Meet the seven people who hold the keys to worldwide internet security
By James Ball, The Guardian
Saturday, March 1, 2014 8:14 EST
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction: seven keys, held by individuals from all over the world, that together control security at the core of the web. The reality, discovers James Ball, is rather closer to The Office than The Matrix
In a nondescript industrial estate in El Segundo, a boxy suburb in northern Los Angeles just a mile or two from LAX international airport, 20 people wait in a windowless canteen for a ceremony to begin. Outside, the sun is shining on an unseasonably warm February day; inside, the only light comes from the glare of halogen bulbs.
There is a strange mix of accents – predominantly American, but smatterings of Swedish, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese can be heard around the room, as men and women (but mostly men) chat over pepperoni pizza and 75-cent vending machine soda. In the corner, an Asteroids arcade machine blares out tinny music and flashing lights.
It might be a fairly typical office scene, were it not for the extraordinary security procedures that everyone in this room has had to complete just to get here, the sort of measures normally reserved for nuclear launch codes or presidential visits. The reason we are all here sounds like the stuff of science fiction, or the plot of a new Tom Cruise franchise: the ceremony we are about to witness sees the coming together of a group of people, from all over the world, who each hold a key to the internet. Together, their keys create a master key, which in turn controls one of the central security measures at the core of the web. Rumours about the power of these keyholders abound: could their key switch off the internet? Or, if someone somehow managed to bring the whole system down, could they turn it on again?
The keyholders have been meeting four times a year, twice on the east coast of the US and twice here on the west, since 2010. Gaining access to their inner sanctum isn’t easy, but last month I was invited along to watch the ceremony and meet some of the keyholders – a select group of security experts from around the world. All have long backgrounds in internet security and work for various international institutions. They were chosen for their geographical spread as well as their experience – no one country is allowed to have too many keyholders. They travel to the ceremony at their own, or their employer’s, expense.
What these men and women control is the system at the heart of the web: the domain name system, or DNS. This is the internet’s version of a telephone directory – a series of registers linking web addresses to a series of numbers, called IP addresses. Without these addresses, you would need to know a long sequence of numbers for every site you wanted to visit. To get to the Guardian, for instance, you’d have to enter “22.214.171.124″ instead of theguardian.com.
The master key is part of a new global effort to make the whole domain name system secure and the internet safer: every time the keyholders meet, they are verifying that each entry in these online “phone books” is authentic. This prevents a proliferation of fake web addresses which could lead people to malicious sites, used to hack computers or steal credit card details.
The east and west coast ceremonies each have seven keyholders, with a further seven people around the world who could access a last-resort measure to reconstruct the system if something calamitous were to happen. Each of the 14 primary keyholders owns a traditional metal key to a safety deposit box, which in turn contains a smartcard, which in turn activates a machine that creates a new master key. The backup keyholders have something a bit different: smartcards that contain a fragment of code needed to build a replacement key-generating machine. Once a year, these shadow holders send the organisation that runs the system – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) – a photograph of themselves with that day’s newspaper and their key, to verify that all is well.
The fact that the US-based, not-for-profit organisation Icann – rather than a government or an international body – has one of the biggest jobs in maintaining global internet security has inevitably come in for criticism. Today’s occasionally over-the-top ceremony (streamed live on Icann’s website) is intended to prove how seriously they are taking this responsibility. It’s one part The Matrix (the tech and security stuff) to two parts The Office (pretty much everything else).
For starters: to get to the canteen, you have to walk through a door that requires a pin code, a smartcard and a biometric hand scan. This takes you into a “mantrap”, a small room in which only one door at a time can ever be open. Another sequence of smartcards, handprints and codes opens the exit. Now you’re in the break room.
Already, not everything has gone entirely to plan. Leaning next to the Atari arcade machine, ex-state department official Rick Lamb, smartly suited and wearing black-rimmed glasses (he admits he’s dressed up for the occasion), is telling someone that one of the on-site guards had asked him out loud, “And your security pin is 9925, yes?” “Well, it was…” he says, with an eye-roll. Looking in our direction, he says it’s already been changed.
Lamb is now a senior programme manager for Icann, helping to roll out the new, secure system for verifying the web. This is happening fast, but it is not yet fully in play. If the master key were lost or stolen today, the consequences might not be calamitous: some users would receive security warnings, some networks would have problems, but not much more. But once everyone has moved to the new, more secure system (this is expected in the next three to five years), the effects of losing or damaging the key would be far graver. While every server would still be there, nothing would connect: it would all register as untrustworthy. The whole system, the backbone of the internet, would need to be rebuilt over weeks or months. What would happen if an intelligence agency or hacker – the NSA or Syrian Electronic Army, say – got hold of a copy of the master key? It’s possible they could redirect specific targets to fake websites designed to exploit their computers – although Icann and the keyholders say this is unlikely.
Standing in the break room next to Lamb is Dmitry Burkov, one of the keyholders, a brusque and heavy-set Russian security expert on the boards of several internet NGOs, who has flown in from Moscow for the ceremony. “The key issue with internet governance is always trust,” he says. “No matter what the forum, it always comes down to trust.” Given the tensions between Russia and the US, and Russia’s calls for new organisations to be put in charge of the internet, does he have faith in this current system? He gestures to the room at large: “They’re the best part of Icann.” I take it he means he likes these people, and not the wider organisation, but he won’t be drawn further.
It’s time to move to the ceremony room itself, which has been cleared for the most sensitive classified information. No electrical signals can come in or out. Building security guards are barred, as are cleaners. To make sure the room looks decent for visitors, an east coast keyholder, Anne-Marie Eklund Löwinder of Sweden, has been in the day before to vacuum with a $20 dustbuster.
We’re about to begin a detailed, tightly scripted series of more than 100 actions, all recorded to the minute using the GMT time zone for consistency. These steps are a strange mix of high-security measures lifted straight from a thriller (keycards, safe combinations, secure cages), coupled with more mundane technical details – a bit of trouble setting up a printer – and occasional bouts of farce. In short, much like the internet itself.
As we step into the ceremony room, 16 men and four women, it is just after lunchtime in LA and 21.14 GMT. As well as the keyholders, there are several witnesses here to make sure no one can find some sneaky back door into the internet. Some are security experts, others are laypeople, two are auditors from PricewaterhouseCoopers (with global online trade currently well in excess of $1tn, the key has a serious role to play in business security). Lamb uses an advanced iris scanner to let us all in.
“Please centre your eyes,” the tinny automated voice tells him. “Please come a little closer to the camera… Sorry, we cannot confirm your identity.”
Lamb sighs and tries again.
“Thank you, your identity has been verified.”
We file into a space that resembles a doctor’s waiting room: two rows of bolted-down metal seats facing a desk. Less like a doctor’s waiting room are the networks of cameras live-streaming to Icann’s website. At one side of the room is a cage containing two high-security safes.
Francisco Arias, Icann’s director of technical services, acts as today’s administrator. It is his first time, and his eyes regularly flick to the script. To start with, things go according to plan. Arias and the four keyholders (the ceremony requires a minimum of three, not all seven) enter the secure cage to retrieve their smartcards, held in tamper-evident bags. Middle-aged men wearing checked shirts and jeans, they are Portuguese keyholder João Damas, based in Spain; American Edward Lewis, who works for an internet and security analytics firm; and Uruguayan Carlos Martinez, who works for Lacnic, the internet registry for Latin America and the Caribbean.
All but one of the 21 keyholders has been with the organisation since the very first ceremony. The initial selection process was surprisingly low-key: there was an advertisement on Icann’s site, which generated just 40 applications for 21 positions. Since then, only one keyholder has resigned: Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet, now in his 70s and employed as “chief internet evangelist” by Google. At the very first key ceremony, in Culpeper, Virginia, Cerf told the room that the principle of one master key lying at the core of networks was a major milestone. “More has happened here today than meets the eye,” he said then. “I would predict that… in the long run this hierarchical structure of trust will be applied to a number of other functions that require strong authentication.” But Cerf struggled with the travel commitment and dropped his keyholder duties.
At 21.29, things go awry. A security controller slams the door of the safe shut, triggering a seismic sensor, which in turn triggers automatic door locks. The ceremony administrator and the keyholders are all locked in an 8ft square cage. Six minutes of quiet panic go by before they hit on a solution: trigger an alarm and an evacuation. Sirens blare and everyone piles out to mill around in the corridor until we can get back to the 100-point script. Every deviation has to be noted on an official record, which everyone present must read and sign off at a later point. Meanwhile, we use the downtime to snack: people rip open a few bags of Oreo biscuits and Cheez-Its.
Both the US commerce department and the Department of Homeland Security take a close interest, to differing degrees, in Icann’s operations. In the wake of the ongoing revelations of NSA spying, and of undermined internet security, this does not sit well with many of Icann’s overseas partners. Some, including Russia and Brazil – whose president has made such demands very public – are calling for a complete overhaul of how the internet is run, suggesting it should be put under UN auspices.
The question of who put Icann in charge is hotly contested. Lamb argues that “it’s the online community; it’s the people who’ve put Icann in charge”. Eklund Löwinder, the Swedish keyholder who vacuumed the day before, puts it more bluntly. “Well, mainly, it was the US Department of Commerce,” she says. The European Commission wants changes to this system, though it still expresses its faith in Icann; the EU recently called for a “clear timeline for the globalisation of Icann”.
Eklund Löwinder explains that while the security might occasionally seem ridiculous, every step is very important when it comes to maintaining trust. “It’s a system based on backups of backups, layers and layers of security,” she says, her dangly cat earrings swinging. “Of course it is a bit romantic and thrilling to be a part of this, because I am a romantic by heart. I have to admit I love the internet. It’s a piece of engineering art you have to admire. And to be able to contribute to make this a safer place makes me feel good.”
Where does she keep her key? She admits she has two copies, in case she loses one; one of them never leaves a bank deposit box. The other, which she uses twice a year in the ceremonies on the east coast, is attached to a long metal chain. Most of the time it sits in a wooden puzzle box, with a hidden lock, created by her furniture designer son.
By 22.09 (we are all sticking to GMT) the ceremony is back on and everyone’s returning to the script. The high-security machine that will generate the master key is set up. Once activated by the smartcards, this will produce a lengthy cryptographic code. If dropped, or even knocked too hard, the machine will self-destruct.
Now that everything has been removed from the safes, we move to act two of the ceremony: the key signing. The first step would be familiar to anyone – getting the laptop plugged in and booting it up – but some witnesses watch like hawks, logging and initialising each step. Others are beginning to flag, checking their watches or having whispered conversations with their neighbours.
At 22.40, a series of USB drives is set up, one of which will be used to load the signed key on to the live internet at the end of the ceremony: this is when the code is uploaded to the servers that dictate who controls .com, .net, .co.uk and more.
The output of the previous ceremony is checked, to make sure people are working off the same key – a process that requires Arias to read aloud a 64-character code. Everyone nods as they verify it against their sheets.
At 22.48 the high-security machine – a small, plain grey box with a keypad and card slot in front – is wired up. Each keyholder hands over his individual smartcard. Then, at 22.59, nearly two hours after the ceremony began, it’s show time. Alejandro Bolivar, an American expert from Verisign, the security company that administers the “root zone” of the domain name system, steps forward to read out a nonsense sequence of words generated by the previous key. He begins: “Flatfoot warranty brickyard Camelot…” and continues for nearly a minute before concluding, “blackjack vagabond.” The sequence corresponds with the witnesses’ notes, so they nod and sign their script. A short line of code is typed into the laptop at 23.02, and seconds later the new key is signed, to a smattering of applause.
After a 20-minute sequence of disconnecting secure machines and powering down the laptop, a USB stick is handed to Tomofumi Okubo, another Icann staffer. Deliberately or otherwise, Okubo makes a slight bow as he is passed the stick holding the “signed” digital key. Later Okubo will transmit the key on a secure channel to Verisign and this signed key will be made live across the internet. It will take effect for three months, from 1 April (yes, really). After that, the key will expire and error messages will start to appear across the internet.
Given how high the stakes are, and the number of possible targets, does Okubo think the system is trustworthy? “I think so,” he says. “You’d have to compromise a lot of people…” He trails off.
Does this often slightly bizarre ceremony work? Are the security precautions integral, or just for show? Bruce Schneier, an American cryptologist and security expert who worked with Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian to analyse some of the files leaked by Edward Snowden, suggests it’s a little of both. “A lot of it is necessary, and some of it is necessary theatre,” he concedes. “This process is both technical and political, which makes it extra complicated… I think the system is well designed.” As to whether the system will survive in the aftermath of the NSA revelations, Schneier thinks the jury is still out: “That, we don’t know.”
Back in the ceremony room, the four keyholders are once again locked in a cage with the safes holding their smartcards, this time returning them for future use. It is 23.32 on the clock and each is solemnly holding up their keycard, in a new tamper-evident bag, for the cameras to witness before returning it to the safe. Not everyone present is entirely gripped. “It’s like a combination of church and a baseball game and I don’t know what else,” says Icann PR Lynn Lipinski. “I’m getting sleepy.”
At 00.06, five hours after we all arrived, it’s time to shut off the live-streaming cameras. Lamb checks in to see how many people have been following the ceremony.
The system admin calls back: “We peaked at 12.”
We file out, job done.
“Wait,” Okubo says. “One question before we go… Can I ask who’s coming for dinner?”
There’s a show of hands and, with the web secure for another three months, the keyholders to the internet file out into the LA sunshine.
• Watch a film about the Icann keyholder ceremony at theguardian.com/videohttp://www.theguardian.com/video
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Senators to investigate NSA role in GCHQ 'Optic Nerve' webcam spying
Three senators condemn UK spy agency’s ‘breathtaking lack of respect’ over interception of Yahoo users’ webcam images
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 28 February 2014 17.14 GMT
Three US senators are planning to investigate any role the National Security Agency played in its British partner’s mass collection of Yahoo webcam images.
Reacting to the Guardian’s revelation on Thursday that UK surveillance agency GCHQ swept up millions of Yahoo users’ webcam chats, senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich said in a joint statement that “any involvement of US agencies in the alleged activities reported today will need to be closely scrutinized”.
The senators described the interception as a “breathtaking lack of respect for privacy and civil liberties”.
On Friday, the Internet Association – a trade body representing internet giants including Google, Amazon, eBay, Netflix, AOL and Twitter – joined the chorus of condemnation, issuing a statement expressing alarm at the latest GCHQ revelations, and calling for reform.
According to documents provided to the Guardian by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the GCHQ program codenamed Optic Nerve fed screengrabs of webcam chats and associated metadata into NSA tools such as Xkeyscore.
NSA research, the documents indicate, also contributed to the creation of Optic Nerve, which attempted to use facial recognition technology to identify intelligence targets, particularly those using multiple anonymous internet IDs.
Neither NSA nor GCHQ addressed the Guardian’s questions about US access to the images themselves. Outgoing NSA director Keith Alexander walked away from a reporter on Thursday who asked the army four-star general about the NSA’s role in Optic Nerve.
Wyden, Udall and Heinrich are all members of the Senate intelligence committee. They said they were “extremely troubled” by Optic Nerve and planned to investigate it during the committee’s announced omnibus inquiry into the scope of US surveillance activities revealed over the nine months since the Guardian and other news outlets began reporting the Snowden disclosures.
“We are extremely troubled by today’s press report that a very large number of individuals – including law-abiding Americans – may have had private videos of themselves and their families intercepted and stored without any suspicion of wrongdoing. If this report is accurate it would show a breathtaking lack of respect for the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding citizens,” they said.
GCHQ’s program, which uses data collected by cable taps as it transits the internet, does not filter out information from British or American webcams. Under UK law, there is no requirement for UK or US material to be removed from the agency’s databases. Additional legal safeguards apply when analysts come to search the database for material on individuals located in the British Isles, though there are no UK laws banning searches for US citizens’ data without a warrant.
The documents seen by the Guardian make clear the lengths to which GCHQ has gone to prevent sexually explicit material appearing in the analysts’ searches. According to one document, it made up between 3% and 11% of the material stored under Optic Nerve.
The agency used face recognition software in an attempt to prevent explicit images clogging up search results but the documents make it clear that those tools were not always successful. Analysts were advised that if they were “uncomfortable about such material” they should not open the images. The guidance adds: “Retrieval and or reference to such material should be avoided.”
GCHQ declined to comment on Optic Nerve but said all its programs operated in full accordance with UK law.
The three US senators said the revelation prompted new thinking about how the interconnectedness of global communications had “dramatically increased the likelihood of innocent Americans being swept up in intelligence collection nominally aimed at foreigners.
“It is becoming clearer and clearer that more needs to be done to ensure that ‘foreign’ intelligence collection does not intrude unnecessarily on the rights of law-abiding people or needlessly undermine the competitiveness of America’s leading industries.”
President Barack Obama said in a 17 January speech that foreigners ought to enjoy some degree of privacy from US surveillance, but has left the specifics undefined.
In a statement, the Internet Association’s CEO Michael Beckerman said:
Today’s revelations, about British intelligence practices, are alarming and reaffirm the need for greater transparency and reform of government surveillance.
Governments must immediately act to reform the practices and laws regulating surveillance and collection of Internet users’ information. The most pressing Internet user privacy issue continues to concern governments’ access to and use of electronic data. The Internet Association supports the Reform Government Surveillance principles and encourages legislation to limit governments’ authority to collect users’ information and increase transparency about government demands.
Obama Slams Republicans in Fiery Election Speech
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 March 2014, 09:43
President Barack Obama fired off a sarcastic, no holds barred attack on Republicans Friday that made clear his focus is now more on mid-term elections than deal-making with his foes in Congress.
Though it was the last day of February, Obama's speech to partisan Democrats was more in tune with the partisanship seen in the closing days of campaigns before November elections.
His broadsides had an almost surreal feel, as Obama arrived at the event at a Washington hotel amid a suddenly boiling foreign policy crisis with Russian accused of deploying troops to Ukraine.
Obama, in his second-year of his second term and with approval ratings down around 40 percent, has been tarnished by five years of political battles with Republicans.
His Democrats have almost no chance of recapturing the House of Representatives in November's elections, and are in peril of also losing control of the Senate.
So the president's political interventions are likely to be confined to firing up the party base and piling up tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash, rather than bailing out vulnerable candidates.
On Friday, Obama mounted a full throated defense of his administration and his under-fire health care law, while taunting Republicans over his two victorious White House runs.
"They just go on offering a theory of the economy that time and again has failed America," Obama said, slamming Republicans for pushing tax policies he said favored the rich.
"They think we should drastically reduce or eliminate the safety net for more people," Obama charged.
"I saw some Republicans in Congress brought in outside aides to teach them how to talk to women," Obama said.
"It is unclear how they've gotten this far without that particular skill," the president joked.
At one point, the deepening crisis with Moscow muscled in on the evening, with a heckler shouting: "tell us about your plan for nuclear war with Russia!"
