If you're the type of commuter who starts to sweat inside a crowded subway car, just reading about the latest development of the Mars500 project may be enough to make your stomach queasy. Today, six astronauts sealed themselves off in a space ship simulator "destined" for Mars, marking the first of 520 days they will spend shut off from the world around them. (To fully appreciate the claustrophobia they will endure, note that the "Habitable Module" where they will live is a mere 20m long.) Their mission is part of a project at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems designed to study the effects of space travel to the mysterious Red Planet, where so far only robotic feet have tread.
Technically speaking, the team's journey is even shorter than your commute: all 18 months of the project will take place inside a stationary craft at the Institute. This fact constrains the mission in a few important ways. For one thing, the crew won't actually experience the feeling of weightlessness. (Apparently for some this isn't the only lure of becoming an astronaut.) But scientists have gone out of their way to ensure that the simulation is as realistic as possible. The project will include a month of "surface operations" in which three crew members will enter the craft's so-called "surface module," a chamber that mimics the conditions on Mars.
Lest the remaining 490 days seem too terrestrial, the project's organizers have taken additional measures to enhance the authenticity of the experience. For one thing, the astronauts "will have to cope with limited consumables." (Read: they'll be hungry.) In addition, their one mode of communication with the outside world-email-takes the "instant" out of instant messaging. Scientists say they will simulate a 20 minute delay in email exchange-what they would expect if the astronauts were millions of miles (instead of just a few feet) away. Sounds like a throwback to the days of dial-up to me.
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I had a chance today to speak briefly with Belarusian opposition leader Aleksandr Milinkevich, who is visiting Washington and gearing up to challenge President Aleksandr Lukashenko in upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for 2011. Milinkevich, who also ran unsuccessfully in 2006, is under no illusions that it will be a fair fight, but says the opposition can use elections to "increase the pro-democratic atmosphere in society and tell people about their other options."
I asked him if he saw any change of a "color revolution" breaking out in Belarus following the election:
There is a huge difference between Serbia, Georgia, or Ukraine and Belarus. Those countries didn’t have dictatorship; they had imperfect democracy. They had opposition in the parliament; we have no one. There was free television everywhere. They didn’t have the huge fear in society that we do in Belarus. [In those countries,] in order to participate in a demonstration on the street, someone would just have to fight apathy. In our case they have to combat combat this fear.... A color revolution in Belarus would be very difficult.
But Milinkevich does see one key difference between the current situation and previous elections, the growing tension between Lukashenko's government and his one-time patrons in Moscow:
For the first time ever, Moscow's candidate will not be Lukashenko. Moscow is very disappointed with him. He did not deliver on his promise to unify the two countries. He started to play around with the West. For us, this is a test in the geopolitical sense -- which direction we're going to go .
BOGUSLAW FLORIAN SKOK/AFP/Getty Images
It seems like just yesterday that we were asking ourselves if the United States was Rome. In light of the financial collapse in the other great cradle of Mediterranean civilization, the New York Times' David Leonhardt poses the inevitable follow-up question:
It’s easy to look at the protesters and the politicians in Greece -- and at the other European countries with huge debts -- and wonder why they don’t get it. They have been enjoying more generous government benefits than they can afford. No mass rally and no bailout fund will change that. Only benefit cuts or tax increases can.
Yet in the back of your mind comes a nagging question: how different, really, is the United States?
The U.S.'s national debt, Leonhardt notes, is projected to rise to 140 percent of GDP within the next twenty years -- Greece's is 115 percent today.
Elsewhere at the Times, Paul Krugman questions the credibility of that long-range projection and argues that the U.S. shouldn't worry:
Basically, the United States can expect economic recovery to bring the deficit down substantially; Greece, which has a larger structural deficit and also faces a grinding adjustment to overvaluation with the eurozone, can’t.
About that eurozone: in a phenomenally awkward bit of timing, Estonia happened to be trying to join it today, and succeeded. Other countries like Poland and Bulgaria, however, are having second thoughts. Greece's current predicament, and the looming crises in Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere, have offered a cautionary tale. The Associated Press looks at the divergent experiences of Hungary and Romania, which are members of the European Union but not the eurozone, and Greece, which is in both: When the IMF bailed out Hungary and Romania in 2009, the countries were able to make the necessary adjustments quickly, if painfully, by letting their currencies fall. Greece, however, can't, and is now looking at far harsher, more drawn-out austerity measures attached to its 110 billion euro bailout.
