John Kerry hopeful of framework Israeli-Palestinian accord in weeks
• 'I believe in the possibility … I don't think we're being quixotic'
• Deal to address borders, security, refugees and settlements
Reuters in Munich
theguardian.com, Saturday 1 February 2014 14.44 GMT
John Kerry in Munich The US secretary of state, John Kerry, struck an upbeat tone at the annual Munich Security Conference on Saturday. Photograph: Stringer/Germany/Reuters
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said on Saturday that he remains hopeful the Obama administration's effort to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians can succeed.
The US hopes to complete a "framework" accord in coming weeks and will then try to negotiate a final peace deal by the end of 2014, a US official said this week, according to a participant in a briefing with American Jewish leaders.
"I am hopeful and we will keep working on it," Kerry, who despite widespread scepticism is leading the US effort to push the two sides toward a deal, said during remarks at the Munich security conference.
"I believe in the possibility or I wouldn't pursue this. I don't think we're being quixotic … We're working hard because the consequences of failure are unacceptable."
The US envoy Martin Indyk said the framework would address core issues in the conflict, including borders, security, refugees and Jewish settlements, a participant in the briefing said.
The coalition of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, which includes pro-settler parties, has already shown signs of strain over talks on Palestinian statehood.
South Sudan Rebels: Government Retakes Machar's Hometown
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 February 2014, 12:57
South Sudan government forces have recaptured Leer, the hometown of nominal rebel leader Riek Machar in the northern oil-producing state of Unity, a spokesman for the rebels said on Sunday.
Government soldiers and allied militia "advanced on Leer town on February 1, 2014 destroying everything on their path. (President Salva) Kiir's forces burned down the whole of Leer town and the entire surrounding villages," a statement from rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said.
There was no independent confirmation that Leer had changed hands.
But medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF, Medecins sans Frontieres) reported on Friday that a team of its local health workers had taken "several dozen of the most seriously ill patients from Leer hospital with them into the bush, fearing for their safety.”
"Other patients who were well enough to leave of their own accord also fled, and there are no longer any patients or staff left at Leer hospital," MSF said.
Koang accused the government troops of having hunted down and killed women and children and elderly people who had gone to hide in nearby bushes and swampy areas.
"The latest destruction of Leer town...has no strategic, operational or tactical importance," the spokesman said, accusing Kiir of having merely derived "satisfaction" from destroying Machar's home town.
Since the South Sudan conflict started in mid-December both sides have traded accusations of abuses, with the United Nations and rights groups reporting that both sides have committed atrocities.
Thousands have been killed in the conflict and over 700,000 people have fled their homes in seven weeks of violence.
A ceasefire has theoretically been in place for almost 10 days but multiple violations have been reported.
Surrendered Central African Rebels Flee
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 February 2014, 12:43
Around 200 rebel fighters in the Central African Republic who surrendered to African Union troops at the weekend in the key town of Sibut fled overnight, a military source said on Sunday.
"Unfortunately they fled in the night. They've gone to Kaga Bandoro," an officer in the African Union force (MISCA) told Agence France Presse.
Kaga Bandoro is some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Sibut, the town which had been held for several days by former members of the mainly Muslim Seleka rebellion -- causing terrified residents to flee -- before it was recaptured by MISCA troops on Saturday.
It is thought the rebels fled because of fear of revenge attacks by members of the anti-balaka Christian militia. They had initially agreed to be held by peacekeepers.
According to Colonel Abdelkader Djelani, a Seleka officer who was part of the group which fled Sibut, the rebels were concerned about the lack of security around them.
"We want solutions and really secure camps. In Bangui, Seleka confined to camps... (were) attacked by anti-balaka."
He added that the former Seleka rebels were "ready to disarm" depending on the conditions.
Some of the residents of the town were cautiously thinking of returning home after news that African Union soldiers were now in control.
One resident, Innocent, said however there were still fears among the general population because the "Seleka were very violent with us".
A Gabonese contingent from MISCA entered the town on Saturday.
The taking of the northern town was the latest challenge faced by peacekeepers struggling to maintain order in a country the size of France with a long history of coups, attempted coups and army mutinies.
MISCA is supported by a French contingent of around 1,600 troops, and the European Union has committed a further 500 troops.
However, the interior of the country is a lawless zone ruled by warlords, with few or no foreign troops present, and newly elected transitional President Catherine Samba Panza has said more troops are needed.
The capture of Sibut came on the same day that the peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic received pledges of $132 million from other African states.
"We will be judged and measured by our efforts to protect the people of the Central African Republic," U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliassonhe said.
"We must not let them down... we must not fail to prevent another huge tragedy in Africa."
AU officials said a total of $410 million (304 million euros) is required just to keep MISCA going for one year.
A total of almost $315 million has now been raised or pledged for Central African Republic.
The Central African Republic descended into chaos 10 months ago when the Seleka overthrew the government and installed one of their leaders, Michel Djotodia, as the country's first Muslim president.
Djotodia failed to control his Seleka fighters, who began targeting people from the Christian majority, prompting the emergence of self-defense groups that launched revenge attacks on Muslims amid reports of murder, mutilation, rape and looting by both sides.
By the time Djotodia was effectively ousted by regional leaders on January 10 for his failure to end the spiraling bloodshed, about a million people were displaced in a population of 4.6 million.
The installation of a new government has failed to stem the violence, which has escalated in recent days.
Red Cross officials said they had collected 30 bodies in the past three days after fighting in the capital Bangui that also left 60 people wounded.
Samba Panza on Friday criticized the rebels' latest actions, saying they aimed to "destabilize her mandate" at a time when the government was calling for tolerance and national reconciliation.
Around 80 percent of the CAR's population is Christian, but it has a significant Muslim minority who live mainly in the north of the country.
The violence has created a humanitarian crisis, and the U.N. World Food Program said in Geneva it urgently needed $95 million to provide food assistance.
U.N. Delegation Eyes Mali Peacekeeping Challenge Up Close
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 February 2014, 07:42
A year after French troops sent Islamic militants scattering in Mali, a U.N. Security Council delegation is in the African country to weigh the challenges faced by the undermanned, African-led peacekeeping mission there.
Gerard Araud, France's top representative on the Security Council and the head of the delegation, told reporters after arrival late Saturday in the capital Bamako that the delegation was to visit through to Monday, "with the aim of backing stabilization in the country and action".
He did not say who else was in the delegation. However, the U.S. representative on the Security Council, Samantha Power, said on her twitter feed she was also part of it.
Power tweeted that the delegation wanted to "help support the (Malian) people as they stand up to extremists and pursue democracy.”
The U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) took up northern Mali patrolling duties in July last year.
But the U.N. force is operating at half the strength recommended under its U.N. mandate -- just 5,539 soldiers out of the 11,200 authorized.
The French troops, which had pushed the al-Qaida-linked militants out of the towns early last year, were keeping up targeted counter-terrorism operations in the region against residual groups of insurgents.
Araud said the U.N. peacekeepers "are deployed in very difficult conditions in northern Mali, and we want to have all the necessary information.”
He said the delegation backed dialogue in Mali between the government and opposing groups to find a "durable solution" to the unrest.
On Sunday, the delegation was to visit the central town on Mopti, and hold talks in Bamako with representatives from armed groups in the north and the government.
Washington denies pressing for direct talks with Syrian government
• State Department says US offered discussions 'on a staff level'
• Syrian foreign minister claimed to have rebuffed American offer
Reuters in Washington and Beirut
theguardian.com, Saturday 1 February 2014 21.11 GMT
Walid al-Moualem The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, centre, leads his country's delegation at peace talks in Geneva last week. Photograph: Imago/Barcroft Media
Washington on Saturday denied claims by Syria's foreign minister that US diplomats had sought to negotiate directly with their Syrian counterparts at last week's “Geneva II” peace conference in Switzerland.
The State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said the US had offered to connect with Syrian officials "on a staff level" through the United Nations and joint special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi.
"At no point did the United States offer to negotiate directly with the Syrian regime," she said, adding that the US had made similar offers throughout the conflict.
Psaki was responding to a query from Reuters after the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, said the Americans had requested direct negotiations in Montreux, the Swiss city where talks began on 22 January, before moving to Geneva.
"We refused to do so before Secretary of State John Kerry apologises for what he said at the conference," Moualem told reporters aboard the Syrian government delegation's flight back to Damascus.
In the comments, which were published by Syria's national news agency, Moualem did not specify what Kerry had said. But Psaki said such a gesture would not happen.
"At no point will Secretary Kerry ever apologise for speaking the truth about the brutality the Assad regime has inflicted on the people of Syria," she said.
A week-long first round of talks began with uncompromising speeches, by Kerry and Moualem among others, and repeatedly seemed on the verge of collapse before the two sides even entered the same room. The conference adjourned on Friday with no progress towards ending the civil war and the government unable to say whether it will return for the next round of negotiations, beginning on 10 February.
The comments came the same day as Kerry and the defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, attended an international security conference in Munich.
Peso panic and rocketing prices shake the throne of Argentina's Queen Cristina
Argentina's president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her ministers blame foreign 'vultures' for an economic meltdown as power cuts hit Buenos Aires and goods vanish from supermarket shelves
Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires
The Observer, Saturday 1 February 2014 15.52 GMT
Even in normal years, the summer heat in Buenos Aires is overwhelming. Among a population of nearly 13 million packed into the long shore of the wide River Plate, the phrase most often heard from the lips of porteños is: "It's the humidity that kills you."
For those who can't afford to escape to the exclusive summer resort of Punta del Este, across the river in Uruguay, or make the longer trip to the golden beaches of Brazil, there is only one solution: air conditioning. But a combination of global warming and an abrupt economic collapse scuppered even that consolation for shopper Graciela Fernández last week. When the temperature insisted on staying at around 40C and humidity levels rose to a drenching 90%, Fernández rushed to buy an air-conditioning unit she had seen on sale a week before.
"When I went to buy it, the price had gone up 25% since when I checked prices last week," she complained outside the Alto Palermo shopping mall. "The same thing just happened to me at the pharmacy where I went to buy the medicine my husband takes: the price was up 20%."
The economic panic leading to price mark-ups of this kind began in mid-January, when Argentina's central bank reserves dipped below $30bn, forcing the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to drop its policy of injecting large quantities of dollars into the exchange market to shore up the overvalued peso.
The sudden dollar scarcity on Argentina's exchange market sent the peso's official value crashing to eight pesos to the dollar, while the "blue" illegal rate shot up to nearly 13 pesos. Retailers immediately marked up their prices to reflect the new reality. In some cases, items were pulled en masse from the shelves, as retailers pondered how much to mark up their goods.
But the government has been quicker at naming culprits than finding solutions. Every morning around 8am, the stern-faced cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich stands behind a podium at the Casa Rosada presidential palace for a televised verbal blast at the perceived enemies of the "victorious decade" presided over by the current president and her husband, the late Nestor Kirchner. Without naming them, Capitanich lashes out against the "visible and invisible" politicians, labour representatives, businessmen and journalists he blames for the sudden collapse of the peso and the explosive price increases that followed the forced devaluation.
Argentina's economic earthquake has placed a huge question mark over the political future of the stateswoman so powerful she is referred to as Queen Cristina by both the opposition press and her supporters. In the past week, Capitanich has attempted to pin the price lurch on faceless foreign speculators, whom he accuses of a "strategy of domination" to gain control of Argentina's oil and freshwater reserves, pandering to the widespread belief here, often underlined by the president in her speeches, that "vultures" of the leading industrial countries harbour secret plans to siphon off natural reserves from this resource-rich South American nation.
Capitanich has also blamed "anti-patriotic" farmers and large retailers, allegedly in league with independent, corruption-probing journalists, of fuelling price rises by "generating psychological action of permanent destabilisation" against Fernández de Kirchner.
But critics of the government point to inept administration and populist spending by a government that considers itself to be leading a revolution against Argentina's erstwhile oligarchy.
"I think it's game over for them," said outspoken writer Jorge Asís, whose blog charts alleged corruption among "Kirchnerista" officials. "They're a group of people busy staring at themselves in the mirror while believing they are carrying out a revolution and spreading blame around."
Vitriolic criticism of that kind rankles with the president, who last year pushed through a media reform law that is forcing Argentina's largest newspaper, Clarín, to sell off parts of its cable, internet and television empire and prohibiting supermarkets and electronic goods retailers from placing ads in the paper, which cuts off one of the title's primary sources of income. Clarín claims its forced downsizing is retribution for its reporting of corruption, including investigations into the alleged behaviour of Capitanich himself.
With approval ratings that for a long time hovered around 70%, Fernández de Kirchner was once impervious to such venom, but the peso crash, abrupt price increases and the suddenly bare supermarket shelves as retailers pull products from sale, have sent that approval rating falling to only 27%, according to a January poll.
At the core of the sudden disenchantment with Queen Cristina is rising anger not only at the inflationary spiral, but at widespread, long-lasting power cuts during the record summer highs that left thousands of people in Buenos Aires without air conditioning and running water.
While the government claims the 2013 inflation rate was below 11%, private estimates place it at closer to 30%, and even that pales compared with the sudden leap in prices propelled by January's peso crash.
For the president, the economic debacle couldn't have come at a worse time. In October, she had to withdraw from the public eye after surgery to remove a blood clot in her brain, apparently caused by her hitting her head while leaving the presidential jet. Her absence left the government in disarray. Although in recent weeks she has reappeared in public, she seems to have delegated control to Capitanich and young economy minister Axel Kicillof, who is said to have been behind the decision to devalue the peso.
