peevski, a 32-year-old media mogul with a thin résumé and a sulfurous reputation, as head of the national security agency. After protests, Mr. Peevski quickly stepped down, but the appointment became a toxic symbol of the cozy and opaque relations between Bulgarian business clans and the state apparatus, particularly its security organs.
Ms. Kuneva, the former minister, said she felt more pity than anger toward Mr. Oresharski. “He cannot speak for himself,” she said. “He is just a smoke screen,” she added, for hidden interests that really call the shots. Mr. Oresharski declined to be interviewed.
The government has refused to explain why it chose Mr. Peevski, a man manifestly unqualified for such a delicate national security post, or who had initiated his appointment. The silence has fueled speculation of a secret deal between the authorities and one of Bulgaria’s most controversial and powerful business groups, the New Bulgarian Media Group, controlled by Mr. Peevski’s mother, a former head of the national lottery.
Mr. Peevski could not be reached for comment. His mother, Irena Krasteva, has dismissed as “lies” the allegations of her family’s undue influence, insisting that the scope of her media group’s holdings has been wildly exaggerated.
A senior Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that while Bulgarians had a taste for conspiracy theories, “it is shocking that they often appear to be true.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 25, 2013
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of Bulgaria's former minister of European affairs. She is Meglena Kuneva, not Maglena.
December 25, 2013
Scotland Struggles to Keep an Energy Lifeline
By STANLEY REED
GRANGEMOUTH, Scotland — Highway travelers heading west at night from Edinburgh soon see a constellation of lights and glowing plumes of steam emerge from the darkness. It is the vast petrochemical complex at Grangemouth, which has become a shimmering symbol of Scotland at an economic and political crossroads.
In mid-October, some of those lights went dark when James A. Ratcliffe, the chairman of Ineos, a Swiss multinational giant that owns much of the Grangemouth operation, ordered it shut down. Mr. Ratcliffe, during labor negotiations, was trying to shock the work force into “accepting changes to bring the site into the modern world,” he said in a recent interview.
After the union quickly backed down and accepted some of the pay and pension changes sought by Mr. Ineos, the plant reopened. But the episode made clear the vulnerability of Grangemouth as the capital of the Scottish petrochemical industry. Although that industry vies with whisky as the biggest contributor to the country’s export economy, it is under pressure from global forces that now make other parts of the world better bets for the refining of petroleum into fuels and the processing of its byproducts into plastics and chemicals.
And because it occurred as Scotland was preparing for a vote next September on a referendum to secede from the United Kingdom and make its own way in the global economy, the face-off with Ineos was a stark reminder of the uncertain financial path an independent Scotland might tread. The closure of such an industrial linchpin could heighten doubts about whether the government is up to piloting the economy on its own or whether it could continue to provide generous social benefits like free university tuition.
“Everyone is still reeling,” said Joan Paterson, a Labour Party politician who represents Grangemouth on the Falkirk Council regional government and is skeptical about independence. “It was dark driving down there without the flares and cooling towers.”
The shuttering of the country’s largest industrial complex would have been a blow to Alex Salmond, the nationalist leader who is trying to convince voters that an independent Scotland would be able to continue to provide social benefits that are more generous than those available to most Britons.
“The Ineos crisis brought home what a big impact it would have if they were to go,” said Doug Edwards, an executive at CalaChem, a chemical maker in the area. “There was the risk of a domino effect.”
Mr. Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, is banking on North Sea oil to underpin the country’s economy. His government claims that more than 90 percent of Britain’s oil reserves might become Scotland’s after independence because they lie under Scottish territorial waters.
Either way, one of the reasons that the Ineos plants are running up losses is that production from the North Sea is declining. These days, new refineries and petrochemical plants are being built in places like Saudi Arabia and China, which are much closer to sources of still-abundant petroleum and natural gas reserves or near fast-growing markets. The closure of Grangemouth, the only refinery in Scotland, would have left it embarrassingly dependent on imported fuel.
In many ways a blow to Mr. Salmond might seem a win for the British prime minister, David Cameron, who opposes Scottish independence. But in this case, losing Grangemouth while Scotland is still part of Britain would also have undercut one of Mr. Cameron’s main arguments to the Scots — that they would be better off economically by remaining in the United Kingdom.
As a result, both sides on the independence debate are trying to generate political capital by investing in Grangemouth. The Scottish government agreed to provide Ineos with a grant of 9 million pounds, or $14.7 million, grant for new investments at the site, while the much wealthier British government is leaning toward guaranteeing a £125 million loan.
Ineos, a global company with $43 billion in revenue last year, including its joint ventures, and 15,000 employees worldwide, is the largest of several big chemical businesses operating in the area. It bought the Grangemouth plants in 2005 from BP in a $9 billion deal. The refinery there, now run in partnership with PetroChina and called Petroineos, is Scotland’s only domestic fuel producer, meeting 70 percent to 80 percent of the country’s needs for gasoline and diesel and jet fuel.
The adjoining Ineos petrochemical complex takes oil and gas derivatives from a BP-operated North Sea pipeline known as the Forties, which comes ashore nearby, and converts them to materials like ethylene, polypropylene and polymers used in products like plastic bottles, food packaging and insulation.
The Ineos complex also sends petroleum derivatives directly by pipeline to a nearby factory run by Versalis, a petrochemical arm of the Italian energy giant Eni, which makes synthetic rubber for tires.
On Dec. 18, Dow announced that it would close a plastics plant in the area that employs 66 people and receives raw material from Ineos, citing “high manufacturing costs.” The news was an additional blow to Grangemouth because these giants sustain a web of smaller companies in Grangemouth with an array of functions that include supplying safety equipment to the factories and mucking out industrial boilers.
“I wouldn’t give us a year without it,” Melanie Crawford, a local innkeeper, said of the Ineos complex. “Grangemouth would be dead.” Ms. Crawford’s family-owned Oxgang House, a small hotel just a few hundred yards down the road from the Ineos plants, is a popular lodging place for contractors.
The Falkirk Council, the regional government, estimated that closing the plants might cost 6,500 jobs in the short term. The collateral damage to the broader petrochemical industry over time would be harder to predict.
“Once you take out petrochemicals and refining, then the case for the other plants would decline,” said David Bell, an economist at the University of Stirling, near Grangemouth.
That threat seems to have diminished, at least for now. A few hours after Mr. Ratcliffe said he was shuttering the petrochemical unit, Gordon Grant, the Ineos plant manager at Grangemouth, received an email from a union representative agreeing to the terms of a so-called survival plan that the union had spurned a few days earlier.
Under the new deal, salary levels at Grangemouth, which the company says average about £55,000 a year — more than twice the Scottish average — will be frozen for three years.
A generous pension plan that Ineos says cost it the equivalent of about 65 percent of employees’ pay per year will be replaced by an employee pay-in system, with some matching money from the company, similar to a 401(k) in the United States and to plans that many other British companies have adopted.
The Unite union, whose walkout in 2008 shut the Forties pipeline for two days, halting about 40 percent of Britain’s North Sea production, agreed not to strike for three years.