Ukrainian nationalists are extremely unhappy over what they see as increased Russian influence since the election of Viktor Yanukovych. They showed their displeasure today by engaging in a chaotic "debate" -- using smoke bombs and eggs -- in Ukraine's parliament over Russia's lease of a Black Sea naval base being extended until 2042. Needless to say, this resulted in some entertaining photos and video:
For more on the rowdy Rada, see FP's list of the world's most unruly parliaments.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the identical twin brother of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski, has announced that he will run for the presidency:
The BBC's Adam Easton in Warsaw says his brother could benefit from a significant sympathy vote in the wake of the tragedy. Parliamentary Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, who became acting head of state after the crash, had been preparing to run against Lech Kaczynski.
Opinion polls have suggested that Mr Komorowski will defeat Mr Kaczynski in the snap election on June 20. The election was called after the president, his wife and 94 senior officials were killed in a plane crash in Russia on 10 April.
If elected president, Kaczynski would also face up against Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who defeated him in a 2007 election.
WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images
This is interesting:
Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said Tuesday that "Bakiyev and his family are in Minsk under the protection of our state and me personally." His presence, however, could exacerbate Belarus' tensions with both the West and neighboring Russia, as well as with Kyrgyzstan itself. ...
Lukashenko's move to give refuge to Bakiyev appeared to be an open challenge to Russia, which he accuses of trying to absorb or crush his country. Many observers suggest that Russia supported or even aided Bakiyev's ouster, angered by his reneging on a promise last year to evict the U.S. base.
With Moscow's role in the lead-up to the Kyrgyz uprising becoming more clear, it will be interesting to see how other authoritarian governments in the region respond. Lukashenko's government has resisted Russian pressure to recognize the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With presidential elections scheduled for early next year, could we see Russia starting to put pressue on its onetime ally?
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
Russia is a country that has yet to come to terms with its history. Russian public opinion is sharply divided on every one of their previous General Secretaries and Presidents, with the exception of relatively minor figures like Malenkov, Chernenko, Andropov, and... Lenin? For whatever reason, Lenin, the man who led the October Revolution and founded the Soviet Union, has received considerably less public attention than his succesors.
Recently, though, Lenin has re-entered public consciousness as Russians have begun to debate whether the government should move Lenin's corpse from its present location in Red Square, where it is publicly displayed in a mausoleum, and bury it elsewhere. (Instead of making any predictable jokes, I refer the reader to an unrelated FP post on zombies.)
Today, Sergei Karpentsov provided Russians with a third option: perhaps after watching one too many horror movies, Karpentsov, armed with a gas-powered pistol, attempted to break into Lenin's tomb and shoot his corpse. After being arrested, Karpentsov declared that
"My main demand is the quick bulldozing of the mausoleum which contains the body of the anti-Christ...I wanted to open fire on the tomb with an assault rifle but I was advised not to do that in case the tomb is armour-plated."
Later, Karpentsov added that "I have drawn attention to this issue with my actions."
Yes you have, Sergei, yes you have.
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In December 2009, just one year after his death, the corpse of former Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos, was dug up from under a slab of marble and stolen from its grave. For three months now, authorities have been searching in vain and coming up with politically-charged theories of "whodunit" -- to no avail.
Then, earlier this week, an anonymous informer tipped-off the police as to the location of the body and laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of none other than Antonis Kitas, a.k.a. "Al Capone" -- an imprisoned criminal mastermind currently serving two life sentences for multiple murders. His motive? Authorities believe he wanted to use the corpse as collateral to ensure his release from prison.
If all this turns out to be true, I'm curious as to why "Al Capone" thought this was a good idea and, moreover, how he thought he could get away with it. Then again, he does seem pretty used to getting his way:
According to former inmates, Kitas enjoys a lifestyle of comparative luxury behind bars, financed by his criminal empire, which he continues to control.
Kitas escaped from custody, briefly, two years ago, giving his guards the slip while being treated for a minor illness at a private Nicosia clinic.
During his six-month stay in the clinic, despite the presence of prison guards, Kitas was frequently joined for the night by his Chinese wife, and had access to a laptop computer and several mobile phones.
A prison guard said Kitas was never handcuffed during his stay in the clinic, and warders were told not to complain about the lax security. "As ever," a retired prison official said: "Al Capone was a law unto himself."
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
Today Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh met in New Delhi to sign a number of bi-lateral commercial agreements. While the agreements cover a wide variety of topics, including space exploration, fertilizer importation, and commodities trade, nuclear energy and defense are what have received the most attention.
Edging out competition from France and the United States, Russia won contracts to build up to 16 new civilian nuclear power plants in India, six of which are expected to be completed by 2017, according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. This is sure to leave a sour taste in the mouths of many American firms, especially after the success of the 2005 Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement.
Additionally, the two countries signed a multi-billion dollar deal which will see Russia refit Indian aircraft carriers, help India develop transport aircraft, and supply India with 29 new MiG fighter jets.This should leave Russia well positioned to remain India's largest military hardware supplier. Currently, Russia accounts for approximately 60-70% of India's total defense spending.