Bolstered by her re-election in 2011, when she won 55% of the vote, she still holds a comfortable majority in Congress, with a wide majority of provincial governors and city mayors still under her sway. Having succeeded her husband, who won the presidency in 2003 and presided over spectacular economic growth during his four years in office, she commanded adoring popular support across a wide spectrum of Argentinians, all of whom benefited economically over the past 10 years.
Until the end of last year, Fernández de Kirchner had felt so confident that, despite accelerating inflation and revelations of alleged corruption among her top officials, she organised a spectacular festival in December to celebrate 10 years of Kirchner rule. During the festivities, which included an open-air concert in front of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, the president, seemingly oblivious to the rising tide of discontent, danced on stage to the music of some of Argentina's most famous artists.
"She's more powerful than Perón ever was," former Peronist interior minister Carlos Corach once said, referring to the three-time president, Juan Perón, who founded the Peronist party to which Fernández de Kirchner belongs.
Peronists rallied around her after her 2011 victory and even made plans for an "Eternal Cristina", seeking to modify the constitution to allow her to stand for a third term from 2015. But that dream of an eternity in office seems to be fading fast for Queen Cristina. And temperatures continue to rise in Buenos Aires.
Stunned by Tragedy, a Village in Rural Quebec Turns Inward
By IAN AUSTEN
FEB. 1, 2014
L’ISLE-VERTE, Quebec — In the wintry days since a fire swept through the retirement home in this quaint, rambling village along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, L’Isle-Verte has been overrun by police officers, firefighters, coroners and anthropologists, painstakingly chipping away at the layers of ice encasing the building and digging through the charred ruins.
When they finish, the death toll of the Jan. 23 fire at the home, Résidence du Havre, is expected to reach 32.
Nearly everyone in this town of 1,425 people has been affected in some way: the families of those who died; the police officers who arrived in the early morning hours and crawled down hallways to avoid smoke, dragging elderly residents out on their backs; the firefighters who doused the blaze with water, the spray instantly freezing in the minus-8-degree cold, entombing the bodies in more than two feet of ice.
For the province of Quebec, the tragedy evoked a particularly horrible sense of déjà vu. It came nearly seven months after a runaway oil train exploded into a fireball in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people in a town of 6,000 some 245 miles away.
The inferno tore through a popular bar on a Friday night, stealing much of Lac-Mégantic’s youth. In L’Isle-Verte, the fire took the town’s grandparents and great-grandparents. Its victims range in age from Marie-Lauréat Dubé, 82, to a resident whose body has yet to be found, age 99. Any hope that the missing will be found alive has long since passed.
Many of the police officers and recovery workers still battling the ferocious wind and biting cold to find traces of the victims in L’Isle-Verte performed the same role in Lac-Mégantic’s summer heat.
“Lac-Mégantic was my very first case like that, and I thought that it would be the last,” said Lt. Michel Brunet, chief communications officer who has served with the Sûreté du Quebec police for 37 years. “Now, seven months later, I’m here again.”
Before the fire, L’Isle-Verte was known mainly as a place tourists drive past on their way to the Gaspé Peninsula. Some stop for whale watching. Wide, deep and tidal, the St. Lawrence is more ocean than river at this point.
But like many of the towns and villages along its shoreline in the Bas St. Laurent region, northeast of Quebec City, L’Isle-Verte is richer in history and natural beauty than economic opportunity. Aside from tourism, a largely summer phenomenon, the region depends heavily on farming, forestry and arcane trades including eel fishing. More than a decade of depopulation has left the area with a median age of 48 compared with 42 for the province.
Cold, wind and distance — L’Isle-Verte is 120 miles from Quebec City — tend to keep outsiders away.
The wind now frustrating the recovery effort also gave the Résidence du Havre fire its unusually deadly and swift intensity. Soon after the fire started, about 12:30 a.m., the three-story frame building was ablaze. Neighbors told reporters they heard cries for rescue from residents trapped by flames. Some victims, police and coroners believe, jumped to their deaths.
Little remains of the portion of the home that was engulfed by the fire. Inside the recovery zone, the skeleton of its entrance is still recognizable, but it leads to a charred pit mixed in with the remains of tiled floors. A blackened walker, charred medical notes and the steel frames of chairs and beds testify to the life that existed here.
The villagers, unaccustomed to being the focus of attention and never partial to sharing with outsiders, have largely kept their grief to themselves.
At a news conference for local reporters in the back of a motel banquet room on Monday, Mayor Ursule Thériault was blunt. “L’Isle-Verte would be better without journalists,” she said. Another municipal official urged residents not to answer their doors for journalists or, better still, to leave town until the last of the television network satellite trucks have driven away.
The brushoff is generally polite but firm. When two outsiders walked into the village’s four-lane bowling alley, where about a dozen bowlers were playing, the manager spoke first.
No photos, no interviews, he said. “This is a place for people to relax and forget,” he said. On the wall next to ads for tractor dealers and plumbers was a prominent poster for Résidence du Havre.
The stunned reticence here contrasted sharply with angry volubility in Lac-Mégantic. There the cause was clear: a speeding train on a rundown railway, whose unrepentant owner provided a target for blame that residents were eager to share with the world.
The situation in L’Isle-Verte is murkier. The police are investigating several possible causes but have no clear case for any of them.
Not long after the fire, news outlets reported that a cigarette smoked indoors by a 96-year-old resident had started the blaze. The police later called that report premature and inaccurate, but some residents were outraged by the insinuation that one of the fire’s victims was its cause. Since then, hardly anyone has spoken to the news media.
Despite the exceptional tragedy, there has been little criticism of the home’s owners. The burned-out portion of the 1997 building did not have sprinklers, which are not required under Quebec law. In a stark illustration of their value, an addition to the home built in 2002, equipped with sprinklers, remains standing, its occupants alive.
Before they stopped speaking publicly, many villagers praised the home’s operation and said they were grateful that it allowed them to keep elderly family members nearby.
Last Sunday, the home’s co-owner, Roch Bernier, offered a tribute to the dead in the village’s large, silver-steepled church. He was roundly applauded.
Lieutenant Brunet, who was stationed in Bas St. Laurent for three years early in his career, said the locals had always kept to themselves, reluctant even to speak with police officers looking into crimes where they were victims. The villagers’ recovery from this disaster, he said, will come from within themselves.
“They’re very close to each other,” he said. “They have real solidarity.”
On Saturday, hundreds of mourners and dignitaries gathered in a Roman Catholic church for a nationally televised memorial mass. Framed photographs of the victims hung on a white pegboard. Relatives placed mementos — a shawl, a hat — on an empty white rocker.
“We all have, or have had, parents, grandparents who become elderly and are terribly vulnerable,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said afterward, outside the church. “And when we see something like this, I think it just breaks the heart of everybody.”
The recovery efforts have been delicate and slow. As was the case in Lac-Mégantic, they have been led by Lt. Jean-François Brochu.
“The biggest difference here is 70 degrees,” he said just a few feet from a team using small hatchets to chip ice from the ruins. “There, in Mégantic, it was 35 Celsius; here with the wind it’s minus 35.”
In Fahrenheit, that was a difference of 126 degrees: 95 in Mégantic and minus 31 here.
To protect themselves from the cold, the recovery team has erected an incongruously festive-looking red-and-white striped tent over the ruins. A white plastic wall surrounds the site to thwart journalists and gawkers.
Inside, generators and machinery whir and pound like a small factory, the only sounds that overpower the howl of the wind. A machine normally used to melt ice off ships sends columns of steam pouring over the plastic wall.
An anthropologist from Toronto, wearing blue coveralls and kneepads, had helped identify remains at the World Trade Center as well as at Lac-Mégantic.
For Lieutenant Brochu, who was also sent to Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010, L’Isle-Verte will be his last disaster investigation. “When this is over,” he said, “I’m retiring.”
They keep going, said Andrée Kronstrom, the coroner at both disasters, for the families, who are looking for the certainty of the remains of their loved ones.
“One man told me: ‘Each morning I go near the place because my mother is still there,’ ” she said.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Iran and US meet again to discuss nuclear agreement
John Kerry tells Tehran's foreign minster to remember pledges over uranium enrichment, at security summit in Germany
Agencies in Munich
theguardian.com, Sunday 2 February 2014 11.53 GMT
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has met Iran's foreign minister on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany, pressing Tehran to abide by its commitments over its nuclear programme.
Kerry's meeting with Javad Zarif on Sunday came after Iran agreed in November to halt its most sensitive uranium enrichment activities in return for an easing of western sanctions.
Implemented in January, the agreement will be in effect for six months while further negotiations are held aimed at reaching a permanent accord eliminating concerns that Tehran might build nuclear weapons. Iran denies such aims but says it is ready to reach a deal in exchange for full sanctions relief.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said after meeting Zarif on Friday that Iran had agreed to a new round of negotiations in Vienna with the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany.
Kerry made clear that the US would continue to enforce remaining sanctions, according to a statement from the US state department. There was no immediate comment from Iran on the talks.
Under the six-month deal, Iran has agreed to halt its 20% enrichment programme, which produces uranium just steps away from military grade, but will continue enrichment up to 5%. It also will convert half of its stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium to oxide, and dilute the remaining half to 5%.
In return, the US and the EU simultaneously announced the lifting of sanctions on petrochemical products, insurance, gold and other precious metals, passenger plane parts and services. They also plan to release $4.2bn (£2.6bn) in Iranian assets of oil revenues blocked overseas, in eight instalments over six months.
Kerry and Zarif have met several times since Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, was elected last June, leading to a thaw in ties with the west after years of confrontation and hostile rhetoric.
Ashton, who co-ordinates the nuclear talks with Iran on behalf of the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, welcomed the meeting between Kerry and Zarif.
"It is incredibly important that as the international community now looks to build towards the comprehensive talks, that the dialogue is taking place and that we're working out how to develop a comprehensive approach to this," she told reporters in Munich.
Kerry and Hagel Defend U.S. Engagement Abroad in Face of Criticism
By STEVEN ERLANGER and THOM SHANKER
FEB. 1, 2014
MUNICH — The American secretaries of state and defense on Saturday presented an emotional defense of the Obama administration’s engagement in international crises in the face of widespread European and Middle Eastern criticism that the United States was retreating from a leadership role.
Speaking here at the Munich Security Conference, the most important trans-Atlantic security gathering, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed some exasperation with the criticism, rejecting “this narrative which frankly has been pushed by some people who have an interest in trying to suggest that the U.S. is somehow on a different track.” He went through a litany of American involvement in places like Afghanistan, Libya and the Middle East, saying, “I can’t think of a place in the world where we’re retreating.”
But at the same time, Mr. Kerry did not mention the American “pivot to Asia” that has been the source of European concern for several years. Nor did he, at least in prepared remarks and a brief question-and-answer session, have much to say about the turmoil in Ukraine, which Washington is seen to have largely left in the hands of the European Union.
Mr. Kerry spoke of Ukraine’s importance, saying, “Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,” and he offered general support for the aspirations of Ukrainians to choose their future, saying that “the United States and the E.U. stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight” against coercion.
Mr. Kerry and his top aides met separately on Saturday with the opposition figures Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko and Petro Poroshenko. European officials who also met with the Ukrainians said that Mr. Yatsenyuk, who had turned down an offer to become prime minister, said he might consider the job if he could be given real power. He is concerned that given the near bankruptcy of Ukraine, he would be blamed for the consequences.
The officials said that European and American officials were beginning to discuss a possible financial package for Ukraine, to give any new government time to pass the difficult legislation required to qualify for a large, delayed loan from the International Monetary Fund.
“These discussions are just at the beginning,” one European official said. As for President Viktor F. Yanukovych, “he’s still playing for time,” the official said. The president is focused on winning another term in 2015 and fears for his personal safety if he leaves office, the official said.
Later on Saturday, Mr. Klitschko was on a panel with Ukraine’s foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, and both defended their stated positions, although with some drama as Mr. Klitschko passed around an album depicting what he said were police brutalities, and Mr. Kozhara urged the opposition to take responsibility for controlling extremists.
Mr. Kerry urged the Ukrainian government to release prisoners, protect democratic rights and “form a technical government that can address Ukraine’s economic problems and meet the European aspirations of its people.”
Earlier, Mr. Kerry repeated Washington’s admonitions to Russia not to interfere in Ukraine, which Moscow has been doing from the start of the crisis. American and European officials here, speaking privately, said they were concerned that after the completion of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this month, President Vladimir V. Putin might feel freer to act more openly in Ukraine to restore order there — through the use of riot police officers working alongside the Ukrainians, for instance, possibly in Ukrainian uniforms.
“Russia and other countries should not view the European integration of their neighbors as a zero-sum game,” Mr. Kerry said. “The lesson of the last half-century is that we can accomplish much more when the United States, Russia and Europe work together.”
He also gave a passionate defense of his deep involvement in the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace, rejecting remarks by Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, who characterized Mr. Kerry’s efforts as “an obsession.” The status quo will not hold, Mr. Kerry said. “We’re working hard, because the consequences of failure are inconceivable.”
“We all have a powerful, powerful interest in resolving this conflict,” Mr. Kerry said. “We think it can be a game changer for the region.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, sitting alongside Mr. Kerry, sought to reassure Europeans that the United States was not abandoning the Continent as it rebalanced its interests — diplomatic, military and economic — to Asia after more than a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his words were careful.