After the deal, Pat Rafferty, Unite’s Scottish secretary, issued a statement, saying, “Obviously today’s news is tinged with sadness — decent men and women are being asked to make sacrifices to hold on to their jobs, but the clear wish of our members is that we work with the company to implement its proposals.”
But Mr. Ratcliffe said the changes were necessary. “What has happened,” he said by phone, “has enabled us to move forward with Grangemouth and pursue a strategy that will give Grangemouth the potential for a very bright future.”
Keeping the lights on at Grangemouth might still prove a challenge. With countries like Qatar and Malaysia now drawing new investments for refining and petrochemicals, “this position in the northern U.K. is not really helping,” said Henning Müller, an industry specialist at the management consulting firm Accenture.
On the other hand, he said, Scottish independence, if it comes, could work in Grangemouth’s favor. If he were the Scottish first minister, Mr. Müller said, “I would pledge to have a refinery for energy safety.”
Arctic 30 activists expected to return home after Christmas
Russian authorities begin process of dropping criminal cases and granting amnesty to Greenpeace activists held over oil rig protest
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 December 2013 12.25 GMT
A group of 30 Greenpeace activists and journalists detained in Russia since September should be home shortly after Christmas after authorities began on Tuesday to formally process their criminal amnesties and grant them exit visas.
A Greenpeace spokesman said members of the group, who were arrested aboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise during a protest against oil drilling in the Arctic, were beginning to go through the administrative process clearing them of criminal charges, before being given exit visas to leave the country. This was likely to take some time, he said, and none of the group were expected to leave Russia before Thursday at the earliest.
The group said Anthony Perrett, a Greenpeace activist who is one of six Britons to be detained, was the first to have the criminal case against him formally dropped. He is now awaiting the exit visa needed to leave Russia and has been told he can collect it on Thursday.
In a statement released by Greenpeace, Perrett said: "It's time to go home, it's time to get back to Wales, and I just got one big step closer." He said the group took peaceful action and he remained proud of his actions.
The 28 activists and two journalists were charged with piracy, later reduced to hooliganism, after Russian authorities boarded their ship. After they were held in St Petersburg for months, initially in prison and then on bail, they were given amnesty under a law passed by Russia's parliament last week, which also granted clemency to the two jailed members of the punk group Pussy Riot.
Kieron Bryan, a British freelance video journalist who is among the so-called Arctic 30, said from St Petersburg: "Only a few weeks ago it looked like we were going to be here well into February and probably beyond. To be getting our amnesty for Christmas Day is pleasing."
Bryan's fiancee was arriving in St Petersburg later on Tuesday to spend Christmas with him, he added, and they would return to the UK together: "Christmas will be whenever we're all together as a family, as far as I'm concerned. It'll be strange tomorrow. Talking to my mum and dad on Skype will be a bit bizarre, but we'll be together before the New Year and we'll start 2014 in the right place, which is good."
Once he returned to his home village in Devon, Bryan said, he would begin trying to put his life back together. "I've got a lot of people to go and say thank you to in person, and do a lot of things I've been missing."
Cliff Harris, the father of another Briton among the group, Alex Harris, said the family were expecting her imminently. He said: "We've been told it might be Boxing Day, but it might not be. I think two have gone through and been told they can leave, but they've got to go before the investigating committee and get the final stamp. It would have been nice to see her for Christmas, but any time is great."
Greenpeace has said Russia was acting contrary to international law in laying criminal charges against people taking part in a legitimate and peaceful protest. The organisation strongly argued firstly for the 30 to be granted bail, and then for them to be allowed to leave the country.
Edward Snowden broadcasts Channel 4's alternative Christmas Day message
NSA whistleblower records message from Russia, filmed by Laura Poitras, warning of the dangers of a loss of privacy
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 December 2013 16.00 GMT
Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who prompted a worldwide debate when he leaked a cache of top secret documents about US and UK spying, has recorded a Christmas Day television message in which he calls for an end to the mass surveillance revealed by his disclosures.
The short film was recorded for Channel 4, which has 20-year history of providing unusual but relevant figures as an alternative to the Queen's Christmas message shown by other UK broadcasters. It will be Snowden's first television appearance since arriving in Moscow.
The address, broadcast at 4.15pm on Christmas Day, was filmed in Russia – where Snowden is living after being granted temporary asylum – by Laura Poitras, a film-maker who has closely collaborated with him on the NSA stories.
Snowden said George Orwell "warned us of the danger of this kind of information" in his dystopian novel, 1984.
Snowden said: "The types of collection in the book – microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us – are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go. Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.
"A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They'll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves an unrecorded, unanalysed thought. And that's a problem because privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be."
Snowden notes the political changes that have taken place since his leaked the cache documents to newspapers including the Guardian. He highlights a review of the NSA's power that recommended it be no longer permitted to collect phone records in bulk or undermine internet security, findings endorsed in part by Barack Obama, and a federal judge's ruling that bulk phone record collection is likely to violate the US constitution.
Snowden says: "The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it. Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying."
The latter comment echoes a sentiment expressed by Snowden during a series of interviews in Moscow with the Washington Post, another paper that has carried revelations based on documents leaked by him. In this, Snowden said the effect of his actions had meant that "the mission's already accomplished".
In the newspaper interview, he added: "I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn't want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.
"All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed."
The alternative Christmas message, a counterpoint to the traditional festive broadcast by the Queen, began in 1993 with a broadcast from the writer and gay activist Quentin Crisp. Other notable participants include Iran's then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2008, and a team of midwives two years later.
***************Edward Snowden warns about loss of privacy in Christmas message - video
Edward Snowden, the man who revealed extensive details of electronic surveillance by American, Australian and British spy agencies, warns of the dangers posed by mass surveillance in an alternative Christmas message broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. The two-minute video is believed to have been recorded in Moscow, where Snowden has been granted temporary asylum.
Click to watch: http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/dec/25/edward-snowden-christmas-message-video
December 24, 2013
Poised to Marry a Prince? She Will Not Be Spared
By TIM TEEMAN
Any potential royal bride running the feverish gantlet of the British tabloids must prepare to have her name mangled. Diana, soon to be the princess of Wales, became “Shy Di,” and Kate Middleton, now duchess of Cambridge, was transformed into “Waity Katie” because of the long time she dated Prince William before they were engaged.
Now, Cressida Bonas, the 24-year-old girlfriend of Prince Harry, must endure the same punning wordplay.
To frame their story that Ms. Bonas might be joining Prince Harry for this year’s Boxing Day shoot at Sandringham, the Queen’s Norfolk estate and traditional Christmas holiday retreat, a Sunday Express headline ran: “Prince Harry Is Rewarded With a Warm Bonas.”