While New Delhi's goal of diversifying its energy supplies and moving away from coal may be admirable -- in 2003, coal was estimated to account for almost 70% of India's energy consumption -- you've got to question the wisdom of sinking billions of dollars into improving commercial ties with Russia when your country's per capita GDP puts you in the bottom quartile of the world.
Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yanukovych, appears to be sending signs this week that he won't just be toeing the Kremlin line. On Monday, he made Brussels, not Moscow, the destination for his first foreign trip and he's now indicating that Ukraine won't be joining Nicaragua and Nauru in the breakaway region recognition club:
"I said before that we are against a politics of double standards," Yanukovych said, referring to Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008.
"It was already obvious back then that ... frozen conflicts would only get worse. Another perfect example is South Ossetia," he added, as quoted by the Ukrainskaya Pravda newspaper.
"It's my view that we must yet again underline that international law should apply to all without exceptions," he went on, saying that the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was "not currently on the agenda."
This goes against the platform of Yanukovych's own party, according to RIA-Novosti, which also cites many "experts" as believing that Yanukovych will "disappoint" Moscow. The president heads to Russia later this week. Should be an interesting visit.
Ukrainian politics are really confusing:
"The main result of these elections is that Yanukovich came first, but did not win. Tymoshenko, on the other hand, lost but was not defeated," Ukrainska Pravda commentator Vadym Karasov wrote.
Tymoshenko broke her post-election silence yesterday, attacking Yanukovych's campaign promises at a cabinet meeting but not discussing her future plans. Since Tymoshenko clearly has no intention of stepping down voluntarily and Yanukovych likely doesn't have the votes to dismiss her government, Ukraine appears set for another crippling political standoff.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, there seems to be little doubt left and that Viktor Yanukovych has defeated his one-time Orange Revolution foe Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine's presidential election. But, never one to avoid drama, Tymoshenko has not conceded yet leading opponents and supporters alike to wonder if she plans to take to the streets again.
Not likely says the BBC's Richard Galpin:
At a news conference in Kiev on Monday, a team of election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was blunt in its assessment of Ukraine's post-election landscape.
"Yesterday's vote was an impressive display of democratic elections. For everyone in Ukraine, this election was a victory," said Joao Soares, the team co-ordinator.
"It is now time for the country's political leaders to listen to the people's verdict and make sure that the transition of power is peaceful and constructive."
Those two sentences alone may have been enough to cut the ground from underneath Mrs Tymoshenko's feet.
Challenging the election result in the courts or on the street without the cover of credible allegations of fraud would be a tough sell even to her own supporters.
This time around, there isn't a whole lot of daylight between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych's positions, and it would be hard to imagine her being able to drum up the same level of fervor for an opposition movement.
ALEKSANDER PROKOPENKO/AFP/Getty Images
This morning at the Center for American Progress, a panel of veteran American Ukraine hands briefed a group of Ukrainian political leaders and think tankers via satellite on the implications of this Sunday's presidential election on U.S.-Ukrainian relations. The main takeaway from the panel -- former ambassador William Taylor, former ambassador Steven Pifer, former NSC official Damon Wilson, and CAP associate director and FP contributor Samuel Charap -- was that unlike the 2004 "Orange Revolution" election, the U.S. doesn't really have a dog in the fight between Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko and was simply hoping for a credible government that could be a reliable negotiating partner on issues like NATO integration and energy security.
The Ukrainian audience seemed to mostly share the Americans' frustration with the pace of political change in Ukraine, but some questioners also expressed frustration that Ukraine was being ignored in the "reset" with Russia:
After the panel, asked Wilson and Pifer what a Yanukovych vs. a Tymoshenko win would mean for Ukraine's relations with the west:
Damon Wilson: Yanukovych has a high bar to prove that he is a modern European leader. He has a bad record, stole an election, not to mention criminal actions before then. He has an image problem. When you look at him on the campaign trail, he harkens back the old school, not the modern European political school. When he's sitting in a room with a European president or prime minister, do they feel like they're dealing with someone who's really bringing his country toward Europe? He's got some work to do.
The challenge with Tymoshenko: is she going to be a reliable partner.
Steven Pifer: Which Tymoshenko do you get? Do you get Tymoshenko the populist, or the Tymoshenko we saw in 2009 who is maybe the more serious politician, prepared to tackle problems in a serious way. That's also a question on Sunday. Which Tymoshenko has she persuaded the Ukrainian electorate that their going to get.