With the United States “moving off a 13-year war footing, it is clear to us, as well as President Obama, that our future requires a renewed and enhanced era of partnership with our friends and allies, especially here in Europe,” Mr. Hagel said.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has continuously adjusted its defense posture to new strategic realities around the world,” he said. “As our force structure draws down following the end of our longest war, there will be — there must be — adjustments in our posture to meet new challenges.”
He cited his recent visit to Poland, where land-based interceptors for a European missile-defense system are to be put in place by 2018. In addition, four American missile-defense warships will be based in Spain, for service in the Mediterranean Sea — the first is en route now, he said.
But the overall statistics tell a troubling story to Europeans who believe America’s commitment can be measured, at least in part, by numbers. American military forces in Europe are down 70 percent since the end of the Cold War, and the Defense Department has closed almost 80 percent of its installations on the Continent in the same time period, according to American military officials.
Mr. Hagel also offered a clear-eyed, if grudging, acceptance of limits imposed by shrinking military budgets across NATO nations. Unlike Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary who lectured NATO nations to spend more or risk undermining the alliance, Mr. Hagel said the challenge now was to spend more wisely on national security at a time when allied militaries would be getting less money. “Gates may have said it a bit differently,” Mr. Hagel said, but he added that he had similar concerns about a renewed commitment to shared responsibility.
“In the face of budget constraints here on the Continent, as well as in the U.S., we must all invest more strategically to protect military capability and readiness,” he said. “The question is not just how much we spend, but how we spend — together. It’s not just burdens we share, but opportunities, as well.”
Democrats scramble to retain Senate majority in 2014 midterms
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 31, 2014 22:22 EST
With Republicans expected to retain control of the US House in 2014, strategists warn Democrats must scramble to preserve their Senate majority — or risk a miserable finale to Barack Obama’s presidency.
An incumbent American president’s party historically fairs poorly at the ballot box in the middle of his second term, and there is increasing recognition that Obama’s Democrats may suffer such a fate in November.
Obama’s approval ratings are lousy, his health care reform law is even less popular, and mid-term election demographics, largely dominated by elderly and white voters, favor Republicans.
“I think it’s difficult to win back the House,” respected Democratic pollster David Beattie told AFP, acknowledging that cutting into the Republicans’ 17-seat advantage will be a steep climb.
“Even staying even would be bucking historical trends.”
That acknowledgement could fuel the cold-hearted calculation prevalent among some major Democratic donors and strategists to shift attention to protecting what they have in the Senate rather than going for broke in the other chamber.
“The legitimate part of it is to send a signal to party contributors that it’s essential for Democrats to save the Senate,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor who has tracked congressional races for years.
“President Obama’s last two years will be pure hell if he has neither house.”
Clearly, some Democratic contributors are supporting specific House candidates or incumbents, but political operatives appear to be getting their message through to deep-pocketed donors that an all-in approach to hold the Senate will be necessary.
“Democratic donors such as myself are likely — I would say certain — to increasingly shift their attention and resources to Senate races,” Tin House magazine publisher Win McCormack told Politico.
In 2012, McCormack gave $125,000 to a liberal political action committee dedicated to defeating conservative House Republicans, according to Politico. Not this year.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised an impressive $75.8 million in 2013, $15 million more than its Republican counterpart.
Still, “House Democrats don’t think they’re going to be wielding the gavel” next year, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Greg Walden told reporters.
He cited the announced retirement Thursday of House veteran Henry Waxman, who could have secured a powerful committee chairmanship if his party regained the majority.
“I would much rather be us than them, even with their cash advantage,” Walden crowed.
Democrats are hoping voter frustration with Congress will cripple Republicans, who were mostly blamed for a government shutdown last October.
Seeking to erase that perception, House Speaker John Boehner sought to rebrand his Republicans.
“We’re not just the opposition party, we’re the alternative party,” he said Thursday in unveiling Republican principles on immigration reform.
It would be a bitter pill for Democrats to leave Boehner at the helm, forcing leader Nancy Pelosi, 73, to wait two more years for a chance to reclaim the speaker’s gavel in 2016, when the political map is far more favorable.
But that is looking increasingly likely, a chief Pelosi lieutenant, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, signalled this week.
“I’m not going to confidently predict that Democrats will take the House back,” she said.
Congressional expert Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute forecast the odds Republicans hold the House at “way over 90 percent,” and if Democrats were realistic, they would “concentrate more resources in the Senate.”
The numbers are not favorable for Obama’s party in the 100-member chamber.
Republicans need to gain six seats for a majority. But there are seven vulnerable Democrats up for re-election or resigning in Republican-leaning states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Montana.
Even though Obama could help in fundraising, some embattled Democrats like Alaska’s Senator Mark Begich are choosing to avoid the president, lest he gets tarred with the same low approval numbers.
“Frankly, we’re in a tough spot,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wrote in a January fundraising email warning of being outspent in 2014 by conservative groups.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rang that alarm, accusing David and Charles Koch, billionaire industrialists who contribute huge money to conservative causes and candidates, of “trying to buy the country.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Republicans Are Disgracing America With Their Talk of Impeaching President Obama
By: Jason Easley
Saturday, February, 1st, 2014, 4:17 pm
By resorting to threatening to impeach President Obama over his use of executive orders, Republicans are not only humiliating themselves. They are also disgracing the country.
In the first episode of the Politcus Podcast, I talked about the real motive behind their consistent and constant threats to impeach President Obama.
It’s true that Republicans are throwing around the term impeachment as a method of getting their based energized for this November’s election, but a deeper reason is that even after two election victories, and nearly halfway into his second term, Republicans are still trying to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency.
Republicans still refuse to accept the fact that President Obama is the president. They have tried every tactic to delegitimize him. Republicans have questioned the president’s citizenship, his education, and his entire biography. They have used the president’s skin color against him and invoked racial stereotypes in repeated attempts to diminish his presidency. They have obstructed his agenda legislatively, and until recently, tried to thwart his ability to run the executive branch competently by refusing to confirm needed staff members.
All of this has failed, and Republicans are desperate.
After the president had grown weary of obstruction and decided to try to get as much done as he could through his executive powers, Republicans are now claiming that Obama’s “abuse of power and an imperial presidency” are making impeachment a viable option.
The truth is that the Republican behavior has nothing to do with executive orders. It is all about delegitimizing President Obama. If Republicans can delegitimize Obama, maybe they can delegitimize the voters who got him elected as well. In their view, a failed Obama presidency would make the case for conservative white men to be returned to power. They would be able to point to a failed Obama presidency and say, “See what happens when we aren’t in charge.”
Accepting Barack Obama as president would mean that many of these Republicans would have to accept and acknowledge that the nation they are living in is changing. In one respect, their quest to delegitimize Obama is a last gasp effort from a group of Americans who refuse to give up power.
The fact that impeachment is ever mentioned or implied as it relates to Obama is a disgrace to every American. The United States is supposed to be the shining example of the great democratic experiment to the world, but what kind of example are we setting when Republicans work to destroy the twice democratically elected president?
This isn’t the way that democracy is supposed to work. Republicans can’t impeach a president because they don’t like him. The Republican behavior during the Obama years has sent the world the wrong message about democracy, and Republicans have brought shame and disgrace down upon the entire country.
Impeachment is the ultimate stripping of power and delegitimization of a president. Impeachment isn’t the end. It’s just the means that Republicans would be happy to use to delegitimize the presidency of Barack Obama.
Chris Christie faces the wrath of a scorned friend
on February 02, 2014 at 12:06 AM, updated February 02, 2014 at 12:17 AM
Now that Wildstein has turned, the governor’s chances of survival are fading fast.
Of all the arrows fired at Gov. Chris Christie over the years, the one that inflicted the deepest wound came not from a rival, but from an ally.
David Wildstein, by all accounts, was thrilled to be part of the governor’s inner circle. He was known as a loyal member of the palace guard, the governor’s eyes and ears at the Port Authority, a buddy of Christie’s since their high school days.
And now he has flipped, as spectacularly as John Dean flipped on Richard Nixon. And in the end, Wildstein could do just as much damage.
“This guy is really mad,” says one leading Democrat who asked not to be named. “The way the letter is written is almost rambling, throwing everything in the kitchen sink. There’s a lot of anger there. He feels dissed.”
Why would Wildstein be so angry with his old boss? Look at it through his eyes.
He closed those access lanes on orders from the governor’s office after receiving the infamous message from Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s deputy chief of staff: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
His reward for that loyal service? He was forced to resign from his job in disgrace.
And then the governor, for no good reasons, belittled Wildstein at a press conference when asked about their friendship in high school.
“We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school,” Christie said coolly. “You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”
And then it got worse. Faced with enormous legal expenses, the Port Authority rejected Wildstein’s request to cover the legal bills.
Add it up, and he has good reason to be furious. He lost his job, he was personally humiliated, and he faces financial ruin — all because he obeyed orders.
The governor should have seen this one coming. Because those who are spurned are dangerous. They know secrets.
Wildstein is the first member of Christie’s team to challenge the governor’s personal honesty. He made the accusation in a letter his attorney wrote to the Port Authority, ostensibly to request reconsideration of their earlier vote rejecting Wildstein’s plea for financial help.
But look at the contents of the letter, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that Wildstein’s real purpose was to throw a bomb that would damage Christie.
The big news in the letter is Wildstein’s claim that Christie knew about the lane closures while they took place, which Christie had explicitly denied over and over.
But it is full of allegations of wrongdoing at the Port Authority as well. It hints that a Port Authority attorney helped devise the discredited cover story that the closures were part of a traffic study. It says board members had personal connections to Port Authority land deals. It says that Port Authority money was traded for political favors.
So how can the Port Authority board reverse its decision now, and help Wildstein with his legal bills? It would look like hush money.
Others have suggested the letter was a flirtation with federal prosecutors, a signal from Wildstein that he has big story to tell in return for the right plea bargain. But that doesn’t hold up either. He could talk privately to prosecutors, who much prefer it that way.
No, Wildstein was not seeking money with this letter, and he was not flirting with prosecutors.
He was after Christie. And that explains the timing as well. With the nation’s eyes on New Jersey for the Super Bowl, Christie finds himself running from reporters, and waving away photographers. If you think that’s a coincidence, you haven’t been following Jersey politics for long.
Wildstein’s testimony is a turning point in this scandal, a knife in the gut for Christie. And Christie’s only choice now is to attack Wildstein’s credibility, which he did in a desperate email to supporters Saturday that reached back to Wildstein’s high school days. “As a 16-year-old kid, he sued over a local school board election.”
But would Wildstein lie now? Would he undermine his own credibility just at the moment when he is offering to provide testimony in return for immunity? His attorney, Alan Zegas, is too smart to let that happen.
The next shoe drops tomorrow, the deadline for the legislative committee investigating this mess to receive subpoenaed documents from the key players implicated in the scandal. Some, no doubt, will now run to federal prosecutors and offer testimony in return for immunity, before Wildstein offers testimony that would render theirs redundant, and therefore worthless.
We are looking at an epic fall from grace for Christie, a reversal of fortune worthy of Shakespeare, stunning in its scale and speed.
And all because of that pointless stunt at the bridge, part of a blind rush to drive up the governor’s margin of victory. The hubris brings to mind Icarus, the mythical figure who flew too close to the sun, despite his father’s warnings, and plunged to his death when his wax wings melted.
Wildstein was at the center of it all, the man who pushed the button and made it happen. Now that he has turned, the governor’s chances of survival are fading fast.
As Calls Grow For Him to Resign Chris Christie Gets Booed At Super Bowl Ceremony
By: Jason Easley
Saturday, February, 1st, 2014, 5:29 pm
For the second time this week Chris Christie was booed by a Super Bowl audience, as the first editorial was published that argued that Gov. Christie should resign or be impeached if David Wildstein’s Bridgegate allegations are true.
Christie was first booed early this week at the Jersey City Super Bowl party:
Today, Gov. Christie was also booed at the Super Bowl handoff ceremony in Times Square:
Both the AP, and the Star-Ledger wrote that Christie was booed at the event. The New Jersey newspaper reported, “Gov. Chris Christie was booed by a huge crowd gathered in Times Square today for the ceremonial ‘handing off’ of the Super Bowl to Arizona, next year’s host state.”
Yesterday, the Star-Ledger Editorial Board published an editorial that called on Gov. Christie to resign if the allegations that he knew about Bridgegate turn out to be true,
If this charge proves true, then the governor must resign or be impeached. Because
that would leave him so drained of credibility that he could not possibly govern effectively. He would owe it to the people of New Jersey to stop the bleeding and quit. And if he should refuse, then the Legislature should open impeachment hearings.
By the governor’s own standard, lying is a firing offense. Here’s what he said about his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelley, at the same press conference: “There’s no justification for ever lying to a governor or a person in authority in this government. As a result, I’ve terminated Bridget’s employment.”
One hopes that he would consider lying to the people of New Jersey as an offense of equal magnitude.
Super Bowl week was supposed to be another victory lap for Christie on his road to the White House. Instead it has turned into public booing and blink, and you’ll miss him public appearances. Christie’s approval ratings have plummeted both nationally and in New Jersey. The governor is now trailing Hillary Clinton by 12 points in the hypothetical head to head 2016 matchup.
If Wildstein has the proof that the governor knew about the lane closings, Christie is finished. There are no more big cheers. Gov. Christie has gone from the popular everyman who gets things done to the jerk who intentionally caused traffic jams for political payback.
The damage has already been done to his 2016 hopes. The only question left unanswered now is will Chris Christie hang on to his governorship in New Jersey.
