Pacific Rim Deal Could Reduce Chance of Unintended Conflict in Contested Seas
By AUSTIN RAMZY and CHRIS BUCKLEY
APRIL 23, 2014
TAIPEI, Taiwan — A naval code of conduct approved by more than 20 nations around the Pacific, including China, Japan and the United States, could reduce the risk of accidental encounters’ spiraling into conflict, experts said. But Beijing’s firm rejection of President Obama’s comments on Wednesday about islands claimed by both China and Japan underscored the maritime tensions that continue to trouble Asia.
The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea was endorsed Tuesday by naval officials from the United States, China, Japan and other states at a symposium in the northeastern Chinese port city of Qingdao, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
The agreement comes at a time of growing concern about territorial disputes between China and some of its neighbors. China claims islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Several countries, including China, Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping maritime claims.
Mr. Obama, who arrived in Japan on Wednesday to begin a trip that will also include South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, told a Japanese newspaper that the disputed islands fell under the United States-Japanese mutual defense treaty. “And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands,” he said in a written response to the newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun.
A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Qin Gang, said Wednesday that China was “firmly opposed to treating the U.S.-Japan security treaty as applying to the Diaoyu Islands.”
“The United States should respect the facts, in a responsible manner abide by its commitment not to choose sides over a territorial sovereignty issue, be cautious on words and deeds, and earnestly play a constructive role for peace and stability in the region,” Mr. Qin said during a news conference.
Encounters between military vessels in the region have prompted concerns about the risk of escalation.
Last year, a Chinese Navy vessel cut within about 100 yards of the Cowpens, an American cruiser that had been monitoring China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in the South China Sea.
Chinese and Japanese vessels in the East China Sea have also had several potentially dangerous encounters in recent years. In 2013, Japan said Chinese warships used radar that helps target weapons on a Japanese military vessel and a helicopter near the disputed islands. In an interview on Tuesday, the day the rules were approved, Adm. Wu Shengli, the commander in chief of the Chinese Navy, said the tensions with Japan remained serious and the risk of incidents at sea persisted.
“Nothing can be excluded,” Admiral Wu said in the interview with Phoenix Television, a satellite service based in Hong Kong. “That’s what we often call accidental discharge when cleaning a gun. The gun is an objective fact, but what we need to study is how to avoid accidental discharge when cleaning a gun.”
Military analysts say the lack of formal “rules of the road” for encounters between vessels of major navies in the Pacific increases the risk that an incident at sea could escalate sharply, possibly causing loss of life and inciting diplomatic crises. A code on interactions between warships could help reduce unintended conflict. “Over all, I think it’s a very positive development, but it remains to be seen how effectively it will be implemented,” Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said in an interview.
The rules will help countries “effectively manage and control maritime crises, reduce misjudgments, and avoid incidents of mutual interference and collisions when on the high seas,” Zhang Junshe, a researcher with the Chinese Navy, told The Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese military.
The Western Pacific Naval Symposium had been discussing a code on sea encounters for more than a decade. China had objected to previous versions over concerns about foreign military vessels in its exclusive economic zone, waters within 200 nautical miles of a nation’s coast.
The code is nonbinding and is a less substantial protocol than earlier bilateral agreements on incidents at sea, said Sam Bateman, a research fellow at the Australian National Center for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong and a retired Royal Australian Navy commodore.
Mr. Bateman said he had not seen the final version of the code, but previous drafts were “not much more than sort of a set of principles for exchanging messages and keeping clear of each other.”
Naval chiefs in Qingdao praised the agreement. Admiral Wu called the new rules a “document of milestone significance,” The Liberation Army Daily reported.
Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, said the code was “an important step forward to reduce tension on the sea in the region,” the state-run China Daily reported.
Obama Says Pact Obliges U.S. to Protect Japan in Islands Fight
By MARK LANDLER
APRIL 24, 2014
TOKYO — President Obama offered a security blanket to a staunch Asian ally on Thursday, declaring on a visit here that the United States was obligated by a defense treaty to protect Japan in its confrontation with China over a clump of islands in the East China Sea.
But Mr. Obama stopped short of siding with Japan in the dispute over who has sovereignty over the islands, urging both sides to refrain from provocations and emphasizing that the United States was determined to cultivate good relations with Beijing.
The president’s carefully calibrated statement, delivered alongside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, captured a delicate balancing act: He sought to reassure Japan that the United States would back it at a tense moment but tried to avoid the perception of containing China.
For Mr. Obama, whose day was filled with the pomp of a state visit, it was the first chance on a weeklong tour of Asia to make the case that his strategic pivot to the region had fresh momentum after a period of distractions at home and in other parts of the world.
On the Minute, the Times White House correspondent Mark Landler on the coming trip of President Obama to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Credit Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press
But his message was partly vitiated by the failure to conclude a trade deal with Japan. Despite frantic, round-the-clock talks, negotiators failed to close the gaps on issues like access to Japan’s beef and pork markets — further bogging down the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact that is a central pillar of Mr. Obama’s Asian strategy.
With little to announce on the trade front, Mr. Obama and Mr. Abe kept the focus on managing rising tensions in the East China Sea, where China last year imposed an air defense identification zone as a way of asserting its sovereignty over those waters.
Japan and China have come uncomfortably close to a military skirmish over the disputed islands, which Japan administers and are known as the Senkaku but which Beijing claims under the name Diaoyu.
“Historically, they have been administered by Japan, and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally,” Mr. Obama said. “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”
Mr. Obama’s statement was important to the Japanese because it was the first time the president explicitly put the islands under American protection, though Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry had made similar statements in the past.
The Chinese government reacted swiftly, saying it was “firmly opposed” to Mr. Obama’s position, which was first reported here on Wednesday in a written answer to questions submitted to the president by a Japanese newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun.
Insisting that Japan’s claims to the islands were “illegal and invalid,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Qin Gang, said the 1960 United States-Japan security treaty was “a bilateral arrangement forged in the Cold War era, and it should not undermine China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests.”
More than anything, though, Mr. Obama appeared desperate to defuse the situation. At one point, he referred to the disputed islands as a “rock” and said they should not be allowed to derail a relationship between two countries that could otherwise be productive.
“It would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China,” Mr. Obama said. “And we’re going to do everything we can to encourage that diplomatically.”
For his part, Mr. Abe insisted that Japan was “not applying pressure to other countries or intimidating other countries.” He said he was encouraged by Mr. Obama’s pledge to protect the islands. “On this point, I fully trust President Obama,” he said.
The two leaders do not have an especially warm relationship, but they went out of their way to appear chummy. Mr. Abe referred several times to Mr. Obama as Barack, while Mr. Obama tried out Shinzo at one point. Both lavishly praised the sushi that they ate on Wednesday evening at a famous Tokyo sushi bar, with Mr. Obama putting in a word for the sake.
Still, on the trade talks, Mr. Obama turned up the heat on Mr. Abe, who is facing fierce opposition from farmers to lowering or eliminating import tariffs on rice, wheat, beef, poultry, dairy products and sugar. Mr. Abe has used Japan’s membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a way of jump-starting his efforts to overhaul the economy.
“There are always political sensitivities in any kind of trade discussions,” Mr. Obama said. “Prime Minister Abe has got to deal with his politics; I’ve got to deal with mine.” But, he added, “it means that we have to sometimes push our constituencies beyond their current comfort levels.”
Later on Thursday, Mr. Obama met with three relatives of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. In a statement, a White House official said, “The president was moved by their tragic experiences and reaffirmed our commitment to work with the Japanese to address North Korea’s deplorable treatment of its own people.”
One was Sakie Yokota, the mother of a 13-year-old girl abducted by North Korean agents on her way home from school in 1977, an unsolved case that has long haunted relations between Japan and North Korea and become a rallying cry for human rights activists.
Mr. Obama’s meeting was a gesture to Mr. Abe, who has long championed the cause of the abducted citizens. It also focused attention on whether the United Nations Security Council will refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for human rights abuses — something China opposes but would probably win the support of Japan and the United States.
As the first American president in nearly 20 years to be accorded a state visit, Mr. Obama faced a grueling day of ceremony, starting with an official welcome at the Imperial Palace with Emperor Akihito and ending with a state dinner. Recalling their last meeting four years ago, Mr. Obama told the emperor he did not have any gray hair at the time.
“You have a very hard job,” the emperor replied.
North Korea's fashion police
Unwritten rules on personal style are enforced by a small army of young communists, but that doesn't stop some trendsetters from pushing the boundaries
• Welcome to the Guardian North Korea network
• The new generation losing faith in the regime
Tania Branigan in Yanji
The Guardian, Tuesday 22 April 2014
She fell in love the moment she saw them. Black, high-heeled and zipped up the side, the boots were irresistible - even with their sizeable price tag and dangerous air of novelty.
“They were pretty, and new, and everyone was curious,” Song Eun-byul said, recalling the stir that her purchase had made in her North Korean hometown, close to the Chinese border.
They were too exotic, in fact. Not long after she bought them in the market, she was stopped and scolded for wearing them: the first step in a process that usually ends in a series of lectures and, at worst, forced labour.
“How to manage one's body, what to put on one's body, and how to present one's body in public and private lives do not seem to belong to a realm of individual choices in North Korea. Rather, it is a matter of strict state policies and regulations,” said Suk-young Kim, an expert on North Korean culture at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Pyongyang’s use of what one might call the fashion police – actually unpaid members of the government-run Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League – underlines its determination to control every aspect of people’s lives, even as the growing trade with China increases exposure to outside influences.
North Koreans like Song, who crossed into China six months ago and who did not give her real name because she fears being caught and returned home, can reel off the unwritten rules.
Women’s trousers are scrutinised carefully; skimpy clothing would be utterly outre; sunhats invite suspicion. Blue jeans are off limits and the regime has voiced displeasure at tops with Roman lettering upon them. Anything too decorative or simply too unusual will invite censure. Above all, clothing must not look “foreign”.
Song escaped punishment for her boots only by giving a false address and lying that she was married, and therefore out of the Youth League’s purview.
Still, rules have relaxed somewhat in recent years, the 27-year-old said: “Women can wear trousers inside the city, but they need to be very loosely cut. Before, if I went to the city centre, I had to wear a skirt or traditional Korean dress.”
Experts dismiss last month’s reports that all male students were ordered to have the same haircut as leader Kim Jong-un and similar claims that people must pick from a set menu of styles.
Even so, the regime has long enforced stringent rules on styling; at one stage, state television ran a series titled Let’s Cut Our Hair In Accordance with Socialist Lifestyle.
Han Myong-hee, also using a pseudonym for her interview in China, said adult women were told they should have hair that was neither too short nor too long, preferably put up neatly in styles without too much volume. A vogue for excess bounciness was suppressed a few years ago.
The all-female Moranbong Band were selected by Kim Jong-un as a musical act for "the new century" and unveiled in 2012. When they performed on television, Han was startled not only by their sequinned miniskirts but by their short hair.
“Normally you should follow what’s on TV, but I don’t know if short hair is OK now. I wonder whether it’s possible,” Han said doubtfully.
Following the rules is harder because they are not codified.
“You never really know what ‘foreign styles’ means so the people who are enforcing it get to decide. What’s targeted in Ryanggang province won’t be in Hamgyong,” she said.
No one told Song exactly why her boots were unacceptable; they were simply too different.
Yet, she explained, “There are a lot of fashion trends in North Korea.”
Chinese cosmetics are popular and recent years have seen a trend for young women to perm only the lower part of their hair.
While state media still extols the country’s invention of vinalon, a fabric made from limestone and anthracite, it seems to have given up on persuading people to wear the stiff and hard-to-dye material. The streets of cities are brighter thanks to imported clothes.
Song was cautious after her run-in, but later noticed other women striding round in boots.
“Too many people were wearing them, so they became acceptable,” she said.
Restrictions even add a certain allure to styles that teeter on the edge of permissibility.
“The government tells you that you must wear straight trousers, so people either like tight pairs or those with a flare,” said Han, who is in her thirties.
However, when she spotted young girls in tight trousers, she said she urged them to walk through alleyways to avoid Youth League members patrolling on the main streets.
The restrictions were more annoying than frightening, she said. But she had no expectation that they would be lifted.
“It’s called ‘cultural ideology invasion’: if you like foreign things you stop liking your own country,” she explained. “They need to control things so that doesn’t happen.”
Marshall Islands sues nine nuclear powers over failure to disarm
Pacific nation that was site of 67 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958 accuses states of 'flagrant denial of human justice'
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
theguardian.com, Thursday 24 April 2014 11.11 BST
The Marshall Islands is suing the nine countries with nuclear weapons at the international court of justice at The Hague, arguing they have violated their legal obligation to disarm.
In the unprecedented legal action, comprising nine separate cases brought before the ICJ on Thursday, the Republic of the Marshall Islands accuses the nuclear weapons states of a "flagrant denial of human justice". It argues it is justified in taking the action because of the harm it suffered as a result of the nuclear arms race.
The Pacific chain of islands, including Bikini Atoll and Enewetak, was the site of 67 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1958, including the "Bravo shot", a 15-megaton device equivalent to a thousand Hiroshima blasts, detonated in 1954. The Marshallese islanders say they have been suffering serious health and environmental effects ever since.
The island republic is suing the five "established" nuclear weapons states recognised in the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) – the US, Russia (which inherited the Soviet arsenal), China, France and the UK – as well as the three countries outside the NPT who have declared nuclear arsenals – India, Pakistan and North Korea, and the one undeclared nuclear weapons state, Israel.