Obama appeared amused by the intervention, joking the heckler had already been enjoying the Friday evening Happy Hour.
The president insisted that he remained ready to talk to Republicans about working together to grow the economy and create jobs.
But he repeated his theme that if they were not interested in cooperation, he was ready to go it alone and use his executive powers to forge change.
"There are things we could be doing right now to help the American people, and we shouldn't be doing nothing because there's an election coming up."
However, recent political developments in Washington leave little doubt that, even at this early stage, Republican and Democratic leaders have given up hope of significant legislation.
A big immigration reform bill that is backed by Republican top brass and Obama is stalled on Capitol Hill, with House Republicans loathe to cast a vote on a measure many grass roots conservatives see as an amnesty for illegal immigrants, in election year.
Similar tough votes are unlikely on a tax reform bill authored by a senior House Republican, which has been rebuffed by party leaders in the House and Senate.
Obama's top aides meanwhile privately admit that his budget due to be released on Tuesday is little more than an aspirational document that has little chance of thwarting Republican opposition in Congress.
Should Republicans capture the Senate -- they must pick up six seats in what is a tough year for Democrats with vulnerable lawmakers under pressure in conservative states -- Obama would face a grim final two years in office.
He argued Friday that the election in November would not "just set the direction of this country for the next two years, it will set the direction for this country for years to come."
The Systematic Destruction of Equality Is The Top Republican Priority
Saturday, March, 1st, 2014, 10:03 am
Equality is the state of being equal in status, rights, and opportunities, and social equality requires the absence of legally enforced social boundaries as well as the absence of discrimination motivated by an inalienable part of a person’s identity. For example, gender, race, disability, or sexual orientation must not result in unequal treatment under the law and should not reduce opportunities. The 14th Amendment of United States Constitution and Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantee that “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” This foundation of equality is generally subscribed to by all decent human beings, but despite it being a hallmark of the nation’s founding document and an “immortal declaration,” there are un-American citizens who are not only opposed to the idea of equality, they are actively seeking means to destroy the concept and claim the U.S. Constitution gives them legal cover to abridge equal rights of other Americans.
Most Americans celebrated the recent court rulings striking down biblical anti-gay laws that adversely affect their family members and friends, but for every person rejoicing that their loved ones will finally enjoy the Constitution’s guarantee of equality, there are just as many decrying the rulings as a violation of their presumed dog-given religious right to discriminate. In fact, the recent ruling declaring Texas’ ban on marriage equality unconstitutional elicited intense outrage from evangelical extremists who threatened an “epic battle” and condemned the nation’s judiciary as “domestic enemies.” The judges who have ruled according to the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights were also condemned to burn in proverbial Hell for “replacing Democracy with dictatorship, abrogating the U.S. Constitution, flaunting the laws of God and nature, and assuming jurisdiction they don’t have.” Interestingly, it is the U.S. Constitution that gives the judiciary jurisdiction to strike down laws mandating discrimination against Americans.
Obviously, the pronouncements were delivered by religious right extremists who claim that since “there is NO mention of sexual orientation in the Constitution, and any judge who imagines one is a domestic enemy of the Constitution, and should be impeached and removed from office. We must demand Congress hold the line, and protect the traditional definition of marriage FEDERALLY.” There is also no mention of Constitutional protections to discriminate against any group in America, but the religious right translates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom to worship into their license to discriminate and fortunately the judicial system does not acknowledge or adhere to that interpretation.
The regular demented cast of characters opposed to equality weighed in on the Texas ruling and accused the Obama Administration of “tear[ing] away at the foundation of the rule of law” and warned it will lead to “anarchy” and a “breakdown of society altogether.” Another character who does not merit name mention said the ruling was “the most egregious form of judicial activism of our generation” and since “the federal judiciary is out of control,” pledged there would be an “epic battle” to defeat equality in Texas. The Christian extremists have a staunch ally in teabagger hero and evangelical fanatic Ted Cruz who recently displayed his rank ignorance of the Constitution’s guarantee of equality and introduced legislation, the “State Marriage Defense Act” to overrule the Supreme Court’s decision striking down parts of the federal government’s ban on marriage equality.
Cruz accused equal right advocacy groups of using “brute power” to assault and “subvert our democratic system” by forcing states to take down the unconstitutional “marriage laws that have been in place for centuries, and that’s inconsistent with the Constitution.” It is prescient that southern religious right advocates argued that their biblical right to keep human beings as slaves had been in place for centuries, and it led to the deaths of over a three-quarters-of-a-million Americans when their “threat of an epic battle” came to fruition in the Civil War. Cruz went on to warn there is “an awakening” of “millions” of Americans who were lining up behind his campaign against marriage equality that lends credence to religious right’s threats an “epic battle” to preserve inequality while claiming it is protected by the Constitution.
Cruz joined other fanatical evangelicals and laid the blame for supporting the Constitution’s guarantee of equality on the religious rights’ favorite target President Obama. He said that “under President Obama, the federal government has tried to undermine the constitutional authority of each state” to define unconstitutional religious laws discriminating against gays “consistent with the values of its citizens. The Obama Administration should not be trying to force gay marriage on all 50 states. This bill will safeguard the ability of states to preserve traditional marriage for its residents.” Cruz and his evangelical cohort fully understand President Obama is not forcing gay marriage on any state, but it is the kind of rhetoric that incites the faithful and sounds better than saying the President supports the Constitution’s guarantee of equality for all Americans.
Maybe Cruz and his religious hate camp fail to hear themselves advocate for discrimination borne of the bible while claiming their gay hate and discrimination is protected under the Constitution. Over the past week, there was a call to House Republicans to impeach Attorney General Eric Holder for “advancing the rights of homosexuals, the practice of homosexuality, sodomy, and consensual sodomy” that Pat Robertson said were “elevated above the rights of religious believers.” Another religious right extremist said that gays finally enjoying constitutionally guaranteed equal rights “are costing us our freedoms,” and like all evangelical extremists cannot enumerate even one freedom anti-equality advocates have lost but loudly asserted the “homosexual lobby” is “corroding our freedom.” Whether or not extremist Christians are willing to say, out loud, what freedom they lost, it is their so-called religious freedom to impose biblical inequality on other Americans they persistently claim is their Constitutional religious right and they are threatening an “epic battle” to preserve that right.
The language coming from the religious right, primarily in southern Republican-controlled states, is beginning to sound like Confederate rhetoric that led to the Civil War; particularly their choice of President Obama as the target of their ire. There has always been an element in America that claims some group warrants unequal treatment, and if it wasn’t African Americans it has been women with major support coming from the religious right; now the focus is on gays. The troubling aspect is the evangelical extremists have accumulated a phalanx of Republican leaders who are either true believers or pandering to extremists for electoral support; whatever their motivation, they are guilty of inciting a dangerous demographic to action. History has shown time and time again that there is no greater threat than religiously motivated people claiming their campaign is righteous, and subsequently there will be violence when they perceive their god is behind them. If any American does not believe it they should consult their history books under Inquisition, the American Civil War, Armenian genocide, Nazi Holocaust, and the terror attacks on 9/11 because although they occurred in different eras and geographical locations, the perpetrators claimed god was with them.
Alison Lundergan Grimes Shames Mitch McConnell Over His Vote Against Veterans
By: Sarah Jones
Friday, February, 28th, 2014, 4:12 pm
On Thursday, the Mitch McConnell-led Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have improved veterans benefits. It was truly a “shameful display of partisan obstruction”, just as Jason Easley called it.
Since there are nearly 340,000 veterans in Kentucky, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Alison Lundergan Grimes called out her opponent, Republican Mitch McConnell, for his vote to kill the veterans benefits bill with a cowardly procedural vote.
In a statement, Ms. Grimes took McConnell to task, “Mitch McConnell’s voting record against Kentucky’s veterans and military families is inexcusable.” She continued, “It is not enough to simply offer words and empty rhetoric — we must follow through with action in support of our veterans.”
The Democrat shamed McConnell for failing to live up to our promises to our veterans, “My opponent clearly disagrees. Whether they fought in Korea or Afghanistan, we must keep our promises to our returned service men and women and deliver on our responsibility to them just as they have for each of us. They deserve to share in the economic opportunity they bravely fought to protect.”
Grimes also supports renewing the VOW to Hire Heroes Act.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the bill Republicans killed in a tricky procedural move similar to a filibuster. Sanders is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, so the fact that the bill touts “the most comprehensive legislation for veterans to come before the Senate in decades” should not come as a surprise.
Mitch McConnell’s disdain for our veterans isn’t new. In 2012, he led forty Republican members of the Senate to betray veterans by killing a jobs bill for veterans. The Veterans Job Corps Act of 2012 would have spent $1 billion over five years to put veterans to work tending to federal lands, and in the nation’s police and fire departments.
Again in 2012, Republican leadership in the Senate quietly condoned the actions of a single coward who put a hold on a cost of living increase for disabled veterans, just so they could play petty partisan politics with Obama and deny him a “win”.
Republicans were shocked during their 2012 fiscal cliff disaster when President Obama fought with Republicans, insisting that benefits for disabled people and veterans not be cut.
Doesn’t it just make you want to wave a flag while failing to live up to our promises to our wounded warriors?
And then there is the Republican sequester (they are on record as championing it and pushing for it and gloating about getting it on Fox News — it’s only when confronted with the results that they deny any knowledge of it and blame Democrats). In June 2013, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Fort Knox would lose 3,300 troops in the next six years because of defense spending reductions.
The list of Republican perfidy on veterans issues is too long to innumerate here in anything remotely resembling its entirety. But one thing is for sure — Mitch McConnell has met his match, because Alison Lundergan Grimes isn’t going to be quiet about his hypocrisy.
Obamacare Enrollment Continues To Surge In Kentucky As 265,000 Have Now Enrolled
By: Justin Baragona
Friday, February, 28th, 2014, 5:44 pm
Through the end of February, Kentucky’s health insurance marketplace, Kynect, has enrolled over 265,000 people in healthcare coverage since open enrollment started in October. In the month of February alone, 70,000 people signed up for a new healthcare plan. This has to be disappointing news for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is running for reelection in November and is using the ACA as a major campaign issue.
Joe Sonka, the news editor for LEO Weekly, was on top of this news on Friday and sent out the following tweets.
More breaking news: Nearly 265,000 Kentuckians are now enrolled in new healthcare coverage through @kynectky. #ACA
— Joe Sonka (@joesonka) February 28, 2014
In February alone, nearly 70,000 Kentuckians signed up for health insurance on @kynectky, or about 2,400 each day this month. #ACA
— Joe Sonka (@joesonka) February 28, 2014
Approximately 48 percent of all @kynectky enrollees are under the age of 35. #ACA
— Joe Sonka (@joesonka) February 28, 2014
Under @kynectky so far, 210,545 have qualified for Medicaid coverage and 54,369 have purchased private insurance. #ACA
— Joe Sonka (@joesonka) February 28, 2014
308,000 Kentuckians were eligible under Medicaid expansion. Over 2/3 that number have already signed up for it through @kynectky. #ACA
— Joe Sonka (@joesonka) February 28, 2014
In its earliest days, @kynectky was singing up 1,000 enrollees a day. This month it signed up 2,400 a day. #ACA#Acceleration
— Joe Sonka (@joesonka) February 28, 2014
What has happened in Kentucky is absolutely amazing and a testament to the dedication of Democratic Governor Steve Beshear. Instead of playing to the largely conservative population of his state, he decided to get in front of other Red states, who planned on doing nothing, and work with how the law was intended. He wanted to make affordable health care available to the citizens of Kentucky because he knew many needed it. So he made sure the insurance exchange would be ready and operational on October 1st, 2013, when open enrollment began under the ACA.
As Sonka tweeted out, the majority of people eligible for Medicaid under the ACA have no received coverage. Nearly half of all enrollees in Kentucky are 35 or younger. For Kentuckians, Obamacare is a complete and total success. Instead of doing nothing and letting his state’s residents have to rely on the federal marketplace, like the state’s Republicans wanted him to do, Beshear made the law work as it was meant to and now has nearly 300,000 people in his state covered, many for the first time in their lives.
With Obamacare a rousing success in Kentucky, it will be difficult for McConnell to make it an issue to successfully campaign against. However, McConnell has put all his eggs in that basket and he is going to have to carry though with it. McConnell has a serious Democratic challenger in Alison Grimes. Polls have shown it as either a dead heat or Grimes in the lead. That was all before Grimes unleashed the Big Dog and had Bill Clinton go out and campaign for her.
The ACA is the law of the land. It isn’t going anywhere. Millions and millions of people across the country are signing up and getting affordable health care. Republicans themselves acknowledge that they have no viable replacement for the ACA, four years after it was passed. It is time for the GOP to move on. If they continue to make Obamacare a key election issue in this year’s mid-terms and 2016, it will be a loser for them. The American people have come to accept the health care law. Maybe its time for Republicans to come to grips with it.
Mitch McConnell is Building a Republican Army to Kill the Minimum Wage
By: Sarah Jones
Friday, February, 28th, 2014, 10:29 am
We all know that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is against raising the minimum wage. He voted against it 16 times.
But McConnell is supporting U.S. Senate candidate and North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis. Tillis is not only against raising the minimum wage, but he thinks the entire minimum wage idea should be eliminated. He even called the idea of raising the minimum wage a “dangerous idea”:
U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis on Wednesday said he opposes President Barack Obama’s plan to increase the federal minimum wage, calling it a “dangerous idea.”
The Republican went even further to suggest government shouldn’t set a minimum wage, labeling it an “artificial threshold.”
When asked by a reporter if we should we get rid of the minimum wage, the Republican responded, “Yeah, I think you should consider anything that frees up the market, that creates more jobs.”
This is important because Tillis is the GOP establishment favorite. McConnell, as the Senate Minority Leader, has even donated to Tillis’ U.S. Senate campaign. These are supposedly not Tea Party extremists. It’s even more bizarre that in an election year, Tillis would feel so free to admit such a radical position… unless he doesn’t see it as radical at all.
And so we have to ask if getting rid of the minimum wage all together is the new Republican Party platform. Steve Benen at the Maddow Blog noticed the trend of Republicans against the minimum wage:
It’s not just Perry – Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), among others, have all said recently they’re not only opposed to Democratic calls for a wage increase, but they’re also comfortable with scrapping the law altogether.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) may believe the same thing, but when asked about his position, he refused to give an answer.
In January, McConnell claimed that raising the minimum wage would destroy jobs, and yet the Republican Party has blocked all but one of the jobs bills that the Democrats have proposed, and Republicans have not offered any of their own. McConnell excused his position regarding not wanting to raise the minimum wage by saying, “As part of our concern about creating jobs, the last thing we want to do is pass a measure to destroy jobs.”
Yet Mitch McConnell has been in Washington for 30 years and has never had a jobs plan. He is apparently waiting for the right time to unveil it, and so far, we are 43 days post his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, revealing her jobs plan, yet McConnell feels no pressure to come up with one of his own.
Tillis is the same guy who is getting hammered over Obamacare. Of course he’s a Republican so he’s against Obamacare, but he also doesn’t have anything else to replace it with because just like our U.S. House and Senate Republicans, he doesn’t think he needs to offer solutions.
Just as Republicans tried to hide their extremist agenda against women in 2010 and again in 2012 while at the same time touting it to the faithful, now they are trying to hide their anti-people agenda by claiming the minimum wage is bad for jobs.
While it might make sense at first glance to think that paying people more money would force employers to cut jobs, economists have differing opinions on the matter. Studying the fact that actually, the minimum wage has no discernible effect on employment, John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that economists, “often have trouble establishing a clear link between a higher minimum wage and higher unemployment.” Why? “There are lots of possible ways that companies can adjust to modest wage hikes besides hiring fewer people.”
Perhaps Mr. Schmitt’s findings explain what is behind the Republican reticence on the minimum wage:
The report reviews evidence on eleven possible adjustments to minimum wage increases that may
help to explain why the measured employment effects are so consistently small. The strongest evidence suggests that the most important channels of adjustment are: reductions in labor turnover; improvements in organizational efficiency; reductions in wages of higher earners (“wage compression”); and small price increases.”
Yes, raising the minimum wage can cause a reduction in the wages of higher earners, and we can’t have that. We can’t have high earners having to survive in a free market that is not rigged for them.
The evidence has spoken, and once again, it disagrees with Republicans. But it raises alarming questions as to the intentions of establishment Republicans, should they win the Senate in 2014. It looks like Mitch McConnell, as a leader of establishment Republicans, is trying to build an army of Republicans to kill the minimum wage all together.
McConnell’s votes against the minimum wage number at least 16: Vote 23, 1/24/07; Vote 179, 6/21/06; Vote 26, 3/7/05; Vote 257, 10/19/05; Vote 76, 4/7/00; Vote 356, 11/9/99; Vote 239, 7/30/99; Vote 94, 4/28/99; Vote 77, 3/25/99; Vote 278, 9/22/98; Vote 184, 7/9/96; Vote 183, 7/9/96; Vote 519, 10/27/95; Vote 33, 7/31/95; Vote 68, 5/17/89; Vote 39, 4/12/89
House GOP Celebrate Tea Party Anniversary with Another Vote to Kill Obamacare
By: Sarah Jones
Friday, February, 28th, 2014, 1:46 pm
The House schedule is all about chipping away at Obamacare. But today, on the anniversary of the Tea Party that is destroying the GOP, Republicans brought the chamber to a new low.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) introduced a bill called “the Simple Fairness Act” today, according to Philip Klein at the Washington Examiner. Sounds great, eh? Who doesn’t love some fairness?
The only problem is that Jenkins is a Republican, and so by “fairness” she means another way to try to deny access to affordable healthcare for the people by relentlessly taking haphazard potshots at Obamacare. This is really designed to generate free campaign material for Republicans, who still believe that they can win by running against Obamacare.
Klein from the Washington Examiner explained the real purpose behind Rep. Jenkin’s bill to delay the individual mandate for a year:
The move is part of an effort by Republicans to make an issue of Obamacare during the 2014 midterm elections, by putting Democrats in the position of either defying the administration or voicing support for one of the most unpopular provisions in the health care law.
The answer to this political “dilemma” for Democrats is pretty easy: Change the conversation. Don’t get mired in the weeds of “fixes”; instead, ask the Republicans what they are going to replace Obamacare with. Ask them why they are against protecting patients from greedy insurance companies. Ask them why they don’t agree that people with pre-existing conditions deserve access to affordable healthcare.
Unlike Republicans, Democrats are not afraid to voice their differences with their President, so when Republicans think they can win by forcing Democrats into “defying” the administration, they are barking up the wrong tree. President Obama knows that some Democrats will have to run on separating themselves from him, due to the fact that Republicans have demonized the President to such a degree that many GOP voters believe him to be the anti-Christ.