Law Doesn’t End Revolving Door on Capitol Hill
By ERIC LIPTON and BEN PROTESS
Erik Olson was chief of staff to Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of Wisconsin until September. He soon became a lobbyist. Because his salary fell below a cap established in House rules, a one-year ban on lobbying his former boss does not apply.Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Getty Images Erik Olson was chief of staff to Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of Wisconsin until September. He soon became a lobbyist. Because his salary fell below a cap established in House rules, a one-year ban on lobbying his former boss does not apply.
A top aide to a Republican congressman from Arizona helped promote a legislative plan to overhaul the nation’s home mortgage finance system. Weeks after leaving his government job, he reappeared on Capitol Hill, now as a lobbyist for a company poised to capitalize on the plan.
A former counsel to Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee left Capitol Hill a year ago. He, too, returned to the Hill just months later, lobbying committee aides on behalf of Wall Street giants like JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg L.P.
And the chief of staff for the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee left his government salary behind in January 2012. Yet for months afterward, he continued to manage his boss’s re-election campaign, even while serving as a lobbyist for financial industry clients.
The experiences of the three Capitol Hill aides-turned-lobbyists — traced through interviews with political operatives and a review of public records — illustrate in new detail the gaping holes in rules governing Washington’s revolving door.
Federal ethics rules are intended to limit lobbying by former senior officials within one year after they leave the government. Yet even after the ethics rules were revised in 2007 following a lobbying scandal, more than 1,650 congressional aides have registered to lobby within a year of leaving Capitol Hill, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from LegiStorm, an online database that tracks congressional staff members and lobbying. At least half of those departing aides, the analysis shows, faced no restrictions at all.
The rules are particularly loose in the House of Representatives, where aides and lawmakers enjoy significant leeway in hopping from job to job — and from government pay to six- and seven-figure private sector salaries.
In the three cases identified by The Times, the interviews and records suggest, the former House staff members did not violate the rules but rather seized on loopholes to lobby within one year.
Those examples, and the data analyzed by The Times, offer a playbook of the many ways that former officials can legally circumvent the purpose of the law. While the law’s limitations were known, the data highlight for the first time the extent to which lobbyists routinely capitalize on an array of loopholes.
Some aides resist pay raises, to keep their salaries just below the cutoff that would prompt lobbying restrictions. More highly paid House aides, simply because their paycheck came from an individual lawmaker or leadership office rather than a committee they worked closely with, are immediately allowed to lobby former committee colleagues. This maneuver would be prohibited in the Senate, where senior aides cannot contact anyone in the Senate for a year.
In other cases, former House aides can continue socializing with lawmakers, working on campaigns and attending committee hearings while representing private clients as a lobbyist. That loophole exists even though a lobbyist’s presence on campaigns and at committee hearings could serve as a reminder of pending requests by clients.
The effortless way former staff members avoid the one-year ban raises new concerns about the revolving door. Some critics say it fosters a clubby culture in Washington, where lawmakers and their aides might seek to protect Wall Street and other industries like health care from new rules and legislation.
When Congress updated the ethics rules in 2007 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which included illegal influence peddling between a lawmaker and a former aide, it initially drafted tighter restrictions on the revolving door, arguing that a broader ban lasting two years might curb conflicts of interest in Washington. But with protests from some lawmakers — including Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, and Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, then the top two members of the House Judiciary Committee — the proposal was watered down to remove the two-year “cooling off” period for the House and other restrictions.
The resulting widespread use of loopholes is disheartening to former lawmakers who tried, but failed, to enact more radical changes.
“Is it any wonder that the public holds such a low esteem for Congress?” said Joel M. Hefley, a Republican who served as chairman of the House Ethics Committee before he retired in 2007. “You can dance around these rules in so many ways it really does not accomplish much of anything.”
The continued surge of former congressional staffers to K Street helps explain the fundamental change that is taking place in the lobbying profession in Washington, as former government employees accounted for 44 percent of all registered, active firm lobbyists in 2012, up from 18 percent in 1998, according to a recent study by the Sunlight Foundation.
On some occasions, former congressional aides crossed a legal line and paid a price. Doug Hampton — a onetime aide to the former senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada — pleaded guilty in 2012 to violating the one-year ban.
But such prosecutions are rare. The Justice Department, which is responsible for enforcing the ban, does not actively police compliance with the rules, ethics lawyers who handle such cases said.
“Unless the violation is brought to our attention, it is hard to enforce,” said Michael P. Kortan, the chief spokesman for the F.B.I.
And in interviews, aides-turned-lobbyists emphasized that there was no need to run afoul of the law, given the broad number of exemptions.
The salary loophole is perhaps the most popular. House aides can avoid the one-year “cooling-off” period as long as their salaries are below a certain cap, totaling $130,500 last year.
Erik Olson’s salary fell below that cap when he stepped down in September from his job as chief of staff to Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of Wisconsin. Soon after, he started to lobby Congress on behalf of corporate clients like Leprino Foods of Denver, which wanted to shape the so-called Farm Bill, a topic that Mr. Kind was involved in.
Mr. Olson, when asked if he had contacted his former boss in the months since he left, said his firm’s policy was “to not publicize who we are meeting with on the Hill or administration,” and a spokesman for Mr. Kind simply said, “No comment.”
Matthew Tully, the Congressional aide who helped pitch a plan to revamp the nation’s home mortgage finance system, earned an annual salary of $128,000 while serving as chief of staff to Representative David Schweikert, Republican of Arizona. Mr. Tully’s job title, like Mr. Olson’s, would seem to have qualified him as a senior staff member, a role the ethics law is supposed to cover. But again, the paycheck amount exempted him from the one-year ban.
During Mr. Tully’s tenure in the House, Mr. Schweikert was one of the leading House advocates for legislation that would change the way most Americans obtain home mortgages, limiting the federal government’s role as the primary insurer of these loans. While on Capitol Hill, Mr. Tully became a sought-after expert on the debate, speaking in 2012 at a major mortgage industry conference in Miami to highlight legislation his boss was preparing.
But in 2013, Mr. Tully spun that expertise into a job as the only internal lobbyist for a Pennsylvania-based private mortgage insurer, a job he started one day after leaving the House. The company, Essent Guaranty, stands to benefit from Mr. Schweikert’s positions.
And yet Mr. Tully, in his new role as a lobbyist, was free to communicate with the staff in his former boss’s office. At one point, while attending a House hearing on housing legislation, he emailed one of Mr. Schweikert’s staff members, according to a Congressional aide with direct knowledge of the matter.
Mr. Tully and Essent declined requests for comment, so it is unclear whether he intentionally kept his salary below the $130,500 threshold.
But a former Senate staff member-turned-lobbyist, whose salary was just a few thousand dollars below the cap, acknowledged that she had knowingly kept down her pay. That way, she was free to immediately lobby at least some members of the Senate upon her departure for a mortgage company.
“I was very lucky I was underneath the cap,” she said, asking that she not be named because her new employer would not allow her to speak on the subject. “The rules are very arbitrary. Honestly, they don’t make sense to me.”
Dee Buchanan, a Republican who earned more than $170,000 during his last year as a senior aide to Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, benefited from a different exemption.
After departing Capitol Hill in fall 2012, Mr. Buchanan started a job with Ogilvy Government Relations. The firm’s website boasts that Mr. Buchanan — who quickly registered to lobby for the American Bankers Association and the CME Group, one of the world’s largest futures exchanges — was “the ‘go-to guy’ for the new House Financial Services Committee chairman,” Mr. Hensarling.
Despite the close ties, Mr. Buchanan was free to immediately lobby most members of Mr. Hensarling’s committee. Mr. Buchanan’s one-year ban did not apply to the committee at large because his government paycheck had come from the House Republican Conference, a leadership arm of the party that Mr. Hensarling led in 2011 and 2012. As such, Mr. Buchanan was restricted from lobbying only Mr. Hensarling and a few other committee members who also belonged to leadership.
Democratic aides have made similar moves.
John Hughes, the lobbyist now representing JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg L.P., last held a job on Capitol Hill as a senior adviser to Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. As an aide to Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Hughes’s job in part was to be the contact person with the House Financial Services Committee, where he worked as the top lawyer during the 2008 financial crisis.
Because his most recent government paycheck came from House Democratic leadership, Mr. Hughes was prohibited only from lobbying top House leaders. Mr. Hughes, who declined to comment for this article, was soon able to begin contacting his former associates on the House committee.
“It is almost a meaningless ban,” said Craig Holman, who helped write the 2007 ethics law as a government ethics expert at the nonprofit group Public Citizen.
The one-year ban also allows former aides to “interact socially“ with former bosses or Capitol Hill colleagues. Although there can be no “intent to influence” a lawmaker’s “official actions or decisions” at dinner parties and golf games, the lobbyists can work behind the scenes, using their expertise to advise clients about the inner workings of Congress. And when it comes to working on a political campaign, there are few restrictions, since such activity is considered a form of free speech.
The result is a blurring of lines that allows former aides like Larry Lavender to legally spin through the revolving door. Mr. Lavender spent five years as chief of staff to the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee at the time, Representative Spencer Bachus, a longtime friend from Alabama.
When a law firm representing JPMorgan recruited Mr. Lavender for a job in early 2012, he left the committee behind. But he stayed close to Mr. Bachus, becoming an unpaid campaign manager for the congressman’s re-election bid.
Mr. Lavender, who earned $172,500 in his final full year on the Hill, fit squarely into the one-year ban’s allowances for campaigning and socializing. While Mr. Lavender occasionally lunched with former colleagues, and even made an appearance at the committee’s holiday party, he said he did not seek out any official favors or actions. And although he represented JPMorgan, he said he had never contacted the committee on the bank’s behalf.
“I took great care to confer with the House ethics committee to make sure I understood the rules, and then I was scrupulous in complying,” Mr. Lavender said in an interview.
The rules allowed Mr. Lavender to join a behind-the-scenes effort to help JPMorgan avoid having to testify at a House hearing in 2012. The hearing focused on the collapse of MF Global, a major New York brokerage firm that was one of JPMorgan’s clients.
On a conference call with fellow lobbyists, one person briefed on the call recalled, Mr. Lavender took aim at the former colleagues who wanted to force JPMorgan executives to testify. The person briefed on the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Lavender remarked about his former colleagues: “I should have fired them when I had the chance.”
Thousands March in Russia to Demand Prisoners' Release
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 February 2014, 21:30
Thousands of demonstrators marched through Moscow on Sunday to demand Russia free eight prisoners jailed after a 2012 protest against President Vladimir Putin.
There was heavy security for the march, with hundreds of police lining the route from Pushkin Square to Turgenev Square, while a helicopter hovered overhead.
"Free the political prisoners!" read a large banner at the head of the march, which police said attracted 2,000 protesters. Organizers put the number of participants at 10,000.
The march was organized by opposition groups and held days after Russian prosecutors demanded harsh jail sentences of five to six years for the protesters.
They were arrested and accused of "mass riots" and violence against police after clashes broke out at a rally ahead of Pig Putin's inauguration in June 2012.
However, defense lawyers have said that evidence used in the case does not back up accusations of violence against policemen, while rights groups have called the case politically motivated.
Amnesty International classified six of the eight people on trial as prisoners of conscience and urged Russia to drop all the "purported mass riots" charges against the defendants.
Student Kills Two in Moscow School Hostage Crisis
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 11:40
An armed student on Monday briefly took 20 teenagers hostage in a Moscow school and killed a policeman and a teacher before being detained amid security jitters ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
Police said a student armed with a gun forced a security guard to lead him to a specific classroom in the school on the northern outskirts of Moscow and then locked himself inside with about 20 teenage pupils and the class teacher.
He then opened fire through a window at scores of police who had rushed to the scene. Security officials said the student made no demands and did not conduct negotiations with officials during the broad daylight raid.
"He killed a policeman and wounded another," Russian interior ministry spokesman Andrei Pilipchuk told the state-run Vesti-24 news channel.
"He also killed the teacher."
The Russian interior ministry said the hostage-taker had been detained during a police raid on the school and that all the students were now safe and unharmed.
"None of the students have been harmed," Pilipchuk told Vesti 24. "They are all alive and well."
Police said the hostage-taker was one of the school's upper-class students but did not release his name. Schools in Russia usually house children from first to 11th grades.
Live footage showed a group of children running from the school and an emergencies ministry police helicopter hovering overhead.
Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev and Russia's powerful Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin both immediately rushed to the scene of a crisis that underscored the security problems facing Russia as it prepares to host the Winter Games in Sochi on Friday.
Security has been a prime concern for President Pig Putin -- his personal and political prestige linked closely to the Game's success -- because Sochi rests near the volatile North Caucasus region where Russia has been battling an Islamic insurgency for most of the past two decades.
Islamists who want to carve out their own state in southern Russia have vowed to stage deadly attacks during the Games that would undermine Putin and show that he lacks control over the vast country.
Russia has been on heightened alert ever since succesive-day late December suicide strikes in the southern Russian city of Volgograd killed 34 people at a railway station and on a trolleybus.
The attack was later claimed by two young men from Russia's North Caucasus in a video message that promised more attacks.
Security analysts believe that Sochi itself will be relatively safe both for athletes and visitors because of the extraordinary security precautions that have been taken at the Black Sea resort port.
Russia has deployed 37,000 security personnel around Sochi and is also patrolling the Black Sea for possible signs of an attack.
But analysts point out that the extra security measures being taken around the Olympic host city may leave other parts of the country exposed.