Russia ended a five-month diplomatic freeze with Ukraine yesterday as new ambassador Mikhail Zurabov arrived in Kiev to present his credentials. The new friendliness is the result of the Jan. 17 election that dealt a crushing blow to anti-Russian president Viktor Yushchenko and set the stage for a run-off that will bring to power either Prime Minisiter Yulia Tymoshenko or former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, who have both promised better relations with the Kremlin. The Russians are keeping a lower profile this time, though:
Moscow's satisfaction with his demise is tempered by a wariness that its influence can go only so far, analysts say. Wary of another backlash, Russian leaders refrained from endorsing any candidate in January's first round of voting, while making it clear they could not work with Mr. Yushchenko, The Kremlin instructed Russian television networks to air balanced coverage of the race.
"Russia should be very happy that this strong anti-Russian trend in Ukraine is over," said Sergei Markov, a member of parliament from the ruling United Russia Party who observed the Jan. 17 election. "But I wouldn't call it a feeling of triumph. The mood is more cautious."
With Mr. Yanukovych back from disgrace and running again, the Kremlin cultivated both him and Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the Orange heroine who later turned against Mr. Yushchenko. She finished second to Mr. Yanukovych earlier this month and will face him in the runoff.
In November, Mr. Putin praised Ms. Tymoshenko's work as prime minister after striking a deal with her on gas prices. Later he denied favoring her candidacy and noted that United Russia is allied with Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
It seems to me that Russia would probably be better off with Yanukovych who, as Samuel Charap wrote this month, is less likely to be able to form a solid governing coalition and would be a weaker leader in Ukraine's fractious political landscape. He also draws most of his support from Russian-speaking voters.
As everyone knows, one-time Orange Revolution heroine Tymoshenko is more than capable of playing the Ukrainian nationalist card when it's convenient and with a wider base of support, might be more likely to resist Russian influence. Russia has had trouble holding on to even the best of friends recently and Tymoshenko doesn't seem like the most reliable of allies.
President Obama has brought back his 2008 campiagn manager David Plouffe to help get his domestic agenda back on track ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, but if he really wants to throw the Republicans off their game, he may want to take a trip to the dark side (No, not James Carville) and learn from how they do things in Romania:
[Romanian Presidential runner-up Mircea] Geoana, in media interviews last week, asserted that he was targeted by waves of negative energy during a key debate just before the runoff that was won by [reelected President Traian] Basescu.
“People who were working for Basescu in this domain were present to the right of the camera,’’ Geoana told Antena 3 Television. His wife, Mihaela said Geoana “was very badly attacked, he couldn’t concentrate.’’
At first Romanians mocked their former foreign minister saying he was a bad loser. Basescu himself jokingly dismissed the allegations. But the recent publication of photos showing well-known parapsychologist Aliodor Manolea close to Basescu during the campaign has caused Romanians to wonder whether the president really did put a hex on his rival.
The photos show Manolea, a slightly built, bearded man with a round face and cropped receding hair, walking yards behind Basescu ahead of the debate. Manolea’s specialties include deep mind control, clairvoyance, and hypnotic trance, according to the Romanian Association of Transpersonal Psychology.
The Basescu campaign has not outright denied Maneola's inolvement -- only that he didn't participate in staff meetings -- or explained why he appeared with the candidate. But don't be surprised if you see a slightly built, bearded Eastern European man walking behind Arlen Specter in the coming months.
Just two days after President Viktor Yushchenko was ignominiously defeated in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election, Moscow has decided to send an ambassador to Kiev for the first time in five months. Yushchenko has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side ever since coming to power in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution promising to limit Russian influence and establish closer ties with Europe. President Dmitry Medvedev, told the new ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, "I hope that when the final results are compiled in Ukraine, a workable, effective leadership will appear disposed to the development of constructive, friendly and comprehensive relations with the Russian Federation."
In a new piece for Foreign Policy, Samuel Charap of the Center for American Progress explains why the West shouldn't be too worried about a more Russia-friendly government in Kiev:
Yanukovych and Tymoshenko will prioritize repairing Ukraine's relationship with Moscow, but largely because its current state of disrepair is untenable, not in order to cede sovereignty to the Kremlin. Yanukovych is no pro-Russian stooge, and during his brief tenure as prime minister in 2006 and 2007 he did little to act on Moscow's policy wish list. Indeed, the economic interest groups that back him would never allow him to sour relations with the West, where they send the majority of their exports, or open Ukraine's markets to Russian oligarchs.
So despite what's been claimed, this election will not mark a major geopolitical departure for Ukraine. There may no longer be an idealistic pro-Western dreamer at the helm in Kyiv, but a foreign policy pragmatist who moderates divisive rhetoric while continuing practical cooperation might well prove preferable.
Ultimately, Charap feels that the advantages for Europe and the United States in dealing with a Ukrainian state that could actually govern, would outweigh the damage done to narrowly-defined western interests.'