The NPT, which came into force in 1970 is essentially a compact between the non-weapon states, who pledged to not to acquire nuclear weapons, and the weapons states, who in return undertook to disarm under article VI of the treaty.
Although the size of the arsenals are sharply down from the height of the cold war, the Marshall Islands' legal case notes there remain more than 17,000 warheads in existence, 16,000 of them owned by Russia and the US – enough to destroy all life on the planet.
"The long delay in fulfilling the obligations enshrined in article VI of the NPT constitutes a flagrant denial of human justice," the court documents say.
The Marshall Islands case draws attention to the fact that the weapons states are currently in the process of modernising their nuclear weapons, which it portrays as a clear violation of the NPT.
The case against Britain, which has an estimated total inventory of 225 warheads and is in the process of replacing its submarine-launched Trident arsenal, states that: "The UK has not pursued in good faith negotiations to cease the nuclear arms race at an early date through comprehensive nuclear disarmament or other measures, and instead is taking actions to improve its nuclear weapons system and to maintain it for the indefinite future."
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's general secretary, Kate Hudson, said: "The nuclear-armed states continue to peddle the myth that they are committed to multilateral disarmament initiatives, while squandering billions to modernise their nuclear arsenals. The UK government's plans to replace Trident make a mockery of its professed belief in multilateral frameworks – and now in addition to huge public opposition in the UK, it will also face an international legal challenge to expose its hypocrisy."
Mali 2012 Coup Leader Facing Fresh Charge over Mass Grave
by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 April 2014, 14:08
Malian prosecutors have charged 2012 coup leader Amadou Sanogo with complicity to murder over the discovery of a mass grave of loyalist soldiers, judicial sources said on Thursday.
Sanogo, who is already in custody facing accusations of complicity in kidnapping, was charged with the new offence after being interrogated before a court for the first time at the start of the week, his lawyer Me Tiessolo Konare told AFP.
Sanogo, whose March 2012 coup plunged the west African country into chaos, and several of his men are on trial for crimes including assassinations and abductions.
A week after his arrest in November 2013, a grave was discovered near Bamako with 21 bodies thought to be those of high-ranking soldiers loyal to toppled president Amadou Toumani Toure.
Four other bodies were found two weeks later, as investigators interrogated Sanogo and some of his allies.
A close aide to investigating judge Yaya Karembe, who placed Sanogo in custody in late 2013, confirmed that the new charge, which carries a possible death sentence, related to the discoveries.
Sanogo's coup toppled what had been heralded as one of the region's most stable democracies and precipitated the fall of northern Mali to Al Qaeda-linked groups until a French-led military operation forced them out.
In the months after the coup and a failed counter-coup in April 2012, Sanogo's then-headquarters in Kati were the scene of abuses and killings carried out against soldiers seen as loyal to Toure.
Politicians, journalists and civil society leaders were also victims of the junta's brutality.
South Sudan Rebels Say Closing in on Oil Fields
by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 April 2014, 12:19
Rebels in South Sudan said Thursday they were closing in on key oil fields and two state capitals, predicting an imminent collapse of the government and a "bloodbath".
A statement from the rebel's spokesman, General Lul Ruai Koang, said forces battling President Salva Kiir captured the town of Renk, close to the border with Sudan, on Wednesday and were advancing on the Paloich oil fields.
"The fall of Renk... leaves government troops trapped in Malakal with no supply and escape routes," he said, referring to the strategic capital of Upper Nile state which has already changed hands several times in the four-month-old conflict.
He also said the rebels "once again renew calls for oil companies to stop production and evacuate staff/employees to avoid being caught in crossfire."
The spokesman also said rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar were advancing on Jonglei state capital Bor, situated just 200 kilometers (130 miles) north of the capital Juba.
The rebel claims could not be independently confirmed.
"While our forces are making steady military gains... Kiir's Military Leadership is unravelling," Koang said, the day after the president sacked his army chief and head of intelligence in the wake of the loss of Bentiu, another northern state capital and oil hub that fell to the rebels last week.
He also said the purge "marks the beginning of an imminent bloodbath, escalation and regionalisation of the conflict" in the world's youngest nation, which only won independence from Khartoum in 2011.
South Sudan has been locked in civil war since December 15, when a clash between members of the presidential guard split the army and spiralled into countrywide fighting.
The war has left thousands and possibly tens of thousands of people dead and forced over a million to flee their homes. Violence has also taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against militia forces from Machar's Nuer people.
Both sides have been implicated in atrocities and war crimes.
Palestinian Rivals Announce Unity Pact, Drawing U.S. and Israeli Rebuke
By JODI RUDOREN and MICHAEL R. GORDON
APRIL 23, 2014
The two main Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza agreed on Wednesday to form a unity government.
JERUSALEM — The faltering Middle East peace process was thrown into further jeopardy on Wednesday, with Israel and the United States harshly condemning a new deal announced by feuding Palestinian factions, including the militant group Hamas, to repair their seven-year rift.
Israel canceled a negotiating session scheduled for Wednesday night shortly after leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization joined hands with their rivals from Hamas at a celebratory ceremony in the Gaza Strip.
“Whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace,” the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement, describing the group as “a murderous terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel.”
The unity pact, coming days before the April 29 expiration date for the American-brokered peace talks that have been the mainstay of Secretary of State John Kerry’s tenure, surprised officials in Washington, which, like Israel, deems Hamas a terrorist group and forbids direct dealings with it. After months of intensive shuttle diplomacy in which Mr. Kerry relentlessly pursued the peace process and even dangled the possibility of releasing an American convicted of spying for Israel to salvage the lifeless talks, his spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, called the Palestinian move “disappointing” and the timing “troubling.”
“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” Ms. Psaki said, citing conditions Hamas has repeatedly rejected. “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist.”
Hamas and Fatah, the faction that dominates the P.L.O., have signed several similar accords before that were not carried out, so it remained unclear whether Wednesday’s deal promised a real resolution or a replay of an old movie.
Some analysts saw the step primarily as a tactic by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to pressure Israel to make concessions as the clock winds down on extending the fraught negotiations. He said in statement that “there is no contradiction at all” between reconciliation and negotiation, adding, “We are totally committed to establishing a just and comprehensive peace based on the two-state principle.”
Other experts noted that Palestinian political conditions have drastically changed since the signing of previous agreements, which could lead both parties to make the compromises necessary to put this one into action. Hamas has been in a deep political and economic crisis since the military-backed government took over Egypt last summer and largely cut ties with Gaza. Mr. Abbas, at 79, is looking for a legacy and an exit strategy.
Reconciliation is deeply resonant among Palestinians and could revive the president’s sagging popularity.
“It’s not bad for both sides — it is bad for the peace process,” said Shimrit Meir, an Israeli analyst of Palestinian politics and editor of The Source, an Arabic news website. “It is simply rude, in diplomatic language, when Kerry is doing his last heroic effort to save the peace process, to reward it with reconciliation with a terrorist group. I think this is a message, and it’s very blunt.”
Something like this is a prerequisite to peace, as a practical matter. Or do negotiations with an entity that effectively represents only a fraction of the people and territories involved make any sense?
Beyond the damage to the peace talks, joining forces with Hamas could cost the Palestinians millions of dollars in financial aid from the United States and Europe, and prompt a host of retaliatory actions by Israel.
Even as the deal was being announced, there were other signs of tension. An Israeli airstrike hit northern Gaza, apparently missing the militant on a motorcycle it was aiming for and wounding 12 Palestinians, including two children, according to Gaza health officials. Later Wednesday evening, two rockets fired from Gaza landed in open areas of southern Israel.
The schism between Hamas and Fatah began in 2007, with a brief but bloody civil war that followed a failed unity government after Hamas’s victory in 2006 Palestinian elections. It left Palestinian territory divided, with Hamas ruling Gaza, the impoverished and isolated coastal expanse, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority governing the larger and more populous West Bank.
Dreams of reconciliation have been repeatedly dashed, after much-trumpeted agreements signed in Cairo in 2011 and Doha in 2012 were never carried out.
“Sorry to say that we are familiar with such celebrations,” said Talal Okal, a Gaza political analyst. “I hope that this time will be more serious, but to be more serious is to go directly and quickly to the first step, to let the people touch and see, not to hear only.”
On Wednesday afternoon, after two days of meetings at the home of the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, in Gaza City’s Beach refugee camp, the Palestinian leaders vowed to form a government of technocrats within five weeks that would prepare for long-overdue elections six months later.
“I announce to our people the news that the years of split are over,” Mr. Haniya said triumphantly.
Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official who headed the P.L.O. delegation to Gaza, said he hoped the deal would be “a true beginning and a true partnership.”
Ziad Abu Amr, deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and a close aide to Mr. Abbas, said the new deal came about because “the situation has become more demanding and the pressures are rising.” He cited Egypt’s frequent closing of the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s gateway to the world, which he said a technocratic government could reverse, as well as domestic political concerns.
“It’s a psychological and national issue that Palestinians feel they are united,” Mr. Abu Amr said. “This split is hurting them.”
He and other Palestinian leaders dismissed Israel’s threats and said reconciliation was an internal matter, noting that the presence of extreme right-wing members in Israel’s governing coalition had not stopped Palestinians from participating in the peace talks. They also pointed out that some Israeli leaders had questioned Mr. Abbas’s ability to deliver a peace deal with Hamas controlling Gaza.
“Mr. Netanyahu and his government were using Palestinian division as an excuse not to make peace,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. “Now they want to use Palestinian reconciliation as an excuse for the same purpose. This is utterly absurd.”
Israel’s cabinet planned to meet Thursday to plan its next steps. Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, called the Palestinian deal “a real game changer,” and said, “You cannot have a serious peace process with Hamas inside.”
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, said the reconciliation was a “very problematic development.”
Some Washington-based Middle East experts, who had long thought Mr. Kerry’s efforts to be an uphill struggle given the yawning gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions on fundamental issues, said Wednesday’s developments boded ill.
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department peace negotiator, said Mr. Abbas had “bought peace at home in exchange for significant tensions with the Israelis” and called the move “one more nail to a peace-process coffin that is rapidly being closed.”
Dennis B. Ross, another former American peace envoy, said that the move could make Mr. Abbas “less susceptible to a domestic backlash for continuing the process with the Israelis,” but that “the timing is very problematic — when the process is already faltering, this could be a body blow.”
Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the implications depended on the precise terms of the reconciliation, which have yet to be revealed.
“If, and it is a big ‘if,’ Hamas comes under the P.L.O. umbrella in such a way that it accedes to the P.L.O.’s recognition of Israel and the P.L.O.’s signed agreements with Israel,” she said, “that would be historic.”
“What would make it horrible is if Hamas were to join the P.L.O. without those kinds of commitments,” Ms. Wittes added. “Then it calls into question the P.L.O.’s commitments that it has already made.
Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro reinstated
Reins of Colombia's biggest city change hands for third time in just over a month as court order forces backdown by president
Associated Press in Bogota
theguardian.com, Thursday 24 April 2014 05.27 BST
Colombia's capital changed hands for a third time in little over a month after President Juan Manuel Santos executed a court order reinstating Bogota's ousted leftist mayor.
The surprise ruling by the superior tribunal of Bogota is the latest twist in a legal saga pitting former guerrilla firebrand Gustavo Petro against Colombia's more conservative political establishment.
"My obligation, as president of the republic, is to follow the law and what the justices decide," Santos said after signing a decree ordering the immediate reinstatement of Petro as mayor.
The court, in giving Santos 48 hours to return Petro to his job, cited the president's failure last month to heed a ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission that Colombia's inspector general violated regional human rights charter by ordering Petro's removal and barring him from politics for 15 years.
In ordering Petro's ouster in December the inspector general, Alejandro Ordonez, said Petro had overstepped his constitutional authority in a heavy-handed but ultimately failed attempt to replace the capital's private garbage collectors. Petro has denied any wrongdoing and accuses Ordonez of mounting a witch hunt against politicians who don't share his conservative views.
Surrounded by supporters, reporters and police, Petro marched to the mayor's office on Wednesday night to retake his post.
Petro, 54, took back the reins from acting mayor Maria Mercedes Maldonado, whom Santos had named this week to replace another caretaker, Rafael Pardo.
Petro's job is far from secure. Ordonez has said he will appeal to the supreme court against the reinstatement.
A 6 April recall vote that was cancelled after Petro's removal might also be rescheduled.
Jaime Castro, a former mayor of Bogota, said the legal back and forth had made a mockery of Colombia's justice system and created a power vacuum in the management of the country's biggest city. Of the more than 30 injunction requests filed on Petro's behalf since his removal, this was the first to come back in Petro's favour, he said. "This is a judicial farce, like something you'd see in a banana republic," Castro said.
Human rights activists applauded the decision, saying it restored respect for international human rights law.
The decision may help Santos remove what had become a political thorn as he seeks re-election next month amid criticism he was too quick to sign off on Petro's ouster.
Santos, a centrist from one of Colombia's richest families, is counting on support from leftist parties to push through Congress a bold peace deal that his government is negotiating in Cuba with the country's largest rebel movement, the Farc.
Violent protest hits fabled Rio beach district after dancer is beaten to death
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 22, 2014 20:02 EDT
Violent protests broke out in Rio’s landmark beachfront district, Copacabana, on Tuesday following the death of a resident, an AFP photographer said, less than two months before the World Cup.
Two main thoroughfares were closed after angry demonstrators from a slum set ablaze barricades of tires to protest the death of a dancer.