But Democrats can also point out that they were taught to respect the office of the President, even when they disagree with the person holding the office. Let that shot linger in the air until the pungent after taste of GOP hate mongering settles back on the Republicans — where it belongs.
Republicans refuse to have a real policy discussion, and instead rely upon fear-mongering and division.This is why they avoid discussing their healthcare reform plan. Their diversionary tactics only work so long as no one calls them out on their uncivilized behavior. This kind of boorishness is often referred to as having been raised in a barn. Southern Democrats might want to suggest that Southern Republicans were raised better than that.
Klein tells us that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office confirmed for him “that the chamber would vote on the plan next week.” In December, the Obama administration already granted a temporary exemption to people whose insurance policies were canceled last year.
But because they either don’t understand the law very well or are deliberately playing obtuse for Machiavellian political ends, Republicans keep accusing the President of illegally granting exemptions to some and not to others. The bottom line is that Republicans will do anything to kill Obamacare.
Republicans are also claiming to be deluded enough to believe that if they win the Senate, they can kill Obamacare. Of course they would face incredible backlash if they tried to take health insurance away from people and replaced it with the same old corporate give away plan they’ve been peddling since Bush was in office.
People are going to notice when their cancer treatment is no longer covered. Really. This is not a good long term plan to remain in power should Republicans win the Senate.
Job Killing Criminal John Boehner Blames President Obama For His Crimes
Friday, February, 28th, 2014, 11:33 am
Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system has likely heard criminals caught in the act of committing a crime blame someone else, and then feign outrage that law enforcement does not believe their lies. It is what criminals do and it would be one thing to blame another person if there were doubts surrounding who committed the crime, but when there is overwhelming evidence and eyewitnesses the criminal begins looking desperate as well as guilty. For over three years Republicans have done nothing in Congress except obstruct progress, kill millions of jobs, downgrade America’s credit rating, shutdown the government, and block attempts to help the economy and millions of struggling Americans. Now they are signaling they will spend yet another year drawing their bloated salaries while doing nothing throughout 2014. Yesterday Republicans accused President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for the GOP’s do nothing plan for 2014, and they sound like career criminals shifting blame for their inaction on the President.
Yesterday Speaker John Boehner defended House Republicans’ 2014 do-nothing approach on immigration, tax reform, and replacing the Affordable Care Act, and claimed Republicans would avoid repeating mistakes Democrats made when they held the House and actually passed legislation to save the economy and create jobs. Boehner attacked President Obama during his weekly Capitol press conference for intending to “pack it in for the year” and said Republicans would, by contrast, demonstrate leadership by doing nothing as their way of “presenting an alternative vision to the country.” Boehner promised that “We’ll lead and our members will not shy away from advancing better solutions for the American people.” However, when Boehner was pressed if he would allow votes on major legislation he said the best House Republicans would do is continue “conversations” in coming months.
It is despicable of Boehner to claim the President intends on doing nothing this year, particularly when House Republicans are supporting a bill to reverse the President’s executive orders as a result of Republicans doing nothing for the American people. Republicans are furious that the President satisfied their demands that he delay the employer mandate in the ACA and for “extending substandard health insurance plans” Republicans insisted he leave in place for moronic Americans intent on keeping their junk healthcare policies. Republicans are still livid the President said he would enact policies within his Constitutional power if Republicans continued failing to do their jobs during his State of the Union speech. It is typically criminal of Boehner to blame the President for inaction when he took action because Republicans announced they were not going to work for the people this year.
Boehner did announce Republicans would vote, and pass, another Ryan budget despite just passing a two-year budget in December. Ryan said his budget will address income inequality by giving deficit-growing tax cuts to the rich and corporations, and rein in “entitlement” spending by ending Medicare and slashing Social Security. Ryan partially funds outrageous tax cuts for the rich by slashing domestic programs Americans need, and will put the balance on the nation’s credit card to increase the deficit. It is another monumental waste of time because Ryan’s budget is unnecessary for two years and will never get past the Presidents’ veto pen or the Senate. Speaking of the Senate, Republicans signaled they will use their typical obstruction tactics to ensure nothing gets accomplished.
On the Senate side it was Bob Corker (R-TN) announcing there would be nothing accomplished in the upper chamber because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is Vladimir Putin for refusing to allow Republican sanctions on Iran in legislation for Veterans’ healthcare; Republicans used a procedural tactic to block the Veteran’s bill. Corker joined Mitch McConnell in blaming Reid for bringing Congress to a halt because of last year’s vote changing filibuster rules for the President’s judicial and administrative nominees. Corker parroted McConnell that tax and immigration reform are dead for the year because Republicans are in the minority and President Obama is not threatening military action around the world. Corker said, “Understand McConnell’s position, if you allow people just to run roughshod over you — just like we’re seeing right now with Putin in Russia, right, where he’s getting no pushback from the United States … if you don’t have any pushback, then obviously people will continue taking advantage of you. The Senate has been on the verge of a death spiral now for several months. The U.S. Senate will not function in an appropriate way with the leadership we have now.”
Corker also blamed President Obama for Republican inaction because he is not ready to invade Syria and threaten Russia with a new cold war. He said, “We’re talking about the things our office needs to do to push the administration to really take a strong position here. Right now it seems the president really doesn’t have a plan. Like so many other foreign policy crises.” Foreign policy crises that the President has time and again resolved with diplomacy instead of military action that Republicans lust for to enrich their donors in the military industrial complex; particularly the oil industry. The point is that Senate Republicans will see that nothing is accomplished in the Senate because the President and Democrats are not following Republican orders.
This is not the first time Republicans have blamed President Obama for their inability, and refusal, to do the work of the people they were sent to Washington to do. In fact, Republicans are doing exactly what they plotted in secret on Inauguration night in 2009, only they have the audacity to publicly announce their intent to do nothing and blame the President. It is a typically criminal ploy that Americans should see through and be outraged that their hard-earned tax dollars are used to pay Republicans to sit on their hands, obstruct progress, and then claim they are not working because it is the President’s fault. It is not only a typical criminal ploy, it is typically racist to blame the nearest African American who happens to sit in the Oval Office.
Kremlin Deploys Military in Ukraine, Prompting Protest by U.S.
By ALISON SMALE and STEVEN ERLANGER
MARCH 1, 2014
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Russia’s move to seize control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula on Saturday led Ukraine to call up its military reserves on Sunday and warn Moscow against further incursions as Western powers scrambled to find a response to the crisis.
A day after the Russian Parliament granted President Pig V. Putin broad authority to use military force in response to the political upheaval in Ukraine that dislodged a Kremlin ally and installed a new, staunchly pro-Western government, the Ukrainian government in Kiev threatened war if Russia sent troops further into Ukraine.
Russian troops stripped of identifying insignia but using military vehicles bearing the license plates of Russia’s Black Sea force swarmed the major thoroughfares of Crimea on Saturday, encircled government buildings, closed the main airport and seized communication hubs, solidifying what began on Friday as a covert effort to control the largely pro-Russian region.
The announcement of the reserve mobilization was an attempt by the rattled new government in Kiev to draw a line against the Pig, an effort expected to continue later on Sunday when NATO holds an emergency meeting on Ukraine and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, visits Kiev in a sign of Western support.
Russian armed forces effectively seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on Saturday.
What began three months ago as a protest against the Ukrainian government has now turned into a big-power confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War and a significant challenge to international agreements on the sanctity of the borders of the post-Soviet nations.
The Pig convened the upper house of Parliament in Moscow on Saturday to grant him authority to use force to protect Russian citizens and soldiers not only in Crimea but throughout Ukraine. Both actions — military and parliamentary — were a direct rebuff to President Obama, who on Friday pointedly warned Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Mr. Obama accused Russia on Saturday of a “breach of international law” and condemned the country’s military intervention, calling it a “clear violation” of Ukrainian sovereignty.
In Crimea, the situation was calm but hardly placid on Sunday morning, with fewer soldiers visible on the streets. Some heavily armed soldiers without insignia had taken up positions around small Ukrainian military bases, but without trying to enter them.
At Perevalnoye, a small Ukrainian base some 15 miles south of Simferopol on the road to Yalta, scores of soldiers with masks, helmets and goggles, in unmarked uniforms, ranged along one wall of the base. Inside there were about two dozen Ukrainian soldiers, equipped with an armored personnel carrier.
Col. Sergei Starozhenko, 38, the Ukrainian commander, told reporters the unmarked troops had arrived about 5 A.M. and “they want to block the base.”
He said he expected them to bring reinforcements and call for talks. Asked how many men he has at his command, he said simply: “Enough.”
In Sevastopol, pro-Russian “self-defense” forces were blocking the entrances of the main Ukrainian naval headquarters. There was no sign of Russian troops, Ukrainian officers were at work inside and armed Ukrainians guards were on patrol behind the closed gates.
Pro-Russia demonstrators put up a banner reading: “Sevastopol without Fascism,” and urged Ukrainian officers to come over to their side rather than serve the “illegal fascist regime” in Kiev. The demonstrators shoved packs of cigarettes, candy and bottles of water through gate for the Ukrainian guards.
“They have to make a choice -- they either obey the fascists in Kiev or the people,” said Sergei Seryogin, a pro-Russia activist outside. Kiev, he said, “is illegal power” and should be ignored by all military and civil officials.
Russia kept up its propaganda campaign on Sunday in defense of the takeover, citing undefined threats to Russian citizens and proclaiming “massive defections” of Ukrainian forces in Crimea, which appeared to Western reporters to be unfounded. The state-owned Itar-Tass news agency cited the Russian border guard agency claiming that 675,000 Ukrainians had fled to Russia in January and February and that there were signs of a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
Russia insists that its intervention is only to protect its citizens and interests from chaos and disorder following the still unexplained departure from Kiev of former president Viktor F. Yanukovych.
“If ‘revolutionary chaos’ in Ukraine continues, hundreds of thousands of refugees will flow into bordering Russian regions,” the border service said, according to Tass, providing one more unsubstantiated justification for Russian military intervention.
Late Saturday, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said he had ordered Ukraine’s armed forces to full readiness because of the threat of “potential aggression.” He also said he had ordered stepped-up security at nuclear power plants, airports and other strategic infrastructure.
Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, said he was “convinced” Russia would not intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine, “since this would be the beginning of war and the end of all relations” with Russia.
While Ukrainian forces in Crimea offered no resistance, there is concern that Russia might use the same pretext of citizens in peril to move forces into eastern Ukraine, which has many Russian speakers and heavy industry with close ties to Russia.
Large pro-Russia crowds rallied on Saturday in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, where there were reports of violence. In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, fears grew within the new provisional government that separatist upheaval would fracture the country just days after a winter of civil unrest had ended with the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych, the Kremlin ally who fled to Russia.
In addition to the risk of open war, it was a day of frayed nerves and set-piece political appeals that recalled ethnic conflicts of past decades in the former Soviet bloc, from the Balkans to the Caucasus.
Mr. Obama, who had warned Russia on Friday that “there will be costs” if it violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, spoke with the Pig for 90 minutes on Saturday, according to the White House, and urged him to withdraw his forces back to their bases in Crimea and to stop “any interference” in other parts of Ukraine.
In a statement afterward, the White House said the United States would suspend participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8 economic conference to be held in Sochi, Russia, in June, and warned of “greater political and economic isolation” for Russia.
The Kremlin offered its own description of the call, in which it said the Pig spoke of “a real threat to the lives and health of Russian citizens” in Ukraine, and warned that “in case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas.”
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said that “there can be no excuse for outside military intervention” in Ukraine.
Canada said it was recalling its ambassador from Moscow and, like the United States, suspending preparations for the G-8 meeting.
At the United Nations, the Security Council held an emergency meeting on Ukraine for the second time in two days. The American ambassador, Samantha Power, called for an international observer mission, urged Russia to “stand down” and took a dig at the Russian ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, on the issue of state sovereignty, which the Kremlin frequently invokes in criticizing the West over its handling of Syria and other disputes.
“Russian actions in Ukraine are violating the sovereignty of Ukraine and pose a threat to peace and security,” she said.
The secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, also spoke with the Pig on Saturday and described himself as “gravely concerned” and urged the Pig to negotiate with officials in Kiev.
Mr. Yanukovych’s refusal, under Russian pressure, to sign new political and free trade agreements with the European Union last fall set off the civil unrest that last month led to the deaths of more than 80 people, and ultimately unraveled his presidency. The country’s new interim government has said it will revive those accords.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, said at a briefing in Kiev on Saturday evening that he had ordered Ukraine’s armed forces “to full combat readiness.” A Ukrainian military official in Crimea said Ukrainian soldiers had been told to “open fire” if they came under attack by Russian troops or others though it was unlikely they could pose a serious challenge to Russian forces.
Officials in Kiev demanded that Russia pull back its forces, and confine them to the military installations in Crimea that Russia has long leased from Ukraine.
“The presence of Russian troops in Crimea now is unacceptable,” said acting Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk. Decrying the Russian deployment as a “provocation,” he added, “We call on the government of the Russian Federation to immediately withdraw its troops, return to the place of deployment and stop provoking civil and military confrontation in Ukraine.”
Sergey Tigipko, a former deputy prime minister of Ukraine and one-time ally of Mr. Yanukovych, said he flew to Moscow in hopes of brokering a truce.
The fast-moving events began in the morning, when the pro-Russia prime minister of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, declared that he had sole control over the military and the police, and appealed to the Pig for Russian help in safeguarding the region. He also said a public referendum on independence would be held on March 30.
The Kremlin quickly issued a statement saying that Mr. Aksyonov’s plea “would not be ignored,” and within hours the upper chamber of Russia’s Parliament had authorized military action.
The authorization cited Crimea, where Russia maintains important military installations, but covered the use of force in the entire “territory of Ukraine.” Parliament also asked Mr. Putin to withdraw Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
By nightfall, the scores of armed men in uniform who first appeared on Crimea’s streets on Friday had melted away from the darkened center of Simferopol, vanishing as mysteriously as they arrived.
For the new government in Kiev, the tensions in Crimea created an even more dire and immediate emergency than the looming financial disaster that they had intended to focus on in their first days in office.
A $15 billion bailout that Mr. Yanukovych secured from Russia has been suspended because of the political upheaval, and Ukraine is in desperate need of financial assistance. Mr. Yatsenyuk, the acting prime minister, had said that the government’s first responsibility was to begin negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and start to put in place the economic reforms and painful austerity measures that the fund requested in exchange for help.
In Crimea, however, officials said they did not recognize the new government, and declared that they had taken control.
Mr. Aksyonov, the regional prime minister, said he was ordering the regional armed forces, the Interior Ministry troops, the Security Service, border guards and other ministries under his direct control. “I ask anyone who disagrees to leave the service,” he said.
As soldiers mobilized across the peninsula, the region’s two main airports were closed, with civilian flights canceled, and they were guarded by heavily armed men in military uniforms.
Similar forces surrounded the regional Parliament building and the rest of the government complex in downtown Simferopol, as well as numerous other strategic locations, including communication hubs and a main bus station.
Near the entrance to Balaklava, the site of a Ukrainian customs and border post near Sevastopol, the column of military vehicles with Russian plates included 10 troop trucks, with 30 soldiers in each, two military ambulances and five armored vehicles.
Soldiers, wearing masks and carrying automatic rifles, stood on the road keeping people away from the convoy, while some local residents gathered in a nearby square waving Russian flags and shouting, “Russia! Russia!”
As with the troops in downtown Simferopol, the soldiers did not have markings on their uniforms.
There were also other unconfirmed reports of additional Russian military forces arriving in Crimea, including Russian ships landing in Fedosiya, in eastern Crimea.
Crimea, while part of Ukraine, has enjoyed a large degree of autonomy under an agreement with the federal government in Kiev since shortly after Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union.
The strategically important peninsula, which has been the subject of military disputes for centuries, has strong historic, linguistic and cultural ties to Russia. The population of roughly two million is predominantly Russian, followed by a large number of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, people of Turkic-Muslim origin.
In eastern Ukraine, which is also heavily pro-Russian, demonstrators in Kharkiv rallied and then seized control of a government building, pulling down the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and raising the blue, white and red Russian one. Scores of people were injured as protesters scuffled with supporters of the new government in Kiev.
In Donetsk, also in the east, several thousand people held a rally in the city center, local news agencies reported, with many chanting pro-Russian slogans and demanding a public referendum on secession from Ukraine.
In Moscow, the parliamentary debate on authorizing military action was perfunctory, but laced with remarks that echoed the worst days of the Cold War. Underscoring the extent to which the crisis has become part of Russia’s broader grievances against the West, lawmakers focused on Mr. Obama and the United States as much as on the fate of Russians in Ukraine.
“All this is being done under the guise of democracy, as the West says,” Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, one member of Parliament, said during the debate. “They tore apart Yugoslavia, routed Egypt, Libya, Iraq and so on, and all this under the false guise of peaceful demonstrations.” He added, “So we must be ready in case they will unleash the dogs on us.”
Yuri L. Vorobyov, the body’s deputy chairman, said Mr. Obama’s warning on Friday was a cause for Russia to act. “I believe that these words of the U.S. president are a direct threat,” he said. “He has crossed the red line and insulted the Russian people.”
Correction: March 1, 2014
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the ousted Ukrainian president. He is Viktor F. Yanukovych, not Yanuovych.
U.S. Warns Russia It Risks Losing G8 Membership over Crimea
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 16:28
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bluntly warned Russia on Sunday that it risked losing its place among the prestigious Group of 8 developed nations over its deployment of troops in Crimea.
Kerry warned President Vladimir Putin that "he is not going have a Sochi G8, he may not even remain in the G8 if this continues. He may find himself with asset freezes, on Russian business, American business may pull back, there may be a further tumble of the ruble."
"There is a huge price to pay. The United States is united, Russia is isolated. That is not a position of strength," the top U.S. diplomat told NBC's Meet the Press.
The United States, Britain, and France have already pulled out of preparatory meetings this week for the G8 summit due to be held in June in Sochi, amid growing global concerns over Moscow's threat to invade neighboring Ukraine.
Ukraine's new interim government has called up all military reservists to stave off the threat and warned their country was on the brink of disaster.
"If Russia wants to be a G8 country, it needs to behave like a G8 country," Kerry also said on CBS's "Face the Nation" as he hit the Sunday morning talk shows, to ratchet up the pressure on Moscow.
And he warned: "The G8 plus some others and all of them, every single one of them, are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia with respect to this invasion."
"They're prepared to put sanctions in place, they're prepared to isolate Russia economically, the ruble is already going down."
U.N., EU to Hold Emergency Meetings on Ukraine Crisis
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 March 2014, 17:32
The U.N. Security Council will meet Saturday for a second round of emergency consultations, officials said, after Russia's parliament approved the deployment of troops to Ukraine.
The president of the Security Council, currently Luxembourg, invited members to "informal consultations" at 1900 GMT, a statement said.