Ms. Bonas’s anticipated presence at Sandringham Thursday — a speculation floated by some of the British newspapers, only to be shot down by others — set off more fevered speculation that Prince Harry was about to propose, a sales-generating story line that has been kept alive for several months. “Will Harry Make Cressida His Princess?” the Daily Mail asked in August (answer: not then). In October he was reported to be about to propose under the Northern Lights in Iceland (not then, either), and in November that she had given up her dream to be a dancer to marry him. (Still to be determined.)
Ed Perkins, press secretary to the duke and duchess of Cambridge and to Prince Harry, declined to comment on Ms. Bonas’s holiday plans. But Ingrid Seward, the editor of Majesty magazine and author of “A Century of Royal Children,” wrote in an email that Ms. Bonas would most likely be staying with her father, Jeffrey Bonas, owner of MacCulloch & Wallis, a clothing and fabric manufacturer, who lives near Sandringham. Ms. Bonas “is one of the sweetest girls I have ever met, and I have known her since she was very young,” Ms. Seward said.
The British press, as is their wont, may have jumped the gun on the happy news.
“I wouldn’t be expecting a Christmas engagement, but they are very much in love, really serious about each other and spending a lot of time together,” said Sophia Money-Coutts, features editor of the British society magazine Tatler. Ms. Money-Coutts said speculation around Prince Harry proposing to Ms. Bonas had been heightened by the recent engagement of Guy Pelly, a close friend of Princes William and Harry, to his girlfriend, Lizzy Wilson. (There are also reports in the press that Pippa Middleton, sister to the duchess of Cambridge, may be engaged to her boyfriend, Nico Jackson, a London stockbroker.)
The royal correspondent for the Telegraph reported on Sunday that Ms. Bonas would definitely not be joining the crowd at Sandringham, quoting a “courtier” who said, “His Royal Highness knows that it would not be appropriate for Miss Bonas to join the royal family for Christmas until they are a married couple.”
Tatler made Ms. Bonas its cover star in October with the headline “Harry Loves Cressy: 20 Things You Need to Know About Cressida Bonas.” The accompanying article reported that the couple were introduced by Princess Eugenie, a daughter of Sarah Ferguson, formerly the duchess of York.
Inevitably there have been comparisons drawn between Ms. Bonas and the duchess of Cambridge: the latter has been molded into a typically decorative, mostly mute royal consort, whereas Ms. Bonas is “incredibly arty, creative, happy-go-lucky,” according to Ms. Money-Coutts, who added, “She’s a party girl, but not wild or over the top.” Ms. Seward said Ms. Bonas was very different from the duchess: “less conventional.” Associates say that, whatever happens with the prince, she is determined to have a career of her own, probably as an actress.
If the duchess’s style can be described as stunning if sensible, Ms. Bonas’s is haute-bohemian. At a recent wedding she wore a crown of flowers atop an ensemble of a black coat, geometric-patterned dress and black tights. “There are lots of photographs of her in the press,” Ms. Money-Coutts said. “The fact she is jaw-droppingly beautiful is obviously a help.”
In the summer, Ms. Bonas was photographed at the Glastonbury music festival wearing blue denim overalls and a hair scrunchie, previously the most benighted of fashion items. “Suddenly the scrunchie was cool again,” Ms. Money-Coutts said.
Ms. Bonas’s mother is Lady Mary-Gaye Curzon, the daughter of an earl, who achieved some notoriety as a model in the 1960s by posing apparently topless smeared in engine oil. She had five children by three husbands, and Ms. Bonas is her youngest daughter, whose name was derived from “Troilus and Cressida.” “She comes from quite a grand family herself, an aristocratic family,” Ms. Money-Coutts said. “She is not going to be fazed by the grandness of the royal family.”
After attending Stowe boarding school, Ms. Bonas earned a degree in dance at Leeds University, then studied contemporary dance at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in South London. The Tatler profile included tidbits such as if you drink with Ms. Bonas, offer to buy her a “rum, straight up,” and when embarrassed, she exclaims “cringe de la cringe.”
“Harry doesn’t go for high-maintenance girls,” Ms. Money-Coutts said, adding that Chelsy Davy, his ex-girlfriend, was also down-to-earth. “Cressida’s very relaxed,” she said. “Kate Middleton has to be the way she is: she’s married to the future first in line to the throne. When you’re Harry, you can be a bit naughtier, and Cressida has a freedom that comes with being with Harry.”
Ms. Seward said that it might be difficult for Ms. Bonas to pursue a professional path if she joins the royal family. “It’s very hard to have a career,” she said. “Many have tried and failed. I don’t see Cressy being able to carry on with her dancing, which is why she is doing a bit of teaching to fill in. She has to do something.”
Ms. Seward added that Ms. Bonas was finding the media attention “very difficult indeed. She does not like it as she wants to go out and about without makeup, et cetera. It is very constraining. But Harry is being very protective indeed.”
Mr. Perkins, the royal spokesman, would not say if Ms. Bonas was receiving support or advice, though, Ms. Seward noted, since the days of Diana, there is “more media, mobile phones and instant information.”
“You have to be much more secretive,” she said. “It’s not much fun. She is perfect for Harry, but giving up her freedom would be difficult. Having said that, Harry’s charm is like a flame thrower, and he is the most eligible bachelor in the world, so it’s hard to resist.”
Russian Orthodox church wins three-year fight for right to build near Eiffel Tower
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 25, 2013 21:15 EST
French authorities have given permission for a new Russian Orthodox church to be built near the Eiffel Tower, a project that has been blocked since 2010, the Russian embassy said Wednesday.
The plan for the church dates back to 2007 when Alexy II, the now deceased patriarch of Moscow, visited France and said the Russian Orthodox church wanted a bigger edifice in Paris.
Russia acquired a prime parcel of land in 2010 near the Eiffel Tower after the French state-run meteorological office sold its headquarters on the Left Bank.
But plans for a church topped with five golden domes enveloped in a canopy resembling a veil ran into opposition from the city’s Socialist mayor Betrand Delanoe who called the design “mediocre architecture conceived in haste.”
But a new plan has got the go-ahead, a Russian diplomat in Paris said.
“We have received confirmation of the permission to build the church,” a Russian diplomat in Paris said without specifying when work would start.
An official from the prefecture of the Ile de France region, which includes Paris, confirmed this, saying the “permission is being granted.”
Russia is now working on a new plan for the church which is expected to be ready in January. It will incorporate new technology and the materials will include titanium and carbon, the Russian ambassador said.
Paris is home to several Russian Orthodox churches but only one, the Trois-Saints-Docteurs church, is under the control of Moscow Patriarchate.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Turkish corruption scandal: three ministers quit
Three Turkish cabinet members resign and one calls on prime minister Tayyip Erdogan to quit
theguardian.com, Wednesday 25 December 2013 22.58 GMT
Three Turkish cabinet members have resigned over the country's escalating corruption scandal.
One of them, environment minister Erdogan Bayraktar, urged prime minister Tayyip Erdogan to follow suit. However, a defiant Erdogan, who has held power for 11 years, announced a cabinet reshuffle, appointing 10 new ministers to replace the three who quit and others planning mayoral runs in local elections in March.