Brazilian media quoted police sources as saying Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira, 25, had been killed after being mistaken for a drug trafficker.
Friends of the dead man alleged he was beaten to death after attempting to take refuge in a school in the community, where a Police Pacification Unit (UPP) was set up in December 2009 as part of authorities’ efforts to smash organized crime ahead of June’s World Cup.
“The circumstances surrounding the death of Douglas are under investigation. An on-site report indicates Douglas’s injuries are compatible with a death caused by a fall,” police told AFP in a short statement.
“Witnesses and residents will be called upon to give evidence” as investigations continue, the statement added.
One resident gave an account of how the trouble began.
“It started around 5.30 p.m. There was smoke everywhere, shots in the street and people racing for their homes,” said a young man living just next to the slum area or favela.
“A number of police special unit trucks have just gone up into the favela. We are stuck at home — we can’t go out,” he added as helicopters overflew the zone looking for a drug trafficker nicknamed “Pitbull.”
Another resident said electricity supplies had been cut in the area.
Police have been cranking up efforts in recent months to clear favelas in thrall to violent criminals before the month-long World Cup kicks off June 12.
But although a huge slum “pacification” program was launched six years ago and gradually been rolled out to improve security in a city which will also host the 2016 Olympics, the gangs have been fighting back.
Recent weeks have seen several attacks on police, suggesting drug gangs are refusing to go quietly.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Mexico arrests 110 people for posing as anti-cartel vigilantes
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 22, 2014 20:50 EDT
Mexican authorities have detained more than 110 people posing as vigilantes battling a drug cartel in the western state of Michoacan in the last two weeks, an official said Tuesday.
At least 46 suspected members of criminal groups were arrested in recent days in the town of Huetamo, where they acted as members of “self-defense” militias that spread in Michoacan in the past year, said senior federal official Alfredo Castillo.
The suspects shot first when federal and state security forces arrived in the town, prompting police to return fire, said Castillo, the federal government’s security envoy to Michoacan.
“The suspected criminals clearly covered their activities by posing as members of the self-defense groups in that town, wearing white shirts with the words ‘Free Huetamo’ and ‘Self-Defense Group,’” he said in a statement.
More than 110 people masquerading as vigilantes have now been detained in the state in the last two weeks, Castillo told Radio Formula.
The federal government has given Michoacan’s vigilante forces until May 10 to disarm or join a rural defense corps overseen by the army. Castillo said anybody caught with an illegal weapon after that will be arrested.
Civilians formed the militias in February 2013 to combat the Knights Templar drug cartel, accusing local police of being unwilling or unable to stop the gang’s extortion rackets and kidnappings.
In response to the security crisis in the state, President Enrique Pena Nieto deployed 10,000 federal police and troops in May 2013.
Authorities have killed or captured three of the Knights Templar gang’s top four leaders, leaving Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,” at the helm.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
In the USA...United Surveillance AmericaThe Supreme Court Continues Its Long-Running War On Black Americans
By: Keith Brekhus
Tuesday, April, 22nd, 2014, 9:40 pm
Less than a year after gutting key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court is again taking aim at black Americans, and further undoing the civil rights gains that were made in the late twentieth century. In a 6-2 ruling, the high court upheld a Michigan ban on race-based affirmative action programs for college admissions. The Court’s ruling overturns a Sixth Circuit Court decision. Consequently, the Supreme Court’s decision effectively upholds similar affirmative action bans in the states of Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Washington, and California.
The Court’s ruling upholds a ballot measure passed by Michigan voters in 2006 banning race-based affirmative action. That ruling however will have damaging consequences for campus diversity. Michigan universities have experienced nearly a 40 percent drop in the percentage of entering freshman who are African-American since the law passed in 2006. In 2006, 6.4 percent of entering freshman were African-American. That percentage declined to just 4.6 percent in 2012. Hispanic enrollment has also declined sharply since the 2006 law passed.
What makes the Michigan law and the Supreme Court’s decision especially troubling, is that it only eliminates race-based affirmative action, but it does not end affirmative action for privileged affluent white children through legacy scholarships. Children of alumni, who are disproportionately wealthy and white, are still eligible for preferential treatment by Michigan Universities. So while Michigan voters and the Supreme Court cannot stomach an affirmative action based policy that levels the playing field for people of color to overcome a legacy of discrimination, they have no issue with rewarding the already advantaged by stacking the deck even further in their favor through Affirmative Action programs that aid the white and wealthy.
Two of the Supreme Court Justices, Clarence Thomas and Sonya Sotomayor, acknowledge that affirmative action played a role in their admissions to college and law school. However, while Sotomayor wrote a a 58-page dissent to the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the affirmative action ban, Thomas predictably sided with the Court’s majority and closed the door, denying other African-Americans access to the types of policies that helped him succeed. Clarence Thomas once again held to his longstanding position that as long as he gets what he needs, he has no concern for fairness or in guaranteeing that the programs that helped him are made available to others. Clarence Thomas joined the Court’s majority in once again trampling upon the progress black Americans achieved in the twentieth century. After all, his Supreme Court appointment is for life, so he is all set.
***************The Supreme Court Empowered White Supremacists With Affirmative Action Decision
Wednesday, April, 23rd, 2014, 1:32 pm
Human nature can refer to fundamental ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that some psychologists and sociologists contend humans have naturally, but it is very unlikely they are independent of cultural influences. Human nature can have important implications in ethics, politics, and theology because it can be regarded as both a source of norms of societal conduct, or present obstacles that deny other humans their right to equal opportunities to live a rewarding life. Human nature is so very complex it is often difficult to discern if a person or group makes decisions out of naïveté borne of a lack of experience or knowledge, or if they are inherently evil and revel in causing misery for others due to their intrinsic bad character. Obviously, racism qualifies as an inherently evil part of human nature that plagues many Americans who are adamant that people of color should be treated differently and not given the same opportunity to succeed as white people.
The Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday upholding Michigan’s ban on Affirmative Action based on race in college admissions, informs that both the majority of voters in Michigan and the Justices on the High Court are either naïve about the racism infecting this country or evil in removing people of color’s opportunity to earn the same higher education as white people. It is highly probable that Michigan voters were bombarded with propaganda from Republicans, white supremacists, and all manner of conservatives decrying inequity to the white race as a result of race-based affirmative action aiding minorities have an opportunity of a college education decades of racism has denied them. However, Justices on the Supreme Court displayed yet another instance of adhering closely to Republicans’ agenda to disenfranchise people of color and deny them equal opportunities white people are afforded simply because they are regarded as superior.
One could not help but notice the High Court and Michigan voters did not ban affirmative action for what is known as “legacy scholarships” for wealthy white applicants whose parents are university alumni; they will continue receiving favored treatment during admission to Michigan colleges. It is apparent that racism and white superiority played an important role in 58% of Michigan voters’ decision to ban affirmative action for people of color only and keep in place special advantages for white wealth. If Justices on the High Court were not inherently racist, they would have banned affirmative action for all college applicants, but they have shown a predilection for targeting people of color for unfair treatment. The most disturbing aspect of the Court’s ruling is the message that it is up to voters to decide whether or not affirmative action is legal or not and it is a portent of legislation in former Confederate states for racists to ban affirmative action that will go far beyond race in the college admission process; particularly since conservatives on the court struck down crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act last year.
As SCOTUSblog pointed out shortly after the ruling was announced, the “Court cleared the way for voters elsewhere in the nation to put an end to so-called ‘affirmative action’ policies and while the ruling focused on the use of race in selecting new students for public colleges, it also would permit voters to end race-conscious policies in hiring of state and local employees and in awarding public contracts.” What the justices voting to uphold Michigan’s ban on solely race-based affirmative action policies created was a perfect storm for states in the former Confederacy to embark on a white supremacist legislative frenzy to remove any equal opportunity for people of color, primarily the Black color.
Unlike Michigan’s ballot initiative banning affirmative action, the justices in the majority, some with a high degree of vehemence against affirmative action and people of color, said policies affecting minorities that do not involve intentional discrimination should be decided at the ballot box rather than in the courtroom. It is likely that conservatives on the Court harkened back to their ruling last year striking down major provisions of the Voting Rights Act to create a perfect scenario for former Confederate states that immediately passed voter suppression laws disenfranchising minority voters. They clearly understand that a predominately white racist voting bloc will support Republican legislatures eliminating all aspects of race-based affirmative action policies.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg comprehends the effect the majority ruling will have on racial minorities who will once again face obstacles put up by white supremacists determined to maintain their advantage over minorities. She wrote that although “The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat, neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.” Antonin Scalia was joined by Clarence Thomas in a display of feigned ignorance to the racism plaguing this nation and said it is not up to the courts to get involved “in the dirty business of dividing the nation into racial blocs,” and agreed the “dirty business” is best left in the hands of racially-driven white voters electing equally racist Republican legislators; particularly in the former Confederate states.
The Supreme Court majority effectively gave a nod and a wink to racists that their white supremacist mindset is back in vogue to re-start America’s two-century history of discrimination based on race. Republican-led states in the former Confederacy likely cheered the ruling that will make their minority voter suppression efforts pay dividends to re-enact legal racial discrimination without barriers such as affirmative action policies. Justice Sonia Sotomayor clearly comprehends the damage to anti-discrimination policies the ruling is certain to cause and said “the Constitution required special vigilance in light of the history of slavery, Jim Crow and recent examples of discriminatory changes to state voting laws.”
As if to highlight his ignorance of racial animus in America, Justice Anthony Kennedy had the gall to state that “History demands that we continue to learn, to listen and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity.” His words are meaningless after agreeing that it is now in the hands of voters in Republican-led Southern states that spent the past year enacting minority voter suppression laws to decide that all persons are not treated with fairness and equal dignity. It is a long-desired outcome for white supremacists the High Court just empowered and certainly emboldened.
**************Koch Loving Republicans Are Trying To Shut Harry Reid Up With Bogus Ethics Complaint
By: Justin Baragona
Wednesday, April, 23rd, 2014, 7:38 pm
On Wednesday, the Republican Party of Louisiana sent a formal complaint to the Senate Ethics Committee against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) claiming that Reid is abusing publicly funded resources for partisan and electoral activities. Basically, Republicans are mad that Reid keeps attacking the Koch brothers. They are claiming the abuse comes in the form of him using his official Senate Twitter account and senate.gov website to criticize the billionaire Republican donors. Apparently, the feeling is that Reid is ripping off the American public by utilizing social media and the internet by letting his feelings known.
Obviously, Republicans are looking at this as a way to shut up Reid. The Nevada Senator has been on a crusade as of late, launching a full-on assault lambasting the Kochs for their meddlesome activities in the world of politics. Seeing many red and purple state Democratic Senators, currently up for reelection, attacked by Koch-funded political ads these past few months, Reid decided it was time to shine the spotlight on these shadowy figures.
Beginning Wednesday morning, conservative media did its best to make this into a huge story. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus appeared on Fox & Friends to get the ball rolling. He tried to go for the jugular when he said, “Harry Reid is so dirty and so unethical.” Steve Doocy, with Roger Ailes almost certainly in his earpiece, helped setup Priebus’ criticism of Reid by stating that Reid’s attacks on the Kochs are only a way to distract the American people from the failure of Obamacare (Yes, Doocy really did say that.)
Evidently, the Priebus interview, along with the formal complaint being filed, was supposed to create a huge torrent of media activity, with news sites, papers and cable news shows flocking to the story. However, the overall reaction was mostly a ‘Meh.’ Obediently, the conservative media tried to give the story traction. Right-wing sites like The Daily Caller and BizPac Review made sure to toe the line and put forth the perfect amount of Republican spin. Yet, that was about it. Most of the rest of the coverage, how little there was of it, focused more on Priebus calling Reid dirty and unethical in the Fox interview.
Perhaps one of the reasons this story isn’t being seen as huge news to the majority of media outlets is because there is almost no way anything is going to come of this. It is an extremely transparent attempt by Republicans to go to bat for their biggest benefactors and try to shut down any negative statements made about them. Also, it rings especially hollow considering the amount of negative, partisan behavior displayed by Republicans on their ‘official’ Twitter accounts.
How about Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) attacking other government agencies using his Senate Twitter account?
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) April 15, 2014
DOJ called Lois Lerner about #IRS targeting. Its credibility to investigate scandal is gone. Need special prosecutor! http://t.co/o6LXDmKzER
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) April 16, 2014
Or, how about Cruz directly criticizing the President using the same Twitter account?
POTUS is dancing in the end zone while millions of Americans hurt. Obamacare wasn’t working last year & it’s not now. We need #FullRepeal!
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) April 2, 2014
Another Republican Senator, Rand Paul, has had no issues using his Senate Twitter account to attack others:
.@Sebelius‘s legacy will be one of the most unpopular & undemocratic govt overreaches in our lifetime- #Obamacare & its disastrous inception — Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) April 11, 2014
. @BarackObama says he wants to help the middle class, yet he continually doles out welfare to the super-rich: http://t.co/qxCEmycP47
— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) April 18, 2014
Finally, we see it come full circle, as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) used his Senate Twitter account to go after Harry Reid. The tweet linked to a post on Johnson’s senate.gov website praising the Koch brothers.
The ideas that make Harry Reid call someone un-American. http://t.co/AVAVCxR6EI
— Senator Ron Johnson (@SenRonJohnson) April 8, 2014
Apparently, partisanship is a one-way street. It is quite alright if you are a Republican. In fact, it is expected that you rip the President and Obamacare using your official Twitter account, or publicly provided website. However, if a Democrat has the gall to say something bad about the men writing the checks for the GOP, well, that has to be an ethics violation, right?