Anders Aslund took a much darker view of the potential for Russian meddling in the most recent print edition. Also of interest, Federico Fubini's profile of the always-intriguing Yulia Tymoshenko from last April and Julia Ioffe's report on how the Tymoshenko campaign created a public panic over swine flu to scare up votes.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
From Unredacted, the very cool blog of the National Security Archive, here is a letter from Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, asking for citizenship from the Soviet Union. He lived in the Soviet Union, mostly in Minsk, from 1959 to 1962; the Soviets rejected his request for citizenship. A PDF of the letter is here -- a bit grainy, but readable. Here's what it says:
I Lee Harvey Oswald, request that I be granted citizenship in the Soviet Union, my visa began on Oct. 15, and will expire on Oct. 21, I must be granted asylum before this date. [Unreadable] I wait for the citizenship decision.
At present I am a citizen of the United States of America.
I want citizenship because; I am a communist and a worker, I have lived in a decadent capitalist society where the workers are slaves.
I am twenty years old, I have completed three years in the United States Marine Corps, I served with the occupation forces in Japan, I have seen American military imperialism in all its forms,
I do not want to return to any country outside of the Soviet Union.
I am writing to give up my American citizenship and assume the responsibilities of a Soviet citizen.
I had saved my money which I earned as a private in the American military for two years, in order to come to Russia for the express purpose of seeking citizenship here. I do not have enough money left to live indefintly [sic] here, or to return to any other country. I have no desire to return to any other country. I ask that my request be given quick consideration.
Lee H. Oswald
In an unusual turn of events, a Russian court has overturned the result of a mayoral election in the city of Derbent. Reportedly, riot police used tear gas and shot at voters, preventing them from entering polling stations. Threats were made to local election officials, frightening them enough that more than a third of the polling stations never opened.
The St. Petersburg Times reports that it is "extremely rare" for an election to be overturned, and that in the past cases, judicial interventions were seen as Kremlin machinations to oust successful opposition candidates. That makes the current decision even more noteworthy, since the incumbent, a member of the dominant United Russia party (UR), officially carried the election with 67.52 percent of the vote.
It's worth asking if the case is linked to a power struggle between Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who, in the 2012 elections, will be eligible to run for a third term as president. There has been growing speculation about a possible rift between the two men, even though Medvedev has said that he and his former political guardian would "agree on how not to elbow each other out and make a decision that is useful for the country."
Vanity Fair dubbed Putin the world's most influential person in 2007; Forbes puts him at #3 in 2009, topped only by Hu Jintao and Obama. UR is Putin's powerbase - after stepping down as president, he became the party's chairman. And it's a powerful group indeed, controlling 70 percent of the parliament's seats and exerting enormous influence on the country.
Putin handpicked Medvedev as his successor, tying him inextricably to UR. But since coming to office, Medvedev has also consolidated his own supporters, replacing officials appointed by Putin with his own men and women. And this court decision comes just days after Medvedev sharply addressed the UR's 11th Congress, making clear allusions to electoral fraud: "Sadly, some regional divisions of United Russia. . . show signs of backwardness and concentrate their political activity on intrigues and games within the apparatus," he said. That intrigue will no longer be tolerated, he suggested, saying "such people need to go, as do some other political customs."
But Medvedev's track record doesn't scream "liberal democrat!" The best indication of what to expect in 2012 might be Putin's take on elections in general, as he phrased it back in 1998. "One has to be insincere and promise something which you cannot fulfill," he said. "So you either have to be a fool who does not understand what you are promising, or deliberately be lying."
Photo:ELENA PALM/AFP/Getty Images
Just six months ago, the Kremlin declared "mission accomplished" in settling the restive, largely-Muslim region of Chechnya, and pledged to withdraw at least half its troops stationed there. Russian soldiers have allegedly resorted to brutal tactics in the decade-long effort to subdue the region, including the systematic beating and raping of Chechen civilians, widespread detention and torture, and the murder of human rights and opposition activists.
But the Kremlin has claimed victory in the regional struggle time and time again, and the most recent claims of success seem as wrong as ever; yesterday the Georgian Daily reported that "Moscow is planning to increase the number of units in the North Caucasus military district by a factor of four, according to officers there..." The plans come amidst an escalating Islamic insurgency in Ingushetia, the region bordering Chechnya to the west.
There's no doubt that the Kremlin is facing a protracted struggle. Doku Umarov, one of the most prominent members of the insurgency (who has been reported dead on a number of occasions) released a lengthy statement in 2007 on the Al-Qaeda affiliated website Kavkaz Center, in which he declared Muslim rule:
I reject all laws and systems established by infidels in the land of Caucasus.
I reject and declare outlawed all names used by infidels to divide Muslims.
I declare outlawed ethnic, territorial and colonial zones carrying names of "North-Caucasian republics", "Trans-Caucasian republics" and such like.
