With Greece's national parliamentary election set for May 6, the crisis-ridden country may have a new threat to worry about: the extremist fringe vote. Due to popular frustration with the country's current economic situation, it is "thought likely" that left- and right-wing political fringe parties will make gains among voters at the expense of mainstream political parties like the conservative New Democracy party and the socialist Pasok party.
But as the New York Times reported yesterday, the Greek ultranationalist group Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi group that has broadened its appeal by "capitalizing on fears that illegal immigration has grown out of control at a time when the economy is bleeding jobs," may very well receive more than the 3 percent of votes needed to enter Parliament. This is bad news for Greek society, which University of Athens political scientist Nicos Demertzis calls a "a laboratory of extreme-right-wing evolution." Though no Golden Party member has ever held national office, party leader Nikos Michaloliakos was elected to the Athens City Council in 2010.
Golden Dawn joins the ranks of dozens of nationalist-populist fringe parties all over Europe whose enflamed euroskeptic reactions to the "cuts to wages and pensions imposed in order to secure aid from the EU and the IMF" have resulted in political shakeups. The Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) , led by Geert Wilders, won 24 of the 150 parliamentary seats in the 2010 general election, and came in second in the Netherlands in the 2009 European Parliament elections.
Golden Dawn also espouses a particularly anti-German sentiment:
''It's right to hate Germany, because it is still the leader of the banksters and the European Union,'' Mr. Michaloliakos, the group's leader, said, using a derogatory term for bankers.
Of course, Golden Dawn is still transitioning from a street-fighting group into a political party, but it remains to be seen whether it can become a well-oiled machine like France's National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is still campaigning for the presidency. Even so, its increasing popularity is evidence of a dangerous trend that only promises to worsen. At least we have Greek left-wing anarchist groups like the Cosnpiracy of Fire Nuclei, Nikola Tesla Commandos, and Immediate Intervention Hood-wearers to keep us properly entertained.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has an interesting definition of the word "provocative." After meeting with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the U.N. this week, Lavrov commented on March 14 that the recent resumption of U.S.-Georgia military exercises "seems somewhat provocative."
This might make sense if only Russia wasn't organizing military exercises of its own in the Caucasus. In December 2011, Russia announced a new strategic command-and-staff exercise, "Caucasus 2012," to take place in September 2012. The purpose is to prepare for a possible Israeli attack on Iran (and the potential repercussions in the Caucasus region). The exercises are to involve all areas of the armed forces, and will take place not only in the Russian territories of the North Caucasus, but also in neighboring Armenia, as well as the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (over which the 2008 war was fought).
It also conveniently occurs right before the scheduled parliamentary elections in Georgia for October 2012. The Georgian Foreign Ministry is obviously skeptical of these "military exercises" on its borders, claiming Russia is "seeking to instigate a permanent state of tension" in the region.
Then again, Russian foreign affairs rhetoric isn't exactly known for its consistency. Last year, during the NATO decision-making to provide the Libyan rebels with military assistance against Qadaffi, Russia's NATO ambassador Dimitri Rogozin commented that creating a no-fly zone over Libyan air space was "a serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country." Similar words came from Putin himself, who described the NATO mission as a "medieval call for a crusade ... [that] allows intervention in a sovereign state."
Ah, Putin condemning foreign military intervention
in a sovereign state. How quickly he forgot his intentions
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
When space programs have some sort of setback, it's usually tied to an arithmetic error, or because of the sheer complexity of launching something into outer space. For Russian Federal Space Agency Director Vladimir Popovkin, however, the problems facing Roskosmos lie with the intrigues of his rivals. In an article published by the AFP, Popovkin hinted that the space agency's recent failures are due to foreign interference. From the AFP:
Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told the Izvestia daily he could not understand why several launches went awry at precisely the moment the spacecraft were travelling through areas invisible to Russian radar.
"It is unclear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are travelling through what for Russia is the 'dark' side of the Earth -- in areas where we do not see the craft and do not receive its telemetry readings," he said.
"I do not want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we cannot exclude," Popovkin told the daily.
Of course, Popovkin may simply be trying to distract the Kremlin as his space agency comes under greater scrutiny after a rough 2011. In April, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin fired the agency's director after a defense satellite was sent into the wrong orbit. Several months later, a Mars probe got stuck in Earth's orbit (fragments of the probe are expected to hit Earth on Sunday). The humiliations come as Roskosmos' importance increases after the retirement of NASA's space shuttle program. The agency has also been working to launch GLONASS, Russia's competitor to the GPS used by the U.S. military and consumers.