The resignations add to a week-old crisis which has pitted Erdogan against the judiciary and reignited anti-government sentiment simmering since mass street-protests in Istanbul and other cities in the summer.
The resigning interior, economy and environment ministers each had a son detained on 17 December when police went public with a long-running investigation into graft allegations involving state-run lender Halkbank. Two of the sons remain in custody along with 22 others, including the head of the bank.
Two ministers echoed Erdogan in depicting the inquiry as baseless and a conspiracy, but Bayraktar told NTV news: "For the sake of the wellbeing of this nation and country, I believe the prime minister should resign."
Koray Caliskan, an associate professor at Istanbul's Bogazici University, said: "These are very late and difficult resignations. They don't have any value in terms of democracy."
Erdogan responded to the 17 December arrests by sacking or moving about 70 of the police officers involved, arguing that their work had been deeply tainted.
Exploring Anti-Semitism in Hungary
New York Times
An openly anti-Semitic political party has gained power in Hungary’s Parliament in recent years, fueling fears that the Eastern European nation is experiencing a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment. Ninety percent of Hungarian Jews who participated in a recent survey by a European Union agency ranked the bias in the country as a “very big” or “fairly big” problem. The growing talk of anti-Semitism in Hungary has prompted the government to respond with a call on Hungarians to accept responsibility for the role played by their country in the Holocaust during World War II and to redouble efforts to commemorate the Holocaust.
The Times will be taking a deep look at anti-Semitism in Hungary this coming year. As we report on this issue, we are hoping to hear from Hungarian Jews on their experiences. If you are Jewish and living in Hungary or are from Hungary, we invite you to answer the following questions. Your responses will not be published without your permission. A reporter may follow up with you.
For all those who live in Hungaria who wish to help the NY Times investigate this please click on here:http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/09/06/world/europe/antisemitism-hungary.html?ref=world
A Magyar parlamentben egy nyíltan antiszemita párt jelent meg az utóbbi években, erősítve a félelmet, hogy a kelet-európai országban nő a zsidókkal szembeni ellenérzés. A Magyarországi zsidók 90 százaléka egy, az Európai Unió ügynöksége által nemrég végzett felmérés szerint a problémát a "nagyon nagy" illetve "meglehetősen nagy" jelzővel illette. A Magyarországi antiszemitizmussal kapcsolatos növekvő aggodalmak arra késztették a kormányt, hogy a Magyar népességet a második világháború alatt a Holokausztban játszott szerepére emlékeztesse és növelje a Holokausztra való emlékezés irányába tett erőfeszítéseket.
A Times az elkövetkezendő évben a Magyarországi antiszemitizmus problémáját mélységeiben szeretné vizsgálni. Ennek részeként szeretnénk a Magyar zsidóság ezzel kapcsolatos tapasztalatairól magyar zsidóktól hallani. Ha Ön zsidó származású és Magyarországon él, vagy élt az utóbbi időkig, kérem válaszoljon az alábbi kérdésekre. Válaszait nem fogjuk engedélye nélkül közölni, ugyanakkor egy riproterünk megkeresheti Önt további kérdések feltevése céljából.http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/09/06/world/europe/antisemitism-hungary.html?ref=world
Bombs targeting Christians kill dozens in Baghdad
Car bomb goes off near church after service after explosions at outdoor market in Christian area
Agencies in Baghdad
The Guardian, Wednesday 25 December 2013 12.46 GMT
Iraq's Christians celebrated Christmas behind blast walls and barbed wire as at least 37 people were killed in bomb attacks in Christian areas, some by a car bomb near a church after a service.
Earlier, two bombs ripped through a nearby outdoor market simultaneously in the Christian section of Athorien, killing 11 people and wounding 21, an officer said.
The Iraq-based leader of the Chaldean Catholic church, Louis Sako, said the parked car bomb had exploded after a Christmas mass in the capital's southern Dora neighbourhood, killing at least 26 people and wounding 38. He said none of the worshippers had been hurt, and he did not believe the church was the target.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but Iraq's dwindling Christian community, which is estimated to number about 400,000 to 600,000 people, has often been targeted by al-Qaida and other insurgents who see the Christians as heretics.
Other targets include civilians in restaurants, cafes or crowded public areas, as well as Shias and members of the security forces, attacked in an attempt to undermine confidence in the Shia-led government and stir up Iraq's already simmering sectarian tensions.
A medical official confirmed the casualty figures. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.
Wednesday's bombings came amid a massive military operation in Iraq's western desert as authorities try to hunt down insurgents who have stepped up attacks across Iraq in the past months, sending violence to levels not seen since 2008.
The Christmas Day attacks brought the total number of people killed this month in Iraq to 441. According to UN estimates, more than 8,000 have been killed this year.
On Christmas Eve, the Mar Yousif Syriac Catholic church in western Baghdad looked like a walled fortress. Soldiers and police ran bomb detectors across cars, searched trunks and bags and patted down visitors before the evening ceremony.
Inside, the red-confetti-strewn Christmas tree, bright blue-and-white tile mosaic and strings of Santa-Claus-themed bunting contrasted with drab streets strewn with concrete blocks and barbed wire outside.
But pews that would have overflowed with worshippers a few years ago were barely two-thirds full – a reflection of the fact that the Christian community has fallen from about 1.5 million before the US-led invasion to about half that.
"The future is very critical because of immigration," said the human rights activist William Warda before Tuesday night's service, estimating that 10 to 20 Christians were still leaving the country each day.
"Many Christians … are fleeing from the country because of this issue, because there is no sign of a bright future."
December 25, 2013
U.S. Sends Arms to Aid Iraq Fight With Extremists
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — The United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The move follows an appeal for help in battling the extremist group by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who met with President Obama in Washington last month.
But some military experts question whether the patchwork response will be sufficient to reverse the sharp downturn in security that already led to the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis this year, 952 of them Iraqi security force members, according to the United Nations, the highest level of violence since 2008.
Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq. Riding in armed convoys, the group has intimidated towns, assassinated local officials, and in an episode last week, used suicide bombers and hidden explosives to kill the commander of the Iraqi Army’s Seventh Division and more than a dozen of his officers and soldiers as they raided a Qaeda training camp near Rutbah.
Bombings on Christmas in Christian areas of Baghdad, which killed more than two dozen people, bore the hallmarks of a Qaeda operation.
The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.
In a March 2012 speech, Antony J. Blinken, who is currently Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, asserted that “Iraq today is less violent” than “at any time in recent history.”
In contrast, after a recent spate of especially violent attacks against Iraqi forces, elected officials and civilians, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, issued a strongly worded statement on Sunday warning that the Qaeda affiliate is “seeking to gain control of territory inside the borders of Iraq.”
Pledging to take steps to strengthen Iraqi forces, Ms. Psaki noted that the Qaeda affiliate was a “common enemy of the United States and the Republic of Iraq, and a threat to the greater Middle East region.”
But the counterterrorism effort the United States is undertaking with Iraq has its limits.