The announcement came just hours after Russian leader Pig Putin won approval from lawmakers to send Russian troops into Ukrainian territory.
Britain's ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, tweeted that the meeting was called at London's request.
The U.N. envoy to Ukraine, Robert Serry, announced earlier that he was leaving the country because it was impossible to visit Crimea as requested by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban ordered Serry to visit the Crimea in a bid to de-escalate tensions after an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday.
"I have since been in touch with the authorities of the autonomous republic of Crimea and have come to the conclusion that a visit to Crimea today is not possible," Serry said in a statement from Kiev.
"I will therefore proceed to Geneva, where I will tomorrow brief the secretary general on my mission and consult with him on next steps," he added.
Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers will hold a new round of crisis talks in Brussels on Monday on the rapidly escalating tensions in Ukraine, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Saturday.
"Ashton calls extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council on developments in Ukraine. Monday, 3 March. Meeting starts 1300 CET," she said on Twitter.
Monday's EU huddle will be the second on Ukraine by the bloc's 28 diplomatic chiefs in less than two weeks after they agreed at emergency talks February 20 to impose sanctions on members of the Viktor Yanukovych regime deemed responsible for deaths and repression on the streets.
Ukraine's parliament ousted Yanukovych on February 22.
Ukraine Mobilises Army as West Warns Russia
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 12:04
Ukraine warned Sunday it was on the brink of disaster and called up all military reservists after Russia's threat to invade its neighbor drew a sharp rebuke from the United States and NATO.
The dramatic escalation in what threatens to blow up into the worst crisis between Moscow and the West since the Cold War came as pro-Kremlin forces seized control of key government buildings and airports in the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimean peninsula.
Russia's parliament voted Saturday to allow President Pig Putin to send troops into its western neighbor -- a decision U.S. President Barack Obama swiftly branded a "violation of Ukrainian sovereignty".
And NATO's chief declared that Russia's actions in the former Soviet state were a threat to peace and security in Europe.
Ukraine's new pro-Western Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also warned any invasion "would mean war and the end of all relations between the two countries."
"We are on the brink of a disaster," Yatsenyuk told the nation in a televised address. "This is not a threat. This is a declaration of war on my country."
As world leaders held urgent meetings on the crisis, pro-Moscow gunmen were controlling large swathes of the rugged Black Sea peninsula that has housed Kremlin navies since the 18th century.
Witnesses said Russian soldiers had also blocked about 400 Ukrainian marines at their base in the eastern Crimean port city of Feodosiya and were calling on them to surrender and give up their weapons.
The largely untested interim team that took power in Kiev just a week ago braced for Moscow's first possible invasion of a neighbor since a brief 2008 confrontation with Georgia by putting its military on full combat alert on Saturday.
Ukraine's national security and defense council said it would call up all reservists and start preparations for a possible invasion from its giant neighbor to the east.
Ukraine says Russia has already sent 30 armored personnel carriers and 6,000 additional troops into Crimea to help pro-Kremlin militia gain broader independence from Kiev.
The Pig said Saturday he had a duty to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea and southeastern swathes of Ukraine which have ancient ties to Moscow and look on Kiev's new pro-EU leaders with disdain.
But NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking before an emergency meeting of the transatlantic alliance, told Russia to stop its military activity and threats against Ukraine, saying its action threatened "peace and security in Europe".
The United States and its Western allies have threatened to boycott the June G8 summit in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The city was the host of last month's Winter Olympics, a $51 billion extravaganza which along with the football World Cup in 2018 are meant to highlight Russia's return to prosperity and global influence under the Pig's rule.
- Tense Obama-Pig Putin call -
The Russian parliament's unanimous vote to authorize the use of force triggered an international outcry whose ferocity underscored the growing distance between Moscow and the West during Pig's 14 years in power.
The vote came after a three-month crisis in the culturally splintered nation of 46 million -- long fought over by Moscow and the West -- culminated in a week of carnage last month that claimed nearly 100 lives and led to the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin appeared stunned by the loss of its ally and Kiev's subsequent vow to seek EU membership -- a decision that would shatter Putin's dream of reassembling a powerful economic and military post-Soviet bloc.
The parliament vote drew what one US official described as a "candid and direct" response from Obama.
The White House described a charged 90-minute call in which Obama told Putin that Russia's reported deployment of troops outside bases Moscow leases from Kiev in Crimea had already broken international law.
"President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia's clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity," the White House said.
It said Obama told Putin his actions were a "breach of international law, including Russia's obligations under the UN Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also hosted a joint call with six foreign ministers from Europe and Canada as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the Japanese envoy to Washington "to coordinate on next steps".
The Kremlin's account of Pig Putin's conversation with Obama was equally blunt.
- 'Protecting pro-Russian population' -
It said the Pig drew the U.S. leader's "attention to the provocations and crimes of ultranationalist elements, which are effectively being encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev".
"In case of the further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and those of the Russian-speaking population," Putin said.
His actions have received overwhelming support from senior lawmakers and state-controlled media in Moscow.
They are portraying the crisis as a battle between dangerous ultra-nationalists and Russian-speakers who are coming under increasing attack.
"The situation in Ukraine is consolidating Russia's entire civil society," powerful lower house of parliament lawmaker Leonid Slutsky told reporters.
Russia's three main news agencies also issued identical reports from Crimea Sunday claiming that Ukrainian troops were switching allegiance to the local pro-Kremlin authorities "en masse".
"Crimea is Russia," one elderly lady shouted in front of a statue of Soviet founder Lenin that dominates a square next to the parliament building in the regional capital Simferopol.
- Kiev protest -
In Kiev however, about 50,000 people massed on Independence Square -- the crucible of both the latest wave of protests and the 2004 Orange Revolution that first nudged Kiev on a westward path -- in protest at Russia's sabre rattling.
"We will not surrender," the huge crowd chanted under grey skies.
Ukraine's prime minister had assured the nation Saturday he was "convinced" Russia would not launch an offensive because Moscow realized it would put an end to relations between two neighbors with centuries of shared history.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said Saturday that "for the moment, this decision (to invade Ukraine) has not been taken".
Making Russia Pay? It’s Not So Simple
By PETER BAKER
MARCH 1, 2014
WASHINGTON — President Obama has warned Russia that “there will be costs” for a military intervention in Ukraine. But the United States has few palatable options for imposing such costs, and recent history has shown that when it considers its interests at stake, Russia has been willing to pay the price.
Even before President Pig Putin on Saturday publicly declared his intent to send Russian troops into the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, Mr. Obama and his team were already discussing how to respond. They talked about canceling the president’s trip to a summit meeting in Russia in June, shelving a possible trade agreement, kicking Moscow out of the Group of 8 or moving American warships to the region.
That is the same menu of actions that was offered to President George W. Bush in 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia, another balky former Soviet republic. Yet the costs imposed at that time proved only marginally effective and short-lived. Russia stopped its advance but nearly six years later has never fully lived up to the terms of the cease-fire it signed. And whatever penalty it paid at the time evidently has not deterred it from again muscling a neighbor.
“The question is: Are those costs big enough to cause Russia not to take advantage of the situation in the Crimea? That’s the $64,000 question,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a retired Army officer who served as defense attaché in the American Embassy in Moscow and now, as a Harvard scholar, leads a group of former Russian and American officials in back-channel talks.
Mr. Obama announced the first direct response after a 90-minute telephone call with Mr. Pig Putin on Saturday as he suspended preparations for the G-8 summit meeting in Russia in June. The White House said that “Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.”
Michael McFaul, who just stepped down as Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, said the president should go further to ensure that Russia’s business-minded establishment understands that it would find itself cut off. “There needs to be a serious discussion as soon as possible about economic sanctions so they realize there will be costs,” he said. “They should know there will be consequences and those should be spelled out before they take further actions.”
The Pig has already demonstrated that the cost to Moscow’s international reputation would not stop him. Having just hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he must have realized he was all but throwing away seven years and $50 billion of effort to polish Russia’s image. He evidently calculated that any diplomatic damage did not outweigh what he sees as a threat to Russia’s historic interest in Ukraine, which was ruled by Moscow until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Pig may stop short of outright annexation of Crimea, the largely Russian-speaking peninsula where Moscow still has a major military base, but instead justify a long-term troop presence by saying the troops are there to defend the local population from the new pro-Western government in Kiev. Following a tested Russian playbook, he could create a de facto enclave loyal to Moscow much like the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that broke away from Georgia. On the other hand, the White House worries that the crisis could escalate and that all of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine may try to split off.
Finding powerful levers to influence the Pig's decision-making will be a challenge for Mr. Obama and the European allies. Mr. Obama has seen repeatedly that warnings often do not discourage autocratic rulers from taking violent action, as when Syria crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons in its civil war.
Russia is an even tougher country to pressure, too formidable even in the post-Soviet age to rattle with stern lectures or shows of military force, and too rich in resources to squeeze economically in the short term. With a veto on the United Nations Security Council, it need not worry about the world body. And as the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe, it holds a trump card over many American allies.
The longer-term options might be more painful, but they require trade-offs as well. The administration could impose the same sort of banking sanctions that have choked Iran’s economy. And yet Europe, with its more substantial economic ties, could be reluctant to go along, and Mr. Obama may be leery of pulling the trigger on such a potent financial weapon, especially when he needs Russian cooperation on Syria and Iran.
“What can we do?” asked Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar who was the government’s top intelligence officer on Russia during the Georgia war when the Pig deflected Western agitation. “We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And he’ll stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.”
James F. Jeffrey was Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser in August 2008, the first to inform him that Russian troops were moving into Georgia in response to what the Kremlin called Georgian aggression against South Ossetia. As it happened, the clash also took place at Olympic time; Mr. Bush and the Pig were both in Beijing for the Summer Games.
Mr. Bush confronted Mr. Putin to no avail, then ordered American ships to the region and provided a military transport to return home Georgian troops on duty in Iraq. He sent humanitarian aid on a military aircraft, assuming that Russia would be loath to attack the capital of Tbilisi with American military personnel present. Mr. Bush also suspended a pending civilian nuclear agreement, and NATO suspended military contacts.
“We did a lot but in the end there was not that much that you could do,” Mr. Jeffrey recalled.
Inside the Bush administration, there was discussion of more robust action, like bombing the Roki Tunnel to block Russian troops or providing Georgia with Stinger antiaircraft missiles. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bristled at what she called the “chest beating,” and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, urged the president to poll his team to see if anyone recommended sending American troops.
None did, and Mr. Bush was not willing to risk escalation. While Russia stopped short of moving into Tbilisi, it secured the effective independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while leaving troops in areas it was supposed to evacuate under a cease-fire. Within a year or so, Russia’s isolation was over. Mr. Obama took office and tried to improve relations. NATO resumed military contacts in 2009, and the United States revived the civilian nuclear agreement in 2010.
Mr. Jeffrey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr. Obama should now respond assertively by suggesting that NATO deploy forces to the Polish-Ukrainian border to draw a line. “There’s nothing we can do to save Ukraine at this point,” he said. “All we can do is save the alliance.”
Others like Mr. Ryan warn that military movements could backfire by misleading Ukrainians into thinking the West might come to their rescue and so inadvertently encourage them to be more provocative with Russia.
Ms. Hill said the Russian leader might simply wait. “Time,” she said, “is on his side.”
Russian media on Crimea: “The Pig will become the first person of world politics”
By Tony Ortega
Saturday, March 1, 2014 20:51 EST
While an Ohio congresswoman was telling Buzzfeed that she sympathized with Russia’s position in regards to Crimea and could understand why Russian president Pig V. Putin was “about peace in the Crimea,” the people of Russia are being fed a very different interpretation of events by that country’s media.
In Russia, the media is portraying this moment as the Pig's big move on the world’s stage as he stands up to United States “hegemony.”
In a story about the Ukrainian crisis in the daily Moscow tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, nationalist Moscow State University professor of political science Alexander Dugin explained how the current moment is about much more than Crimea…
“Right now, the most important thing, in my view, is to withstand the bluff of the US and the NATO countries that will demand the withdrawal of our forces from Crimea under the threat of World War III. Such a war will not happen. The West is being governed by sane people. If we insist on our position, the period of one-dimensional peace will be over. A big struggle is taking place right now. Not a struggle over the Crimea, or Ukraine, or Russia, it’s a struggle for the world order. Either it’s going to be a one-dimensional world order, or not. If we can endure it, and I have no doubt that we will, not only will we establish a constitutional order in Ukraine and bring back peace and prevent massacres, we will also give a chance to all the people of the world to build their own destiny. Right now, Putin stands only one step away from becoming the world leader, the key figure, the embodiment of liberty and independence from US hegemony. He is passing a historical test. Right now is the moment of truth for us, for Russians, for Putin himself. Crimea has a secondary importance. What’s happening there, it’s not only about establishing order, not only about saving Crimeans from genocide and violence. It’s not about the return of Crimea to Russia. It’s about something else completely: the fact that the American hegemony in the world and the capacity of overthrowing regimes, initiating massacres will come to an end. If Russia will stand its ground, and we insist on international law, on adherence to democratic procedures, on legality and peaceful resolution of problems, in reality it’s simple. Pig Putin will become the first person of world politics. And Obama, the second. It’s fundamental, irreversible — In geopolitics, in all the conflicts, in all the areas, including the Pacific region, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Islamic world. All of the maps, all of the positions will change. Now the world pauses. In order for the US to keep its position, it has to start World War III, and it won’t do that. Let’s note that Ukraine can’t fight Russia, especially because there is no such state: its president is on the one side, the junta on the other. The junta does not control even Kiev, where there are lots of militias that operate in their own interests. In this situation, there is no consolidation, and accordingly, the only thing that Kiev can count on in the face of people’s opposition to the junta — for order, for constitutional order, for its interests, for its democracy, for life and freedom of citizens — is US intervention, the entry of the NATO forces. However, even if NATO forces enter the conflict directly, that will result in a nuclear war that the West does not want. Thus, everything that the West will offer is a pure bluff.”
The same story also quoted Russia’s most powerful female politician, Valentina Matviyenko, who is chairwoman of Russia’s Federation Council. She said the following to Russia’s parliament…
“Violence and threat to the lives of civilians living in Ukraine and our countrymen, citizens of the Russian Federation, continues. We showed the highest political and diplomatic culture by not interfering with Ukrainian sovereign matters, thinking that a peaceful and political solution will be found to the crisis. However, unfortunately, it is not happening. Further escalation continues. We got a request from the government of Crimea to assist them. They are worried about the well-being of their citizens. In this situation, we have to take measure in order to help our brother-nation.”
Komsomolskaya Pravda also described Crimea in lurid terms…
“Hundreds of years ago, in Crimea places were conquered and protected. The imagination paints pictures from history books and movies. The rotten sea — the Red Army walking knee deep in mud. The armies of count Potemkin, yet to become Count Tavricheskiy, standing in orderly squares in the salt steppe. Sparse White Guard groups of soldiers lying in foxholes dug right into the ancient Turkish fortifications. English, French and finally German troops. Who hasn’t coveted this land? It never came to anybody without a price, without blood, or just from a signature in a state paper.”
Meanwhile, another website, TV Rain, reports that tomorrow, March 2, there will be a march in Moscow to support the Russian Parliament’s decision to give Putin the power to send more troops to Crimea.
“Tomorrow, 2 March 2014, in Moscow, there will be a march in support of the decision of the Upper House of the Russian Parliament of the Russian Federation. According to the reports of ITAR-TASS, officially, the march will be named ‘March in support of the people of Ukraine and against the provocateurs that took power in Kiev’… There are many reports in the social media whereby workers of the Moscow government organizations are forced to participate in this march. We were not able to confirm or refute these reports.”
And here’s a report from Lenta.ru, a newspaper that is owned by a group founded and formerly owned by Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets…
“Unrest came to the Crimean city of Simferopol a few days ago, but two of the city’s biggest ethnic communities are Crimean Tatars and ethnic Russians — and they protested separately, seeing the future under the new government differently. The Tatars completely support the Kievan revolutionaries; they protested at Maidan and consider themselves the creators (and thus the supporters) of the revolution. Ethnic Russian residents of Simferopol don’t want to live under the thumb of the opposition that deposed Yanukovych. They demand a referendum to pronounce Crimea an independent state, or make it part of Russia….On Wednesday, 26 February, a Russian tri-color flag was placed on top of the octagonal building of the republican higher chamber of the Crimean parliament (there were also plenty of Crimean flags). The people in the inner yard of the parliament chanted “Ro-ssi-ya, Ro-ssi-ya” as if the Sochi Olympics found an unexpected continuation in Simferopol….In the same inner yard gathered no less than 10,000 Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians with their own blue and yellow flags. Both sides came to protest in front of the parliament, because at 3 o’clock the members of the parliament were supposed to have an extraordinary meeting in which they were to decide whether to recognize the new government of Ukraine. The noise in that closed space was incredible, the multiplicity of slogans among the protesters reminded some absurd play: “Uk-rai-na, Uk-rai-na…..”; “Pu-tin, Pu-tin” was the answer of Russians; “Allah-hu-akhbar” came from the Tatars.”
And an editorial by political analyst Petr Akopov in the online newspaper Vzglyad…
“The U.S. will not threaten Russia with military sanctions. Nobody is ready to fight for Ukraine. And threatening us with war only for the psychological pressure is useless, because it will only show that Washington has completely lost its sense of reality. American military superiority in this situation does not play any role — firstly, because nobody in the U.S. is capable of convincing its own population that Americans must fight for the “Russia’s Mexico.” But more importantly, the U.S. with its own behavior in the world arena is completely discredited. Furthermore, in any country, from Japan to Venezuela, everybody understands the moral, historical, and geopolitical difference that exists between the American attack on Iraq and the introduction of the Russian military to Ukraine. Very worrisome times await us — boycotts and sanctions are quite likely (Obama is already threatening with isolation), and mass campaigns against us in western media. However, he won’t continue with it, as it’s not in the interests of the West itself. After the mandatory public hysteria, Obama will have to calm down and negotiate with us about Ukraine, and together with us create an interim government and forget about the Euro integration of Kiev. If the US won’t agree to that, and will decide to enter a tough confrontation, then Russia will not limit itself with recalling its ambassador from Washington. Vladimir The Pig has been working for a while on building a strong geopolitical combination and variations of actions. Syria, Aghanistan, and the U.S. game with Iran — these are just some most noticeable issues of today which will be affected by an attempt of confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. A total collapse of the American hegemony became possible not just because during the post-Soviet period the U.S. was simply overstrained, trying to dictate its will to the world, but also because, while China was rapidly growing in strength, Russia managed to rebuild not only its physical forces, but also its willpower and moral power. The will is back, the self confidence and our right to insist on our historical and national interest. In the 1990s, Russia was falling. From 1 March 2014 it began an era of a comeback. And it’s irreversible.”