*****************Wendy Davis Demands GOP Opponent Expose His Ties to the Standardized Testing Industry
By: Adalia Woodbury
Wednesday, April, 23rd, 2014, 9:49 pm
Thanks to the Roberts Supreme Court, money plays an even bigger role in politics. In the McCutcheon ruling, the court basically encouraged influence peddling. In short, if you’re rich enough you can buy a politician to establish policies that will advance your business interests, especially if the politician you buy is willing to establish a policy that secures a market for your product or services.
This version of the capitalism Republicans believe in can result in harmful policies. But hey, the politician has his or her campaign money and his or her contributor has a guaranteed market for their business.
Greg Abbott’s denials of a policy to use standardized tests to determine which four year olds will have access to Pre-K and which children will be left behind have been a sore spot to the Abbott campaign. Obviously, a policy that will leave some children behind at the age of four is not going to go over well with parents in Texas. But Texas Republicans don’t really care about popular acceptance of their policies. They prove that time and again with policies that preserve a rigid social order in which white men hold the political and economic power and are kings of the castle at home.
Abbott’s pre-K policy of rewarding children who score well on standardized tests with access to pre-K and a decent future, while leaving other children behind reflects that social order. This suggests that Abbot had a different reason to initially deny that was his policy.
However, his plan fell apart when Wendy Davis exposed the facts, leading to the eventual admission by one of Abbott’s key advisers.
Now that the policy is on the record, the Davis campaign is investigating Abbott’s ties to businesses that would benefit from a policy of standardized tests for four year olds. On Wednesday, Wendy Davis’ communications director, Zac Petkanas, announced that the campaign filed an open records request on Tuesday so that Texas voters can follow the money behind Abbot’s policy of using standardized tests to screen four year olds out of a future.
In the interest of transparency, Greg Abbott should make all communication between his office and representatives of the standardized testing industry public. Texans deserve to know how the testing industry is influencing Greg Abbott’s controversial Pre-k plan.
It’s bad enough knowing that Abbott’s Pre-K policy will hurt a lot of children. So now the question is whose money made it worth Abbott’s while to sacrifice the futures of so many children in Texas. It’s bad enough that Republicans don’t want to help children have a better future, but denying them a future in exchange for campaign money is sinking to a new low.
**************Republican Candidate Tries to Sell Education Policy At School He Is Fighting In Court
By: Adalia Woodbury
Wednesday, April, 23rd, 2014, 5:36 pm
It’s time for an update on Greg Abbott’s amateur hour in Texas Politics. Wendy Davis’ Republican opponent is planning to hold a press conference to unveil his education policy at a school district that lost the equivalent of 118 teachers because of the public education cuts Abbot continues to defend. In fact, Abbott is battling with the Spring Branch Independent School District in court over those cuts. Now maybe Greg Abbott doesn’t know that when you cost a school 118 teachers and then battle the school in court, the odds of finding a friendly audience are virtually non-existent.
But then, Abbott has a bit of a problem because he is battling 600 districts to defend a whopping $5.4 billion in cuts to the public education budget. If he had vetted his press conference location, he might have found that district in the Greater Houston Area he isn’t fighting in Court.
Hurting the quality of children’s education with huge budget cuts then defending those cuts in court isn’t the best way to sell yourself as a pro-education candidate. Parents and teachers in the districts that Abbott is battling in court have already seen first-hand, what his anti-public education policies have done to the quality of education the children they love and teach will receive. The reality is that with a total of 11,000 fewer teachers because of budget cuts; class sizes grow and that has an adverse effect on the quality of education that each child receives.
“Perhaps the problem is that Greg Abbott is having trouble locating a school district in the entire state of Texas that’s not currently fighting him in a courtroom lawsuit,” said Zac Petkanas, Davis Campaign Communications Director.
Abbott’s so called education policy is already doomed with bad ideas on Pre-K that were recommended by white supremacist and misogynist, Charles Murray. The roll-out was a disaster as Abbott tried to run away from a policy of standardized testing four-year-olds. Wendy Davis’ exposed the truth about Abbott’s intent to do the testing and use it to determine which children will have access to pre-K and which will not and eventually, Abbott had to own the policy he hoped Texans wouldn’t find out about.
***************In a New Low For The Desperate Senate Republican Mitch McConnell Mocks Children
By: Sarah Jones
Wednesday, April, 23rd, 2014, 3:05 pm
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has taken flailing to a new level. Displaying a disturbing lack of character, Team Mitch will lash out wildly at anyone, including women and now children.
After the McConnell team attacked Alison Grimes for being a woman, I noted that the Republican Senator didn’t seem to be promoting family values, since his message to women and girls was “stay home or else bully boys will make fun of you for your gender”. That was pretty low. But they’ve sunk to a new low.
The McConnell team attacked his Republican challenger’s children after they starred in an ad for their father, Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin. Bevin’s daughter Olivia is seen in the ad warning Kentuckians not to be fooled by the “bunch of lies” McConnell is telling about her father.
Team Mitch tweeted, “I was waiting for ‘My dad went to MIT!’” This is considered a jab given that Bevin was busted for claiming he went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology ) when he actually attended a 3 week seminar.
When busted by reporters, Team Mitch quickly deleted the tweet and wouldn’t respond to questions about it. (Hit and runs scream “ready to lead”.)
Joe Sonka, News Editor at LEO Weekly, busted the Senator:
.@Team_Mitch sister account @BailoutBevinKY tweeted this out this morning, but deleted it: #kysen pic.twitter.com/zhxznXfIes
— Joe Sonka (@joesonka) April 22, 2014
McConnell’s Democratic opponent’s campaign was quick to note that McConnell cried foul when his own family was attacked. “Just last year, Mitch McConnell declared that political shots on opponents’ family members should be off-limits, and I hope someone reminds the Senator of that,” Grimes spokeswoman Charly Norton said in a statement sent to PoliticusUSA. “His campaign’s tasteless attack on Mr. Bevin’s daughters is out of bounds. Innocent children should never be mocked just to benefit the campaign of a 30-year Washington insider.”
It’s tough to claim you’re the party of traditional family values when you run around mocking women and children, since they make up the majority of the “family” in family. What’s really going on is the “family values” mask is being painfully peeled away in a very public way, as McConnell lets his desperation and his campaign’s consistently juvenile foolishness preside over good judgment.
Of course, Republicans don’t really seem to care about families, unless they can use this as an excuse to control women and starve children. But most Americans aren’t aware of this hypocrisy. Perhaps Mitch McConnell’s real goal is to expose the Republican Party as anti-family values, in which case, well done, Sir.
McConnell is leaving himself wide open to be hit hard on this, especially by Alison Grimes, whose first ad presented the Democrat as strongly centered around her family, the good granddaughter of a strong matriarch, someone with a strong moral center, and a dedicated mother figure of the people. These are qualities that are highly relatable and attractive to traditional Southern voters.
McConnell mocks Grimes for the very thing that is one of her major strengths, and now his people are attacking children as if he’s dead set on proving that of the three candidates, he is definitely not the best one to care for the family/voters. He’s becoming the crazy, angry uncle no one wants to invite to Christmas, but host out of pity and for love of family.
**************The ACA Becomes a Democratic Weapon as Sen. Mary Landrieu Uses It to Destroy GOP Opponent
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, April, 23rd, 2014, 10:10 am
In the key state of Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu isn’t running away from Obamacare. She is using the ACA as weapon to point out how Republicans who have health insurance deny it to others.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Landrieu said:
“It’s a solid law that needs improvement,” Landrieu said. “My opponent offers nothing but repeal, repeal, and repeal. And even with all the law’s setbacks, we’re seeing benefits for thousands of people in Louisiana.”
“I think the benefits that people have received are worth fighting for,” Landrieu continued, citing an end to discrimination against preexisting conditions and extended coverage for young adults on parents’ plans. “I think Bill Cassidy is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. He has insurance, but he’s also denying it to the 242,000 people who fall into the Jindal gap. He also wants to take coverage away from tens of thousands who have gotten it for the first time.”
Sen. Landrieu’s comments represent the changing Democratic tactics on the ACA. Now that there is proof that the law is working and helping millions of people, Democrats can shift the healthcare debate to discussing what will happen if Republicans who want to repeal the law get their way.
Landrieu’s argument also echos the fairness argument that Democrats have bludgeoning Republicans with on various issues for the last three years. It’s not fair that her Republican opponents who have health insurance get to deny hundreds of thousands of people in her state who lack health care. It is a moral argument that moves the discussion past killing the ACA and puts Republicans on the defense about their position of repeal.
Mary Landrieu is in an uphill fight to keep her Senate seat. She has decided that she is not going to play defense, or adopt a pseudo-Republican position to keep her seat. Landrieu is defending the law, because she knows it is helping the people of her state. If Democrats rally around the law, instead of running from it, what Republicans assume was a strength will become a major weakness.
The better the news gets on the ACA, the more it becomes a weapon for Democrats. The great irony is that the same law that Republicans thought would carry them to victory in 2014 could be sowing the seeds of their most stinging defeat.
****************Republicans Freak Out After Polls Show Democrats Leading 3 Out of 4 Senate Races
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, April, 23rd, 2014, 8:48 pm
Republicans are freaking out after new polls showed Democrats leading or tied in four key Southern Senate races.
The latest New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation Senate polls contained some bad news for Republicans. In three out of four Senate races they polled, Democrats led. In the one race where a Republican led, the lead was within the margin of error. In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor leads his Republican challenger Rep. Tom Cotton, 46%-36%. In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan leads her likely opponent, Thom Tillis, 42%-40%. In Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu leads 42%-18%, but due to Louisana’s non-primary system, Landrieu has to get 50% or more of the general election vote to win another term. If Landrieu finishes first, but with less than 50% of the vote, she will face a runoff. In Kentucky, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is statistically tied with his Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell leads 43%-42%.
Republicans have been trying to suppress the potential Democratic turnout in November by spreading throughout the media the idea that they were a lock to win the Senate in November. It turns out that a Republican victory in November is far from a sure thing. In fact, Republicans could end up losing some seats that in red states.
The conservative media is not taking the news well that everyone is starting to catch on that their predictions of victory are starting to look like empty hot air. Bill Kristol of the Rupert Murdoch owned Weekly Standard wrote a frantic blog post that tried to discredit the poll. Kristol wrote, “The Arkansas Senate race has been close in virtually every serious poll. The Republican challenger, Tom Cotton, probably had a small lead a month or so ago; after a massive negative assault on him by Harry Reid’s Super PAC, the Democratic incumbent, Mark Pryor, is probably now ahead by a point or two. That’s the story told by every reputable public and private poll, including, I’m told, polls by both campaigns.”
Just like in 2012, Republicans like Bill Kristol are arguing that the polls are skewed and the pollsters are in the bag for Democrats. It doesn’t matter to Kristol that every poll that hasn’t come from Republican pollsters has Pryor leading. Republicans are trying to deny the reality that Democrats have a reasonable chance of keeping the Senate. Republicans are freaking out for a very good reason. In order to retake the Senate, they have to defeat two of the three Southern Democrats who are up for reelection. If Pryor and Hagan win, Republicans are likely finished. If McConnell loses his seat, Democrats will probably keep the Senate.
It is too soon to tell, but the Republican predictions of a Senate takeover could end up being as wrong as the predictions of a GOP takeover in 2010 and 2012. The Republican media spin is designed to discourage Democrats from voting. Ignore the spin, and trust the numbers.
If Democrats come out to vote, they have a good chance of keeping the Senate.
***************It’s now legal to carry firearms in bars, churches, libraries, and schools in Georgia
By Arturo Garcia
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 19:25 EDT
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed legislation into effect on Wednesday paving the way for registered gun owners to carry their weapons into churches, schools, libraries and bars, USA Today reported.
“Today I will sign a gun bill that heralds self-defense, personal liberties and public safety,” Deal said at a press conference announcing the signing of House Bill 60. “While we still guard against tyranny, America today cherishes this right, so that people who follow the rules can protect themselves and their families from those who don’t follow the rules.”
The bill, which critics called the “guns everywhere” bill as it made its way through the state legislature, will allow gun owners in Georgia and 28 other states to bring their weapons into public buildings that do not have metal detectors. Schools will have the option of allowing employees to carry firearms, and religious institutions will have the same option on letting guns inside their buildings. It was passed with bipartisan support last month.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Deal responded to criticism of the bill by emphasizing that it covered “people who have their fingerprints taken, their backgrounds checked and they have been licensed to carry a weapon.”
But according to the Washington Post, the nonpartisan state Senate Research Office found that HB 60 runs counter to Deal’s assurances, because it removes the fingerprinting requirement for new gun licensees, and also abolished a state requirement that gun merchants maintain records of their sales and purchases.
It also expands the state’s “stand your ground” law to allow firearm owners to invoke the statute if they shoot and kill someone in self-defense, even if their gun is not registered.
Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun safety advocacy group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), released an ad before the bill passed calling it “the most extreme gun bill in America.”
**************Missouri Republicans Seek to Impeach Democratic Governor For No Real Reason
By: Keith Brekhus
Wednesday, April, 23rd, 2014, 4:12 pm
In today’s hyper-partisan environment it is not unusual for Republican officials to call for impeachment of Democratic office holders on the flimsiest of pretexts. Any scandal, however small in scope, can be used to drum up support for ousting an elected official through impeachment. However, Missouri House Republicans have sunken to a new low by seeking to impeach Democratic Governor Jay Nixon for no reason at all other than that they do not like the fact that he is a Democrat.