Iraq’s foreign minister has floated the idea of having American-operated, armed Predator or Reaper drones respond to the expanding militant network. But Mr. Maliki, who is positioning himself to run for a third term as prime minister and who is sensitive to nationalist sentiment at home, has not formally requested such intervention.
The idea of carrying out such drone attacks, which might prompt the question of whether the Obama administration succeeded in bringing the Iraq war to what the president has called a “responsible end,” also appears to have no support in the White House.
“We have not received a formal request for U.S.-operated armed drones operating over Iraq, nor are we planning to divert armed I.S.R. over Iraq,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. For now, the new lethal aid from the United States, which Iraq is buying, includes a shipment of 75 Hellfire missiles, delivered to Iraq last week. The weapons are strapped beneath the wings of small Cessna turboprop planes, and fired at militant camps with the C.I.A. secretly providing targeting assistance.
In addition, 10 ScanEagle reconnaissance drones are expected to be delivered to Iraq by March. They are smaller cousins of the larger, more capable Predators that used to fly over Iraq.
American intelligence and counterterrorism officials say they have effectively mapped the locations and origins of the Qaeda network in Iraq and are sharing this information with the Iraqis.
Administration officials said the aid was significant because the Iraqis had virtually run out of Hellfire missiles. The Iraqi military, with no air force to speak of and limited reconnaissance of its own, has a very limited ability to locate and quickly strike Qaeda militants as they maneuver in western and northern Iraq. The combination of American-supplied Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, tactical drones and intelligence, supplied by the United States, is intended to augment that limited Iraqi ability.
The Obama administration has given three sensor-laden Aerostat balloons to the Iraqi government, provided three additional reconnaissance helicopters to the Iraqi military and is planning to send 48 Raven reconnaissance drones before the end of 2014. And the United States is planning to deliver next fall the first of the F-16 fighters Iraq has bought.
The lack of armed drones, some experts assert, will hamper efforts to dismantle the Qaeda threat in Iraq over the coming weeks and months.
“Giving them some ScanEagle drones is great,” said Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But is it really going to make much difference? Their range is tiny.”
“The real requirement today is for a long-range, high-endurance armed drone capability,” added Mr. Knights, who frequently travels to Iraq. “There is one place in the world where Al Qaeda can run a major affiliate without fear of a U.S. drone or air attack, and that is in Iraq and Syria.”
In an effort to buttress the Iraqi military’s abilities, the Obama administration has sought congressional approval to lease and eventually sell Apache helicopter gunships. But some lawmakers have been hesitant, fearing that they might be used by Mr. Maliki to intimidate his political opponents.
A plan to lease six Apaches to the Iraqi government is now pending in the Senate. Frustrated by the United States’ reluctance to sell Apaches, the Iraqis have turned to Russia, which delivered four MI-35 attack helicopters last month and planned to provide more than two dozen more. Meanwhile, cities and towns like Mosul, Haditha and Baquba that American forces fought to control during the 2007 and 2008 surge of American troops in Iraq have been the scene of bloody Qaeda attacks.
Using extortion and playing on Sunni grievances against Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, the Qaeda affiliate is largely self-financing. One Iraqi politician, who asked not to be named to avoid retaliation, said Qaeda militants had even begun to extort money from shopkeepers in Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital.
A number of factors are helping the Qaeda affiliate. The terrorist group took advantage of the departure of American forces to rebuild its operations in Iraq and push into Syria. Now that it has established a strong foothold in Syria, it is in turn using its base there to send suicide bombers into Iraq at a rate of 30 to 40 a month, using them against Shiites but also against Sunnis who are reluctant to cede control.
The brutal tactics, some experts say, may expose Al Qaeda to a Sunni backlash, much as in 2006 and 2007 when Sunni tribes aligned themselves with American forces against the Qaeda extremists.
But Mr. Maliki’s failure to share power with Sunni leaders, some Iraqis say, has also provided a fertile recruiting ground.
Haitham Abdullah al-Jubouri, a 40-year-old government employee in Baquba, said that “the policy of the sectarian government” had “contributed to the influx of desperate young elements from the Sunni community to the ranks of Al Qaeda.”
In Mosul, most of the security force members who are not from the area have left the city, and Al Qaeda controls whole sections of territory.
“In the morning, we have some control, but at night, this is when we hide and the armed groups make their movements,” said an Iraqi security official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of retaliation.
Ayad Shaker, a police officer in Anbar, said that Al Qaeda had replenished its ranks with a series of prison breakouts, and that the group had also grown stronger because of the limited abilities of Iraqi forces, the conflict in Syria and tensions between Mr. Maliki and the Sunnis.
Mr. Shaker said that three close relatives had been killed by Al Qaeda and that he had been wounded by bombs the group had planted.
“I fought Al Qaeda,” he said. “I am sad today when I see them have the highest authority in Anbar, moving and working under the sun without deterrent.”
Yasir Ghazi contributed reporting from Baghdad, Thom Shanker from Washington and an employee of The New York Times from Mosul, Iraq.
Pakistan's government deflates dream of gas-powered cars
Nearly 3m drivers in Pakistan who opted for alternative to petrol face rationing and likely end of government-subsidised fuel
Jon Boone in Islamabad
The Guardian, Wednesday 25 December 2013 10.00 GMT
When Pakistan first started promoting compressed natural gas to the nation's motorists in the 1990s, the alternative to petrol seemed like a wonder fuel.
Getting motorists to convert their cars to run on cleaner, cheaper gas would cure urban pollution and lower demand for the imported oil that was gobbling the country's foreign currency reserves.
Car owners loved it and today 80% of all cars in Pakistan run off compressed natural gas (CNG), according to the Natural and Bio Gas Vehicle Association (NGVA), a European lobby group. Only Iran has more gas cars running on the road.
But as the country struggles with a chronic gas shortage, Pakistan's 20-year CNG experiment seems to have been thrown into reverse gear.
The government has introduced strict rationing. And there have even been discussions about shutting down thousands of gas stations for the whole of thewinter. "CNG is finished in Pakistan," said Owais Qureshi, the owner of a handful of once lucrative gas stations in Rawalpindi. "I'm not going to invest any more money in it."
It has been years since he has been legally allowed to sell and install CNG conversion "kits": essentially large gas cylinders that are placed in the boot of a car to feed the engine. The system allows for cars to still be able to use petrol instead, if required.
Although CNG is popular with an estimated 2.8m motorists in Pakistan, according to the NGVA, the increasingly scarce resource is also in demand from other sectors – including the country's factories and for domestic use.
"The government has been left with little choice but to put a lid on it because there simply isn't much gas left," said Farrukh Saleem, an economist. "It has been a massive policy failure because the government actively promoted CNG knowing full well that natural gas reserves would not last beyond 25 years."
Successive governments heavily subsided CNG, ran schemes to encourage car conversions and dished out licences to political allies to build gas stations.
But abandoned stations are now a common sight around the country. So too are queues of hundreds of motorists waiting to fill their cars on Wednesdays – the last remaining day of the week in many places on which CNG is legally allowed to be sold.