Amid More Signs of Russian Force in Crimea, Delight Mixes With Dismay
By ANDREW HIGGINS
MARCH 1, 2014
BALAKLAVA, Ukraine — Reduced to a ghoulish tourist attraction by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former pride of the Black Sea Fleet — a top-secret nuclear submarine base burrowed into a rocky hill and worthy of a James Bond villain — was closed on Saturday for “technical reasons,” announced a handwritten note taped to the ticket window.
A more likely but unannounced reason was the sudden appearance just a few hundred yards away of 10 Russian troop trucks crammed with soldiers, five armored vehicles mounted with machine guns, a communications van and, most ominous of all, three military ambulances.
None of the heavily armed soldiers had insignia on their green combat uniforms, and for days, Russia insisted that it was just a spectator to the dramatic events unfolding in the Ukrainian region of Crimea and was as puzzled as everyone else by the identities of masked gunmen who had seized Crimea’s two main airports and its Parliament and main government office buildings. Then on Saturday, Russia pulled down the mask to openly display its determination to seize control.
Black license plates used by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — as opposed to the white ones issued by Ukrainian authorities — were clearly visible on the military vehicles lined up on the main road into Balaklava, a beautiful and highly strategic deep-water bay. It was here that Ukraine, when it still controlled Crimea, stationed coast guard, customs and border officers. It is also where British troops established their own base during the 1853-56 Crimean War — and then made their suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade against Russian forces.
The loudest echoes of history on Saturday, however, stretched back not to the 19th century, but to more recent episodes of Russian muscle flexing.
In an almost word-perfect replay of Moscow’s Cold War interventions in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 after appeals for “fraternal assistance” from embattled local allies, Russia’s troop mobilization in Crimea on Saturday followed a request for help from Crimea’s new pro-Moscow prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, who was named Thursday by regional legislators meeting under the guns of the unidentified intruders. The Kremlin quickly issued a statement saying that Mr. Aksyonov’s plea “would not be ignored,” and within hours it had announced its plans for military action.
But in stark contrast to Soviet deployments in recalcitrant foreign lands, the conspicuous display of might on Saturday met not with fierce resistance — at least not in heavily Russian areas of Crimea like Balaklava — but with a mix of delight and eerie calm.
“I have been hoping for this from the very beginning,” said Ilina Kulkova, an ethnic Russian resident of the nearby city of Sevastopol, after learning that the Russian Parliament had authorized the use of military force in Ukraine, of which Crimea has been a part since 1954. “Russia is the only guarantor of our security,” she said, adding that she “did not know anybody who is complaining.”
She acknowledged that she had not heard complaints because she did not know anybody who supported the “Nazi gangster regime” that she and many other ethnic Russians living in Crimea — and also the Kremlin — believe seized power last weekend in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, following the flight of the country’s elected president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.
While ethnic Russians rejoiced, however, Crimea’s other main populations, Muslim Tatars and Ukrainians, mourned a return to an era thought to have ended with the Cold War. At Bakhchysarai, the historic capital of Crimea before the Tatars were conquered by Russia in the 18th century and then deported en masse to Central Asia by Stalin, Chiygoz Ahtem, the head of the local Tatar council, huddled gloomily with supporters around a television in his office, gasping in disbelief at reports of Ukraine’s crumbling authority in the region.
Boasting that he had helped his community form units to protect themselves, Mr. Ahtem said Tatars “do not like to speak loudly, but our people made their choice a long time ago: We are part of Ukraine,” not Russia. He declined to say whether his followers had guns, offering only a high-five when asked whether there could be armed resistance.
But with Tatars vastly outnumbered by ethnic Russians, Mr. Ahtem placed most of his hopes in an expectation that foreign powers would not let Russia’s “naked aggression” pass without a response. “In the 21st century, the international community cannot be a bystander,” he said.
A few miles away, at a makeshift roadblock of concrete slabs flying Russian flags and manned by Russian “self-defense” volunteers and hairy members of a Russian motorcycle gang, a big black banner with red letters gave a blunt warning: “Russia has always been the graveyard of evil ideas. You cannot win over a graveyard, you can only stay in it forever.”
In Simferopol, the Crimean capital, about 400 people had gathered, some holding placards saying “Free Ukraine From U.S. Occupation” and “The U.S.A. Works With Fascism.” A woman held up a photo of President Obama with a red line through it and the caption “Yankee Go Home,” and led a chant to that effect.
Earlier in the day, scores of armed men believed to be Russian soldiers and hundreds of supporters had massed at street corners and blocked roads. But by nightfall, they had withdrawn, and the city was quiet.
Ukraine’s own military in Crimea, far weaker than Russian forces stationed permanently on the Crimean Peninsula, appeared to be stuck in deep despondency, hoping that Russia was engaged in a giant bluff and had no real intention of fighting.
A nervous Ukrainian military officer, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that Ukraine’s forces were no match for Russia’s but added that they had nonetheless received orders from Kiev to “open fire” if attacked.
At Ukraine’s Kirovsky military airfield late on Friday, Ukrainian forces tried briefly to stop a small group of Russian troops from entering. The Russians, said the Ukrainian officer, smashed up the airfield navigation equipment, apparently to make sure that Ukraine would not be able to fly in reinforcements.
On Saturday evening, Russian armored personnel carriers cruised through the center of Sevastopol, obeying the speed limit as residents looked on.
As Ukrainian leaders in Kiev, 400 miles to the north, fumed at what they denounced as an invasion that violated international law, more than a thousand residents of Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea Fleet, gathered on Saturday night for a celebratory outdoor concert in a central square featuring the fleet’s naval choir and Cossack singers. The audience waved Russian flags and banners declaring Crimea part of Russia as cars drove by honking their horns in support.
In Balaklava, young couples, families with infants and doddering pensioners came out to admire the Russian military column, strolling up and down through a park adjacent to the road blocked by the soldiers, as if just out to enjoy the suddenly warm coastal air.
By nightfall, several hundred people had gathered for a joyous rally beside a World War II memorial near the entrance to Balaklava Bay. “Are you for Russia or Ukraine?” asked a speaker. In unison, the crowd, waving Russian flags, roared back: “Russia! Russia!”
Correction: March 1, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the day that Russia openly displayed its determination to seize control of Crimea. It was Saturday, not Friday.
Russia's post-Soviet Military Engagements beyond Its Borders
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 March 2014, 20:30
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has sent troops into several neighboring states that it considers as its sphere of influence, including a brief 2008 war with Georgia and an ongoing deployment in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniestr.
Russia views these military actions as peacekeeping operations.
Spiralling Russian-Georgian tensions over Tbilisi's pro-Western orientation culminated in a brief war in August 2008.
Russia had for years previously trained and equipped troops in two Georgian separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It had also set up paramilitary forces -- or "self-defence squads" -- that were involved in armed provocations against Georgian security personnel and civilians to provoke Tbilisi's military response.
Then Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili launched a large-scale operation on August 8, 2008, against South Ossetian forces that were shelling ethnic Georgian villages in the region.
This was used by Russia as a pretext to invade and occupy swathes of the Georgian territory.
In autumn 2008 Russia recognized both secessionist territories as independent states and stationed permanent military bases there, but withdrew from Georgia proper.
According to recent Georgian intelligence data, 7th Military Base of the Russian armed forces in Abkhazia has some 3,500 troops, 150 T-90 tanks, Grad multiple rocket launchers, and two batteries of the S-300 long range surface-to-air missile systems, a former senior security official in Tbilisi told Agence France Presse.
In terms of equipment and combat-readiness, "it is one of, if not the best military units in the whole Russian military," the former official said.
Several small vessels of the Russian Black Sea fleet permanently patrol Abkhazia's coast.
In South Ossetia, the Russian army's 4th Military Base includes some 3,500 troops, 150 T-72 tanks, and Grad rocket launchers.
In addition, both regions' de facto borders are protected by the Border Service of Russia -- a branch of the Federal Security Service, formerly known as KGB. There are some 2,000 Russian border guards in Abkhazia and 1,000 in South Ossetia.
In the last several months, Russian border guards stepped up installation of barbed wire fences along the boundary between South Ossetia and adjacent regions of Georgia. The move is damaging to the local population and sparked condemnation from Tbilisi, EU leaders, and U.S. President Barack Obama.
Moldova's Russian-speaking separatist region of Transdniestr broke free of Chisinau after a brief civil war in 1991-1992 that cost some 700 lives.
Russia deployed more than 3,000 troops there as peacekeepers and they enforced a ceasefire.
Russian peacekeepers are still involved and stationed in the largely lawless region despite Moldova's calls for them to withdraw.
The separatist pro-Russian government is not recognized internationally and is opposed by largely Romanian-speaking Moldova in a frozen conflict.
Russia has not met long-standing pledges to withdraw its soldiers from Moldova, which it committed to do in 1999. Russia also keeps a large amount of armaments there.
According to the Russian defense ministry's website, there are currently around 400 Russian troops carrying out peacekeeping duties there.
Russia already had troops stationed in Tajikistan when its bitter civil war blew up in 1992 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Moscow cast its role as only peacekeeping and protecting refugees, but it backed the current regime of President Emomali Rakhmonov against the pro-Islamic opposition.
Russia formally sent peacekeepers there in 1992 along with those of other former Soviet states. Forces loyal to Rakhmonov eventually won in 1993 after a devastating war in which an estimated 150,000 people died.
Russia has a military base in the strategic country bordering Afghanistan and has a long-term agreement to station troops there.
Crimean Tatars Ponder the Return of Russian Rule
By NOAH SNEIDER
MARCH 1, 2014
KHOSHKELDI, Ukraine — In a narrow convenience store here in Khoshkeldi, a village of about 1,000 ethnic Tatars just outside the Crimean capital, shoppers came in one after another on Saturday, heads drooping, asking the disconsolate clerk if she had heard the latest.
“Who needs a war?” said one, Seit-Umerob Murat, 58, echoing a sentiment expressed by several other shoppers as Russian troops surged into the Crimean Peninsula. “We all have children, grandchildren, families to care for.”
He continued: “There’s no real chance of war; at least there shouldn’t be. It’s all being manufactured from above, where the big politics happens. We, people, don’t need war.”
With the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea on Saturday, villagers anxiously considered the prospect of a return of Russian rule, recalling Stalin’s forced deportation of the Muslim Tatars five decades ago. Like most residents, Mr. Murat returned to Crimea from exile in Central Asia in the early 1990s, and Crimean Tatars have lived in relative peace among their ethnic Russian and Ukrainian neighbors since then.
“Our people are peaceful, but if they threaten us, our men will defend the community,” Mr. Murat said. “It is better to die here than leave again.”
The masked and unmarked gunmen who have occupied strategic locations throughout Simferopol, the Crimean capital, including at least two airports and the Parliament building, have spooked the Tatars, who make up 12 percent of the Crimean population and prefer Ukrainian sovereignty. Dozens of unarmed men gathered pre-emptively on Saturday outside the station of ATR TV, a Tatar broadcast network, stating their intention to defend it against any takeover attempts.
On Saturday at a hastily called news conference in Simferopol, Refat Chubarov, a Tatar leader, cautioned against taking any kind of action. But he made it clear that the occupation of government buildings, which forced the election of a new, pro-Russian prime minister for Crimea, was no accident. “These buildings were occupied by people specially trained for it,” wearing unidentifiable uniforms and carrying weapons, he said.
As they braced themselves to protect their homes, many Tatars said they could not fathom why the Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, abandoned his post. Mr. Murat’s weather-worn face was etched with new worries as he pondered how Ukraine ended up in such a precarious position.
“Yanukovych was going back and forth while there was a scandal brewing,” Mr. Murat said. “If you’re in charge and things are falling apart at home, you must stay. If you have a fight with your wife, you cannot leave your home and children while there’s still chaos. You must resolve the problem.”
Turning toward a calendar with Islamic calligraphy hanging on the store wall, Mr. Murat expressed resignation. “No one has control of the situation now,” he said. “Every group is just looking out for themselves.”
The crisis in Crimea could lead the world into a second cold war
The Kremlin believes the west has been instrumental in the unrest in Ukraine – and will take its revenge
Follow events in Ukraine on today's live blog
The Observer, Sunday 2 March 2014
This is perhaps the most dangerous point in Europe's history since the end of the cold war. Direct confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces will draw in the United States, one way or another. While there is still time, it's extremely important to understand what each party involved is aiming for.
Over the last 10 days, Moscow has been unpleasantly surprised several times. First, when Ukraine's then president, Viktor Yanukovych, halted an operation which would have cleared his opponents from the positions they occupied in central Kiev. Given the clear order, the Berkut riot police were closing in on the Maidan – the protest movement, named after Kiev's Independence Square, whose leaders were desperately calling for a truce, – but suddenly the Berkut advance was stopped. Instead, Yanukovych invited the opposition for negotiations. The second surprise came when the negotiations turned into talks about Yanukovych's concessions, with the participation of three European Union foreign ministers.
The agreement, signed on 21 February, was a delayed capitulation by Yanukovych – who had been seen triumphant only a couple of days earlier. An even bigger surprise was the rejection of these capitulation terms by the radicals, and the opposition supporting Yanukovych's immediate resignation. Finally, the German, Polish and French governments, who had just witnessed the Kiev accord, raised no objection to the just-signed agreement being scrapped within hours.
Russia, whose representative had been invited to witness the signing of the 21 February document, but who wisely refused to co-sign it, was incensed. What Moscow saw on 21-22 February was a coup d'état in Kiev. This development led to a fundamental reassessment of Russian policy in Ukraine, and vis-à-vis the West.
Viewing the February revolution in Kiev as a coup engineered by Ukrainian radical nationalists from the west of the country – assisted by Europe and the United States – the Kremlin believed Russia's important interests were directly affected. First, Russian president Vladimir Putin's plans of economic integration in the post-Soviet space would have to do without Ukraine. Second, the fact that radical nationalist components were among the beneficiaries of the Kiev revolution left no doubt about Ukraine's future foreign and security policy and its domestic policies.
The Association Agreement with the EU, whose signature was suspended by Yanukovych in November 2013, would now be signed, putting Ukraine, in principle, on track to long-term integration with the EU. More ominously, the new Ukrainian government would revoke the 2010 law on the country's non-aligned status and seek a Nato Membership Action Plan, or MAP. (It was the issue of MAP which materially contributed to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia). In domestic terms, the triumph of western Ukrainian nationalists threatened discrimination against the Russian language, including in the largely Russophone eastern and southern regions, and a separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate. The new official Ukrainian narrative, it was feared in Moscow, would change from the post-Soviet "Ukraine is not Russia" to something like "Ukraine in opposition to Russia".
Moscow has always been thoughtless, lazy and incoherent in its strategy towards an independent Ukraine. It preferred instead to focus on specific interests: denuclearisation; the Black Sea fleet; gas transit and prices; and the like. During the early days of the present crisis, it remained largely passive. Now, things are changing at breakneck speed. With the delicate balance in the Ukrainian polity and society which had existed since the break-up of the USSR no more, Russia has begun to act, decisively, even rashly. Again, there is hardly a master strategy in sight, but some key elements are becoming evident.
Russia is now seeking to insulate the Crimean peninsula from the rest of Ukraine – to prevent clashes between Kiev's military or police forces or Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary g
Russian Anti-War Protesters Detained in Moscow
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 13:35
Moscow police on Sunday arrested dozens protesting against military intervention in Ukraine after President Pig V. Putin won approval from senators to send in troops to the crisis-hit country.
Police said 40 people were detained for "attempts to violate public order" at a protest near the defense ministry in central Moscow, the Interfax news agency said.
Ovdinfo, a rights group that tracks arrests at demonstrations, put the number of detentions at 100.
Anti-war protesters also gathered at a separate demonstration on Manezhnaya square close to the Kremlin and Red Square, which police cordoned off and blocked with parked buses.
People held posters saying "No to war", while some also held Ukrainian flags and ribbons in the national colours of yellow and light blue.
Ovdinfo said about 30 people were detained.
Authorities have meanwhile agreed to allow a rally later Sunday in support of Pig Putin's policy on intervention, even closing central boulevards to traffic to allow a march.
The pro-Kremlin United Russia party posted an invitation to the demonstration at 1300 GMT on its website, saying Russian speakers are "faced with persecution and violence because they speak Russian and are friendly toward Russia."
Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, on Saturday unanimously approved the Pig's request to send Russian troops into Ukraine.
Lawmakers also said the Russian ambassador to the United States should be recalled.
Pig Putin said Russia needs to protect the lives of Russian citizens in regions close to Russia and servicemen from its Black Sea fleet after a pro-Western opposition movement deposed Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych.
Kiev accused Russia of covertly invading the Crimean peninsula on Saturday, when armed men occupied several government buildings and the airport and installed checkpoints on the peninsula.
Russia Launches 'Propaganda' War over Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 12:33
Russia launched an all-out propaganda campaign Sunday to whip up support for possible military action in Ukraine, as state media and ruling party officials claimed armed marauders were terrorizing the ex-Soviet nation.
Kremlin-controlled media launched a full-scale operation with footage aimed at discrediting the new Kiev authorities and rousing anger at alleged outrages perpetrated against the Russian-speaking population.
"Our propaganda on state channels is really running wild," commented former economy minister Andrei Nechayev on Twitter.
Fanning suspicions of international involvement in the Kiev protests, news channel Russia 24 aired an apparent confession from a young Russian who claimed he was paid to serve as a sniper with opposition forces.
"There are mercenaries there... they come from very different countries: the United States and Germany, they come wearing identical military uniforms," he alleged.
He said he feared violent reprisals for his revelations, alleging that the protest leaders in Kiev would "just put people in a cellar and kill them".
Named only as Vladislav, he was filmed being grilled by investigators after being caught in the Bryansk region bordering Ukraine.
A Russia 24 anchor added a warning that "mercenaries are now going to Crimea. Their aims are clear enough: to provoke a new wave of the crisis and rob people on the sly".
The same channel interviewed the governor of the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine, Yevgeny Savchenko, who warned that "crowds of armed people" were on the move and on Saturday tried to block a highway to Crimea.
Russian news agencies also issued simultaneous reports that Ukrainian armed forces were deserting en masse and going over to the side of the breakaway Crimean authorities.
The reports were first attributed to correspondents, and then to the region's self-proclaimed prime minister.
The unspecific but threatening reports seemed principally aimed at stirring fears.
- 'Courageous and timely decision' -
Meanwhile top Russian lawmakers spoke out reassuringly on the situation, stressing a mood of national unity rallying around Putin.
"The situation in Ukraine consolidates all Russian civil society," said lawmaker Leonid Slutsky of the ruling United Russia party, who heads the lower house's committee on links with ex-Soviet states.
"Everyone is unambiguously in support of protecting our people in Ukraine, so as not to allow the Russian language and Russians to be pushed out of Ukraine," he said, cited by RIA Novosti news agency.