I am officially declaring of creation of the Caucasus Emirate...
We will relentlessly wage war on everyone who will oppose the establishment of the Sharia, Inshaallah. And those who openly violate that which was established by Allah and scorn the Islamic religion should not think that we will leave it unpunished. That is a serious delusion."
Photo: KAZBEK BASAYEV/AFP/Getty Images
It seems that Karma is alive and well in the universe.
Allegations of fraud have surrounded recent elections in Russia. In 2007, in what has been described as "the least democratic election since the USSR collapsed," opposition parties alleged that campaign literature was seized and candidates were excluded from the ballot; The Kremlin apparently forced millions of public workers to vote; and a senior election official reported that he was instructed to make sure that United Russia, the ruling party, received double the number of votes expected -- the claim of rigging is strongly supported by a number of statistical anomalies.
The 2008 election of President Dmitry Medvedev also had plenty of allegations of stacking the deck; including further claims that public employees were pushed to vote for Putin's favorite, that local officials were told to produce a strong majority on Medvedev's behalf, and that potentially strong opponents were excluded from the ballot.
Yesterday, elections for a new city council in Moscow were held, and it should come as little surprise that there have already been more allegations of fraud. But even if Medvedev had a hand in ensuring the re-election of the sitting mayor, a member of the United Russia party, there was a twist of poetic justice. The president struggled to vote -- an electronic box repeatedly refused to take Medvedev's ballot.
Photo: VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Combating alchohol abuse has always been something of a non-starter in Russian politics. This is, after all, a country whose former president was once found by the Secret Servce thoroughly sauced outside the White House, wearing nothing but his underwear trying to hail a cab so he could get a pizza.
But current President Dmitry Medvedev is trying to change things with a proposal to ban outdoor beer sales in his country, a first step in getting Muscovites to lay off alcohol. He also wants to limit the hours of the day alcohol can be sold.
This week, a bill was submitted to lawmakers that would triple the tax on beer from 3 rubles per liter to 10 rubles per liter by 2012. Wine and spirits would also see a sharp increase.
State prosecutors are also moving to ban liquor sales in airports. Under Russian law, no beverage with alcohol content above 15 percent can be sold in crowded or dangerous places, and prosecutors say this means airports.
Russians drink five gallons of pure ethanol a year, double what is considered dangerous by the WHO. And on average, 30,000 people a year die from alcohol poisoning in the country. Over half of the deaths of the 15 to 54-year-old demographic between 1990 and 2001 are attributed to alcohol.
"I have been astonished to find out that we now drink more than we did in the 1990s, although those were very tough times," Medvedev said.
He is a fan of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol reforms in the 1980s aimed at curbing consumption, even though he acknowledges that the plan had major flaws. Gorbachev destroyed the majority of vineyards and wineries in Georgia, probably the birthplace of wine (This didn't help the growing anti-Russia sentiment in the Southern Caucasus at the time). He also shut down distilleries and breweries. Most notably, the Soviet Union suffered tremendous sugar shortages, because people turned to moon shining. (The Russian word for ‘shine is Samogon) Stores also ran out of window cleaner and aftershave. It is estimated that 13,000-25,000 people died from drinking ill-made moonshine.
Medvedev's plan is much more cautious but many Russians are still wary.
"It's impossible. He doesn't stand a chance," a Russian construction worker told The Los Angeles Times."The Russian man will always be drinking. Russians don't surrender."
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
The section of the E.U.'s recently released fact-finding report (more here) on the 2008 Georgia war that deals with the question of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence is also worth taking a look at:
Both South Ossetians and Abkhaz consider their right to self-determination as the legal basis for their quest for sovereignty and independence of the respective territories. However, international law does not recognise a right to unilaterally create a new state based on the principle of self-determination outside the colonial context and apartheid. An extraordinary acceptance to secede under extreme conditions such as genocide has so far not found general acceptance. As will be shown later, the case of the conflict in August 2008 and the ensuing recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Mission has found that genocide did not take place.
Furthermore, much of international state practice and the explicit views of major powers such as Russia in the Kosovo case stand against it. This applies also to the process of dismemberment of a stae, as might be sdiscussed with regard to Georgia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to the overwhelmingly accepted uti possidetis principle, only former consituent republics such as Georgia but not territorial sub-units such as South Ossetia or Abkhazia are granted independence in case of dismemberment of a larger entity such as the former Soviet Union. Hence, South Ossetia did not have the right to secede from Georgia...
It's interesting that they raise the example of Kosovo. I can't help thinking that this very same argument could apply their declaration of independence. I wouldn't be surprised if the Serbian government seized on this report in their campaign to have Kosovo's Unilateral Declaration of Independence deemed illegitimate.