This weekly ordeal for CNG users is compounded by a chronic lack of electricity, the other aspect of Pakistan's energy crisis. And because electricity is needed to run the gas compressors used by CNG stations car re-filling grinds to a halt during the many power cuts.
But cash-strapped motorists are usually prepared to queue for many hours for the gas to be turned back on, with many saying they cannot afford the higher price of petrol.
"All over the world countries are promoting CNG but in Pakistan they are killing it off," said Ghiyas Abdullah Paracha, chairman of All Pakistan CNG Association.
"If we don't have enough gas we should import LNG [liquid natural gas]."
Pakistan, however, has failed to build the infrastructure needed to import large amounts of gas from overseas. A legal challenge by Pakistan's activist supreme court killed off one scheme to build a massive LNG terminal in Karachi.
The other lifeline for Pakistan's CNG supply is a controversial, multi-billion dollar pipeline to import natural gas from Iran. But Pakistan lacks the cash to build its half of the pipeline and the US has warned that completing the project would be in breach of US economic sanctions imposed on Iran.
Even as natural gas is being touted elsewhere in the world as a great alternative to petrol, soon it may be a mere memory in Pakistan.
Paracha fondly recalls the grand opening of the first CNG station in Karachi, which was built with foreign aid money. "It was the start of a revolution," he said. "Before CNG came you could not see the sky in the cities because the air was so polluted."
Bangladeshi workers still missing eight months after Rana Plaza collapse
Anger among relatives of victims who say authorities have not handed back bodies and are not paying them compensation
Jason Burke in Savar
The Guardian, Wednesday 25 December 2013 09.00 GMT
Almost 200 workers are still missing from the Bangladesh factory that collapsed eight months ago, compounding the misery for relatives who have received little in the way of compensation.
More than 1,134 people died in the disaster on 24 April, mainly workers making clothes for sale on western high streets by retailers including Matalan, Primark and other household names. The tragedy was the worst industrial accident anywhere in the world for a generation.
The failure to finalise the death toll and to unite bereaved relatives with the remains of their loved ones will raise questions about the capacity of local authorities to effect the wide-ranging reforms of the garment industry that brands, campaigners, labour activists, consumers and local officials all say are necessary. The garment industry employs around four million people in Bangladesh and produces 80% of the country's exports.
In the days after the tragedy, more than 800 bodies were visually identified by relatives or by identity cards or other personal possessions, officials said. Their families received 20,000 taka (£160) for immediate funeral expenses from the local administration and later a further sum of at least 100,000 taka (£790) from a special fund set up by the Bangladeshi prime minister's office.
Relatives of victims who were identified have also received payment of outstanding wages by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and sums equivalent to monthly wage payments from Primark, the British retailer which sold clothes made in Rana Plaza. But those people whose family members are still officially missing have received almost nothing.
"I am still waiting for any compensation. They found my daughter's phone but nothing else, even though she had her identity card on her," said Abu Kashem Mollah, who last saw his daughter Pervin when she left their one-room home to walk to the factory where she and 3,600 others spent 10 hours each day stitching clothes for western retailers.
Mollah recalls that both he and his daughter were worried on the day of the accident. The previous day workers had been sent home early when cracks had been discovered in the walls of the nine-storey building.
"I asked her if she had to go … and she said that if she didn't go her pay would be blocked," Mollah, 57, said.
An hour later the news that one of the hundreds of garment factories in the neighbourhood had collapsed spread through its choked, narrow streets. Fearing the worst, Mollah ran to his daughter's workplace. Half of the building had fallen in. He found no trace of her. He has found nothing since.
"I have searched frantically. I have given DNA samples. I have given my phone number again and again at many different offices and to many different people but no one has contacted me. I can't understand it," he said.
Authorities are not always sympathetic. Officials at the BGMEA suggested that many claims were fraudulent. Mainuddin Khandakar, a senior home ministry official and author of a government report into the tragedy, blamed the victim's families.
"Even if there are some missing, that is because these are village people who are unclear about how they can properly trace [their relatives]," he said.
Most of the victims were young women from poverty-stricken rural areas who had come to Dhaka in search of work. Their relatives are ill-equipped to tackle Bangladesh's tortuous bureaucracy.
Though his daughter had completed secondary education, Mollah is illiterate and relies on his remaining children to decipher official documents.
But there are other explanations for his failure to find his daughter's body.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, technicians at Bangladesh's only DNA testing laboratory, a small facility set up and funded by the German government, were only able to take samples from half the 324 unidentified bodies buried by a local NGO at Dhaka's Jurain cemetery. Without more samples "further answers cannot be found," said Sharif Akhteruzzaman, who runs the laboratory.
There is another possibility too. In the chaos immediately after the collapse, many bodies were misidentified and handed over to the wrong families, according to Akhteruzzaman.
"When we investigated one particular claim we looked at four samples, and found three [of these four] bodies had been handed to the wrong relatives … so you can understand how far misidentification is possible," he told the Guardian.
Such continuing confusion has led to rumours that the government secretly disposed of hundreds of bodies to conceal the true toll of the collapse and limit compensation schemes. Negotiations are still continuing to establish the amount of compensation western retailers that were supplied by the factories in Rana Plaza will pay to survivors and families.
In September the global union IndustriALL called a meeting of some of the world's largest retailers in Geneva to discuss a £47.2m compensation fund for the workers injured in the disaster, and the families of those who died. Only nine brands using clothes from the factory attended. Union officials close to the talks say they are hopeful, however, that a deal will be concluded early next year.
An office has also been opened to help relatives and survivors by the Ministry of Labour in the suburb of Savar where the tragedy occurred. However, Massoum Billah, its co-ordinator, said he "had no real idea" what was being done to resolve the problem of the missing.
Mollah, the bereaved father of Pervin, said he simply hoped to return to his village, 150 miles from Dhaka, soon.
"As soon as I have sorted this out I will leave," he said. "There is nothing here for me now. Pervin went into work that day and they killed her."
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 24, 2013, 7:00 am
A Tribute to the Uncrowned Travancore King
By T.P. SREENIVASAN
If ever there was an uncrowned king who commanded more respect and reverence than any ruler, hereditary or democratic, it was Sri Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore, a princely state in British India, now part of the state of Kerala. Adulation and admiration for him were evident for many years, but the outpouring of grief in Kerala over his demise at the age of 91 on Dec. 16 was exceptional in terms of the number of mourners and the sense of loss expressed.
Mr. Varma did not rule Travancore even for a day. He remained in the shadow of his elder brother, Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, as his lieutenant and chief adviser, when the latter was the ruler during the colonial era and later the Rajpramukh, or interim governor, from 1949 to 1956. When duty beckoned the younger Mr. Varma to abandon his business in Karnataka to return to Thiruvananthapuram in 1991 as the chief servant of Lord Padmanabha, he plunged into the major transformation that the state and the family were dealing with.
Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, credited with the historic Temple Entry Proclamation, which threw open the temples to the lower castes, was undoubtedly popular and revered. His younger brother had stayed away from the palace for some years, but the blue blood in him came through fast enough to win the hearts of the public at large. The sprawling Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, with its inestimable wealth, was at his command, but he was only its main caretaker and devotee. He respected the tradition of the maharajas visiting the temple every day, not only to worship, but also to ensure that the property and the staff were taken care of.
By a combination of deep devotion to Padmanabha, vast scholarship, extreme humility and exceptional accessibility, Mr. Varma re-created himself in the image of his elder brother and captured the hearts of the people, particularly of southern Kerala.
It was a complete transformation. In the earlier years, he was haughty at times, according to his own autobiography. He was even chastised by his brother and made to apologize to an attendant, whom he had slapped in a fit of anger.
He and the members of the family were much sought after at social, cultural and religious functions, but no one, not even the leftists, accused them of any political inclination. The family members did not vote in any election, not because they had no faith in democracy, but because they wanted to remain aloof from all parties. Their deep Hindu faith and participation in Hindu rituals did not detract from the secular approach that the monarchy had adopted right from the beginning.
Mr. Varma did not shy away from public life. His philanthropy was well known, but it was not showy. A modern hospital was built in his own palace compound, with the participation of private entrepreneurs. He had the usual problems of managing the assets of the palace, given the new regulations on land ownership.
There were even moves on the part of the government to take over the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. He fought these cases with the best legal minds in the country. He remained within the law in all his battles. Some may have exploited his good nature and benefited themselves, but he generously closed his eyes to these inroads.
Mr. Varma was an engaging conversationalist, not merely anecdotal, but also scholarly, with knowledge of contemporary affairs. He asked his interlocutors of various professions and backgrounds thought-provoking questions and left them enriched with his vision and wisdom. His punctuality and brevity were legendary. His speeches were known for their pithiness and deep meaning. He was adept in coining appropriate phrases to suit any occasion to delight the audiences with his keen sense of observation and inventiveness and humor.
The range of interests of Mr. Varma was astonishing. Photography was his passion, closely followed by vintage cars and classy watches. For him, old was gold. He used to wear old shirts and suits with panache and take pride in their class. Normally clothed in the most ordinary Kerala clothes, he would dress up in Western clothes when occasion demanded. He was seen last in an impeccable suit when he travelled to Kochi to meet Prince Charles, in keeping with his natural affinity to royalty anywhere.
He lived in a modest palace, not far from the massive palace of the maharajas. The Pattom palace, as it is called because of its location, has a huge collection of art and other treasures meticulously curated by him. He enjoyed taking his guests around the palace and presenting them reproductions or photographs of the more valuable pieces. His massive collection of press clippings was recently handed over to a local library. His memoirs and photographs, published only in recent years, tell not only his own story but the story of Travancore and its transformation.
Mr. Varma’s will, composure, patience and good humor were put to the severest test when the extent of the treasures, locked up in different vaults in the sanctum sanctorum of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, came to be known as a result of legal action two years ago. With estimates of the value of the wealth put around $40 billion, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple came to be known as the richest temple in the world.
National and international attention focused on Mr. Varma, as various suggestions were made to put the wealth to good use for the state. He may have grieved over the vulnerability of the temple on account of its new fame, but he calmly maintained that the treasure belonged to the deity and none else. He said nothing in response even to the allegation that he may have been carrying the treasures away during his daily visits to the temple.
He tried through legal means to leave the treasures as they were, without evaluating and exhibiting them, but on the orders of the Supreme Court, an evaluation process began, which has not been completed. Security of the temple has been enhanced in the process, the number of visitors has increased and the fame of the temple has spread far and wide.
One of the rituals that every maharaja performed after every temple visit was to leave behind even the smallest speck of sand from his feet after worshiping Padmanabha. Finally, Mr. Varma has departed, leaving everything at the feet of his deity.
His memory will remain fresh for a long time to come in the minds of the people who met him. The dynasty continues, as his nephew, Rama Varma, takes charge of the temple and the legacy, perhaps with less grandeur, but with the humility characteristic of the family.
Mr. Sreenivasan, a former Indian diplomat, is the executive vice chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council. His views are personal and do not reflect the policy of his state.
December 26, 2013
Thai Election Body Urges Delay in Polls Amid Strife
By THOMAS FULLER
BANGKOK — After chaotic clashes between the police and antigovernment protesters in Bangkok on Thursday that left one police officer dead and dozens of people injured on both sides, the Election Commission of Thailand urged the postponement of national elections set for Feb. 2, further clouding the way forward for Thailand after a month of debilitating street protests.
A postponement would be a victory for the protesters, who oppose the elections on the grounds that they will probably return to power the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party is very popular in the northern half of the country but despised by many southerners and members of the Thai elite.
Charupong Ruangsuwan, the head of the governing party, who is also interior minister in the outgoing government, reacted angrily to the proposed postponement.
“I insist that the Election Commission has to comply with the law,” he said in televised remarks. “The Election Commission has a duty to carry out the whole process.”
Over the past month, protesters have raided government ministries, cut power to government offices and police stations and marched through Bangkok in huge numbers. On Thursday, they attempted to raid the Bangkok stadium where political parties were completing pre-election formalities.
Their attempts to seize the stadium were thwarted by riot police officers. One officer was killed by gunfire and 24 others were wounded, including 10 in critical condition, the police said. In addition, several dozen protesters were injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.
Election Commission officials were evacuated from the site by helicopter.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher in Thailand at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter that democracy in Thailand had been “hijacked by violence and thuggery.”
“Shame!” he wrote.
In comments to reporters Thursday, the head of the Election Commission, Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, said he had urged the government to postpone elections. But he also said the elections would not take place on Feb. 2 unless protesters reached an accommodation with the government.
“If there’s no understanding or agreement in our society, the election on Feb. 2 is not going to happen,” he said.
Thailand is politically divided between its north and south and between allies and detractors of the Shinawatra clan, the country’s most influential political family.
The political crisis appears to have contributed to a drop in the baht, the Thai currency, and has been blamed for a decline in the stock market. Although the protests have on most days been confined to a limited area of Bangkok, hoteliers say the crisis has also caused cancellations during what is traditionally Thailand’s peak tourism season.
The protesters are closely allied with Thailand’s Democrat Party, the oldest political party in the country, which has struggled over the past decade to compete with the popularity of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who is Ms. Yingluck’s older brother.
The Democrats announced last weekend that they would boycott the Feb. 2 elections. Every other major party in the country has said it will participate.
The crisis has confounded many observers because the protesters — who on some days have numbered in the hundreds of thousands in Bangkok — are marching against elections.
Chuwit Kamolvisit, the leader of a small opposition party, Rak Prathetthai, decried what he called a “bloody election.”
“I don’t know why elections, which are accepted as international standards of democratic systems, are heavily opposed like this,” he said in a Facebook posting Thursday. The government and the protesters differ over whether they want reforms before or after elections, he said. But “at the end of the day it will come down to elections.”