He said that the crisis acted to "strengthen even further the authority of the Russian president, who is taking a courageous and timely decision."
United Russia called for a popular march in central Moscow on Sunday, calling Ukraine's people a "brother" nation that "needs our protection and support".
The march, hastily organised and sanctioned by city authorities, was set to start at 1300 GMT at Pushkin Square and cover a route across central Moscow.
Under Russian law, rallies have to be agreed with authorities 10 days in advance, something strictly enforced for opposition protests.
United Russia warned that ethnic Russians in Ukraine were "suffering persecution and violence because they speak Russian, remain friendly towards Russia and do not recognise the nationalist Bandera supporters who have seized power".
Stepan Bandera was a controversial guerrilla leader of Ukrainian nationalists during and after World War II, whose forces fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets.
Influential United Russia lawmaker Irina Yarovaya appealed to "all people who care, which I am sure is the absolute majority", to turn out.
Opposition media reported that state employees such as teachers had been told to attend the rally, a common practice by the authorities.
Britain's Labor Party Votes to Reform Union Ties
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 March 2014, 18:45
Britain's opposition Labor party voted Saturday for major reforms that will dilute its historical links with the trade unions -- at the risk of losing millions of pounds in political donations.
Leader Ed Miliband hailed delegates at a special conference in London for having the "courage to change" with their vote, by 86 to 14 percent, to support his proposed reforms to leadership elections and union funding.
He said the changes would help re-engage Labor's traditional supporters in politics, insisting: "I don't want to break the link with working people. I want to hear the voices of working people louder than ever before."
Under the reforms, the electoral college system used to choose the Labor leader will be scrapped in favor of giving a vote to each individual member.
Currently the unions, party members and elected members of parliament each cast a block vote -- a system that Miliband used to his advantage when he narrowly beat his brother to the leadership in 2010 with union support.
The party has also voted to end the process by which union members are automatically affiliated to Labor and a donation is paid on their behalf, unless they opt out.
Members of the unions, which helped found the Labor party in 1900, will now have to actively opt in. Many are expected not to bother, with the result that Labor is likely to suffer a major cut in funding.
The GMB union has already slashed its affiliation funding, and Britain's biggest union Unite will discuss its arrangements next week. It has warned that only 10 percent of its one million members were likely to stay with Labor.
The reforms were sparked by a row last year over allegations of vote-rigging by Unite in a Scottish parliamentary by-election, raising questions about the link between Labor and unions.
Unite says it did nothing wrong, and insists it will not be sidelined by the changes.
Miliband admitted he had taken a "big risk" in pushing through the reforms, but said: "We should all be proud of the Labor party that has shown the courage to change."
Tony Blair, Labor's most successful prime minister who held office between 1997 and 2007, welcomed the changes as "long overdue".
Not even Angela Merkel can bridge the vast Europe divide for David Cameron
A deal can be done on EU reform, but it is not one that will ever satisfy the Tory Europhobes
The Observer, Sunday 2 March 2014
Short of David Cameron falling to his knees in Downing Street and shining her shoes with his tongue, No 10 really couldn't have done more to suck up to Angela Merkel. The German chancellor was treated to tea at Buckingham Palace, the poshest caff that Britain can offer. John Bercow, the Speaker, welcomed her to the royal gallery of the House of Lords by trowelling on the flattery before peers and MPs listened in respectful silence to her arguments of substance and laughed deferentially at her dry jokes.
British reporters, normally distinguished by their lack of reverence, were the acme of politeness in their questioning at her joint news conference with the prime minister. The closest we came to a moment of lèse-majesté was when one asked whether it was true that she regarded the man sitting next to her as "a naughty nephew". The prime minister pinked and gave a schoolboyish snigger. She looked as if someone had offered her a bad sausage. One German journalist even remarked to her that she had been received as if she were "the Queen of Europe". Contrasts were made, and these contrasts were encouraged by No 10, with the treatment recently meted out to François Hollande who was given a pub lunch on a wet day in Oxfordshire and subjected to interrogation about his sex life.
For all this effort to make nice to Angela, what did David Cameron receive in return? Well, the German chancellor clearly appreciates the difficulties that her host has managing his increasingly Europhobic party, even if it is reported from Berlin that she privately thinks much of it has been recklessly self-inflicted by Mr Cameron's promise of a renegotiation of the terms of British membership followed by an in/out referendum on a timetable to which no one else in Europe has agreed. She did what she could to help him by indicating a few areas where her country could have a common interest with Britain in changing the way in which the European Union works. But on the big, existential question, on the thing that really arouses the passions of the Conservative party, she delivered a rebuff. It was gracefully delivered, but a rebuff it was, and all the more pointed for coming in the part of her speech that was delivered in English. This was the crucial passage: "Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I'm afraid they are in for a disappointment." The central, animating theme of her speech was to champion the European ideal which has always been so important to post-war Germany and to dash any fantasies that might be entertained by Tory MPs that she would support Britain if it sought to unravel the essential fabric of the EU.
The only surprise is that anyone expected anything different. Mrs Merkel is currently Europe's most successful politician. Those who have seen her in action around negotiating tables report that she is a tough and careful bargainer. One thing you don't do if you are any good at negotiating is show your hand too early.
Another thing you don't do is lay out your position before you know with whom you might be negotiating. It is safe to assume that a woman with a doctorate in "the mechanisms of decay reactions and velocity constraints in quantum chemical methods" has some facility at maths. The numbers don't look too hot for her British counterpart at the moment. She can read opinion polls and they tell her, like they tell everyone, that the Tory leader is suffering from both decay reactions and velocity constraints. There is no guarantee that David Cameron will ever call a referendum on British membership of the EU because there is no certainty that he will still be at No 10 after May 2015. It could be Ed Miliband whom Mrs Merkel's officials will have been briefing her about and whom she took care to meet for private talks during her London visit.
Even if David Cameron is still in Downing Street after the next election, it is not terribly clear which David Cameron she and the rest of Europe will find themselves dealing with. Would it be the Tory leader who has sought to appease his Europhobes by suggesting that he will seek sweeping change to the terms of membership? Or would it be the Tory leader who sometimes implies that he would pursue a more modest new settlement that would be more likely to be palatable to other member states? More than a year has passed since he gave the speech in which he made the referendum pledge and he has yet to detail his shopping list. The reason he fears to do so is because he knows that a substantial faction of the Conservative party will instantly denounce it as too feeble. Some of them want out of the EU whatever might be the outcome of a renegotiation. Others dream of continued membership on such minimalist terms – access to the internal market and that is about it – that the rest of Europe would never agree.
For some time now, Mr Cameron has relied heavily on the capacity of the German chancellor to come up with enough accommodations – and, as importantly, on her ability to persuade the rest of Europe to accept them – for him to be able to present a renegotiation as a success and recommend a yes vote in a referendum. From any British government's point of view, it makes sense to invest in the relationship with Europe's richest and most politically powerful state. But No 10 has consistently over-estimated both the desire and the ability of the chancellor of Germany to ride to David Cameron's rescue. Germany has a strong preference for Britain to remain within the EU. Mrs Merkel would want to help Mr Cameron win a referendum on continued British membership. But if it was not clear before, no doubt remains after her speech in the royal gallery that she is not going to pay any price to keep Europe's most truculent member in the club.
For one thing, which often seems to be strangely overlooked in No 10, she too leads a coalition. In her case, it is with the SPD, a party which is at least as Europhile as our own Lib Dems and which will be very resistant to making concessions of substance on social policy.
For another, she appears to be more conscious than her British counterpart that, if there is a renegotiation, it won't be just the two of them in the room. This isn't going to be Roosevelt and Churchill drawing lines on maps over brandy and cigars. As she went out of her way to point out, in any negotiation there would be 26 other voices around the table, each with the power to veto any changes to existing EU treaties. David Cameron better get busy buttering up the Cypriots and the Maltese, too.
Some other member states may be aligned with elements of Mr Cameron's agenda. His people talk optimistically of an emerging alliance of northern European states sharing the prime minister's desire to give more say to national parliaments, curb the powers of Brussels and make Europe more competitive. Yet even among some of those countries that might be sympathetic there is confusion about what Britain really wants and some anger that a country which already has a fistful of opt-outs is demanding more special privileges.
It is also hard not to think that drawing constant attention to how much the British government admires the German chancellor and how contemptuous it is of the French president is a funny way of going about diplomacy when Mr Cameron is going to need the help of François Hollande as well. The repeated snubs meted out to the Frenchman may seem amusing to some people here, but I don't hear much laughter pealing from the Elysée Palace. Desperately unpopular he may be, but his term as president of France runs to 2017, the year by which Mr Cameron is supposed to have completed his renegotiation and be going into a referendum. Without the co-operation of the French, the prime minister's plan won't even get to first base.
He and his people have tried to draw comfort from some of the more optimistic remarks made by the German chancellor at their joint news conference when she expressed confidence that Britain would remain in the EU. "It is not a piece of cake, it will be a lot of work," she said of a renegotiation, but it was "doable".
There is scope for a deal between reasonable people involving some reform. I can conceive of David Cameron and Angela Merkel, both essentially pragmatic politicians of the centre-right, striking a bargain which would entail limited changes to existing treaties. I can even just about imagine, if the diplomacy was skilful enough, getting enough other member states on board to seal an agreement.
David Cameron's fundamental problem is the vast gulf between what other EU states might be prepared to sign up to and what a large segment of the Conservative party are demanding. Even if she wanted to, Angela Merkel cannot bridge that great divide for him. No power on earth can.
The harpist or the heiress? Image is all in the race to be first woman mayor of Paris
Personalised campaign is mired in ridicule after a series of gaffes by leading candidates Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Anne Hidalgo
The Observer, Sunday 2 March 2014
The homeless, unemployed guys kicking their heels around the exit of the former Saint Martin metro near Paris's symbolic Place de la République, do not need a swimming pool, a nightclub or a restaurant.
The men, of various origins and uncertain ages, their faces and gaits ravaged from life on the street, need what the phantom station gives them: coffee, breakfast, a shower, advice, even books to borrow. Attempting to explain plans to transform this, a Salvation Army "day centre", into something considerably more glossy, attractive and what the French would call "bobo", is a mission in itself. The men shrug. The whole idea proposed by centre-right mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet seems utterly foreign and, frankly, fantastical.
Don't worry," says a passer-by overhearing the conversation. "It'll never happen."
Some weeks previously, across Paris in the city's billionaires' row, clusters of news reporters and nimbys had waited in the cold and rain for the election frontrunner and Kosciusko-Morizet's rival, Socialist Anne Hidalgo. In the shadow of magnificent shuttered properties, many owned by foreign oligarchs, dictators, kleptocrats and royals, the protesters waved hastily made banners opposing Hidalgo's plan to transform Baron Haussmann's grand Avenue Foch, a one-time walkway for the wealthy, into a "green corridor" for the masses. "Non to Mme Hidalgo's Luna Park", they read. Hidalgo declared the plans for a park, pedestrian area and playground "magnifique". For the nimbys, the elephant in the architects' plans was a certain shaded area running parallel to the avenue designated for council housing.
"We're already building social housing," lamented one protester in the arrondissement that has only 2.5% of council houses, far short of the 20% required by law. "Fifteen or so flats, over there," he waved his hands in a vague direction. "It's crazy, it'll never happen," said his neighbour. It was not clear to which construction project he was referring.
As France's two-round municipal elections approach (23 and 30 March), the two women in a duel to become the capital's first Madame le Maire are digging deeper into the box marked "grandstanding ideas unlikely to see the light of day" (not least because both have promised not to raise city taxes).
On the left is the favourite, Spanish-born Hidalgo, 54, protégée of current mayor Bertrand Delanoë and disparagingly referred to as la dauphine (the heiress). On the right is her rival, Kosciusko-Morizet, known as NKM, 40, a former minister in Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right government, nicknamed "the harpist" ever since she was photographed for Paris Match lounging in a party gown in a forest next to a harp, like some posh wood nymph, in 2005. The French love a good political debate, discussion, even dispute over dinner, but these elections appear to have failed to galvanise much public enthusiasm, judging by the curious lack of table thumping in homes across the capital. Anecdotal evidence, but remarkable, nevertheless.
Madani Cheurfa, a political analyst at Cevipof, the study centre on French political life, believes the Paris municipal elections, as elsewhere in France, have been infected by the general cloud of gloom that has descended on the whole republic. He said Paris's educated population (41.7% of adults with higher education, compared with a national average of 12%), many of whom live alone (51.3% compared with 33% across the country), was more politically conscious and motivated than elsewhere, but blamed a lack of clear water between the two candidates for muddying the election.
"The principal game being played by the candidates is one of consensus. Everyone is agreed that it's important to fight unemployment, to fight homelessness, to fight cancer. It's like saying 'war is bad'; everyone agrees," Cheurfa said. "Everyone agrees that the priority is housing, because that's what the opinion polls say Parisians are most concerned about, then transport because this is an everyday concern for those in the city, and crime. The problem is there just isn't much between them. They both agree on the subjects and it just comes down to details and figures; how many new homes, how many creches."
"The consequence of this is that we have seen the campaign become super-personalised and simplified in the media and social networks. The fact that there are two women candidates, which is original, has magnified this."
Unfortunately, the candidates have done little to dispel the nagging feeling that this campaign is about image over ideas or ideals. Hidalgo arrived for her Avenue Foche walkabout in a stubby black Smart car, a gesture that smacked, like Boris Johnson being photographed taking a bus, of a politician trying too hard. Even more breathtaking was Hidalgo's official campaign poster released last week, showing a heavily retouched (Hidalgo's team denied this) portrait described by French PR veteran Jacques Séguéla as like "a L'Oréal advert for anti-wrinkle cream". "It's not natural at all," Séguéla told Le Parisien.
NKM's communications team has been tripped up by a series of damaging faux-pas, and too obvious attempts by Kosciusko-Morizet to appear just another woman on the Paris omnibus have backfired spectacularly. She was photographed using a free Vélib' bicycle – all very ordinary – but someone pointed out the €2,000 designer handbag in the front basket, while the inappropriate stiletto heels she sported while on the back of a scooter for another publicity shot could not go unnoticed.
Ridicule abounded on social networks after NKM, pictured looking wistfully out of a metro train window, described the city's underground network as a "place of charm", particularly line 13, one of the most crowded and moaned about. Not knowing, when asked, the cost of a metro ticket did not do anything to promote her woman-of-the-people image.
The laughs, however, turned to boos when she was photographed, in a leather jacket and jeans, smoking what looked like a rollup with a group of homeless men. It brought a lambasting in the columns of the Huffington Post from the current minister for social exclusion, Marie-Arlette Carlotti, who wrote a column entitled "Madame Kosciusko-Morizet, a bit of decency!". In it, she wrote: "You were minister and spokesperson for Nicolas Sarkozy who promised in 2006 there would be no more homeless. You have recently called for the return to anti-begging laws in Paris. Today you're posing like a model in company with people on the streets, pretending to be hanging out and sympathetic … your ambition doesn't allow you to use impoverished people." The former budget minister, Alain Lambert, said the photo was an "example of disastrous political communication".
Since NKM published her plans for Paris's ghost metro stations, including turning one into a swimming pool, Hidalgo has clearly decided that water is the new solid political ground, promising renovations to existing pools and new ones, including floating pools on the Seine. It would be nice to think it might happen.
For the Salvation Army and the careworn guys outside the unused Saint Martin station, however, there are much more important priorities. "Food, equality for children, homes, proper facilities for foreign immigrants, that sort of thing," said a spokesperson for the organisation. "Just basic services."
Rouhani Says U.N. Finds No Evidence Iran Seeks Nuclear Arms
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 14:57
President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday that despite "thousands of hours" of inspection, the U.N.'s atomic watchdog has found no evidence of military objectives in Iran's nuclear drive.
His remarks came on the eve of an International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors meeting in Vienna, on the sidelines of which Iran will hold expert-level talks with world powers.
Western powers "all know that nuclear science in Iran follows a peaceful path", Rouhani said in a speech broadcast on state television.
"The agency has conducted thousands of hours of inspection, and announced it has not found any diversion from the peaceful use (of nuclear technology) to military purposes."
In its latest report on Iran in late February, the IAEA said Iran was sticking to a nuclear freeze it agreed under a November interim deal with world powers.
The watchdog's report came a month after the deal came into force.
Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of world powers are seeking to reach a lasting accord that would allay Western suspicions that Tehran's nuclear activities mask military objectives.
As part of such a comprehensive deal, the six seek to pressure Iran over its ballistic missile program, which could theoretically provide Tehran with a device to deliver a nuclear warhead, should it choose to build one.
Rouhani on Sunday defended the program, saying it has "always been defensive in nature, and will always remain so".
On Saturday, Rouhani had called for calm amid provocative rhetoric from Iranian hardliners.
"Sometime one does not seek war but talks as if one does, and this is seen as a threat to other parties. This is an unnecessary provocation," he told military personnel and defense ministry officials.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran's foreign policy is based on detente and building trust," he added.
Since taking office in August, Rouhani has vowed to rebuild strained relations with the West.
The tea pickers sold into slavery
One day Somila was living on an Assam plantation. The next, she had been sold into slavery hundreds of miles from home. Gethin Chamberlain joins the race to save her – and uncovers a flourishing slave trade that begins with the cost of tea
The Observer, Sunday 2 March 2014
A car, speeding through the crowded streets of Delhi. Inside, a phone is ringing. The voice on the line is that of a ghost, a girl who vanished into thin air three years ago.
Somila was 16 when the traffickers lured her from the poverty of her home on the tea plantation in Assam with promises of a better life. Now she is a slave, trapped and terrified, lost in a city of 16 million people.
Crammed into the car are people determined to find her and set her free. They crane to hear her voice on the tinny speaker. Help me, she says. Her owners are threatening to sell her into prostitution in Mumbai. She is afraid she will be lost for ever.
Help me. Find me. There is not a second to lose.
This is the world of modern slavery, a world in which something as apparently innocuous as the price of a cup of tea can drive an ancient trade that many assume has been consigned to history.
Somila was born on the vast Nahorani tea plantation in the northeast Indian state of Assam, owned by a consortium that includes Tata Global Beverages – which uses leaves from the estate in its best-selling Tetley brand – and the World Bank's investment arm, the International Finance Corporation. While the owners count their fortunes in billions of pounds, the Nahorani tea workers – and every other tea worker in Assam, including all those picking for Tetley and the other big brands – earn a basic wage of just 94 rupees a day (91p). If that seems a small amount, it is. The legal minimum wage for Assam is 169 rupees for an unskilled worker. But tea is big business in India and Assam in particular, and a cartel of owners have persuaded the state that they cannot afford to pay the legal minimum. In doing so, they have created a fertile breeding ground for the 21st century slave trade.