Many of the foreign visitors arriving for the Games will enter Russia through Moscow before travelling on to Sochi.
Is Edward Snowden a prisoner in Russia?
In the second exclusive extract from his new book, The Snowden Files, Luke Harding looks at the role of Russia's shadowy intelligence agency, the FSB, in securing the whistleblower's exile – and whether they have cracked his secret files
The Guardian, Sunday 2 February 2014 18.31 GMT
Edward Snowden's prolonged stay in Russia was involuntary. He got stuck in Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport when his efforts to transit to a South American country such as Ecuador, Bolivia or Venezuela failed. But it made his own story – his narrative of principled exile and flight – a lot more complicated. It was now easier for critics to paint him not as a whistleblower and political refugee but as a 21st-century Kim Philby, the British defector who sold his country and its secrets to the Soviets. Other critics likened him to Bernon F Mitchell and William H Martin, two NSA analysts who defected in 1960 to the Soviet Union, and had a miserable time there for the rest of their lives. The analogies were unfair. Snowden was no traitor.
But, for better or worse, the 30-year-old American was now dependent on the Kremlin and its shadowy spy agencies for protection and patronage. According to the activists who met him at Sheremetyevo, Snowden had several new minders. Who were they? All of Moscow assumed they were undercover agents from the FSB.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB was dissolved. But it didn't disappear. In 1995 most of the KGB's operations were transferred to a new intelligence agency, the FSB. Nominally, it carries out the same functions as the FBI and other western law enforcement agencies: criminal prosecution, investigations into organised crime and counter-terrorism. But its most important job is counter-espionage.
One of the lawyers invited to Snowden's press conference in the airport on 12 June 2013 was Anatoly Kucherena. Afterwards Snowden sent an email to Kucherena and asked for his help. Kucherena agreed. He returned to Sheremetyevo two days later and held a long meeting with Snowden. He explained Russian laws. He also suggested Snowden abandon his other asylum requests.
The following day Kucherena visited again, and put together Snowden's application to Russia's migration service for temporary asylum. Suddenly, Kucherena was taking the role of Snowden's public advocate, his channel to the world. "Right now he wants to stay in Russia. He has options. He has friends and a lot of supporters … I think everything will be OK," he told reporters.
It's unclear why Snowden reached out to Kucherena. But the defence lawyer had connections in all the right places. A Kremlin loyalist, he publicly supported Putin's 2011 campaign to return as president. Bulky, greyhaired, bonhomous, the 52-year-old Kucherena was used to dealing with celebrities. (He had represented several Russian stars, including the Kremlin-friendly film director Nikita Mikhalkov.)
But as well as high-society contacts, Kucherena has other useful connections. He is a member of the FSB's "public chamber", a body Putin created in 2006. The council's mission is nebulous, given that it involves a spy agency: it is to "develop a relationship" between the security service and the public. The FSB's then director, Nikolai Patrushev, approved Kucherena's job; he is one of 15 members. Fellow lawyers say he is not an FSB agent as such. Rather, they suggest, he is a "person of the system".
Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena with a picture of Snowden's new refugee documents, August 1, 2013. Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena with a picture of Snowden's new refugee documents, August 1, 2013. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov
Kucherena was one of very few people allowed to visit Snowden. During his trips to the airport he brought gifts. They included a Lonely Planet guide to Russia, and a guide to Moscow. The lawyer also selected several classics "to help Snowden understand the mentality of the Russian people": Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, a collection of stories by Anton Chekhov, and writings by the historian Nikolai Karamzin. Kucherena also gave him a book on the Cyrillic alphabet to help him learn Russian, and brought a change of clothes.
Snowden was not able to go outside – "he breathes disgusting air, the air of the airport," Kucherena said – but remained in good health. Nonetheless, the psychological pressure of the waiting game took its toll. "It's hard for him, when he's always in a state of expectation," Kucherena said. "On the inside, Edward is absolutely independent; he absolutely follows his convictions. As for the reaction, he is convinced and genuinely believes he did it first of all so the Americans and all people would find out they were spying on us."
As soon as Snowden arrived in Russia, one question began to be asked with increasing intensity: had the Russians got hold of Snowden's NSA documents? On 23 June, the New York Times quoted "two western intelligence experts" who "worked for major government spy agencies". Without offering any evidence, the experts said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops Snowden brought to Hong Kong. Snowden categorically denies these media claims, which spread rapidly. He also insists he has not shared any NSA material with Moscow.
Snowden was extremely good at digital self-defence. When he was employed by the CIA and NSA, one of his jobs was to teach US national security officials and CIA employees how to protect their data in high-threat digital environments. He taught classes at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which provides top-grade foreign military intelligence to the US Department of Defense. Paradoxically, Snowden now found himself in precisely the kind of hostile environment he had lectured on, surrounded by agents from a foreign intelligence agency.
Snowden corresponded about this with Gordon Humphrey, a former two-term Republican senator from New Hampshire. His letter left no doubt that he was aware of the peril from hostile foreign intelligence agencies, and that he had taken extreme steps to keep his material safe. "You may rest easy knowing I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture," he wrote.
Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, one of Snowden's few early interlocutors, says that he believes Snowden had put the data beyond reach. "I think he rendered himself incapable of opening the archive while he is in Russia," Gellman told US radio network NPR. He added: "It isn't that he doesn't have the key any more. It's that there is nothing to open any more. He rendered the encryption information impossible to open while he is in Russia."
But none of this, of course, meant the Kremlin was uninterested in the contents of Snowden's laptops. The FSB is adept at electronic surveillance. Like its KGB predecessor, its procedures involve bugging, hidden video cameras and entrapment. Unlike the NSA, the FSB also uses what might be called "suspicion-ful" surveillance.
With western intelligence agencies, the idea is to monitor a target without him or her ever knowing about it. The FSB, by contrast, also engages in demonstrativnaya slezhka: demonstrative pursuit.
Using tactics perfected by the 1970s Stasi, East Germany's secret police, the FSB breaks into the homes of so-called enemies. Typically these are western diplomats and some foreign journalists. But the FSB also plays a leading role in the suppression of internal dissent, and targets Russians too, including those working for US or British embassies. A team of agents breaks into a target's flat. They leave clues that they have been there – open windows, central heating disconnected, mysterious alarms, phones taken off the hook, sex manuals by the side of the bed.
Ironically, the Kremlin's security services also carry out widespread NSA-style surveillance on the Russian population. Russia's nationwide system of remote interception is called SORM. The KGB developed SORM's technical foundations in the mid-1980s; it has been updated to take account of rapid technological change. SORM-1 captures telephone and mobile phone communications, SORM-2 intercepts internet traffic, and SORM-3 collects data from all communications, including content and recordings, and stores them long-term.
The oversight mechanism in the US may have been broken, but in Russia it didn't exist. Snowden's documents show that the NSA compelled phone operators and internet service providers to give information on their customers. Secret FISA court orders made this process legal. The companies could – and would – contest these orders in court, and argued that they should be allowed to reveal more detail of what the government agencies were demanding.
In Russia, FSB officers also need a court order to eavesdrop on a target. Once they have it, they don't need to show the warrant to anybody. Telecoms providers aren't informed. According to Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's security services, the FSB doesn't need to contact the ISP's staff. Instead, the spy agency calls on the special controller at the FSB HQ that is connected by a protected cable directly to the SORM device installed on the ISP network. This system is copied all over the country: in every Russian town there are protected underground cables, which connect the local FSB department with all providers in the region.
On 1 August 2013 – 39 days after he flew into Moscow – Snowden strolled out of the airport. Russia had granted him one year's temporary asylum. The state channel Rossiya 24 showed a photo of Snowden's departure. He was grinning, carrying a rucksack and a large holdall, and accompanied by the delighted WikiLeaks activist Sarah Harrison. Out of the transit zone at last, he exchanged a few words with Kucherena on the pavement. Snowden climbed into a grey unmarked car. The car drove off. Snowden disappeared.
Where did he go? Red Square and the Kremlin are an ensemble of high ochre walls and golden orthodox towers. At the end of Red Square are the surrealistic onion domes of St Basil's cathedral. If you walk up the hill from there, past the Metropole Hotel and a statue of Karl Marx, you reach a large, forbidding, classically structured building. This is the Lubyanka. Once the headquarters of the KGB, it is now the home of the FSB. Inside, the answer to that question is certainly known. Meanwhile, Russian journalists would speculate that Snowden was staying at a presidential sanatorium somewhere near Moscow.
The hacker turned whistleblower had got his asylum. But the longer he stayed out of public view, the more it appeared that he was, in some informal way, the FSB's prisoner.
For nine weeks, Snowden was mostly invisible. There was the odd photo – of a young man pushing a shopping trolley across a Moscow street. (Surely a fake? The man looked nothing like him.) Another leaked image was more convincing. It showed Snowden on a tourist boat cruising along the Moscow River. It's summer. He's wearing a cap, and has a beard. In the distance, a bridge and the golden domes of Christ the Saviour cathedral, blown up by Stalin and rebuilt by Yeltsin. Just out of shot are the high walls of the Kremlin.
These leaks to the Russian media were designed to give the impression that Snowden was leading a "normal" life. That seemed unlikely. Clues pointed in the opposite direction. The news agency that got the Snowden picture, Lifenews.ru, is known for its ties to Russia's security agencies. Kucherena, meanwhile, said his client was settling in, learning Russian and had a job with a large internet firm. But VKontakte, Russia's equivalent of Facebook, and others said this wasn't so.
It was in October that Snowden definitively re-emerged. Four Americans travelled to Moscow to meet him. All were fellow whistleblowers who had spent their careers in US national security and intelligence: Thomas Drake, the former NSA executive whose case Snowden had followed; one-time CIA analyst Ray McGovern; Jesselyn Radack, who worked in the Justice Department; and Coleen Rowley, ex-FBI. In Moscow, the four were driven in a van with darkened windows to a secret location. There was Snowden.
WikiLeaks released a video. The oil paintings, chandelier and pastel colours in the background suggest an upmarket hotel, of which Moscow has plenty. More probably, though, this was a government guesthouse.
The Americans found him well, relaxed, good-humoured and – as McGovern put it afterwards – at peace with himself and his decision to speak out. Snowden joked darkly that he could not have been a Russian spy: he said Russia treats its spies much better than to leave them trapped in the Sheremetyevo transit zone for more than a month.
Snowden had been following events. Over dinner, he explained why he had done what he did. The programmes of NSA mass surveillance he exposed "don't make us safe". In his words: "They hurt our economy. They hurt our country. They limit our ability to speak and think and to live and be creative, to have relationships, to associate freely … There's a far cry between legal programmes, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement where it's targeted, based on reasonable, individualised suspicion and warranted action, and a sort of dragnet mass surveillance that puts entire populations under a sort of an eye that sees everything, even when it's not needed."
His father, Lon Snowden, flew to Moscow at the same time. They had a private reunion.
Three weeks later, Snowden had another public visitor. This time it was Hans-Christian Ströbele, a flamboyant Green member of Germany's parliament and radical lawyer, now aged 74. Over in Germany, the revelation that the NSA had spied on Angela Merkel had shaken the political class. Ströbele bore an invitation: for Snowden to testify before a parliamentary committee of the Bundestag investigating US spying. Ströbele sat with Snowden and Harrison around a table; there was discussion, moments of laughter, and a group photo.
Snowden gave Ströbele a typed letter to deliver to Merkel and the German parliament. One paragraph caught the eye. Though he didn't say so explicitly, it seemed Snowden hoped to leave Russia at some future point. He signed off: "I look forward to speaking with you in your country when the situation is resolved and thank you for your efforts in upholding the international laws that protect us. With my best regards, Edward Snowden."
Days later, Harrison said goodbye to Snowden after four months in Moscow and flew to Berlin. The German capital, and east Berlin in particular, was now a hub for a growing number of Snowden supporters: film-maker Laura Poitras, journalist Jacob Appelbaum and Harrison. For anyone with a sense of history, this was ironic. Stasiland had become an island of media freedom.
What are Snowden's prospects of exiting Moscow for a new life in western Europe? Left-leaning politicians, intellectuals and writers have called on the German government to grant him asylum. There was even a campaign to rename a Berlin street next to the US embassy "Snowden Strasse". (An artist erected a new street sign, and posted the video on Facebook.) But Germany's strategic relationship with the US is more important than the fate of one individual, at least in the probable view of Merkel, now chancellor for a third time.
So it is in Moscow that Snowden remains. Kucherena gently reminded the world that if he did try and leave, he would forfeit his asylum status. He is a guest of the Russian Federation, whether he likes it or not. And, in some sense, its captive. No one quite knows how long his exile might last. Months? Years? Decades?
This is an extract from The Snowden Files by Luke Harding, published by Guardian Faber at £12.99. To order a copy for £8.99, visit theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.
As Ukraine’s President Returns From Leave, His Options Seem Dismal
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
FEB. 2, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — When President Viktor F. Yanukovych returns to work on Monday after a four-day sick leave, he will find that even after that brief absence his options for resolving Ukraine’s political crisis have already narrowed.
His choice may now be between an inevitably bloody suppression of antigovernment protesters or a surrender of authority that could leave him as president but empower his opponents to chart a pro-European course.
Mr. Yanukovych, who has faced a sustained civil uprising since late November, when he backed away from a promise to sign political and free-trade accords with the European Union, has seen his position erode substantially in recent days.