Nixon’s office has dismissed the efforts to impeach the Governor as a cheap ”publicity stunt”, and for good reason. Republicans have not been able to settle on a reason for wanting to impeach the Governor, but instead have cast about haphazardly by pointing to three different reasons hoping one will stick. The reasons they have settled upon are far from compelling and merely illustrate how desperate the Missouri GOP’s efforts are. Show-me-State Republicans have showed their hands and there is simply nothing to see.
The grounds for impeachment that Republicans are pursuing rest on three different issues. Representative Nick Marshall wants to impeach Nixon for asking state officials to accept joint tax returns from same-sex couples who were legally married in other states. Obviously, Marshall opposes Nixon’s executive order, but does he really think that policy difference warrants impeachment proceedings?
Republicans Mike Moon and Rick Brattin want to impeach the Governor for not moving fast enough to schedule special elections to fill vacancies in the General Assembly. Yet, the Governor has already set the dates to fill those vacancies, although I suppose one could argue that “fast enough” is a relative term and that the difference between setting the elections one day and the next is the difference between being “fast enough” and needing to be impeached.
Brattin also wants to impeach Governor Jay Nixon for not punishing officials harshly enough for allegedly sharing concealed carry endorsement information with the federal government. Republicans allege that the Missouri Department of Revenue and the Missouri Highway Patrol are collecting data on conceal and carry permit holders and sharing that data with federal law enforcement, to help create a national gun registry although that allegation has never been proven.
Although the odds of Governor Nixon being impeached on such flimsy grounds are probably slim, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Stanley Cox (R) says he will grant a hearing to consider impeachment proceedings if the men who filed articles of impeachment seek one.
Republicans seeking to impeach Governor Nixon are making a mockery of the legislative process and trivializing impeachment by making it simply a political cudgel by which they can bludgeon people they disagree with, even in the absence of any criminal or unethical behavior. Voters should demand that lawmakers in Missouri not turn the general assembly into an ongoing farce, and they should vote for change in November. The Missouri Republican Party has demonstrated not only an inability to govern, but they have also shown a complete disregard for the normal legislative process. The GOP House has turned the capitol in Jefferson City into a permanent partisan circus, where compromise and reason are dismissed by one political stunt after another. The people of Missouri deserve better.
Kiev Launches Assault on Rebels as Moscow Warns of 'Consequences', Holds Drills
by Naharnet Newsdesk
24 April 2014, 16:55
Ukraine's military launched assaults to retake rebel-held eastern towns on Thursday in which up to five people were reported killed, a move Russian President PIg Putin snorted would have "consequences."
The offensive sent international tensions soaring and oil prices up on the prospect of Russia making good on its threat of a massive response in the ex-Soviet republic.
In Slavyansk, a flashpoint eastern Ukrainian town held by rebels since mid-April, armored military vehicles drove past an abandoned roadblock in flames to take up position.
Shots were heard as a helicopter flew overhead, and the pro-Kremlin rebels ordered all civilians out of the town hall to take up defensive positions inside.
"During the clashes, up to five terrorists were eliminated," and three checkpoints destroyed, the interior ministry said in a statement. Regional medical authorities confirmed one death and one person wounded.
Hours later, the armored vehicles withdrew, leaving the town calm but tense.
The rebels, which the Kiev government and its Western backers believe are controlled and supported by Moscow, have been occupying around 10 towns in Ukraine's east since mid-April.
An international accord reached in Geneva last week was meant to defuse the crisis, but was swiftly dismissed by the rebels.
A brief truce collapsed over the weekend, prompting Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov to order a resumption of an "anti-terrorist" offensive to flush the militants out.
Also on Thursday, Ukrainian special forces seized back control of the town hall in the southeastern port city of Mariupol with no casualties, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said. Separatist sources confirmed the loss of the building in the port city, whose population is nearly 500,000.
And an army base in the eastern town of Artemivsk overnight repelled an attack by heavily-armed rebels using machine-guns and grenades, the interior and defense ministries said. One soldier was wounded.
It was the worst violence to erupt in Ukraine since the signing the Geneva accord a week ago.
Putin called the armed offensive a crime.
"If Kiev has really begun to use the army against the country's population... that is a very serious crime against its own people," he snorted.
He warned of "consequences, including for our intergovernmental relations".
Russia, which has an estimated 40,000 troops massed on Ukraine's border, has already threatened to respond as it did when it invaded Georgia in 2008 if it sees its interests in Ukraine attacked.
Shortly after Pig spoke, Russia's defense ministry announced new military "exercises" near the border in response to the Ukrainian military operations.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday accused Russia of not abiding by the Geneva deal and warned more sanctions could be imposed on Moscow within days.
"We continue to see malicious, armed men taking over buildings, harassing folks who are disagreeing with them, destabilizing the region and we haven't seen Russia step out and discouraging it," he said Thursday during a trip to Japan.
Russia, though, claims Washington and the Ukrainian government are reneging on their responsibilities, despite Kiev vowing to give an amnesty to the rebels, protect the Russian language and decentralize power.
While Obama has ruled out sending U.S. or NATO forces into Ukraine, Washington has begun deploying 600 U.S. troops to boost NATO's defenses in nearby eastern European states.
France said it was also sending four fighter jets to NATO air patrols over the Baltics.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday accused the United States and the European Union of trying to stage "an operation to unconstitutionally change the regime."
"They are trying to use Ukraine as a pawn in a geopolitical game," he said.
The Ukrainian government announced its renewed offensive against the rebels after the body of an abducted local politician who belonged to Turchynov's party was found weighted down in a river near Slavyansk.
Volodymyr Rybak's funeral was held Thursday in his home town of Horlivka. His wife and friends wept before his body, which was covered in flowers, before prayers were said and it was taken for burial.
Ukraine's acting president said he had been "brutally tortured" and blamed the rebels, while his wife said he had been stabbed multiple times.
The European Union's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, urged implementation of the Geneva accord, and expressed "grave concern" at the murder of Rybak and other violence.
Russia's gas supplies to Ukraine -- and through it, to Europe -- have also become a significant source of tensions.
The snorting Pig has warned in a letter to the EU that Moscow could cut gas supplies in a month's time if Ukraine's bill -- now estimated at some $3.5 billion (2.5 billion euros) -- was not paid in full.
The energy concerns sent global oil prices up. The price of North Sea Brent oil rose seven U.S. cents from Wednesday to $109.18 a barrel, and benchmark West Texas WTI oil rose 24 cents to $101.68.
Ukraine Says Its Efforts to Regain Control of East Will Continue
By ANDREW HIGGINS, DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and ALAN COWELL
APRIL 25, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — Defying warnings from Moscow not to confront pro-Russian militants entrenched in towns across eastern Ukraine, the interim government in Kiev on Friday threatened to maintain efforts to regain control by force that have so far produced little beyond Russian military drills on Ukraine’s border and heightened concerns about Moscow’s next move.
Sounding increasingly strident alarms, Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, accused Moscow on Friday of seeking to create a wider conflict. “Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe,” Mr. Yatsenyuk told the interim cabinet in remarks broadcast live, according to Reuters. “The world has not yet forgotten World War II, but Russia already wants to start World War III.”
In a posting on Facebook, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov declared that Ukraine’s military operations in the east — known as “ATO,” meaning Anti-Terrorist Operation — had not been suspended.
Secretary of State John Kerry denounced Russian actions in Ukraine but stopped short of announcing measures in response.
“There has been no suspension of the ATO in connection to the threat of invasion by Russia’s armed forces,” Mr. Avakov said, apparently responding to local news reports saying the operation had been called off because of the “heightened risk” of a Russian invasion. “The ATO goes on. The terrorists should be on their guard around the clock. Civilians have nothing to fear.”
Despite the minister’s warning, there have been no reports of renewed conflict since Ukrainian forces moved briefly against pro-Russian positions on Thursday in what Mr. Avakov, apparently playing down the action, described on Friday as an operation by “insignificant” government forces that had deployed “without the use of tanks or other heavy armor.”
Russia has repeatedly denied having a hand in the unrest convulsing eastern Ukraine or any intention to invade. But an announcement on Thursday by Moscow that it would immediately start military maneuvers along the border with Ukraine, and a threat by Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, of unspecified consequences for Ukraine as a result of what he called a “serious crime,” signaled a combustible new phase in a geopolitical struggle set off by the overthrow of Ukraine’s government in February.
Ukraine’s interim defense minister, Mykhailo Koval, was quoted by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Friday as saying Russian troops on maneuvers had approached to within 1,100 yards, or one kilometer, of the border but had not crossed. There was no independent corroboration of the minster’s account.
The heightened tensions have buried already faint hopes that a deal reached last Thursday in Geneva by diplomats from the European Union, Russia, Ukraine and the United States might calm a crisis, stirring fears of a wider conflict over Ukraine, a nation of 46 million on a volatile fault line between Europe and Russia.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia on Thursday night that it would face additional economic sanctions if it failed to carry out that agreement. “The window to change course is closing,” he said. Sanctions could be announced as soon as Friday if the Russians do not respond, said one administration official who asked not to be identified while discussing internal planning.
The threat of intensified sanctions was under underscored on Friday when the rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded its assessment of Russia.
“In our view, the tense geopolitical situation between Russia and Ukraine could see additional significant outflows of both foreign and domestic capital from the Russian economy and hence further undermine already weakening growth prospects,” the agency wrote.
In his most detailed accusation of Russian interference to date, Mr. Kerry said that American intelligence services had concluded that Russia’s “military intelligence services and special operators are playing an active role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine with personnel, weapons, operational planning and coordination.”
“Some of the individual Special Operations personnel who were active on Russia’s behalf in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea have been photographed in Slovyansk, Donetsk and Luhansk,” Mr. Kerry said. “Some are even bragging about it by themselves on their Russian social media sites.”
On Friday, Mr. Kerry’s Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, hit back, accusing Washington of seeking only to further its interests in Ukraine.
“The West wants to take control of Ukraine while exclusively putting its geopolitical interests, not the interests of the Ukrainian people, at the forefront,” Mr. Lavrov told a conference of young diplomats from former Soviet republics.
“We are talking about the methods that Americans use with states of different regions,” Mr. Lavrov said. “This is not our method. We will not blackmail, we will not threaten, we are all polite people,” he said.
“Without batting an eye, our Western partners keep demanding day after day that Russia stop interfering in Ukrainian affairs, pull out troops and remove certain agents who have reportedly been caught in the southeast and who are reportedly guiding these processes,” Mr. Lavrov said, adding, “I even find it difficult to respond. I try to make the conversation constructive.”
Vyachislav Ponomaryov, the de facto mayor of Slovyansk, who was installed by pro-Russian militants, said Tuesday that armed men had come to his town from outside Ukraine but insisted they were friends and volunteers, not Russian Special Forces.
While the United States and its allies cheered the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, who fled Kiev on Feb. 21 and is now sheltering in Russia, Moscow deplored his removal as an armed putsch led by fascists.
President Obama and other Western leaders have repeatedly demanded that Russia halt all support for the rebels, exert its influence to get them to leave occupied government buildings in Slovyansk and other towns, and pull back its 40,000 troops deployed along the border.
Last week’s agreement called for armed pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine to surrender the government buildings.
On Thursday Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, said drills would begin immediately involving troops in southern and western Russia, the areas surrounding Ukraine. The drills, which would also involve the air force, will include flights along the border, Mr. Shoigu said at a meeting of Russia’s top military council.
“We have to react to such developments,” he said of the Ukrainian attacks, declaring that Russia had a duty to stop “this military machine.”
However, the most violent Ukrainian operation on Thursday, against checkpoints north of Slovyansk, a small eastern city, raised new questions about the competence of Ukraine’s forces and the interim government’s thinking.
With armored vehicles and helicopter support, Ukrainian troops attacked crudely built checkpoints on a narrow access road. After a brief round of fighting, the forces — which the government said were a mix of regular infantry and Interior Ministry troops — withdrew, leaving rubble and burning tires behind.
Russia’s seizing of Crimea has for weeks fueled debate about whether Russian forces might again take advantage of the weakness of Ukraine’s military and roll across the border to seize more territory. Western diplomats and other analysts speculated until recently that Mr. Putin had perhaps not decided.
But a series of harsh warnings from Moscow over the past week against the use of force by Ukraine to dislodge separatist militants has added to worries that Russia may be preparing the ground for a military intervention to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers it says are in danger.
Mr. Putin drew a direct parallel between events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine on Thursday and spoke of the value of swift action.
“What we can see in Ukraine’s east, undoubtedly, would have happened in Crimea, had we not taken certain timely measures to protect the interests of the people in Crimea,” he said.
With relations between Moscow and the West at their most distrustful and tense since the height of the Cold War, Russia’s defense minister, Mr. Shoigu cited not only the unrest in Ukraine in his announcement of military drills but also NATO’s planned exercises in Poland and the Baltic States.
Ukrainian officials teetered between declarations of determination to purge rebels from the east and alarm that Moscow might try to protect its separatist proxies with a military push across the border.
The Ukrainian authorities said that up to five pro-Russian activists had been killed near Slovyansk. Mr. Ponomaryov, however, said that one pro-Russian separatist had been killed and one wounded. He identified the dead man as Aleksandr V. Lubenets, in his early 20s, and said the Ukrainian assault had involved as many as 150 troops and had been stopped in part by a minefield that separatists had laid.