Twelve hundred miles away in Delhi, a booming middle class demands staff to tackle the domestic chores they now consider beneath them. To meet demand, thousands of placement agencies have sprung up to supply girls as maids. They source the girls from places where families cannot afford to keep their children. And this is what makes the tea estates of Assam, with their poverty pay, so very attractive to the traffickers.
Inside the car, the phone is ringing again. It is Somila, frightened and confused. She says she does not know where she is. The tall, well-groomed figure in the front seat turns and speaks urgently to one of the others. "She is frightened of the trafficker," he says. "She is frightened that they will kill her family."
The man's name is Kailash Satyarthi. It is 34 years since he founded the group that is now on Somila's trail, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA – Save the Childhood Movement). He has lost count of the children he has rescued in the intervening years. "Her world view is so limited that she believes the slave master is the super boss, the centre of power, that he can do anything," he says. "And they have threatened her that if the police come, they will take her and her father to jail. Poor people do not trust the police – they believe the police are for the masters and not the poor people."
Rakesh Senger of BBA On the case: Rakesh Senger, senior member of BBA, which rescued 1,400 children last year alone. Photograph: Gethin Chamberlain for the Observer
The phone is handed to Ramesh, Somila's father, crouching in the back of the car. He tells her that her mother is sick, that it is urgent, that he needs to take her back home. Still she hesitates. The only clue the team have is that they know the trafficker's office is in the Tagore Gardens district in west Delhi. The car plunges back into the traffic, leading the rest of the rescue convoy west.
Somila Tanti was 16 when a trafficker came calling. She was one of the brighter girls in her class and her father, Ramesh, had scrimped and saved to pay for her to take computer lessons. "My whole life I kept on plucking, doing the plantation work," he says. "But I didn't want that my daughter should do it, so I thought that if she studies well, she can have a decent future. I was very concerned about her future." But the trafficker was persuasive. He filled Somila's head with stories of Delhi and the better life she could have there.
"Two days before my daughter was kidnapped this agent, the trafficker, came and gave her a lot of tempting ideas that if you go with me, you will be happy, things like that. I remember the day, it was a Saturday. She was not behaving normally. She was wearing different clothes, a dress she had made herself. I wondered where she was going, but she often stayed with a friend, so I did not worry about it."
It was only when the girl failed to return the next day that her parents started to panic. "When I enquired with some people they told me that there was a trafficker, he used to come to your home and they had noticed that this man has taken her," says Ramesh. "We cried and cried like anything, we wept and my wife and my mother, all of us kept on crying and we were helpless."
That was three years ago. Since then, there have been a few brief phone calls, promises that Somila will be allowed home, but nothing has come of them. "My heart has been burning, it got broken many a time, but being a man I tried to keep my tears inside," says Ramesh.
The family are not alone. At least 13 other girls are missing from the plantation. Shiboti Tanti's mother, Rajanti, was picking tea when word reached her that people were taking her 12-year-old away. She dropped everything and ran to the road. There were two people there, putting her daughter into a car. "Stop!" she screamed, but they told her not to worry. "We will look after her," they said. That was a year ago.
Laxmi Munda was 12 when she disappeared. The local trafficker, Deepak, had been to the family's home the day before to talk to her parents, Mangoal and Susena, but they did not really understand what was happening. The next day she was gone, along with several other girls from the area.
"She was a trusting person. Maybe he promised her a better job so that's why she believed him and she went with the other girls," says Susena. Deepak lives on the estate, she says. "This is his job, to get girls from here to supply to Delhi."
Susena is on her own in the house. Desperate to get Laxmi back, Mangoal went to Delhi six months ago to try to find her. Susena has not seen him since. Occasionally there has been a call from one or the other, holding out hope of a return, but nothing has come of it. "People say things, but they don't act. My daughter is not here, my husband is not here. I have only my pain: I live with my pain only," she says.
The list goes on. Rekha Munda was taken when she was just 11. No one has seen her since. Sisters Sunita Tanti, 17, and Anita, 13, were picked off by the traffickers two years ago. "If I saw them, I would say they are pimps; they are not men, they are pimps," says their grandfather, Sadan Tanti, bitterly.
Inside the car, the phone is ringing again. This time Somila has the name of an area, but it matches nothing in the city. A neighbour is trying to help her. The address is BC9GF, she says. Satyarthi scribbles it down, and stares at it. It takes an iPhone and Google Maps to crack it. Nearby is an area called Mianwali Nagar; could that be the name she's been trying to pronounce? Still, BC9GF. What does it mean?
"Building complex 9?" suggests Satyarthi. No, look, here is an AB road. Could there be… yes… there it is, BC Road. She's at 9BC Road, Ground Floor. That's it. It is barely a mile away. The car turns north and stops outside the nearest police station. A couple of officers climb into the vehicles behind.
The turning is barely a couple of hundred yards further down the road. It is a typical middle-class Delhi street. The salmon-pink house, three storeys high with ornate balustrades, sits behind a large metal gate. A woman on the first floor is hanging out clothes on the balcony.
Out of the cars, hammering on the gate, then into the house. The owner stands in the middle of the room, looking bewildered. Does she have a maid? Yes. Then call her. Time stops. And then there she is, a small figure, emerging from the darkness of the back room through silver curtains draped across an archway, taking off her apron, a smile spreading across her face.
"Are you Somila Tanti from Sonitpur?"
"Then you are free."
Somila takes off her apron and steps forward. She is led outside to where her father is waiting.
He throws his arms around her, wails his joy. There is what seems like an eternity of tears, the pair clinging together. He is so overcome it seems he might collapse. Satyarthi forces him to take water from a plastic bottle and he gulps at it hungrily, head tilted back, rivulets running down his face.
A little while later, everyone is back inside the house. The police have called Sanjay, the trafficker, and told him to come. He arrives on a motorbike, a worried man. They sit him on the sofa, take away his phone and his bike keys and start to ask him questions. The couple who bought Somila from him for £250 look on, baffled, unable to understand what they have done wrong. They paid him 4,000 rupees a month in wages for Somila, they say, though she never saw a penny.
Sanjay is led away. Later he will confess to taking 18 girls and will be charged with trafficking and abduction. He will not be granted bail.
On the pavement outside the house, Shomna Tanti watches him go. He is happy for his friend, but there is no mistaking the pain in his eyes. There is no word on Shiboti.
Somila sits on the hard concrete step of the police station, waiting to make her statement. "I had a deep feeling in my heart that one day my father would come to search for me. But I could not expect this thing today," she says. The traffickers had tricked her into leaving, she says. "I was tempted with a decent job and I was told that since I am a little bit educated I will find a good job in an office or at a shop, so come with us and you will earn good money and we were poor so I thought it would be good."
Instead, she found herself unable to escape. Her first owner was a doctor, who did not mistreat her, but would not let her go home. After 11 months, she was moved on to a different place, before being moved again. "I was abused badly at that second place. That man was very bad: he used to touch me in my private parts and try to rape me. I was very angry, but I had nowhere to go and I did not want to stay there," she says.
Nowhere did she have a room of her own. She describes sleeping on the floor, cold in the winter, with no covers. "I cried and I missed my parents. If I was at home it would never happen with me that I was shivering in the cold."
She wants to return to her studies, to be a nurse, she says. And she wants the people who took her to be punished.
In the past two years, the BBA has rescued 2,600 children, but two of their members have been killed and most of the others have tales to tell of beatings. "In my own case I have my broken leg and my broken head and my broken back and my broken shoulder," says Satyarthi. He shrugs. "These people are like the mafia, they are very, very powerful." Yet he is determined to press on. "I cannot tolerate the loss of freedom of any single child in my own country," he says.
More than 100,000 young people are believed to be in domestic slavery in Delhi. "I don't think these people who engage them as domestic slaves ever think of it. They have a different mindset: they think they were born to take work from the poor people, and sometimes the poor people think they were born to work for them."
But he is angry, too, with the tea companies who pay so little that the girls are vulnerable to the slave traders. "The owners of these international tea estates don't care for these people. They don't pay them minimum wages. Forget about the decent wages: they don't even pay survival wages." The companies make their profits, he says, and the poor are left hoping that the traffickers' promises of a better life somewhere else are true. But they never are. "The reality is slavery, the reality is abuse, the reality is sexual exploitation, the reality is endless slavery."
A little after 9am, the cars move out for a raid on a placement agency in the Shivaji Park area of Delhi. They pull up outside a three-storey building in a busy, down-at-heel street. On the roof terrace a group of girls start to run in panic as the police and rescuers enter the building.
BBA officer Rakesh Senger leads the way, with the parents following behind, hoping to find their daughters. Rakesh is shouting for Ranjit, the trafficker, but he is not there. They find some girls in an office with mattresses on the floor and locked filing cabinets containing false documents. More documents are found inside a bed, with books and false papers.
In the south of the city, another team has gone after Laxmi Munda, whose mother Susena is alone in Assam since her father Mangoal went looking for her. The trafficker, Jacob, says he has no idea where she has gone. There are several men in the room. "I am Mangoal, from Sonitpur, here seeking my daughter," says one. He had tracked Laxmi down to the agency, only to be imprisoned himself. "He kept me here for the last two months and didn't give me any money or my daughter. Jacob took all my money so I could not leave."
Fifteen days earlier, he had finally been reunited with Laxmi. He mimes hugging her. But he does not know where she is now. She is lost again.
The Nahorani estate is owned by Amalgamated Plantations, a joint venture between Tata Global Beverages and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the investment arm of the World Bank. Tata is worth $60bn and Tetley – which it bought for £271m in 2000 – is its best-selling brand in the UK. Tata holds a 49.66% stake in Amalgamated Plantations; the IFC, which manages billions of pounds of funds and is committed to eradicating extreme poverty, holds a 15.6% stake. Yet Amalgamated, in common with other tea companies in Assam, is permitted by the state to pay workers just 94 rupees a day – topping it up to the legal limit, they claim, with benefits in kind. The average tea worker earns 2p for every box of 80 tea bags sold for £2 in UK supermarkets.
Six months ago, when the Observer first exposed the trade in slaves from the tea estates, the world's major producers pledged to act. Certifying bodies, including the Ethical Tea Partnership, expressed their sympathy for the victims, and claim never to have encountered trafficking on their members' estates, but are working with various groups to try to prevent it. Since then, the only change has been a 5-rupee-a-day wage rise – an annual rise which had already been agreed. The poverty in which the workers live remains. Last year the IFC's own watchdog, the Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, launched an investigation into the Amalgamated project following complaints from three local NGOs.
A week after Somila is freed, the BBA team springs Shiboti from the house where she is working. They arrive at night and there is a protracted argument with her owner before the girl is handed over.
As she bundles up her few possessions, she shows them where she sleeps, on the floor in a stairwell. She had been tempted by the idea of earning more money, she says. She was sent first to Punjab, then Delhi. The agency kept her wages and refused to let her go home. "My employer's wife used to taunt me by saying: 'I've bought you for 30,000 rupees, so do as I say,'" she says. "She used to beat me for every small mistake I made or even without any mistake. I used to work for longer hours and she would make me wash the whole premises every day. She always used to criticise my family and even threatened me that she'll send me to jail by making false complaints." She glances at her relieved father, Shomna. "I still can't believe that I am with my family and have escaped from that hell."
Three days later, Rekha Munda is freed. It is the final raid. In total 20 girls and boys are free as a result of the Nahorani investigation. Yet there are tens of thousands like them unable to escape. Between 2008 and 2012, 452,679 cases of child trafficking for domestic labour were reported in India. Just 3,394 – 0.6% – of those reports led to convictions. The tea companies still insist that they cannot pay another rupee more. In the last quarter Tata Global Beverages posted profits of £11m.
Laxmi Munda and Sunita and Anita Tanti are still out there, lost somewhere in this vast megacity, living proof that slavery thrives in the second decade of the 21st century. For thousands like them, the price of a cup of tea has proved to be very high indeed.
To see Gethin Chamberlain's extraordinary film of the reunion between a slave girl and her father, go to theguardian.com/india
Kunming rail station attack: China horrified as mass stabbings leave dozens dead
State media blame militants from Xinjiang after 'violent terror attack' at crowded ticket hall in Yunnan province, south-west China
Barry Neild and agencies
The Observer, Sunday 2 March 2014
China was reeling from what was described as a "violent terror attack" on Saturday in which a knife-wielding gang stabbed 33 people to death and left scores more injured at a railway station.
State media blamed the killings at Kunming in Yunnan province, south-west China, on militants from Xinjiang in the country's restive north-west. "Evidence at the crime scene showed that the Kunming railway station terrorist attack was carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces," the Xinhua news agency said, quoting officials in the city.
Reports said five attackers were shot dead by police following the incident on Saturday evening and another five were being hunted. Unverified photographs circulating on social media appeared to show the blood-soaked bodies of victims lined up on the floor. Other images showed distraught people running away from the station and crowds gathering among police officers and ambulances.
Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered a full-scale manhunt to find those responsible for what was one of the deadliest attacks in the communist country in recent years.
"Severely punish in accordance with the law the violent terrorists and resolutely crack down on those who have been swollen with arrogance," he said, according to Xinhua. "Understand the serious and complex nation of combating terrorism. Go all out to maintain social stability."
Chinese TV said the country's top police official, Meng Jianzhu, was on his way to the scene.
Yang Haifei, who was wounded in the chest and back, told Xinhua he had been buying a train ticket when the attackers approached and he had tried to escape with the crowd. "I saw a person come straight at me with a long knife and I ran away with everyone," he said. Others "simply fell on the ground".
Some who escaped were desperately searching for missing family. "I can't find my husband, and his phone went unanswered," said Yang Ziqing, who had been waiting to catch a train to Shanghai when the knife gang struck.
Eyewitnesses were quoted by the China News Service, saying the attackers, dressed in black, "burst into the train station plaza and the ticket hall, stabbing whoever they saw".
Xinhua said at least 113 people were injured in the "organised, premeditated" attack. The victims were taken by ambulances to hospitals around the city.
Weibo users took to the social network to explain what happened, though many of those posts were quickly deleted by government censors, especially those that described the attackers, two of whom were identified by some as women. Others condemned the attack.
"No matter who, for whatever reason, or of what race, chose somewhere so crowded as a train station, and made innocent people their target – they are evil and they should go to hell," wrote one user.
The website of the state-run People's Daily newspaper said the gang struck at 9pm local time on Saturday, hacking into victims who it said were "passersby". It said the station had been cordoned off and more than 120 police, firefighters and security officers deployed to the scene. TV images showed police wrapping a long, sword-like knife in a plastic bag, amid the heavy security at the station.
Kunming, about 1,300 miles south-west of Beijing, is a bustling university town and major commercial hub on trade routes linking southern China to neighbouring Vietnam.
The attack comes at a particularly sensitive time as China gears up for the annual meeting of parliament, which opens in Beijing on Wednesday and is normally accompanied by a tightening of security across the country. China has blamed similar incidents in the past on extremists operating out of Xinjiang, though such attacks have generally been limited to Xinjiang itself. China says its first major suicide attack, in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in October, involved militants from Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people, many of whom resent Chinese restrictions on their culture and religion.
In July 2008, the city was hit by two explosions on board separate public transport buses, leaving two dead. Officials did not classify the blasts as acts of terrorism and later dismissed reports that they were claimed by a Xinjiang separatist group.
Thailand Begins re-Runs of Troubled Elections
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 07:09
Polls opened peacefully in five Thai provinces Sunday for re-runs of a widely disrupted general election, authorities said, in the first move to complete a troubled vote that could provide a mandate for a new government.
A February 2 election failed to ease the months-long political crisis after anti-government protesters seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra obstructed the vote in many opposition strongholds.
Demonstrators prevented 10,000 polling stations from opening, affecting several million people, mainly in opposition strongholds in Bangkok and the south.
The nation's Election Commission said the results will not be announced until polls have been held in all constituencies, setting a rough deadline of April for their completion.
A total of around 120,000 people were registered in 101 constituencies across five provinces for Sunday's vote, election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn told Agence France Presse.
"The polls are going peacefully -- everything is under control and there are no problems," Somchai said, adding that a few dozen protesters blew whistles at one polling station in Rayong province.
A trickle of voters arrived at two polling stations early Sunday in Phetchaburi -- one of the affected provinces south of Bangkok -- according to an AFP reporter, but there were no signs of new obstruction of the polls.
Until the full results are announced, Prime Minister Yingluck remains in a caretaker role with limited power over policy.
Under Thai election law, 95 percent of the 500 seats in the lower house of parliament must be filled to enable the appointment of a new government.
Thailand's main opposition party, which boycotted the vote, in February lost a legal bid to nullify a controversial election.
In addition to the street protests, Yingluck faces a slew of legal challenges to her government, including charges of negligence over a troubled rice subsidy scheme which could see her removed from office.
Thailand has been riven by political divisions since 2006 when Thaksin Shinawatra -- Yingluck's older brother -- was ousted in a bloodless military coup.
Hatred for him has fueled demonstrations which seek to end the influence of his billionaire family on Thai politics.
Shinawatra-linked parties have won every election for more than a decade, drawing on support from the rural north and northeast.
Anti-government protesters on Sunday began dismantling rally stages at several key intersections in the capital after announcing the end of their self-proclaimed "shutdown" of the city.
Crowds have dwindled amid a spate of near-daily gun and grenade attacks -- including an attack last Sunday in a downtown shopping area which killed a woman and two children.
Protesters have moved their tents to a park in the center of the city, which has also been occupied for weeks.
The movement has denied the retreat marks a defeat, saying it would keep up its struggle to overthrow a government that it sees as corrupt.
Firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who is known for his soaring rhetoric, has predicted Yingluck's government will fall within a fortnight.
Thousands Rally in Hong Kong after Brutal Attack on Editor
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 12:21
Thousands took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against threats to press freedom in the city, days after a former newspaper editor was attacked with a cleaver in broad daylight.
Kevin Lau, former editor of the investigative Ming Pao newspaper, was left in a critical condition after Wednesday's brutal attack, seen as highlighting warnings from international watchdogs that the city's media independence is in jeopardy as Beijing seeks tighter control.
Organizers said that 13,000 people including journalists, activists and lawmakers marched in the swiftly organised rally, although police put the turnout lower at 8,600.
Protesters dressed in black waved banners declaring "They can't kill us all" as they condemned the vicious assault on Lau, urging police to solve the case quickly and saying journalists would not be swayed by violence.
"We need to tell the evil power that your knife is not going to deter us," Sham Yee-lan, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association told reporters outside the government headquarters, before marching to the city's police department to deliver a petition with 30,000 signatures.
Ronan Chan, a 21-year-old journalism student, told Agence France Presse: "I still want to be a journalist. I won't be affected by the incident... A place without freedom of speech is not a civilized society."
Lau's condition improved on Saturday when he was transferred out of an intensive hospital unit to a private ward, greeting journalists with a defiant hand gesture.