Support he had been relying on from Russia — particularly $15 billion in credit that Ukraine desperately needs to cover basic expenses — was suspended last week by the Kremlin, which expressed pointed displeasure over the growing political uncertainty in Ukraine. And the forced resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the rest of the cabinet on Tuesday showed Mr. Yanukovych sacrificing some of his staunchest political allies, in a failed bid to appease his critics by offering them senior positions.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Independence Square here in the capital, highlighting that simply suppressing the protests was not enough, and that they were not letting up even after violent clashes with the police led to several deaths and hundreds of injuries. A headline on the Ukrainska Pravda website on Sunday stated: “Viktor Yanukovych: Between War and Defeat.”
Rather than being placated by any of the concessions, the opposition has grown emboldened by the evidence that Mr. Yanukovych’s position has weakened. There have been reports that some military officers have been asked to sign pledges of loyalty to the president or resign — a sign of uncertainty about their willingness to enforce a state of emergency and move against the protesters should he ever give that order.
After attending a security conference on Saturday in Munich, where they were embraced by Western officials, opposition leaders told the crowd in the square on Sunday that they would not accept any compromise that did not give them full control of the government, including the Interior Ministry, which oversees the riot police and other security troops.
“There is one way out,” Vitali Klitschko, the former champion boxer who leads a party called the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, told the crowd. “To cut this knot, we need a full reset of power and this system.
“Yes?” Mr. Klitschko asked. “Yes!” the people roared back.
The demonstrators reflected a broad mix of Ukrainian society, including parents towing children by the hand, past photographs of dead demonstrators displayed on makeshift shrines, as well as some of the tough young men — many of them members of right-wing groups — who have shown a willingness to battle the police on Kiev’s streets.
Though large, the turnout was far lower than at the movement’s peak in early December, when more than 100,000 people gathered on three successive Sundays. Still, the diversity of the crowd demonstrated the extent to which the opposition to Mr. Yanukovych has hardened across many segments of Ukrainian society. It also helped explain why street protests have spread to regional capitals in eastern Ukraine, long the president’s base of political support.
“I admire peaceful protest, but when it comes to violence I understand it, too, and support it, as a manifestation of the people’s will,” Pavlo Bezsmertnyi, 45, a freelance translator, said of his decision to attend the rally despite the threat of violence. “I don’t judge people who come here to fight. I understand that this government, this president, is not what we deserve, and we want to change it.”
Anna Hrytsenko, 50, in a crowd of people streaming into the square, said, “If you are afraid you won’t achieve anything.”
At various points, the protests had seemed about to fizzle out, only to be inflamed again as a result of missteps by Mr. Yanukovych’s government. The first of those was a violent crackdown by the police on peaceful protesters on Nov. 30, which caused widespread outrage. Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity had been defined by peaceful dissent, and many said they were stunned the government had resorted to force.
“They decided to show the population of Ukraine a lesson that they would remember forever,” said Yaroslav Pylynskyi, director of the Kiev office of the Kennan Institute, an American research organization.
Even after the outrage over police beatings led to the occupation of Independence Square and several public buildings, including Kiev’s City Hall, much of the oxygen went out of the protests when Mr. Yanukovych secured the $15 billion financial rescue package from Russia in mid-December.
With no economic or political pressure to force Mr. Yanukovych to change course, and with the holidays near, the crowds dwindled. Opposition leaders said they planned to turn their focus to the next presidential election, which seemed the only opportunity to force change in the government.
Then, on Jan. 16, the government overreached again. Allies of Mr. Yanukovych in Parliament returned from the holiday break and pushed through a raft of laws restricting dissent. Again the crowds surged into the street, but this time the protests turned violent as demonstrators hurled rocks and fire bombs at the police, and set police buses on fire.
While Parliament repealed those laws in yet another conciliatory gesture, opposition leaders said they would now accept only a political surrender by Mr. Yanukovych that was complete enough for them to renegotiate the accords with Europe that he abandoned in November, and to seek a new financial aid package from the International Monetary Fund that would replace the aid from Moscow.
At the Munich conference on Sunday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, confirmed in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that Europe and the United States were developing a sizable short-term aid package for Ukraine, in anticipation of longer-term assistance from the I.M.F. down the line. Mr. Yanukovych had resisted aid from the fund in part because of conditions that included politically painful austerity measures.
Western officials voiced concern at the conference about evidence of abductions and abuse of Ukrainian protest leaders by the authorities or their surrogates, including some cases of alleged torture. One victim, Dmytro Bulatov, who had been missing for a week, was found on Friday. He had been beaten severely and said he had been “crucified” by having his hands nailed to a door.
On Sunday, Petro Poroshenko, a member of Parliament, a wealthy businessman and a supporter of the Ukrainian opposition, posted on Facebook that Mr. Bulatov, who had been threatened with arrest, had left Ukraine for further medical treatment.
In a speech at Sunday’s rally, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the leader in Parliament of the opposition Fatherland Party, called on the president to relinquish the entire cabinet to the opposition and agree to constitutional amendments that would weaken the presidency.
Mr. Yatsenyuk, who turned down Mr. Yanukovych’s offer to become prime minister, said the president’s time was limited.
“Enough. We’re fed up,” he told the crowd. “The Parliament should vote for the new Constitution. We need to restore the people’s power. Together to victory!”
Ukrainian opposition appeals to West for aid
by Agence France-Presse
Sunday, February 2, 2014 10:08 EST
Ukraine’s opposition on Sunday called for international mediation and appealed for Western financial aid for the first time in their protests against President Viktor Yanukovych.
As tens of thousands of people rallied in Kiev, boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko told the crowd he had requested “international mediation in our negotiations with Yanukovych so there are no misunderstandings”.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister, said: “We spoke to our Western partners and told them that we need real financial aid.
“They are ready to do it. By ‘we’, I mean the Ukrainian people. Not a single kopeck should go to the Yanukovych regime,” he said.
Klitschko and Yatsenyuk both attended the Munich Security Conference on Saturday where Europe and the United States sparred over Ukraine with Russia, which has condemned Western pledges of support as interference.
Ukraine is struggling to break free of a painful recession and Russia has put on hold until a new government is formed a $15-billion (11-billion-euro) bailout package that has been propping up the economy.
Yanukovych’s office meanwhile said the president would be returning to work on Monday after a few days of sick leave due to “an acute respiratory infection”.
At the sprawling protest camp in Kiev that has been the epicentre for two months of protests that have spread across Ukraine, more than 60,000 people shouted their defiance against his rule on Sunday.
The opposition is pressing for more concessions from Yanukovych, including the immediate and unconditional release of all the scores of protesters arrested so far.
Klitschko said they were “hostages” and called for the scrapping of an amnesty law approved by Yanukovych last week that only allows the release if occupied official buildings are vacated within two weeks.
Yanukovych has over the past few days accepted the resignation of his prime minister and repealed the hugely controversial anti-protest laws that had radicalised the protest movement.
But the opposition still has a number of demands, including an overhaul of the constitution that would take away some of the president’s sweeping powers.
The protest movement is also asking for a presidential election scheduled in 2015 to be brought forward to this year, while demonstrators in the streets want Yanukovych to resign immediately.
‘All in our hands’
The 63-year-old leader “should resign along with parliament if he wants a peaceful resolution,” said Oksana Hodakivska, a dentist from the northwestern region of Zhytomyr, at the Kiev protest.
Hodakivska said she did not hold out much hope for Western pressure on Yanukovych.
“EU officials can temporarily stop the violence when they visit Ukraine but they are not going to keep coming here.
“It’s all in our hands,” she said.
But Yuriy Krenyuk, a pensioner from the Ivano-Frankivsk region, said Western powers could help resolve the crisis by putting pressure on the foreign assets held by Ukrainian oligarchs who back Yanukovych.
“If the oligarchs’ bank accounts are blocked then the question of Yanukovych’s resignation can be resolved very quickly,” he said.
“Without the president’s resignation, people will not leave the Maidan,” he said referring to Independence Square by its local name.
At the rally, former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, railed against what he termed “a new attempt at colonisation” by Russia.
“Putin’s iron grip is holding Yanukovych by the balls,” he said, calling for more “self-defence units” of protesters to be formed “in order to prevent a bloodbath”.
The protests that have plunged Ukraine into its most acute crisis since independence in 1991 began when Yanukovych in November turned down a partnership pact with the European Union under pressure from former master Moscow.
What started out as a pro-EU movement has turned into a campaign to oust Yanukovych.
Four people — two protesters and two police officers — have been killed in clashes, according to an official death toll.
The opposition has warned the authorities may be preparing to impose emergency rule with a military intervention, although analysts say this is unlikely as commanders are concerned the rank-and-file may side with protesters.
‘West stands with Ukraine’s people’
Russia sparred with Western powers at the Munich conference over Ukraine, condemning what it said was foreign interference in another country’s internal affairs.
Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov condemned Western support for the protesters, asking: “What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?”.
However, Kerry said the standoff in the ex-Soviet country was about fighting for “a democratic, European future”.
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is due in Kiev this week, as is the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Washington and Brussels are mulling possible sanctions against Ukrainian officials.
European officials have expressed outrage over the fate of Dmytro Bulatov, a protester who said he was kidnapped and tortured by unidentified captors for over a week.
Germany and Lithuania have offered to host Bulatov, who the authorities have ordered to be placed under house arrest on suspicion of inciting unrest, to receive medical assistance.
Ukraine stands on the brink – and Europe must bring it back
This is no velvet revolution, but nor is it an uprising of fascist Cossacks or a zero-sum game with Russia. Europe must intervene on the side of democracy and human rights
Timothy Garton Ash
The Guardian, Sunday 2 February 2014 20.00 GMT
Ukraine has not yet died – as the country's anthem observes. But the face of Ukraine today is that of the bloodied, scarred opposition activist Dmytro Bulatov. Comparisons with Bosnia are still far-fetched, but think of this as a political Chernobyl.
I have no idea what will happen in Ukraine tomorrow, let alone next week. But I know what all Europeans should want to happen over the next year and the next decades. In February 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the Yalta agreement, Ukraine should again be a halfway functioning state. A corrupt and rackety one, but still the kind of state that, in the long run, forges a nation. It should have signed an association agreement with the EU, but also have close ties with Russia. In February 2045, on the 100th anniversary of the Yalta agreement, it should be a liberal democratic, rule-of-law state that is a member of the EU, but has a special relationship with a democratic Russia. "Pie in the sky!" you may say. But if you don't know where you want to go, all roads are equally good. This is where we should want to go.
That outcome would obviously be good for Ukraine. Less obviously, it would be good for Europe. Look at the shifting balance of world power, and look at the demographic projections for western Europe's ageing population. We'll need those young Ukrainians sooner than you think, if we are to pay our pensions, maintain economic growth and defend our way of life in a post-western world. Less obviously still, it would good for Russia. Russia has lost an empire but not yet found a role. Its uncertain sense of itself is inextricably bound up with its deep-seated confusion about Ukraine, a cradle of Russian history that many Russians still regard as belonging back in Russia's nursery.
Once upon a time, young Conservatives like David Cameron shared such a vision of a wider Europe of freedom. Inspired by the velvet revolutions of 1989, and by Margaret Thatcher, they loathed the statist, federalist and socialist Little Europe of Brussels, but loved that far horizon of liberty. Yet where is the British prime minister's voice on Ukraine today?
Back in his idealistic youth, Germans were the mealy-mouthed stability-huggers, and Brits spoke out for human rights in eastern Europe. Now, Angela Merkel tells her parliament – to applause – that the Ukrainian authorities must not ignore "many people who have shown in courageous demonstrations that they are not willing to turn away from Europe. They must be heard", while the Conservative benches of the British parliament resound with appeals to turn away from Europe, and to keep out those numberless hordes of eastern European welfare scroungers. Among the few Ukrainians welcome here are the oligarchs, who get Britain's special visas for the very rich, and buy the fanciest places in London. One of them, Rinat Akhmetov, paid £136m for a 25,000 sq ft pied-a-terre in the luxurious One Hyde Park apartment complex.
Granted, it is hard to see how we can make much difference in the short term. This is no longer a velvet revolution, as the 2004 Orange Revolution was. It started as a protest against the (freely and largely fairly elected) President Viktor Yanukovych's sudden refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU. Opinion polls show that a majority of Ukrainians favour more European integration. The heart of protest in Kiev is still nicknamed the Euromaidan (Eurosquare). What characterises a velvet revolution, however, is that non-violent discipline is largely maintained – even in the face of violent oppression by the state – and it ends in a political negotiation. Now, mainly because of the stupidity of the Yanukovych machine and the brutality of its Berkut militia thugs, but also because there are other opposition forces at work in different parts of a fractured country, the velvet is burning.
Some very nasty far-right groups have mounted the barricades. How large a role they play is disputed. A Ukrainian specialist on the European far right, Anton Shekhovtsov, who was there during the recent protests, says that while there is a real neo-Nazi and hooligan fringe, especially in a group called White Hammer, most of the so-called Right Sector activists see themselves as national revolutionaries fighting for independence from Russia. Yet even if you take a more alarmist view, to suggest that Europe should just sit on its hands because fascists and antisemitic Cossacks (recognise a stereotype anyone?) are taking over the show is even more ridiculous than it would be to pretend that this is all the sweetness and light of Václav Havel's Wenceslas Square in 1989. Abandon all meta-narratives, ye reporters who enter here.