That account of the assault could not be independently verified, and one separatist who claimed to have participated in the fighting said he saw three of his colleagues killed. But whatever the number of dead, it was clear after the shooting stopped that the Ukrainian operation had achieved little tactical effect.
It did not change the disposition of forces, and rather than show the Ukrainian government’s strength, it appeared to have fanned local tensions and invited the Kremlin reaction — further exposing the government’s precarious position.
By midafternoon the separatists still firmly controlled this city, and Mr. Ponomaryov said he had 2,500 armed men at his disposal. More successful, according to the Ukrainian authorities, was a parallel operation Thursday in southeastern Mariupol. Ukraine’s interim interior minister said early Thursday that “civilian activists” had regained control of Mariupol’s City Hall and forced pro-Russian protesters to leave without bloodshed.
A small contingent of Ukrainian forces also swept into Artemivsk, where one of the world’s largest known depots of infantry arms has been stored in former mine shafts since Soviet times.
Russia not easing Ukraine crisis would be 'expensive mistake' – John Kerry
Secretary of state warns unless Moscow takes steps to de-escalate situation, Washington would impose more sanctions
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 10.55 BST
The US secretary of state, John Kerry has accused Russia of failing to live up to commitments it made to ease the crisis in Ukraine.
In unusually blunt language, Kerry said on Thursday that unless Moscow takes immediate steps to de-escalate the situation, Washington will have no choice but to impose additional sanctions. He said it would be a grave and "expensive mistake".
Barack Obama, on a visit to South Korea, said he would speak to European leaders on Friday about Ukraine.
Sources told Reuters the US president intended to push the EU towards fresh sanctions against Russia in a conference call with British prime minister David Cameron, French president Francois Hollande, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi.
Kerry's comments come amid an increasingly bitter war of words over who is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine that is becoming steadily more violent.
The Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, made the strongest comments yet on Friday when he accused Russia of trying "to start world war three" and acting like a gangster.
The US says Russia is fomenting unrest and separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine following its annexation of the strategic Crimean peninsula. Russia accuses the US of encouraging a pro-western government in Kiev to adopt anti-Russian policies.
The US directly accused Russia of reneging on the Ukrainian peace deal, as both sides insisted on contradictory explanations of clashes overnight on Wednesday with pro-Russia militants.
In its most explicit comments yet on the apparent collapse of last week's agreement, the State Department claimed it had seen no sign of Russia abiding by its commitments.
"Since Geneva, Russia has failed not only to provide public support for the de-escalation of tensions but has actively stoked tensions in eastern Ukraine by engaging in inflammatory rhetoric," state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
"The secretary of state has spoken with foreign minister Lavrov six times since Geneva and he has never once taken responsibility for the implementation of Russia's Geneva commitments and he has gone so far as to say the Geneva agreement demands no action from Russia."
Officials in Washington also angrily rejected Moscow's characterisation of clashes with Ukrainian soldiers that raised tensions between the two cold war foes to dangerously high levels on Thursday.
"The Russians are actively distorting the facts to suit their own narrative," said Psaki, citing "reliable sources" on the ground.
"What actually happened is that last night approximately 70 separatists attacked an arms depot in Donetsk," she added. 'In the aftermath of that attack, Ukrainian troops tried to clear a separatist checkpoint between the arms depot and the town of Slavyansk … the separatists resisted with force."
In stark contrast with Putin's claim that Ukraine was committing a crime against its own people, Washington defended Kiev's response as proportionate.
"Ukraine resumed its efforts to restore order after the capture and torture of a member of the local council, kidnappings of journalists and other provocations," added Psaki.
"Aggressive actions are being taken against military instalments and their people and they are working to restore order."
The State Department declined to comment or confirm reports of Russian troop movements, including the possible incursion of three helicopters, but said "any movements into Ukraine would be a grave mistake".
S.&P., Citing Capital Flight, Cuts Its Rating on Russia
By DAVID JOLLY
APRIL 25, 2014
PARIS — Russia’s credit rating was cut on Friday by Standard & Poor’s to just one notch above “junk” status amid a growing push by Western nations to step up sanctions against President Vladimir V. Putin’s government as a result of the crisis in Ukraine.
Standard & Poor’s cited the destabilizing effects of capital flight from Russia, which it said reached about $51 billion in the first three months of 2014. Those outflows, which came as investors sought safer investments abroad, “heighten the risk of a marked deterioration in external financing, either through a significant shift in foreign direct investments or portfolio equity investments,” it said.
The geopolitical crisis in Eastern Europe, in which Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian separatists have destabilized swaths of eastern Ukraine, could generate “additional significant outflows of both foreign and domestic capital from the Russian economy and hence further undermine already weakening growth prospects,” S.&P. said.
Just hours after the S.&P. move, the Russian central bank unexpectedly raised its benchmark interest rate by half a percentage point, to 7.5 percent. On March 3, the central bank had said it was “temporarily” raising the rate to 7 percent, from 5.5 percent.
The bank cited the inflationary impact of the sinking ruble, and said that annual inflation stood at 7.2 percent as of Monday. It added that it hoped to hold the inflation rate to 6 percent by the end of the year.
S.&P., in its downgrade before the rate increase, said it viewed the central bank “as being confronted with increasingly difficult policy decisions with regard to addressing inflationary pressures resulting from financial market volatility,” while also trying to support growth in the economy.
The American ratings agency cut Russia’s sovereign debt rating by one notch to BBB- from BBB, leaving it at the lowest “investment grade” level. It said the outlook remained negative, owing to the risks that economic growth would slow and that the central bank could lose room to maneuver on monetary policy.
Russia’s gross domestic product grew 1.3 percent last year, one of the weakest showings since 1999. If the Ukraine tensions ease, S.&P. said, it could expect growth to average 2.3 percent over the years 2014 to 2017. But a failure to resolve the crisis would leave a “significant downside risk that growth will fall well below 1 percent.”
The ratings agency also warned that it might again downgrade the debt “if tighter sanctions were to result in additional weakening of Russia’s net external position.”
Russian markets took the news in stride. On Friday morning, the benchmark Micex index was down about 1 percent, leaving it more than 14 percent lower for the year; the ruble was trading about 0.6 percent lower against the dollar, leaving it nearly 9 percent lower for the year.
Derek Halpenny, a foreign exchange analyst at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in London, wrote in a research note that while the S.&P. move was “bad news” for Russia, the exposure of foreign investors to the country’s debt was “relatively small,” so the practical effects of the downgrade would be limited.
Still, he noted, another rating cut “would push Russia into junk status, and today’s announcement will only reinforce the capital outflows while the Ukraine tensions persist.”
Russia wants to start third world war, says Ukraine
Prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk accuses Moscow of acting like a gangster by aiming to occupy Ukraine 'militarily and politically'
Reuters in Kiev
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 11.11 BST
The Ukrainian prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, has accused Russia of wanting to start a third world war by occupying Ukraine "militarily and politically".
"The world has not yet forgotten world war two, but Russia already wants to start world war three," Yatseniuk told his interim cabinet in remarks broadcast live. "Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe."
In some of the strongest language he has used in a war of words between the former Soviet neighbours, as both sides have deployed troops close to their frontier, Yatseniuk accused Moscow of acting like a gangster supporting terrorists.
"It is clear that Russia's goal is to wreck the election in Ukraine, remove the pro-western and pro-Ukrainian government and occupy Ukraine politically as well as military," Yatseniuk added.
Yatseniuk took office in February after pro-European protests prompted the Kremlin-backed president to flee to Russia.
Ukraine plans to hold an election on 25 May to replace Viktor Yanukovich, but the Russian-speaking east of the country has been disrupted by pro-Moscow militants who have taken over the city of Slavyansk and public buildings elsewhere, demanding to follow Crimea and be annexed by Russia.
Russia denies involvement in the protests but has denounced the Ukrainian government, which it says is illegitimate and backed by "fascist" Ukrainian nationalists, and has threatened to step in to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
Yatseniuk called on Moscow to fulfil its obligations to persuade activists in eastern Ukraine to lay down arms under a four-way agreement signed last week in Geneva by the two governments, as well as Ukraine's US and EU allies.
"Russia's support for terrorists and bandits who torture peaceful citizens is an international crime. It is a crime against humanity," added the prime minister.
Ukraine's state security service has accused Russian military intelligence officers in Ukraine, and the separatist leader in Slavyansk, of involvement in the torture and murder of a local councillor from Yatseniuk's Batkivshchyna (fatherland) party.
The prime minister said Kiev was still waiting for a response to an official request for details of Russian military exercises on the border. It made the request through Europe's OSCE security body and set a deadline of Saturday.
Yatseniuk said: "If the United States, the European Union and the entire international community continues to be united and act together to compel Russia to fulful its obligations, then we will maintain the peace, stability and international security system that Russia wants to destroy."
Yes, of course, Russia and it's Pig are only innocent victims ......
Lavrov Accuses U.S. of Seeking to 'Smear Russia'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 April 2014, 11:53
Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday accused the United States of seeking to smear Moscow and called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's tone over the Ukraine crisis unacceptable.
Lavrov warned "the might of U.S. propaganda" was aimed "at smearing Russia, smearing those who protest against the illegal actions of the (Kiev) authorities who are trying to ban Russian and trying to call all Russians and Russian speakers enemies who should be killed."
Kerry warned Thursday that Moscow's refusal to end the Ukraine crisis would be costly, saying the window of opportunity for Russia to change tack was closing.
The top U.S. diplomat also accused the Kremlin-funded RT television network, formerly known as Russia Today, of being deployed to "promote President Putin's fantasy."
Speaking at a youth forum in Moscow, Lavrov slammed his U.S. counterpart's comments to the media and defended RT as a "serious" competitor to CNN and BBC.
"They are accusing us of turning on -- as John Kerry expressed it yesterday in his statement made in an unacceptable tone, a prosecutor's tone -- he accuses us of turning on Putin's propaganda machine, Russia Today."
"You know talking like that about media is probably not very polite," Lavrov said.
The crisis in Ukraine has triggered the biggest crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War and has sparked an virulent war of words between Washington and Moscow.
The billionaire parachuted in to run Ukraine's most troubled region
Separatists squat in his office, gunmen roam the streets, and Russia threatens to invade. All in a day's work for Serhiy Taruta
Luke Harding in Donetsk
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 11.12 BST
It is quite possibly the world's worst job. Separatists have squatted in his office, masked gunmen roam the streets with impunity, and Russia – the giant, growling neighbour – threatens to invade. But Serhiy Taruta is in cheerful mood.
"There wasn't exactly a queue for this post. In fact there were no other candidates," he says. "I never dreamed about doing this."
Taruta, a billionaire industrialist who looks uncannily like Woody Allen, is governor of the most troubled region of eastern Ukraine. He was one of several oligarchs parachuted in to take over the leadership of the country's rebellious provinces, at the request of the new government in Kiev. Taruta got Donetsk, the Russophone region at the centre of a smouldering anti-Kiev, pro-Russian insurrection.
A month after his arrival in early March, separatists stormed the regional administration building in the heart of Donetsk. They are still there, having proclaimed a Donetsk People's Republic from Taruta's eleventh-floor suite. They even helped themselves to his official seals. Pro-Russian activists have seized a string of city halls across the region. In the town of Slavyansk, a heavily armed militia has established a de facto rebel capital.
Next to Ukraine's border, meanwhile, Russian soldiers are staging military exercises which some see as a dress rehearsal for full-blown invasion. Would Vladimir Putin seize eastern Ukraine, following Crimea? "Nobody knows what Russia's plan is. Not even [US secretary of state] John Kerry," Taruta says, speaking in an interview with the Guardian, Financial Times and Washington Post. Russia is welcome to help, he says, but by sending humanitarian aid rather than tanks.
Taruta describes the armed hardcore separatists in his region as a tiny minority - "about 300 people".
"The number of aggressive protesters is actually quite small," he says. On Thursday, Kerry accused Moscow of playing an active role in destabilising the country and sending in undercover special operations personnel.
"I'm not a spy but my intelligence services tell me that the majority of Russian representatives have gone," Taruta says.
The governor, a native Russian-speaker who made his fortune in the 1990s from steel, is scathing about the separatists. They have demanded a referendum by 11 May on the region's future status. Some then want it to join Russia; others to stay in Ukraine. "They have no political ideas. They have no programme. They are waiting for something to happen – whether it's the return of [ex-president] Viktor Yanukovich over Easter or some kind of referendum," he says.
Taruta says it is impossible for the separatists to organise a proper democratic referendum without the machinery of state. "We have 2.7 million voters in the region, and 5,000 polling districts, for heaven's sake. Three people can band together and declare an American republic or I can call myself the pope. That doesn't make it legitimate or transparent."
Who does he think is behind the unrest? Taruta says there are two possibilities: the Kremlin, or Yanukovych and his family, now in self-exile in southern Russia. There are widespread rumours that Yanukovych's eldest son, Oleksandr, has bankrolled anti-Kiev protests. (Kiev has put him on its wanted list.) The activists vehemently deny this. They say they enjoy popular support and rely on donations of food and money from simple citizens.
Speaking in Donetsk's Victoria hotel – a gleaming multistorey edifice next to the city's state-of-the-art Donbass football stadium – Taruta says he's confident presidential elections due on 25 May will take place. He admits that it will be tricky to hold them in Slavyansk. But he says they will happen in most of the region, including in Kramatorsk, 10 miles (15km) down the road from the separatists' stronghold. "We have time before the first round. We'll do everything to ensure nothing hinders us," he says.