A recorded sound clip by Lau played through loudspeakers at the rally declared: "Violence wants us to be afraid. If we are afraid, we will lose freedom. I hope all journalists believe there is justice."
"People should not take freedom for granted. We cannot assume it will never change. It takes everyone to guard it," he was heard to say.
The attack on Lau provoked shock in a city known for its safety, leading Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to stress that freedom of speech will be protected in the financial hub.
- Leung's daughter sparks row -
But one of Leung's daughters, Leung Chai-yan, sparked an online row after voicing doubt over the attackers' motive, according to South China Morning Post.
"What does the attack have anything to do with press freedom?! Come on people", she wrote on her Facebook page, drawing criticisms from netizens who accused her of cold blooded comments.
A police investigation into the incident is underway but no arrests have been made so far in what authorities called a "triad-style" attack.
A similar march held the previous week prior to Lau's attack drew 6,000 people protesting at several high-profile incidents seen as aimed at stifling the free press, including the removal of Lau as editor of the liberal Ming Pao, allegedly for being unsympathetic to Beijing. Police put the count for that march at 1,600.
Earlier this month the international Committee to Protect Journalists said media freedom in Hong Kong was "at a low point", citing self-censorship among reporters, financial and physical threats against the media and legislative steps that could hinder investigative reporting.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders also said in a report that Hong Kong's media independence was "in jeopardy", as China flexes its muscles to stifle critical coverage.
Certain pro-Beijing lawmakers also attended Sunday's rally, local broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
Lawmaker Chiang Lai-wan was quoted by the broadcaster as saying that violence against journalists cannot be tolerated regardless of political ideals.
Japan Mission Leaves for Talks with N.Korea
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 12:19
Japanese government and Red Cross officials left Sunday for talks in China with their North Korean counterparts in a rare meeting that might help improve frosty relations.
The delegation headed to Shenyang for the Red Cross talks about possible visits by Japanese to the graves of family members who died in North Korea decades ago, or missions to collect their remains.
The team includes Keiichi Ono, who heads the foreign ministry's Northeast Asia division. The government talks will be held on the sidelines of the Red Cross meeting.
While there were few details of the agenda for the meeting which starts Monday, officials are hopeful that good discussions might help bridge the gap between the two nations, said Osaku Tasaka, head of the international division at Japan's Red Cross.
"We don't know exactly what kind of agenda items (North Koreans) will bring," he told reporters.
"This meeting is designed specifically for the remains. But if discussions on this theme make progress, I hope it will also make a positive impact on other subjects."
Ties between the two countries have long been strained, though they periodically try to resume dialogue with the ultimate -- and so far elusive -- goal of establishing formal diplomatic relations.
Officials from the two Red Cross societies last met in August 2012 and this led to talks by government officials in November of that year.
They had planned to meet again in December 2012 but that was cancelled after Pyongyang announced its plan to launch a long-range missile.
One of the thorniest issues between Tokyo and Pyongyang is the fate of Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s to train its spies.
But it is not clear if government officials will discuss that in the upcoming talks, Japanese diplomats have said.
North Korea, meanwhile, craves trade with Japan yet blasts its military alliance with the United States, its 1910-45 colonization of Korea and its treatment of ethnic Koreans in Japan.
Concern Grows over Rising Piracy Off West Africa
by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 March 2014, 07:13
Grey, sleek, bristling with massive cannon and an assortment of machine guns, the French navy's Commandant Birot is well-equipped to patrol Africa's most dangerous stretches of ocean.
Vessels like it played a key role in curbing pirate attacks off the coast of lawless Somalia, which saw a spate of cargo ships hijacked and ransomed for months and even years.
But with attacks off the Horn of Africa in decline, the Birot is now needed off the continent's western coast in the Gulf of Guinea, as experts call for regional navies to shoulder more of the burden.
"It's the place where there's the most oil platforms", which means lots of boats travelling between land and the installations, said the Birot's captain Lieutenant Commander Yves Le Goff.
"It's a good place to be a pirate," he told AFP.
Many of the pirates targeting ships on the high seas come from the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, where indigenous groups are demanding a greater share of the region's oil wealth.
While hostage takings occur occasionally, Gulf of Guinea pirates prefer to board ships, steal their fuel or cargo and rob the sailors.
- An important presence -
The International Maritime Bureau said West African piracy made up 19 percent of attacks worldwide last year, with Nigerian pirates accounting for 31 of the region's 51 attacks -- the most since 2008.
At the same time, piracy off the Horn of Africa was at its lowest since 2006 and down more than 90 percent from its peak in 2011.
The Birot and others like it have been patrolling the Gulf of Guinea since 1990 to help French nationals and merchant vessels in distress as well as train local navies.
"The French Operation Corymbe is by far the most important operation, as it has at numerous occasions intervened in hijacking situations or supported after the vessels' release," Hans Tito Hansen, the managing director of a maritime consultancy, Risk Intelligence, said in an email.
The French military intervened after the oil tanker Energy Centurion was hijacked off Togo in August 2012 and again when the French ship Adour was seized off the same country in June, he added.
Since the frigate left France in January and steamed south to patrol the waters between Senegal and Angola, there have already been approximately seven cases of piracy in the Gulf, said Le Goff.
The Birot recently spent four days in port in Ghana, where it joined up with British vessel HMS Portland and Ghana's GNS Garinga for manoeuvres off its coast.
Le Goff said many of West Africa's navies are young, ill-equipped and unable to cooperate with neighbouring navies, hindering their ability to respond to pirate attacks.
"These are all countries turned inland," he added. "They haven't developed their navies."
- An active deterrent -
Ghana is one of the better equipped local navies and was able to quickly mobilise its ship after a sudden change in the plan for the exercise, the commander explained.
Few pirate attacks have occurred in Ghana's territorial waters, which the Garinga's commander Lieutenant Joseph Tenzii attributed to Ghana's constant patrols.
"We send out a signal to the bad guys that we are always there," he said.
But despite having a fleet of recently built patrol ships, Tenzii said Ghana's navy lacked some of the capabilities of western fleets, such as helicopters to move sailors onto other ships.
Terry McKnight, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who led a task force off Somalia, said West African countries were loath to allow international navies to patrol in their territorial waters.
"You will never see the number of coalition forces down there off the west coast of Africa," McKnight said.
Le Goff says that it was unlikely that pirates would even put up a fight against his well-armed boat.
Instead, he sees his mission as an opportunity to train local forces to defend their own coasts -- and to act as a deterrent.
"Here, we are not Somalia. There are states, they have laws," Le Goff said. "The main point here is to be present at sea."
First woman to head a political party in Egypt says it proves the revolution has changed attitudes
Hala Shukrallah, a Christian who now leads the liberal Dostour party, say her election marks a huge social shift in a land wedded to strongmen
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
The Observer, Sunday 2 March 2014
Hala Shukrallah was elected leader of Egypt's Dostour party last week, since when journalists have barely stopped bothering her. Her party's reputation has something to do with it: Dostour ("Constitution") was founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, the exiled Nobel laureate many hoped would lead post-revolutionary Egypt. But there is another cause of the excitement.
Shukrallah is the first woman – and first Christian – to lead a major Egyptian party. At a time when the 2011 uprising seems to have achieved little, her election is a reminder of the seismic social shifts the revolution unleashed. At least, that is how she sees it. "What we're seeing here is that something truly on-the-ground is happening," Shukrallah, 59, says of her election. "I think it's a reflection of the changes in the people's psyche since the 25 January [revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak]. They do not really see these elements as significant – being a woman, being a Copt, or whatever. These elements are no longer significant in comparison to a much bigger thing that they are aspiring to."
Women and Coptic Christians (who form around 10% of the otherwise Muslim population) have historically been largely marginalised from politics. But Shukrallah's election hints that this may slowly be starting to change, partly thanks to a shift in national consciousness created by the 2011 revolution, which encouraged people to challenge social structures.
Here and there, you can find similar signs. In December, leftist physician Mona Mina became the first woman to be elected head of Egypt's influential doctors' syndicate, a group led for years by male conservative Islamists. In terms of women's rights, Egypt's new constitution is thought more progressive than any before.
In the campaign to lead Dostour, Shukrallah – who earned her PhD from University College London – was not even thought of as "the female candidate": her closest rival, Gameela Ismail, is also a woman. Shukrallah feels she was elected for her ideas, which appeal to her party's revolutionary youth, and her plans to change the culture of Egypt's political parties, which too often centre on a single figure, rather than encouraging broad grassroots engagement.
"Our parties have always been a one-man show – both in the way that it's been ruled by one personality, and that it's usually been men who've been in the position," says Shukrallah, a veteran activist jailed for her politics three times in the 1970s and 80s. In changing this culture within Dostour, she hopes to encourage a similar transition across a society that has relied on strongman leadership.
"How can we expect the rulers to change when the political opposition does not?" asks Shukrallah, who runs an NGO that tries to empower local communities. "How can we expect there to be replacement of power within the ruling parties when the opposition parties don't [either]?"
But cynics say that Shukrallah's election, and what she stands for, matters little in an Egypt that again has narrowing room for political debate. Last week three activists who dared to campaign for a No vote in January's constitutional referendum were jailed, the latest instalment in a crackdown on dissent that since July has seen more than 4,000 killed and 16,000 jailed – most of them Islamist supporters of ex-president Mohamed Morsi, but increasingly secularists as well.
"If we continue with a return to the old Mubarak policies, I don't think any of the parties will be able to have an impact," admits Dostour's spokesman, Khaled Dawoud. Dostour was one of a plethora of new centre-left groups to emerge in the post-2011 period. But none did well in any of the parliamentary or presidential elections that followed. Insiders say Dostour has struggled more than most: at its peak it had 25,000 members but, after ElBaradei left, that fell to just 18,000, with several key figures jumping ship.
But Shukrallah says groups like Dostour are weak not through laziness but because they were not allowed to develop under Mubarak and his predecessors. "The only organised force that had been allowed to evolve was the Muslim Brotherhood," she says. "This is something the west does not see: from the 70s, and in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, the democratic movement was being smashed. You couldn't rally anywhere without getting arrested – meetings between middle-class intellectuals and social movements were not allowed… whereas the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to infiltrate the slum areas through the mosques."
As a result, groups like hers started life after 2011 from a standing start, Shukrallah says, and it will take time for them to evolve. She argues that her election shows this evolution is slowly happening, and that the "residues" of post-2011 change remain.
"What has happened in the Dostour party is a reflection of these residues – of these real, deep changes in the psyche of the Egyptian people, and the Egyptian youth," she says. "This is what we've been saying all along. Whatever happens, nothing can return us back to pre-25 January. Nothing."
El Chapo: drug lord's arrest sparks apprehension from Mexico to Chicago
Sinaloa cartel leader’s capture leaves Mexicans fearing more bloodshed, while few in US believe the flow of drugs will slow
Jo Tuckman in Culiacán and Jon Swaine in New York
theguardian.com, Friday 28 February 2014 19.14 GMT
Looking out on the spectacular mountain slopes that hide his marijuana field, a Mexican farmer says he will be able to sell his harvest provided the army doesn’t go on an eradication spree. A restaurant owner lets slip her fear of war while serving breakfast, but quickly assures herself the cartel will adjust.
“It feels like we are children left alone in the house by our father,” said Conrado Lugo, a record producer who sums up the mood in the state of Sinaloa, heartland of the drug cartel run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán until his arrest a week ago. “It is worrying, sure, but we are still in the house.”
Parading the world’s most wanted man for the cameras, authorities in Mexico and the US hailed a major victory in the war on drugs. That the arrest occurred in a blaze of publicity rather than gunfire was greeted as a surprisingly positive sign by many.
But a week on, from the Sierra Madre, where Chapo rose from a childhood of poverty, to the streets of US cities where his product made him millions, it is hard to find anyone sharing the authorities’ enthusiasm.
Residents carry on as if nothing significant has happened, between outbursts of concern for what might happen if they are wrong. “It is an uncomfortable calm,” said Javier Valdez, a prominent author on the “narco” world.
And while it may spell more problems in New York and Chicago – where cocaine bought by Chapo’s men in South America for $2,000 a kilo retails for $100,000, and is said to comprise more than half the market – even US agents who hunted him say nervous Sinaloans have little to fear.
“Chapo’s arrest will have no effect on drug trafficking,” said a former senior Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official under presidents Bush and Obama. “If you are making a car and suddenly 15 people on the production line die, it is going to take a while to train new people. But if the CEO dies, it is actually no big deal – the machine is going to continue.”
Valdez agreed: “The arrest is a serious blow to the organisation. It is not a mortal one. Everything else is still intact.”
The cartel’s integration into the local economy is evidenced across Sinaloa, from the smart cars parked outside humble rural homes to the commercial buzz in Culiacán, the state capital. All this boosts the sense that Chapo’s “federation” is too big to be allowed to fail.
“You don’t have to be involved in drug trafficking to depend on the money it brings into Sinaloa,” said a metal worker, who, like many in Sinaloa, will only talk if his name is withheld. “Almost everybody relies on the organisation in some way, and without it lots of people will have trouble putting food on their tables.”
Yet the hopes expressed by many that the cartel can carry on as before is also rooted in terror. Few forget the war unleashed when an alliance between Chapo and the Beltrán Leyva brothers broke down in 2008. Since Chapo won, gun battles still rattle the state but no longer last for hours. It has become rare, too, for children to come across headless corpses on their way to school.
“Chapo is a terrible man, but I think it was a mistake to arrest him,” said a retired salesman. “The politicians let his organisation grow and now it is the only thing that protects us from other cartels, like the Zetas, who are even worse.”
With this in mind, many await signs of a new leadership that can send the message to their rank-and-file and rivals alike that “no pasa nada” in Sinaloa. “If there seems to be a lack of continuity and outward signs of weakness, it would be like a wolf seeing a limping lamb,” said Bob Mazur, a former senior undercover DEA agent.
Most experts point to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a longstanding major figure in a cartel that has always operated as a kind of alliance of major traffickers, to ensure a smooth leadership transition in the part of the organisation that Chapo controlled directly. “He and Chapo have been working together for 20 or 30 years,” said Sylvia Longmire, a former US military special agent who focused on trafficking. “They have a unique working relationship in that it hasn’t been plagued by betrayals like others in the narco world. They finish each other’s sentences – that’s how tight these guys are.”
However, “Mayo is 66-years-old, and allegedly in poor health,” said Alejandro Hope, a former senior officer in Cisen, Mexico’s version of the CIA. “The guy was recently talking about retirement. So he may contain some of the fallout, but he is not the future of the organisation.”
Still, those hopeful the federation will remain strong also cite questions about Chapo’s arrest itself. The capo was overpowered without a fight after navy special forces stormed a modest fourth-floor apartment in the resort city of Mazatlán, where he was sleeping with his young wife. Their twin baby daughters and a nanny were in an adjacent room and just one bodyguard was in the hall.
Authorities say Chapo fled to Mazatlán five days before, after narrowly escaping capture at one of his safe houses in Culiacán by fleeing into a tunnel below a bathtub that led into the city’s rainwater drains and, eventually, a getaway car. “It doesn’t make sense that he allowed himself to be taken so easily,” says an agricultural worker from Culiacán. “He must have made a deal.”
True or false, the notion of a deal helps bridge the gap between the mythology of the man who built a global empire and $1bn personal fortune trafficking marijuana, heroin and cocaine after escaping from a high-security jail 13 years ago, and the portly, middle-aged detainee with died hair they saw on TV being marched towards a Blackhawk, his head bowed.
Many in the US, where Chapo faces seven criminal indictments in several states, fear that deal or none, he may none the less be guaranteed protection against deportation. Aides to Obama moved swiftly last week to lower expectations of extradition, while regional law enforcement officials scrambled to stake their claims.
“I think we have the strongest case,” special agent Jack Riley, Chicago’s DEA boss, told reporters. “I fully intend for us to have him tried here.” After declaring that they wanted him, too, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn were promptly told to shut up by their bosses at the Justice Department in Washington.
Charges in Brooklyn alone allege that between 1990 and 2005, Chapo and his deputies conspired to import more than 120 tonnes of cocaine into the US. Chicago prosecutors detail how the cartel smuggled hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and heroin a time across the Mexican border using a panoply of methods such as “cargo aircraft, private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor-trailers and automobiles.”
More than $15bn of the estimated $65bn in drugs bought by Americans each year are estimated to have been supplied ultimately by the Sinaloa cartel, and special agent Riley estimates that Chapo controlled as much as 80% of the market in his city.
The Americans crave the prospect of transforming Chapo into the biggest supergrass in its 40-year “war on drugs” in return for a reduced sentence, bringing an end to years of flimsy boasts of having seriously weakened the cartel by making arrests of figures who actually turned out to be low-level operatives, which Hope dismisses as “pure propaganda”.
Records unearthed by the Guardian indicate that one such high-publicity operation, in which agents in Brooklyn found almost 200 kilograms of cocaine in a Brooklyn warehouse, much of it hidden in statues of the Virgin Mary, did not live up the DEA’s boasts to have “dismantled all levels of criminal activity” involved. Of eight people arrested at the East New York site in 2006, half were convicted of crimes and only one remains in jail.
“The standard statement is ‘this is dealing a tremendous blow to the organisation,’” said Longmire. “But you later find the majority of the people who have been rounded up are back on the street because there was not enough evidence and they were selling dime bags on the corner.”
Court records in Illinois detail how Pedro Flores, a 32-year-old who served with his twin brother Margarito as Chapo’s principal lieutenants in Chicago, helped DEA agents lure a string of dealers below him in the food chain to their arrests in the car parks of Holiday Inns, Outback Steakhouses and dollar stores, after he was turned into a star witness. About a dozen have been jailed, but officials know they must set their sights higher.
Two alleged senior Sinaloa traffickers, Vicente Zambada-Niebla and Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez, have in fact been extradited, and are in federal custody awaiting trial in Chicago. An attorney for Hernandez said this week that he intends to plead guilty in court next week, but stressed that his client had made no deal with prosecutors.
No one is particularly optimistic that their boss will follow them, however. “There is not a snowball’s chance in the Sonoran desert that Chapo will be handed to the US,” said George W Grayson, a professor and Mexico specialist at the centre for strategic and international studies. “He might spill the beans on the hundreds, maybe thousands, of military, police and political figures to whom he has given generous bribes over the years.”
Banners against extradition abounded at a boisterous march protesting the detention that burst into Culiacán’s centre on Wednesday night, accompanied by a brass band and young men throwing tamales into the jiggling crowd to shouts of “Viva El Chapo.”
The marchers may well find their wish granted. “Even if he gets sentenced to a Mexican prison, eventually he will take over that prison,” said the former senior DEA official. “He will have a laptop, it will turn into a hotel, and he will return to running the cartel from there. That is not something he has to build – it is something he already has.”