Worse than ridiculous is the notion that the EU should not intervene in any way because this is a purely Ukrainian affair. Putin's Russia has been intervening for years, overtly and covertly, while insisting no "outsiders" should interfere. In the last decade, Russia has twice turned off the gas tap to force Ukrainian hands, and the methods Moscow uses behind the scenes to persuade Yanukovych and pivotal oligarchs can barely be described in a family newspaper.
By contrast, the EU's "imperialist" intervention has consisted in offering an association agreement, attempting to broker a negotiated settlement between the warring parties and mainly verbal support for non-violent, pro-European demonstrators. To denounce this herbivorous intervention while ignoring Russia's carnivorous ones is Orwellian doublethink.
But comrade Lenin's question remains: what is to be done? The Poles, with members of the Ukrainian opposition, call for a larger carrot. "Not martial law but a Marshall Plan," says opposition leader Arseniy Yatseniuk. In your dreams, Arseniy. Others call for targeted western sanctions against the Yanukovych clan and selected oligarchs.
I suspect all this will make only a marginal difference. History is being written hour by hour on the ground in Ukraine. But if the British prime minister does want to reconnect with the idealism of his youth, while practising the realpolitik required in his current job, I suggest he has a private word with those key swing-players in Ukraine, the oligarchs. Men like Victor Pinchuk, Dmytro Firtash (a generous donor to Cambridge University) and Akhmetov. We know where they live – in London, among other places. So to have that discreet fireside chat, the prime minister would only need to pop down the road, from Downing Street to One Hyde Park.
Injured Militant Leaves Ukraine after Western Pressure
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 06:43
A Ukrainian protester whose account of torture has shocked Europe arrived in Vilnius late Sunday, hours after a Kiev court ruled that he could leave the country for treatment.
Dmytro Bulatov left Ukraine following intense pressure by Western leaders after he appeared on television, his face swollen and caked in blood, and said he had been kidnapped and tortured over his role in protests that have rocked the country.
Bulatov is a leader of the "Automaidan" movement, which has organized protest motorcades outside President Viktor Yanukovych's sprawling country estate near Kiev and has been targeted by police.
The 35-year-old father of three said he was "crucified" by unidentified kidnappers who drove nails through his hands and cut off part of his ear while they held him for eight days following clashes in Kiev.
"They crucified me, nailed me, cut my ear off, cut my face," Bulatov said on Channel 5 television shortly after his release in his only public comments so far.
"I can't see well now, because I sat in darkness the whole time."
His bloodied face sparked outrage, with the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton saying she was "appalled by the obvious signs of prolonged torture".
The United Nations and the United States also voiced concern and Germany and Lithuania both offered him medical assistance.
An ambulance took Bulatov directly from Vilnius airport to a hospital in the city after he arrived late Sunday by air from Kiev via Latvia, an AFP journalist at the airport saw.
Lithuania, an ex-Soviet Baltic state, vowed last month to provide free medical assistance to Ukrainians injured in violent protests in Kiev, and Bulatov will be the third to take up the offer.
"We are ready to help all injured Ukrainians, and we do not separate them into opposition and others in this case," Lithuanian Health Minister Vytenis Andriukatis told AFP on Sunday.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara on Saturday dismissed Bulatov's account and said his injuries were just "a scratch", but the ministry retracted the comments saying they wished him a "speedy recovery".
The interior ministry said it was looking into his disappearance but asserted that the injuries may have been "staged" and a criminal investigation into his role in the anti-Yanukovych protests is ongoing.
Over the last few days, protesters outside Bulatov's clinic physically prevented police from entering with a formal order for Bulatov to appear in court on charges of "organizing mass disorder" in Kiev.
He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Pro-opposition tycoon Petro Poroshenko and other protest leaders had said at a demonstration in Kiev earlier on Sunday that they would "liberate" him.
They then traveled to the clinic as riot police gathered outside but a confrontation was averted when a Kiev court gave the go-ahead for Bulatov to leave the country despite the pending charges against him.
"Following a request from prosecutors, the Kiev court has authorized him to go abroad," Lilia Frolova, the deputy prosecutor general, told reporters.
"This decision was taken after receiving requests from Bulatov, his family, some lawmakers and international institutions," Frolova said.
Bulatov's disappearance caused particular concern because it followed other cases of apparent kidnappings of prominent anti-government activists.
One of the activists, Yuriy Verbytsky, was found dead in the forest while another, Igor Lutsenko, survived a severe beating and was hospitalized.
Automaidan's members have come under immense pressure, and some have gone into hiding or left the country.
After Bulatov's departure from Kiev was confirmed, Poroshenko said: "I think we just saved his life".
Analysts: Army loyalties divided on Ukraine protests
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 12:13
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is unlikely to move the army against protesters despite opposition warnings about an imminent intervention -- mainly because the loyalty of rank and file soldiers could be in doubt, analysts said.
"The core of the army is made up of young people who grew up in an independent Ukraine," said Valentyn Badrak, director of the Research Center for the Army, Demilitarization and Disarmament in Kiev.
"They are members of a younger generation that feels very close to the aspirations of the Maidan," or Independence Square in the center of Kiev, the epicentre of Ukraine's protest movement, Badrak told Agence France Presse.
"The high command is made up mostly of officers and generals who grew up in Soviet times and they have a certain discipline, they are ready to obey any order," he said.
But lower ranks "feel the financial and social difficulties" in Ukraine, he said.
The opposition has been warning for weeks that Yanukovych could be preparing to impose emergency rule by calling the army into the streets, prompting international concern.
The prospect appeared to become more concrete last Friday when the army asked Yanukovych to take "urgent measures" to end a two-month crisis that has claimed at least four lives and left parts of central Kiev looking like a war zone.
The 63-year-old president has battled protests sparked by his decision to ditch key economic and political agreements with the European Union.
The pro-EU protest movement has turned into an all-out drive to oust Yanukovych.
'In a pitiful state'
Since the country's 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, the army has always remained neutral.
The military remained above the fray during the pro-democracy 2004 "Orange Revolution" which brought pro-Western opposition leaders to power in a confrontation over an election that was fraudulently won by Yanukovych.
Badrak said imposing emergency rule "will be virtually impossible" because of low morale in a country in which military spending has been a low priority.
"The army is in a pitiful state. An officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel earns as much as a cashier at a supermarket" -- or around 300 euros ($405) a month, he said.
"And spending keeps going down," he said.
Sergiy Zgurets, another military expert, said the army's call on Yanukovych was only "a show of loyalty" to the president.
In fact "the military is divided", he said.
The Ukrainian military's chief-of-staff, General Volodymyr Zamana, struck a more conciliatory tone on Saturday saying that "no one has the right to use the armed forces to limit the rights of citizens".
Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev also said that "a crushing majority of 87 percent" of the army supported Yanukovych -- a statement that points to at least some dissent.
"That means 13 percent of the army do not support hardline methods and military action to end the protests," former defense minister Anatoliy Grytsenko, who is now an opposition politician, told AFP.
"Even taking into account the pressure from the 'tsar', this is a good result," he said.
Grytsenko also said that a telegram has been going round army units asking them to pledge loyalty to Yanukovych.
"I know that despite the difficulty of the situation there are honest officers in the armed forces who are not signing it.
"I also know of some cases in which the high command is sacking them."
Russia Calls on Ukraine Opposition to Renounce Ultimatums
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 12:58
Russia on Monday urged Ukraine's opposition to stop issuing "threats and ultimatums" after it appealed for Western aid and urged President Viktor Yanukovych to accept curbs on power.
The statement from Moscow, which has publicly supported Yanukovych in his confrontation with the opposition, came after Ukrainian protest leaders rallied tens of thousands in central Kiev on Sunday.
"We expect the opposition in Ukraine to renounce threats and ultimatums and revitalize a dialogue with the authorities with a view to taking the country out of a deep crisis and into a constitutional sphere," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement.
"Russia is rather concerned by a desire of Ukraine's opposition forces to further inflame the situation in the country."
Opposition leaders have asked the West to mediate in talks with Yanukovych to prevent "misunderstandings".
They have also requested "real financial aid" after more than two months of protests that have left much of central Kiev looking like a war zone and hobbled an already frail economy.
Fresh from talks with top foreign leaders at a security conference in Munich over the weekend, the protest leaders also called on supporters to establish self-defense units to protect themselves from pro-government vigilantes.
"In every city, in every district, gather your friends and neighbors together and come out to patrol the streets," boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko said at the Kiev rally.
The opposition also called on supporters to picket city halls across the country.
Moscow said those calls were "in direct contravention of the opposition's statements about adhering to democracy and European values."
"It is perplexing that such provocative steps are being taken immediately after the opposition leaders' talks with representatives of Western countries in Munich over the past days," the statement said.
Danish PM Reshuffles Cabinet amid Goldman Sachs Uproar
by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 12:46
Denmark's prime minister announced a sweeping cabinet reshuffle on Monday after her coalition collapsed over a deal involving U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs.
Six ministers from the leftist Socialist People's Party left Helle Thorning-Schmidt's government Thursday over the controversial sale of a stake in state-controlled utilities giant DONG Energy to a group of investors led by the bank.
The deal sparked an outcry few had anticipated amid fears Goldman Sachs could use tax havens to administer their holding in DONG and claims that the investment bank had been given unusually favorable terms.
In Monday's new line-up, former Minister of Climate and Energy Martin Lidegaard was named foreign minister and Morten Oestergaard, the former minister for higher education and research, was named tax minister.
The naming of a minister for social affairs and integration from the Social Liberal Party drew criticism from the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, who fear the Danish immigration laws could be relaxed.
"Cutbacks for the elderly and weak, but more money and privileges for people from another continent," former party leader Pia Kjaersgaard wrote on her Facebook page.
The government's sale of a 19-percent stake in DONG to the Goldman Sachs-led group for eight billion kroner (1.07 billion euros, $1.46 billion) had been justified by a need for the group to make new investments, especially after it lost money on natural gas bets.
But for the Socialist People's Party, which had already been accused by grassroot members of supporting a government that was too right-wing, it became the straw that broke the camel's back.
The Social Democratic-led government has cut the corporate tax rate to 22 percent from 25 percent and tightened the requirements for claiming social benefits.
Economic growth in Denmark has been persistently sluggish since a housing bubble burst in 2007, leading to anaemic household spending amid a high level of consumer debt.
Female defence ministers pledge to break Europe's old boys' network
Dutch politician tweets image of Norwegian, Swedish and German counterparts from Munich summit, saying 'things are changing'
Philip Oltermann in Berlin
The Guardian, Sunday 2 February 2014 17.20 GMT
It happened at around 3pm on Saturday, in one of the conference rooms at Munich's Bayerischer Hof hotel, where politicians from around the world had gathered for an annual security conference. The female defence ministers of Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands had all met at previous conferences, so they decided to welcome Ursula von der Leyen, their new German counterpart.
When Belgium's (male) defence minister, Pieter De Crem, spotted the group of women, he quipped: "Oh, I'll better get out of the picture." That's when the Dutch defence minister, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, asked someone to capture the scene on her phone.
Hennis-Plasschaert told the Guardian: "[The Dutch politician] Neelie Kroes once said to me that old boys' networks are the oldest form of cartels we have in Europe. She was right, but things are changing, and women can do similar things now."
Her tweet with the photograph soon went viral. To many, the image heralded a new era in which even the last bastions of male privilege were no longer closed to talented women. Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, retweeted it with the comment "True Power Girls" (and was widely criticised for the condescending tone).
"That's how global peace can be reached," read another comment. Others felt the photograph was less indicative of a smashed glass ceiling than the diminished importance of the defence ministry in the post-cold-war era.
While all four women hail from liberal-conservative parties in northern Europe, their paths to their current roles differ considerably. Whereas Sweden and Norway's defence ministers are already the third and fifth female politicians in their posts, their German and Dutch colleagues are breaking new ground.
Hennis-Plasschaert , 40, from the Netherlands' People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, entered the cabinet after a short but distinguished career in the European parliament in November 2012.
On taking office, she famously said that "it doesn't matter if you have a willy or not" and denies women have a common way of doing politics, or even a common experience of becoming politicians, purely because they are all women.
"I don't think the military officers that we work with see us any differently than if we were men," she said. "And if they do, they don't show it. But there is a public debate about women taking more influential political roles, and that's healthy."
Sweden's Karin Enström, 47, is the only one of the four women with professional experience in the armed forces. From an upper-class family and in office since April 2012, she still holds the rank of captain in the Swedish marines; her brother Henrik was once in charge of the small Swedish contingent in Afghanistan.
Ine Eriksen Søreide, 37, has been one of the rising stars of Norwegian politics since she was asked to chair parliament's education committee at the age of 29. Having impressed observers and colleagues with her people skills, determination and work ethic, many believe the young politician from a humble background is destined for higher things.
In the case of Germany's Ursula von der Leyen, there is little doubt that a successful stint in the defence ministry would set her up as the obvious successor to her party colleague and current chancellor, Angela Merkel.
The 55-year-old doctor, who has seven children, made her name as a strong supporter of parental leave during her stint in the family and labour ministry.
After elections in September, it was reported she insisted on taking the defence job; the male incumbent was swiftly moved to the interior ministry to make room.
Do female defence ministers prove to be more doveish in their roles than their male counterparts?
Not going by Von der Leyen's comments since taking office. She has already distanced herself from her predecessor's refusal to join military action in Libya, and recently told Der Spiegel that "due to globalisation, distant conflicts are now much closer to Europe".
At the Munich security conference, she underlined the German president Joachim Gauck's call for a more proactive German foreign policy by stating that "indifference is not an option for Germany".