Ichal Supriadi, the executive director of the Asian Network for Free Elections, an organization that observes and monitors elections, said people in other countries had opposed elections, sometimes on security grounds, but this was the first time he had witnessed such a mass movement against elections.
Mr. Ichal issued a statement on Tuesday lauding the “unique role that elections hold in a democracy” and urging protesters to allow the voting to proceed.
“All efforts and plans to forcibly impede the election process should cease,” the organization, known as Anfrel, said in the statement.
Mr. Ichal, who is from Indonesia, said Thailand had “shown a degree of professionalism” in conducting elections in the past.
The governing party, Pheu Thai, won a landslide in the last election in 2011 with a turnout of 75 percent. The Democrats conceded defeat.
“We are not taking sides but we believe that elections are the only mechanism to count every individual in Thailand,” Mr. Ichal said in an interview.
Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting.
Japan's Shinzo Abe risks tension with neighbours by visiting war dead shrine
China protests after prime minister visits the controversial Yasukuni shrine in reversal of his policy during first term of office
Justin McCurry, in Tokyo
theguardian.com, Thursday 26 December 2013 06.22 GMT
Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has made a visit to a controversial war shrine in Tokyo, prompting a furious response from China.
Abe, who became prime minister for a second time exactly a year ago, is the first Japanese leader to have visited the Yasukuni shrine since Junichiro Koizumi just over seven years ago.
Abe, a conservative who has spoken of the need for Japan to end its “masochistic” feelings of guilt over its wartime conduct in Asia, had voiced regret that he did not make the pilgrimage during his first, year-long term as prime minister from September 2006.
Thursday's visit sparked predictable outrage from China and South Korea, which view Yasukuni as a potent symbol of Japanese militarism, and visits by politicians as evidence that Japan has yet to atone for
atrocities committed in parts of China and on the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.
"The Chinese government expresses strong indignation at the Japanese leader's trampling on the feelings of the people of China and the other war victim nations, and the open challenge to historical justice ... and expresses strong protest and serious condemnation to Japan," China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Qin Gang, a foreign ministry spokesman, added: "We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader's acts. The essence of Japanese leaders' visits to Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan's history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule."
South Korea said the visit was a deplorable and anachronistic act that damaged ties between the two countries, Reuters reported.
"We cannot withhold regret and anger over the visit," said the minister of culture, sports and tourism, Yoo Jin-ryong. The visit was an anachronistic act, he said.
Yasukuni honours about 2.5 million Japanese who have died in wars since the late 19th century, including several wartime leaders convicted as class-A war criminals by the Allied tribunal.
Abe insisted he had “no intention” of hurting the feelings of the Chinese or South Korean people.
"There is criticism based on the misconception that this is an act to worship war criminals, but I visited Yasukuni shrine to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war," he told reporters.
“I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace. Unfortunately, a Yasukuni visit has largely turned into a political and diplomatic issue. I have no intention to neglect the feelings of the people in China and South Korea."
In a statement issued later, Abe added: "It is my wish to respect each other's character, protect freedom and democracy and build friendship with China and [South] Korea with respect, as did all the previous prime ministers who visited Yasukuni shrine.”
Abe’s visit is expected to inflict more damage on Japan’s ties with its neighbours. Japan is embroiled in a long-running standoff with China over a group of islands in a strategically important area of the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, and with South Korea over sovereignty of the Takeshima islands, known as Dokdo by South Koreans.
Abe also angered Beijing and Seoul earlier this year when he questioned the commonly held view that Japan waged a war of aggression on mainland Asia. Japan’s neighbours are also nervous about his recent plans to bolster Japan’s military and his quest to revise the country’s pacifist constitution to allow the armed forces to play a more active role overseas.
Some analysts believe Abe’s visit to Yasukuni will have annoyed the US, which is eager to see an improvement in relations between Japan and its neighbours.
"[Abe] probably thinks that it's OK, that's he's relatively popular and it's a matter of conviction," said Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. But everyone knew with Koizumi ... he wasn't a revisionist nationalist. But with Abe, that is precisely the question some people were asking. Now we know the answer."
China ‘seriously condemns’ Japanese PM’s war shrine visit
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 25, 2013 23:07 EST
China strongly condemned Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the flashpoint Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo Thursday, saying it glorified Japan’s “history of militaristic aggression”.
“We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader’s acts,” Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement immediately after Abe’s visit to the shrine.
Yasukuni is believed to be the repository of around 2.5 million souls of Japan’s war dead, most of them common soldiers but also including several high-level officials executed for war crimes after World War II, who were enshrined in the 1970s.
“The essence of Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan’s history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule,” Qin said.
“It is an attempt to overturn international society’s just ruling on Japan’s militarism and to challenge the results of World War II and the post-war international order,” he added.
The statement came after a Chinese foreign ministry official condemned Abe’s visit as “absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people”.
Japan “must bear the consequences arising from this”, Luo Zhaohui, director-general of the ministry’s department of Asian affairs, said in a statement posted on a verified ministry microblog.
He added that the visit, the first by an incumbent Japanese prime minister since 2006, “causes great harm to the feelings of the Asian people and creates a significant new political obstacle to bilateral relations”.
China’s ruling Communist Party seeks to bolster its public support by tapping into deep-seated resentment of Japan for its brutal invasion of the country in the 1930s.
Before and during World War II Japanese forces swept through much of east Asia, where their treatment of both civilian populations in occupied areas and prisoners of war was appalling, with many massacres recorded.
Beijing estimates that 20.6 million people died in China as a result of the conflict.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
China's relaxation of one-child policy to begin rolling out early next year
Most radical relaxation of strict one-child policy for nearly 30 years is expected to come into force in first quarter of 2014
Reuters in Beijing
theguardian.com, Tuesday 24 December 2013 11.34 GMT
Changes to China's strict one-child policy that will allow more parents to have a second child will begin to roll out early next year, according to state media.
The policy change is expected to go into force in some areas of China in the first quarter of 2014, Yang Wenzhuang, a director at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told the official Xinhua news agency.
Beijing said last month it would allow millions of families to have two children, the most radical relaxation of its strict one-child policy in nearly three decades. The move is part of a plan to raise fertility rates and ease the financial burden on China's rapidly ageing population.
Authorities were in the process of calculating the number of eligible couples, Yang said.
China's largely rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, is expected to formally approve the new policy later this week.
The policy move has buoyed baby-related stocks and has seen a rush for fertility-boosting products.
China would eventually scrap family planning restrictions, but was unlikely to abandon its family planning policy in the near term, a senior official said last month.
Xinhua cited members of parliament debating the easing of the rules on Tuesday as saying that it was important the country continued to enforce family planning and that people who violate the rules were punished.
"China still has a large population. This has not changed. Many of our economic and social problems are rooted in this reality," Xinhua quoted member of parliament Jiang Fan as saying. "We could not risk letting the population grow out of control."
China, with nearly 1.4 billion people, is the world's most populous country. The government says the policy of limiting families to one child, which covers 63% of the population, has averted 400 million births since 1980.