During the last presidential elections in 2010, Taruta voted for Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko narrowly lost the poll to Yanukovych, who promptly put her in jail. Tymoshenko is running again, but the favourite is oligarch Petro Poroshenko, a chocolate baron. Who would he vote for this time? "That's between me, my family and the voting urn," Taruta – who supported Kiev's anti-Yanukovych protests - says.
The governor says he does have a plan to get his office back, and has been holding negotiations with the separatists for over two weeks. But he admits that this has proved frustrating. "Unfortunately their level of understanding isn't sufficient to have a proper dialogue," he says. For their part the separatists regard Taruta as an oligarchic hate figure. They have produced leaflets accusing him of wanting to bring fracking to the region – nonsense according to Taruta's English-speaking aides.
Taruta admits that in the early days of the crisis local law enforcement officers did little to stop occupations, often siding with the protesters. The problem has now blown up into large-scale disorder.
"We have criminals, and semi-criminals, carrying out killings, robbery, and pillaging," he says. What about his own safety? "There is a physical threat. I'm on a list. But I'm a peace guy, not a war guy. I can only use my words and intellect to stabilise the situation." As well as a private plane, he has an armoured car.
Despite ominous circumstances, the governor says that the regional administration still functions, with salaries and pensions paid on time, and budgetary obligations fulfilled. Earlier this week he met with 100 or so elected representatives from the regional administration who gathered in Donetsk's Soviet-era palace of youth. (The archaeological museum next door boasts a giant skeleton of a 12,000-year-old woolly mammoth.) He sat on the main stage beneath a blue and yellow swagging. He responded politely to often heated comments from the floor.
Critics suggest that Taruta – a businessman not a politician – is too passive a figure to deal with the violence erupting around him. Supporters say he has useful gifts: management experience, connections, charm, and a refreshing habit of actually answering the question. The governor has brought his own team with him from Kiev. They are a talented, PR savvy, cosmopolitan bunch, not exactly at home in Donetsk's Soviet landscape of slag-heaps and pig-iron. The advisers are currently camping out in the swish Victoria hotel, which Taruta half-owns.
When the interview is over, Taruta pops over to the Donbass arena to watch home side Shakhtar Donetsk take on a team from Russian-occupied Crimea, SC Tavriya Simferopol. (The Crimeans are still playing in the Ukrainian football league, at least for now.) Taruta sits in the VIP box with fellow-oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man and Shakhtar's president. Taruta still has a substantial stake in the firm he co-founded in the 1990s, the Industrial Union of Donbass. But it is likely to be a while before he can visit his holiday home in Crimea, decorated in Japanese style.
Taruta and his two daughters took part in the Maidan protests in Kiev against Yanukovych, a pro-decency uprising in his view against corruption and misrule. The new governor draws a clear distinction between events in the capital and the ongoing unrest in the east. "People in the Maidan weren't there because they were paid. Nobody was in it for money. They were ready to die because of an idea," he says.
04/24/2014 05:56 PM
Soviet Yearnings: Hopes Rise in Transnistria of a Russian Annexation
By Alexander Smoltczyk
Transnistria is the only place in Europe that still uses the hammer and sickle on its flag. Now that Russia has annexed Crimea and is eyeing eastern Ukraine, many in the breakaway Moldovan republic hope that they are next on Moscow's agenda.
His homeland is recognized by nobody except the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. When Evgeny Ushinin became aware of that uncomfortable fact, he began studying languages. He started with Japanese before moving on to Portuguese, Flemish and Italian. He also took on the Cypriot dialect of Greek, Arabic and Turkish. He already knew Russian, Romanian and German from his school days.
Now, Ushinin speaks a dozen languages. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on "Turkish Influences on the Languages of the Eastern Mediterranean" and translates Japanese mangas into Russian. Sometimes, he plays guitar and sings northern Japanese and Bulgarian drinking songs in the city library. But his homeland is still not recognized. "Nobody knows Transnistria," he says. "My Japanese friends think it's an island. They confuse Moldova with the Maldives."
In some places, Transnistria is just a few kilometers wide. On a map of Europe, it looks like a worm squashed between much larger animals, pressed as it is between Moldova and Ukraine. As a result, being Transnistrian is something of a challenge.
Officially, it is known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, as a white-haired woman standing next to Ushinin notes. The woman is Victoria Piletskaya, the popular Transnistrian poet. Together, the pair -- the linguist and the poet -- represents the majority of intellectual life in Tiraspol, perhaps the least-known capital city in Europe.
Transnistria, located on the eastern banks of the Dniester River, has an area hardly greater than the US state of Rhode Island (or the German state of Saarland) and is home to a half-million people who see themselves as Russians, Ukrainians or Moldovans. More than anything, though, they see themselves as Soviet citizens. The breakaway region has its own military, its own constitution, a national anthem (called "We Sing the Praises of Transnistria") and a symphony orchestra which is known abroad.
The region's official currency, the Transnistrian ruble, is pegged to the dollar but is nevertheless treated like Monopoly money on global financial markets. The five-ruble bill is graced with a picture of the Kvint distillery in Tiraspol, honoring one of the country's biggest exports: cognac. Other products sent overseas include bed linens, weapons, cable and workers, with the men heading east and the women going west. Putin and Obama are the main subjects of conversation.
'We Are Not Ephemera'
Evgeny Ushinin and the national poet are sitting in Club 19, located in a rear courtyard off of October 25th Street. It is one of the few places in the city where independent thinking is practiced. The most recent topic debated was: "Should the press only say good things about the government?" The poet says: "A country has to recognize itself. That is the most important thing." "Victoria is right," Evgeny replies and looks at her admiringly. "We are not ephemera. We exist." It is simply a matter of believing strongly enough.
The Bender Fortress, which looms above the Dnieper not far from Tiraspol, is one of Transnistria's primary tourist attractions, and inside is a monument to the Baron of Münchhausen. It is, perhaps, an odd place for such a monument on the surface; the baron is primarily known as a fictional character who was fond of stretching the truth. But he is famous for having ridden a cannon ball into the clouds to escape captivity -- and it is here in the Bender Fortress where the event is supposed to have taken place. Almost anything is possible in this country of delusion and desire.
Tiraspol, the capital, is far from being rundown. The trolley buses run on time, the curbstones on Karl-Liebknecht Street and Gagarin Street have been freshly painted and the parking lots are clean. It seems as though the city comes straight out of a 1960s Soviet propaganda file, as though a model student is being presented to the school director. As though they are expecting to be rewarded. The current edition of the daily Pridnestrovia is on display in city newsstands. The front page headline: "In the Spirit of Friendship between Russia and Transnistria."
Not far from Club 19, two flags are hanging out of a window. It is the diplomatic quarter of the Transnistrian capital and consists of a single floor of a building where South Ossetia and Abkhazia have their representations. They are two other leftovers of the Soviet Union that are preoccupied with a single desire: That of returning to the folds of the Russian empire. That, too, is difficult to explain to one's Japanese friends.
Transnistria has nominally existed since 1989, when the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic abolished Russian as its official language and replaced it with Moldovan. One year later, Moldova joined several other Soviet republics in declaring independence, whereupon the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country -- the region on the other side of the Dnieper -- declared its own independence from Moldova and sought to return to the Soviet Union. By the time the Russian 14th army arrived, a thousand people had already been killed in the conflict that ensued.
Hammer and Sickle
Now that Crimea has been annexed by Russia, Transnistrians are full of hope that their own government might be able to pull off a similar coup. "Maybe Russia will recognize us soon," says Oleg Korshan, chair of the central committee of the Pridnestrovian Communist Party. The somewhat doughy, solicitous 37-year-old sits in front of a wood inlay portrait of Lenin. "We could become a Russian enclave, like Kaliningrad."
Transnistria is the only place in Europe that still flies a national flag depicting the hammer and sickle -- prominently displayed in the upper left corner. The country's secret service is still called the KGB and its parliament is known as the Supreme Soviet. An enormous statue of Lenin looms above the square in front of the parliament building, his granite cape flying out behind him like that of a superhero.
Many travelers refer to Transnistria as the last remaining piece of the Soviet Union. "Unfortunately, that is completely inaccurate," Korshan says. "Our country simply honors its history. But it has allowed capitalist elements. We are a mixture," he adds, saying that his personal ideal is that of China or Belarus.
A coffee-table book about Leonid Brezhnev is on display and a picture of Stalin hangs in the entryway in memory of the Great Patriotic War and the liberation from the Germans.
"We have been anxiously following the nonsense that the fascists in Ukraine have been performing," Korshan says. "We welcome President Putin's desire to unite Russian soil." Korshan's telephone rings and he excuses himself -- his ring tone is the Soviet national anthem. When the call is over, he says gravely, his brow furrowed: "The president has spoken with Chancellor Merkel about Transnistria." When Korshan says "president," he means the Russian president. And his voice sounds as though he had just spoken with Putin himself.
Korshan's communist party is small, but is fully supportive of the government with its single seat in parliament. The other two parties in parliament -- called Renewal and Breakthrough -- likewise back the government. All three compete to see who can be the most enthusiastic supporters of Putin. An opposition in favor of reuniting with the Republic of Moldova does not exist. "That would be a betrayal of those who fell," is an oft-heard sentiment -- even from those who were just children at the time of the civil war.
Ill-Defined Status Quo
In February, Transnistria's speaker of parliament wrote a letter to the Duma, Russia's parliament, in Moscow. It was formulated as a friendly reminder that Transnistria too wanted to be annexed into the Russian Federation, even if merely as an exclave on the model of Kaliningrad.
For years, Russia has been delivering gas to Transnistria free of charge and also subsidizes the country's pension fund, but it has never recognized the territory as an independent country, despite the overwhelming desire among the populace to become part of Russia. Perhaps it is better for Russia to maintain the ill-defined status quo. Despite pledges to the contrary, Russia has never withdrawn its 2,000 troops stationed in Transnistria. They represent a significant hurdle to Moldova's potential NATO membership.
The situation has remained largely unchanged for two decades. Nina Shtanski, Transnistria's foreign minister, wrote her Ph.D. dissertation in Moscow about possible solutions to the region's conflict -- and concluded that there weren't any. As long as only one half of a married couple is in favor of divorce, the marriage is destined to continue. In photos, the 37-year-old Shtanski, who has been in her current position for two years, looks like a cross between Sarah Palin and Italian model and actress Monica Bellucci -- and she is said to be an entire head taller than Putin. She is certainly someone who would have a lot to say about the situation in Transnistria.
It is difficult to imagine that the foreign minister of a country that is cut off from the rest of the world has much to do besides wait for instructions from Moscow. But Nina Shtanski's schedule would appear to be crammed. Her press office asks that questions be submitted in writing and notes that "the minister is currently traveling outside of the Pridnestrovian Republic." The back and forth seems endless: "Your application for accreditation has unfortunately been rejected ... please send your questions in writing again ... the minister is tired ... the deputy Pridnestrovian foreign minister could perhaps meet next week ... but do you even have an accreditation?"
It goes on like that for days. And one evening, a muscular young man drives up in his sedan to the Memorial of Fallen Soldiers -- which includes a Russian T-40 tank bedecked with flowers. He says his name is Alexander and he wants to talk. "No, not in a café," he says. "In the car would be better." He says he works in customs and knows a lot. "Ask away," he insists. "Some information is free, some is not. We can also drive out to the edge of the city."
For two hours, "Alexander" drives through the empty city center of Tiraspol -- back and forth between the national theater, the university and the Kvint factory -- and praises the achievements of the state of Transnistria. It never really becomes clear exactly what Alexander wants. But what was that on his lapel -- that almost invisible, button-shaped thing?
A Visit to the Front Lines
The KGB is considered to be one of the best-functioning institutions in Transnistria. Indeed, that is one reason that nobody has found it necessary to change its name. All of the country's newspapers are closely monitored while spying, eavesdropping, intimidation and threats are common. The popular Internet forum PMR has been blocked and the only independent correspondent bureau closed.
The second, extremely successful institution is called Sheriff, a varied conglomerate that was founded by two former policemen. Sheriff's vast holdings include a chain of gas stations, a caviar factory, an industrial bakery, a supermarket chain, the Rossiya Hotel, the Kvint distillery, the local Mercedes dealership, the radio station Inter FM, the country's only Internet provider and the football club Sheriff Tiraspol, which won the CIS Cup in 2009.
Nobody seems particularly concerned about the fact that the majority of state-owned assets is now in the hands of oligarchs. And that's not all. The political party Renewal is the company's political arm; the country's president until 2011, Igor Smirnov, is from the party.
Across from Tiraspol's registry office, a heavily chromed Mercedes S-500 is parked, blocking the sidewalk along Sverdlov Street. It belongs to Oleg Pankov, a former army officer who fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Following the collapse of communism, he made his money selling sex toys. His store, called Intim, smells of smoke and is reminiscent of a small grocery, except that instead of carrots on display, Pankov has carefully laid out corn-shaped vibrators, artificial vaginas and phalluses the size of medium-range missiles -- most of it imported from Germany.
"Transnistria is not a rich country," Pankov says, "but people are always going to have sex." He asks what people in the West think of the fascist hordes on the Maidan in Kiev and offers a pill called "Seks President" as a gesture of goodwill. The cardboard packaging bears the image of Bill Clinton. Pankov then opens a low door behind the counter: "Come in, I want to show you something."
The shop's backroom is plastered right up to the ceiling with Soviet banners, red-satin party flags bearing Lenin's likeness and heroic embroideries with the slogan: "Working Men of All Countries, Unite!" Several busts of Lenin are prominently displayed. It is a devotional shrine to the Soviet empire, a chamber of Bolshevik relics -- and only separated from the "Hot Lady" drops by a thin wall. "My business is out there," Pankov says as he slumps into a well-used office chair. "But my soul is in here" he adds, pounding his breast.