Her Dutch colleague too called for a more robust European front on foreign interventions: "Reliability means that partners don't pull out of joint military commitments at five to 12," said Hennis-Plasschaert on Saturday.
Greece's Golden Dawn to form new party if banned from polls
Far-right activists say they will form National Dawn to contest elections if they are prevented from standing in elections
Helena Smith in Athens
theguardian.com, Sunday 2 February 2014 16.52 GMT
After months of lying low, Greece's neofascist Golden Dawn party has returned to the streets, vowing to contest local and European elections under a new name to circumvent a possible ban.
The Greek far-right party, Europe's most violent political force, announced members would form a new outfit called National Dawn if it is prevented from participating in the poll because of an ongoing inquiry into alleged criminal activities.
"Patriots will have a party to vote for in the next election if [authorities] go ahead with the coup to ban Golden Dawn," Ilias Kasidiaris, an MP and leading light of the party, told thousands of black-clad supporters gathered in central Athens.
"Whatever happens, we will contest the elections. Greek nationalists who have not been involved in criminal organisations, who have no criminal record, have founded a new patriotic party, the National Dawn."
After debt-stricken Greece's shaky two-party coalition announced that the European poll would coincide with municipal elections in May, the vote is seen as a barometer of the mood at large.
On Saturday, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of main opposition party, Syriza, said the double election would amount to a referendum over the deeply unpopular austerity programme exacted in exchange for emergency loans from the EU and IMF.
As the head of Europe's biggest leftist force, Tsipras is also running for the post of European commission president. But it is the virulently anti-immigrant Golden Dawn that the 28-nation bloc is watching most keenly.
Kasidiaris – who has emerged as the public face of a party that has seen six of its 18 deputies jailed since the murder in September of an anti-fascist musician – revealed the extremists' plans at a rally marking the 18th anniversary of a military standoff between Greece and Turkey over two uninhabited isles in the Aegean sea.
Since being catapulted into parliament in June 2012, the ultranationalists have rowdily commemorated the event – the nearest the two neighbouring countries have come to blows since the 1974 invasion of Cyprus.
Last year, the party claimed more than 50,000 attended the rally. This year fewer than 3,000 showed up despite the event being turned into an outpouring of grief and solidarity for two members shot dead in December and the party's incarcerated MPs, including leader Nikos Michaloliakos.
An unrepentant admirer of the military junta in power until 1974, Michaloliakos, who founded Golden Dawn in the early 1980s, stands accused of running a paramilitary operation that systematically attacked migrants, leftists and gay people.
Despite the organisation's apparent inability to mobilise supporters it is still riding high in polls. Surveys show Golden Dawn remains the country's third largest force, able to win at least 10% of the vote on a wave of anti-austerity anger and disgust with the political establishment.
Kasidiaris, who has announced his candidacy for mayor of Athens despite also facing criminal charges, is projected to get as much as 15% of the vote. "They put us in jail. And what happened? Did we falter?" he asked those gathered on Saturday.
"No we did not. We are stronger, we are more powerful and in a short time we will be in power."
Greece manufacturing sector growth boosts eurozone recovery hopes
Eurozone's largest economy, Germany, led the new year's manufacturing march but Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland and Greece also expanded
theguardian.com, Monday 3 February 2014 12.15 GMT
Greece's factory sector has finally returned to growth for the first time in over four years, fuelling hopes that the country's long slump could be easing.
A survey released on Monday showed that Greek manufacturers finally reported their first expansion since August 2009 in January, helping Europe's manufacturing sector enjoy its strongest expansion in almost three years.
Markit, the data provider, reported that Greek factories saw an increase in new orders and higher exports last month, although manufacturers continued to trim their workforces. Economists said the long-awaited recovery in Greek manufacturing boosted hopes the overall economy will finally stop shrinking this year – amid reports that the eurozone is close to agreeing a third bailout loan for Greece, worth up to €20bn (£16bn).
The area's largest economy, Germany, led the new year's manufacturing march but Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland and Greece also expanded. France, however, continued to lag the rest of the eurozone.
The headline reading for the region as a whole rose to 54.0 in January from 52.7 in December on the Markit Eurozone Manufacturing PMI. That was well above the 50-mark separating growth from contraction and slightly ahead of a preliminary estimate of 53.9 released last month.
Chris Williamson, chief economist at survey compilers Markit, said the eurozone manufacturing recovery gained "significant further momentum" in January. All the figures were higher than the 'flash' readings published two weeks ago.
"The survey data indicate that manufacturing output across the eurozone is growing at a quarterly rate in excess of 1%, led by Germany, where the rate of increase is perhaps as strong as 3%," he said.
"However, perhaps the most important development in the report is the further revival of manufacturing in the region's periphery. Both Italy and Spain are seeing robust growth of output and order books, and the Greek PMI's rise above 50 for the first time since August 2009 is an important signal of how even the most troubled member states are returning to growth."
Greek factory activity rises, but jobs still being cut
Markit's reading on Greek factory activity rose to 51.2 in January, up from 49.6 in December. But with job losses still up across the sector, any recovery has not yet reached the country's battered population.
The survey also showed that firms kept cutting prices, which will push Greece deeper into deflationary territory.
In Germany, factory output grew at the fastest rate in 32 months with the PMI surging to 56.5 in January from 54.3 in December. That was the strongest reading asince May 2011.
New orders rose, as did the amount of work stacking up, which encouraged firms to hire more staff – proving once again that Europe's largest economy is outperforming the rest of the eurozone.
But France remained a laggard, with its factory output falling again, although at a slower pace.
The French manufacturing PMI rose to 49.3 in January, from 47.0 in December.
Markit's Williamson said France was "showing signs of stabilising" as it enjoyed a welcome return to export growth. But he added: "Manufacturing in the eurozone's second-largest member state remains in overall decline and a drag on the region."
Howard Archer, economist at IHS Global Insight highlighted the manufacturing recovery in all the eurozone's peripheral countries.
Greece's long-awaited return to factory growth, and the pick-up in Spain and Italy, suggested the euro area's economy continued to recover, Archer said.
"This fuels hopes that sustainable Spanish and Italian recovery really is now gradually developing. Furthermore, Greek manufacturing activity ... expanded in January for the first time since August 2009, suggesting that there is a real chance that Greek GDP could finally stop contracting overall in 2014."
France's future at risk from 'unnatural families', say conservative protesters
Interior minister Manuel Valls dismisses tens of thousands of demonstrators on streets of Paris and Lyon as 'anti-republicans'
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Sunday 2 February 2014 18.05 GMT
Under a sea of fluttering pink and blue flags, the Manif Pour Tous (Demo for all) movement's complaints were eclectic and apocalyptic – with a dash of paranoia and conspiracy thrown in for good measure.
"If we don't stop this government there be no future for France," said Médéric, 20, a student. "The family is at risk. France is at risk. You wait, it'll be euthanasia next."
On Sunday, protesters – 80,000 police said, 500,000 claimed the organisers – again took to the boulevards of Paris and Lyon in a show of force against the French government and in support of "the family". In case anyone was in doubt about what those words meant, the logo on the flags, badges, stickers and banners showed a "traditional" family: father, mother, son, daughter.
The protesters were united against gay marriage and adoption first. They lost that battle last April when parliament approved same-sex marriage. Since then, they have continued their opposition but moved on to "the family", which they believe is threatened by a proposed family law expected in the spring.
Recent demonstrations, however, are a vocal and visible expression of a more febrile atmosphere spreading across France, where the popularity of the Socialist president, François Hollande, is at rock bottom, the mainstream centre-right opposition has no clear leadership, and the far-right Front National is forecast to make significant gains in local and European elections.
The widespread sense of dissatisfaction and disillusion has encouraged extremism, as seen at a Paris "Day of Anger" protest last Sunday, which degenerated into antisemitic slogans, including "Jews out", Nazi salutes and quenelles, the trademark of controversial comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala.
Hollande describes the movements as "repressive and regressive", while the interior minister, Manuel Valls, has likened the atmosphere to the economic, social and political crisis that brought violent "anti-politics" demonstrations to France in the 1930s.
If Sunday's demonstrators spoke of despising the government, Valls made it clear the feeling was mutual. He told Le Journal du Dimanche that the country was witnessing the formation of a "Tea Party à la Française". Recent protests were, Valls declared, a "revolt of the antis: anti-elite, anti-state, anti-tax, anti-parliament, anti-journalists … but also and above all, antisemites, racists and homophobes. Put simply, they are anti-republicans," he said.
Symbolic of the sense of collective hysteria was the row last week over so-called gender theory, which protesters claimed was being taught at schools. Individuals with right-wing links were accused of spreading unfounded rumours that the government's ABCD of Equality programme, aimed at ending sexual stereotyping in schools, involved "masturbation classes". As a result, parents at 100 schools pulled their children from classes, convinced the government was meddling with their identity and sexual orientation.
A cartoon in Le Parisien lampooned the scaremongering, showing a boy asking his father to tell him a scary bedtime story. The father replies: "The government plans to make mothers have abortions and put the foetus in the womb of another woman who will sell it to a homosexual couple who will decide whether to bring it up a girl or a boy."
Laurent Gougeon, a printer who attended the Paris protest with his wife and son, said he was against IVF for same-sex couples and the teaching of gender theory, and was unconvinced by official denials that any such thing was happening.
"There is a threat to the family in France today. If we don't do something the family will cease to exist," he said.
A retired couple, who did not want to be named, had driven from Normandy to attend the protest. "Look around you, here are traditional French people who don't normally demonstrate. We are good citizens. We go to work and we mind our own business, but we are afraid for our children. The government wants to destroy the family," said the woman.
Maylis Gillier, a 19-year-old student, agreed: "The government is trying to create a new type of family, which is not natural. We are very against surrogacy and the marketing of women in this way."
Her friend Domitille Le Prince added: "We're called extremists because we don't think same-sex marriage is natural. Nobody is listening to us. They talk about equality as if it means you can do what you want and somehow everything is rosy. But it's not fine. It's not rosy."
A group of young men and women calling themselves the Salopards (Bastards) and wearing pink dungarees "to show you can be against gay marriage without being homophobic", was also there to "defend the family".
Jessica, 24, was one of many to voice the wider malaise. "This government has nothing but contempt for us. Nobody is listening. We are not traditional, old, French Catholics; we are young and we want to be heard," she said.
Germany preparing third financial rescue for Greece
New loan, outlined in a German finance ministry position paper, would be worth €10bn-€20bn, says Der Spiegel magazine
Helena Smith in Athens
The Guardian, Sunday 2 February 2014 20.14 GMT
Germany has signalled it is preparing a third rescue package for Greece – provided the debt-stricken country implements "rigorous"austerity measures blamed for record levels of unemployment and a dramatic drop in GDP.
The new loan, outlined in a five-page position paper by Berlin's finance ministry, would be worth between €10bn to €20bn (£8bn-16bn), according to the German weekly Der Spiegel, which was leaked the document.
Such an amount would chime with comments made by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who, in a separate interview due to be published on Monday insisted that any additional aid required by Athens would be "far smaller" than the €240bn it had received so far.
"What is sure is that any further aid would be much less expansive than whatever help [has been given] so far," he is quoted as telling the German finance magazine Wirtschaftswoche in what appears to be a calibrated move aimed at preparing public opinion.
The renewed help follows revelations of clandestine talks between Schäuble and leading EU figures over how to deal with Greece, which despite receiving the biggest bailout in global financial history, continues to remain the weakest link in the eurozone.
The talks, said to have taken place on the sidelines of a Eurogroup meeting of eurozone finance ministers last week, are believed to have focused on the need to cover an impending shortfall in the country's financing and the reluctance Athens is displaying to enforce long overdue structural reforms. The lack of progress is at the root of stalled talks between Greece and its "troika" of creditors, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Central Bank and EU.
Greece faces a financing gap of up to €15bn over the next two years, according to foreign creditors, which have kept its economy afloat since May 2010. As the EU's powerhouse, Berlin has bankrolled most of the emergency loans to date.
But a German finance ministry spokesman, echoing similar statements by Schäuble, denied that a further restructuring of Greece's staggering debt – this time by public creditors – was also on the cards.
"There is no new situation," said the spokesman referring to previous statements made by Schäuble also rejecting the need for debt relief to be extended to recession-hit Greece.
Most of the debt overhang now haunting the country belongs to European governments and at 176% of GDP – up from 120% of national output at the start of the crisis – is not only a barrier to investment but widely regarded as being at the root of its economic woes.
"They are missing the point: Greece does not need a third bailout, it needs debt restructuring," said the shadow development minister and economics professor, Giorgos Stathakis.
"Even in the IMF, logical people agree there is no way we can have any more fiscal adjustment when the whole thing has reached its limits," he said. "There is simply no room for further cuts and further taxes and that is what they are going to ask for."
He said the assistance was "the wrong thing at the wrong time". Unemployment is nudging 28% – and youth unemployment rate tops 60% – while economic recovery is still far from assured, despite the nation outperforming targets with the achievement of a primary budget surplus in 2013.
The IMF has been increasingly at odds with Germany and other lenders over the need to write off Greece's debt. Confidential records, documenting minutes of meetings held to discuss the country's first bailout, reveal the level of discord among member states over the feasibility of the rescue programme. The IMF said last year that without additional debt relief by eurozone governments, Greece's debt burden could smother the country's economy.
China, Brazil, Argentina, India, Egypt and Switzerland have been among the countries expressing grave doubts that the assistance would work, arguing that Greece might end up worse off after the austerity programme.