Mikhail Prokhorov is the chairman of Russia's largest gold producer, and now he will team up with hip-hop's largest gold-record producer.
Prokhorov, Russia's richest man (even after a $7 billion loss last year), bought the New Jersey Nets yesterday for $200 million, making him the first Russian owner of a U.S. sports team. This also makes him business partners with Jay-Z. (Who seems to be getting a lot of play in foreign policy circles these days)
The first order of business will be to move the Nets to Jay-Z's native Brooklyn, and begin building the new stadium. The deal seems to be as much about business as it is about pleasure for the 6ft. 7in. Prokhorov, who said in a statement, "I have a long-standing passion for basketball and pursuing interests that forward the development of the sport in Russia."
He also claims he will be, "the only NBA owner who can dunk."
The stadium will be fewer than 10 miles from Brighton Beach, an area of Brooklyn rich with Russian influence, Bloomberg reports.
The move to Brooklyn has been a goal of Jay-Z's (basketball discussion starts at 5:30); however it remains unclear if Jay-Z will get what he really wants. (Hint: he made a controversial song about him)
Al Bello/Getty Images
Somewhat lost in the discussion of whether the United States is betraying its Central European allies by scrapping the planned missile shield, is just how difficult it was to get Poland and the Czech Republic to sign on to the project in the first place.
Around 70 percent of Czechs opposed the idea of hosting the radar system for the missile shield and the final treaty faced strong opposition in parliament. The Polish public was more supportive of the idea, but their government held out for months on agreeing to host the missile interceptors, only signing on after the Bush administration agreed to fund an extensive military modernization program.
Back in February, when today's news began to look like a foregone conclusion, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski acknowleged as much:
“What we would like to be honored is what went along with” the missile-defense system, [Radoslaw] Sikorski, 46, said in an interview yesterday during a visit to Washington that included a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We paid quite a political price for the agreement, both in terms of internal politics and in our relations with Russia.”
Hopefully the Obama administration will acknowledge this political price and continue (or even expand) defense assistance to both the Czech Republic and Poland. But despite the grumbling in Warsaw and Prague today, the diplomatic damage to the U.S in these countries may not be all that significant.
I asked George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the head of its nonproliferation program, to weigh in on the news, reported last night on The Cable and in this morning's Wall Street Journal, that the Obama administration is pulling back on U.S. missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe.
There have been signs for months that Obama would do exactly this, but it looks like the administration didn't expect the news to break last night, as officials have seemed unprepared to manage this story in a way that they'd like. (Certainly, the Poles and Czechs must feel they've been treated rudely here.) Already, Drudge is declaring it a "Putin victory" and rounding up global reactions, mostly critical of the move.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, are saying the change is based on a "determination that Iran's long-range missile program hasn't progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the continental U.S. and major European capitals."
In an interview conducted before this latest news broke, the State Department's Ellen O. Tauscher told my colleague Josh Rogin that "What is important is to get the priority of the threat right, current versus emerging."
Here's Perkovich, who thinks it's a long-overdue decision:
Briefly, this is not about kowtowing to Moscow and it is too bad that some will perceive it this way. The proposed system was clearly not well-located to be effective against Iranian missiles. But it was well located to become part of a more ambitious system against Russian missiles. Given that the U.S. intention is to deter or defeat Iranian missiles, canceling this move and planning to develop defenses further to the south is clearly the wise thing to do. The U.S. should not try to develop missile defenses to defeat Russian missiles, because this would only cause Russia to build more and to keep them more ready to be launched rapidly. Russia would fear that the combination of U.S. offensive weapons plus defenses could enable the U.S. to try a disarming first strike against it. Yes, this is a bizarre throwback to the Cold War days, but old habits of thought and practice die hard -- in Moscow and Washington. The administration's decision reduces this risk. It corrects an earlier mistake.
At the same time, however, perceptions matter. So it will be important for the U.S. to reassure Poland and the Czech Republic that the U.S. is wholly committed to their security. There are multiple ways to do this, including military exercises on their territory, etc. The best way would be to encourage Russia to demonstrate a more cooperative and friendly attitude towards these states, which would lessen the sense of threat and the need for the U.S. to reassure its allies against such threats. If Russia chooses not to be more reassuring, especially after this missile defense decision, then it would have no legitimate basis for protesting if the U.S. and NATO take defensive steps to reassure members of the alliance.
One of the stranger stories of the weekend was Iraq's announcement that it was negotiating the return of 19 Mig fighter jets that had been sent to Serbia for maintenance in the late 1980s and never returned:
Sanctions slapped on Iraq because of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 would have made it impossible to bring the MiG-21 and MiG-23 jet fighters back while he was in power.
Two of the jets were ready for "immediate use", the statement said, and a preliminary agreement had been reached with the Serbian government to repair the others and send them back.