"I was a communist until the very end," he says. "Now it is good to be able to do business, I like this reality. But I love the Soviet Union at the same time. You can't betray your own history. Transnistria is not Romania, it is Russia, the Crimea is Russia. What would you do if suddenly you were only allowed to speak Belgian in Germany? Exactly."
Rusting Border Shacks
In his own way, Oleg Pankov is symbolic of his country. Even if all of the national heroes, the repainted tanks and wreaths of honor have degenerated into empty souvenirs, they hint at a profound truth: Transnistrians are a displaced people who want to stay where they are.
Heading north from Tiraspol, the road passes through apple orchards and well-maintained vineyards, and past billboards advertising rain gutters. The border to Moldova is invisible. There is no fence and no wall. There is just the Dnieper River and the occasional rusting border control shack.
In this region of Transnistria, people speak Moldovan, which is essentially Romanian. Just that in Transnistria, it is written using the Cyrillic alphabet.
The Dnieper winds tightly through the landscape and there are Moldovan exclaves on the Transnistrian side -- villages that can only be reached by ferry. At the jetty serving the settlement of Molovata Noua, two Russian soldiers are standing beneath a black birch; a bit further on, a dug-in infantry fighting vehicle can be seen. Soon, local children will once again begin swimming in the river. The border crossing is known as "Post Nr. 6," and is certainly among the more absurd such crossings on the European continent.
Two Moldovans, two Transnistrians and three Russians live here in a single barrack -- soldiers from three different armies. One of the Russians is in charge; the Transnistrians are responsible for provisions. The facility is a part of the mission for Moldova run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), itself something of a product of the Cold War.
Despite the difficult balancing act Moldova and Transnistria have been performing since 1992, conflict has been surprisingly rare. To be sure, the two sides quarrel regularly about customs formalities and the exclaves, but they generally find a way to resolve their disputes. One example is the Moldovan prison located on the Transnistrian side of the river: Every morning, the guards must don overcoats to hide their uniforms. That is part of the status quo.
Still, there was one deadly incident on the border. On New Year's Eve 2012, a young Moldovan broke through a barricade on a mission to get more schnapps and was shot by a guard. The result was months of tensions and bickering in the Joint Control Commission, which includes representatives from the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US.
More than anything else, the border is an annoyance for the villagers here. They are tired of having to apply for a travel permit every time they want to go shopping across the frontier, though some have made the best of it and registered in Transnistria in order to benefit from the pension supplement paid by Moscow. Passports are hardly a hurdle; almost everyone in the region has several.
It is sometimes difficult to avoid the feeling that Transnistria, that small worm squashed between two larger creatures, is nothing but a collective hallucination. But the country is more than just a harmless operetta created by people who have decided to live in a bygone era. Because of its location between Ukraine and Moldova, Transnistria is of not-insignificant geo-strategic importance.
In June, the EU is set to sign an association agreement with Moldova, comparable to the one that helped push Ukraine into unrest. Officially, the agreement would also extend to Transnistria, as long as the government conforms to the deal's provisions. That might be in opposition to Transnistria's declared foreign policy, but it would be good for business: Roughly half of its exports go to the EU.
Still, a senior Russian official has threatened "serious consequences" should the treaty be signed and at the beginning of April, the president of Moldova called for "increased vigilance" from his army due to the possibility of "provocations."
Moscow has developed detailed plans for the takeover of Transnistria, much like those for Crimea and South Ossetia. That, at least, is the assumption of Western embassies in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. The Russian military regularly holds joint maneuvers with the Transnistrian army on the outskirts of Tiraspol, with the most recent one having taken place on March 25. And in Cobasna, near the Ukrainian border, there is still an arms depot containing 20,000 tons of Soviet munitions. It is one of the biggest of its kind in Europe -- and it is far from the best guarded.
The EU Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) noted recently that its experts "have not witnessed any relevant disruption of movement of people and cargo across the Transnistrian segment." Nevertheless, Putin brought up Transnistria in telephone conversations with both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama, complaining that the region was being blockaded by Ukraine.
Hard as Concrete
It is, perhaps, a small detail. But it could be enough to transform Transnistria into a lever of the kind conservative think tanks have begun warning about. Think tanks like the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, which has cautioned that Tiraspol could call for Moscow's help to break the alleged blockade and Russian troops could then march in via Odessa. It is, perhaps, a rather far-fetched scenario, but it is isn't completely unrealistic. What is certain, however, is that were the Russians to arrive, Transnistrians would be standing on the roadsides waving flags to welcome them.
On the border to Moldova, at the "Bender" crossing, several men stand waiting, all of them wearing Russian military caps of the kind still sold in Berlin flea markets along where the Wall once ran. "Please come with me. The people are inviting you for a formality." The name of the man speaking is Anatoly, a truck driver who has been commandeered to help the border guards because of his German ability. Formality?
An icon is hanging in the interrogation room, and Anatoly does his best: "People ask. Why here? Without Akkreditasye? The people say you have done against Pridnestrovian law…" He says the guards find it awkward, but that either I have to remain there, or my laptop, iPhone, hard drives and cameras do. It is like a scene from an old film, just in color and 3-D -- a scene in which the setting suddenly becomes extremely realistic, and as hard as concrete.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley
Cornish people win minority status in Europe
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 22:13 EDT
Cornish people are to be recognised as a national minority group for the first time, giving them the same rights as the country’s other minorities, Chief Secretary Danny Alexander announced Thursday.
They will now be classified under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities along with the Celts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
“Cornish people have a proud history and a distinct identity,” said Alexander.
“I am delighted that we have been able to officially recognise this and afford the Cornish people the same status as other minorities in the UK.”
Communities Minister Stephen Williams called it “a great day for the people of Cornwall”.
“The Cornish and Welsh are the oldest peoples on this island and as a proud Welshman I look forward to seeing Saint Piran’s Flag flying with extra Celtic pride on March 5 next year.”
Italy’s Mob Extends Reach in Europe
By JIM YARDLEY
APRIL 24, 2014
ROME — The small businesses were sprinkled throughout the Italian capital: One restaurant was only a few blocks from the Senate. A cafe was at the edge of the upscale diplomatic district, while a gelato shop was near the Pantheon. There was even a hotel not far from the hilltop statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of Italy’s unification.
In a city where government and tourism are engines of the local economy, these storefront businesses seemed typical until a police crackdown exposed them as money-laundering fronts for mob organizations based in southern Italy. During January and February alone, Italian officials seized 51 million euros, or about $70 million, in mob properties and other assets in Rome, providing a small glimpse of the legal business interests that southern clans control in the capital.
The crackdown in Rome exposed just a small corner of what officials describe as a mob economy that has rapidly expanded across Europe. In an era of austerity, with Italy awash in debt and struggling to recover, organized crime groups are sitting on mountains of cash. They have taken advantage of the economic crisis to accelerate their infiltration of legitimate businesses outside their southern Italian strongholds and now control commercial interests in Rome and Milan, as well as in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, Spain and beyond.
“For the last 20 years, they have a lot of liquidity,” said Michele Prestipino, the prosecutor who oversaw the recent crackdown and seizures in Rome. “This is a problem today. They have too much money. They can’t invest it all. It is the opposite of what happens to regular entrepreneurs.”
If Europe once thought of organized crime families as largely an Italian problem — and if many Italians thought the problem was mostly confined to the south — the breadth of their assets across the Continent is forcing a reappraisal. In February, the European Parliament passed a new directive making it easier for national authorities to confiscate criminal assets, in response to evidence that organized crime groups have gobbled up properties and companies across Europe.
Experts say Europe must introduce tough organized crime laws, like those that already exist in Italy, and expand law enforcement efforts. Some say the same focus that is applied to fighting terrorism should be applied to confronting organized crime. Besides Italian mob groups, experts say, other criminal organizations, including ones from Albania, China and Russia, are also moving into legal business sectors in Europe.
“Democracies underestimate the fight against the Mafia,” said Giuseppe Lumia, a senator and member of Italy’s Anti-Mafia Commission. “Mafias have become global. They do business, and do money laundering, between countries. But the anti-Mafia agencies are national and local.”
Determining how much cash Italy’s mob organizations turn over in a single year from illegal activities is extremely difficult, with estimates varying widely, from about €10 billion, or about $14 billion, to as high as €220 billion, or about $304 billion. One of Italy’s largest business associations, Confesercenti, has estimated that organized crime accounts for roughly €130 billion, or about $180 billion, in annual turnover — about 7 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product. Confesercenti also estimated that the organized crime groups had roughly €65 billion, or about $90 billion, in cash reserves.
“They have amounts of money that are incredible,” said David Ellero, a specialist in Italian organized crime at Europol, the European law enforcement agency. “In some investigations, the flows of cash were so conspicuous that rather than counting it, it was being weighed on scales.”
The richest organized crime family is believed to be the ’Ndrangheta, (pronounced n-DRANG-gay-tah) a group from the Calabria region that now controls much of Europe’s cocaine trade. Analysts say the ’Ndrangheta is active in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland. The other two main organizations are the Camorra, the clans based in the Naples area, which are especially powerful in southern Spain; and the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mob families depicted in “The Godfather,” which are active across Europe.
In their home regions, Italy’s organized crime groups often operate as shadow states, infiltrating local politics while controlling territory through intimidation and violence. Analysts say this local dominance explains why the organizations are heavily involved in sectors such as construction, mining, waste management and transportation, where their political influence allows them to steer government contracts to their favored firms.
In northern Italy and in other European countries, mob groups operate far less conspicuously, analysts say, especially since they lack the same level of political or territorial influence. But a report presented recently to European Union officials concluded that mob tentacles were nearly everywhere: hotels, nightclubs, real estate, gambling, construction, retail gasoline sales, wholesaling of clothing and jewelry, food processing, health care, renewable energy and more.
“They have specific preferences for certain sectors,” said Michele Riccardi, a researcher at Transcrime, the research institute in Milan that compiled the report presented to the European Union. “These are the sectors that seem more vulnerable and the regulations are looser.”
Italy has Europe’s toughest anti-mob statutes, which is one reason many organized crime families have pushed into other European countries. Germany has become an especially prominent case.
Italian migrants began pouring into Germany in the 1950s, including many from Calabria, home of the ’Ndrangheta. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, analysts say wiretaps detected a mob boss in Italy ordering a lieutenant to get into East Germany immediately and “buy everything.”
This month, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel wrote about a trial in Cologne in which investigators have accused mobsters linked to the Cosa Nostra of bilking the state of millions of euros by issuing fake invoices from shell construction companies. German officials say the presence of organized crime poses a threat to the country’s building sector.
The magazine cited a confidential overview by the Federal Criminal Police Office that criticized the German government for failing to detect the assets of organized crime groups. The overview found that Italian crime groups had earned about €123 million, roughly $170 million, in Germany during the past decade, yet prosecutors had confiscated just €8 million, or about $11 million, from them.
The police report found that while the Cosa Nostra had infiltrated the construction sector, the Camorra was peddling counterfeit consumer goods and the ’Ndrangheta was selling adulterated olive oil and other foodstuffs. Mobsters controlled at least 300 pizzerias in Germany, it said, and were using these businesses to enter the legitimate economy.
While Germany and other European Union countries once denied the existence of a problem, awareness has begun to rise. In February, the Italian and German authorities carried out a joint operation against the Cosa Nostra and arrested more than a dozen suspects in both countries who are accused of stealing millions of euros in European Union farm subsidies. This month, the Italian and French police collaborated in the arrest of a Camorra boss in Nice, France.
Two years ago, the European Union set up an anti-Mafia commission, while Europol recognized in 2011 that it had an “intelligence gap” about mob activities. It commissioned a broad survey, released last year, which noted that mob groups were particularly threatening in legal business sectors because they “can afford to operate ‘at a loss,’ creating in the long run a situation of quasi-monopoly that undermines the basic principles of free market.”
Even within Italy, however, many people continue to regard organized crime as a southern problem. When the writer Roberto Saviano, known for his work exposing the activities of organized crime groups, used a 2010 television program to speak out about mob infiltration in the north, the Milan-based newspaper Il Giornale responded with an online petition drive against him titled, “Dear Saviano, the North is not Mafioso.”
“Criminal organizations are all in Rome and up north,” Mr. Saviano said in a recent interview. “In the south, their presence is like a military presence. In Rome and the north, it is economic presence.”
Mob groups have long been a quiet presence in Rome, with shopkeepers complaining of having to pay extortion money, known as pizzo, but the recent crackdown showed how organized crime groups are now directly investing in city businesses. Among the 23 restaurants and pizzerias seized in January was Pizza Ciro, part of one of the most popular pizza chains in the city.
“It has nothing to do with cash being in the register at the end of the day,” said Enrico Fontana, director of Libera, an umbrella group of anti-mob associations around Italy. “It is for money laundering.”
Mr. Prestipino, the prosecutor, agreed that money laundering was important but added that the crime bosses are also looking for ways to create channels of access to political leaders. He said no politician can meet directly with a mob boss, but by investing in businesses, organized crime groups can cultivate a network of white-collar entrepreneurs in Rome who can deal openly with politicians and civil servants.
“It is a system that has all advantages,” Mr. Prestipino said. “The businessman gets the economic advantages. The Mafioso doesn’t have to come to Rome. And the politician doesn’t have to get his hands dirty.”