The statement did not say when the existence of the fighters had come to light
During his visit to Iraq earlier this month, Serbia's Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac told Iraqi officials about the existence of the jets, said a senior Serbian Defense official who did not want to be quoted by name.
"None are in flyable condition, they are dismantled and in crates. Only one MiG 23 that was displayed in (Belgrade's) air force museum is whole," he said.
This is welcome news for Iraq, which has been looking to build up its air defences, but something seems very off about this. Slobodan Milosevic has been out of power since 2000 and Saddam Hussein since 2003, yet only now has anyone mentioned these planes?
I'm no expert, but given that (according to Wikipedia, at least) Serbia only has about 40 MiGs of its own, it seems like the 19 they were keeping in storage would be kind of hard to miss.
Also, since when was Milosevic that concerned about violating international sanctions?
Photo: Dmitry A. Mmottl under a creative commons license.
The Moscow Times reports that Russia has issued new guidlelines to law enforcement officials about how to define extremism:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Winnie the Pooh share a dubious honor: Anyone who depicts either of them with a swastika can be punished under the law.
The Justice Ministry published the latest — and biggest — update to its list of extremist materials on its web site this week, and many of the 414 new entries are so vague or controversial that analysts say they threaten to discredit the list all together.
The list is important because police officers and other law enforcement officials use it in street checks, apartment searches and criminal cases.
Among the new entries, extremist material is identified as “a picture of Winnie the Pooh wearing a swastika,” “a self-made template for a future newspaper, comic or other print materials,” and “a flag with a cross.”
And just when you thought that was all:
A closer look at the list brings other surprises. For example, item No. 402 is the LiveJournal blog Reinform.livejournal.com.
The blog has not been suspended by LiveJournal’s abuse team and is being updated almost daily. Its owner wrote on its front page that he had opened the blog after seeing prosecutors mistakenly name the then-nonexistent blog as extremist.
MJ Kim/Getty Images
In a move towards great transparency and accountability, the Kremlin yesterday released figures detailing a recent order of new furniture. It sounds simple enough but, as is usually the case with Russian politics, it quickly became the stuff of legends -- or at least, Aesop's fables. The total value of the interior ministry's furniture tender, it appeared, was $755,900 (24.4 million roubles) and included a cherry wood bed with head and footboards coated in a thin layer of 24 carat gold. Though other items will be delivered to an address in the exclusive dacha district on the outskirts of Moscow where many senior officials live in state-owned homes, the gilded bed will be sent to the ministry headquarters.
Unsurprisingly, the news has received much criticism in a country where the economy shrank 10.9 percent in the last quarter. I think the question praying on all our minds is: who's going to be sleeping in the gold bed?
Three months after this year's Eurovision Song Contest, an unconfirmed number of Azerbaijanis who voted for the Armenian entry have been brought in for questioning by the police. One man said he was accused of being unpatriotic and a "potential security threat." Authorities said people were simply invited to explain their voting choices.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have a history of strained relations, largely over territorial claims that remain unresolved. Last November, leaders of the neighboring countries pledged to find a political solution to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, over which the two fought in the 1990s. Little progress, however, seems to have been made since.
Broadcast live every May since its inaugural telecast in 1956, Eurovision is today a cultural institution, and the epitome of Kunderian kitsch. Despite the organizers' aspirations for an apolitical competition, historic undercurrents inevitably surface on screen. Habitual incidences of bloc voting occur, and in March Georgia's entry "We Don't Wanna Put In" was banned for its thinly-veiled reference to the Russian prime minister.
In Azerbaijan, 43 people are believed to have voted for Armenia's entry "Jan Jan," pictured above.
Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images
Gallup has just released a survey of government approval ratings in 12 post-Soviet countries. (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are left out._ Ukraine now has the unenviable distinction of having the world's least popular government, with only 4 percent of citizens approving of their leadership. But RFE/RL's Robert Coalson provides some useful context:
You notice a big gap between the sixth least-approved governments (Latvia, at 27 percent) and the seventh (Kyrgyzstan, at 43 percent). On one side of that divide, you have, in order, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Moldova, Latvia. On the other side (the dark side), you find Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. (It is a safe bet which side Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan would find themselves on if polling were possible there.)
The Gallup chart is actually an index of fear. What it reflects is not so much attitudes toward the government as a willingness to openly express one's attitudes toward the government. As one member of RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service told me, "If someone walked up to me in Baku and asked me what I thought about the government, I'd say it was great too."
For all the talk of Ukraine's political dysfunction, getting to the point where 96 percent of the people are eager to tell an interview they hate their government is actually fairly impressive. That's cold comfort for Ukrainians but I agree with Coalson that Gallup could have provided some more context for these results.
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