While there has been some space rivalry in recent years, there haven't been any known instances of countries directly sabotaging space flights, as Popovkin claims. Once we reach that point, it won't be long before we hit Moonraker status.
In the run-up to yesterday's debt ceiling deal between Congress and the White House, there was a lot of frustrated reaction from world leaders fearful of what a U.S. debt crisis could mean for their own economies. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might have just won the prize for the strongest response so far. Today, he told a Russian youth group that the United States was "like a parasite" on the world economy.
They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy ... They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar ... Thank god that they had enough common sense and responsibility to make a balanced decision.
Russia holds a large amount of U.S. bonds and treasuries, which means had the United States defaulted, it too would have been in trouble. There was clearly some relief this morning, following the news of yesterday's agreement. Both of Moscow's stock exchanges opened up about two percent -- though, they later declined due to investor doubts about the Washington plan.
In today's speech, Putin said Russia should look for other reserve currencies to hedge against "a systemic malfunction in the U.S. economy," according to the Wall Street Journal.
What options do they have besides the dollar? The Journal reports that last year Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held talks with Chinese leaders exploring the possibility of moving reserve assets into the yuan and away from the dollar.
Russia cut back its purchases of U.S. treasuries in recent months -- down from $176 billion in October, 2010 to $115 billion in May. Still, they are unlikely to completely bail on the U.S. market any time soon since Russian officials concede it is still a safer bet than other world economies.
So, the Kremlin will most certainly be dealing with the U.S. "parasite" for the foreseeable future.
There's been a lot of love for the 40th president of the United States these past few days in Europe. In a tour organized by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation to commemorate the centennial of his birth, the man who said, "Tear down this wall," now has two more statues raised in his memory, a street named for him, and a Catholic Mass in his honor.
A mass in Krakow
Monday of last week, June 27, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop of Krakow and former personal assistant to Pope John Paul II, celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving in Reagan's honor at the Basilica of St. Mary.
"The blessed John Paul II and Ronald Reagan were, and continue to be, the beacon of hope for a world fighting against evil, irrespective of whether it is individual or structural evil, which takes on various monstrous forms," Father Jan Machniak of the Papal University in Krakow told the Polish Press Agency.
Time magazine once called the relationship between the pope and the 40th president a "holy alliance."
The two conspired back in the early 1980s to hasten the end of the Soviet Union by backing Polish solidarity. "Both the Pope and the President were convinced that Poland could be broken out of the Soviet orbit if the Vatican and the U.S. committed their resources to destabilizing the Polish government and keeping the outlawed Solidarity movement alive after the declaration of martial law in 1981," Time magazine wrote in 1992.
Reagan's national security advisor, Richard Allen, called it "one of the great secret alliances of all time."
According to a Polish news web site, there are plans to erect a Reagan statue in Warsaw.
A statue in Budapest
Budapest last week unveiled its own bronze 7-foot likeness of the American president. It was commemorated at Freedom Square at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Orban said Reagan "changed the world and created a new world for Central Europe. He tore down the walls which were erected in the path of freedom in the name of distorted and sick ideologies."
The statue, which shows Reagan in mid-stride, also has a touchscreen monitor that gives information about the president in Hungarian and English.
Hungary has been going Reagan crazy of late. In March, its postal service issued a "commemorative envelope and postmark celebrating" Reagan's birth 100 years ago, according to the Associated Press.
AFP/ Getty Images
Muammar al-Qaddafi likes to play chess, and it may be that he sees a checkmate nearing. According to a respected Russian newspaper today, Moscow officials say the Libyan leader is "sending out signals that he is prepared to relinquish power in exchange for security guarantees." The logic, as summed up by Reuters, is that Qaddafi sees decreasing supplies of money and fuel, and increasing military pressure from NATO and the rebel army.
Of course, no one really knows what is going on inside the Libyan leader's head; his government spokesman categorically denied the report. Many analysts are skeptical. Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya scholar at Dartmouth College who was recently appointed as an advisor to the United Nations mission for Libya, told Foreign Policy that back channel talks between Qaddafi's government and Russia haven't gone anywhere.
"The bottom line is he doesn't want to go," he said.
Western diplomatic sources told Reuters that it is in Qaddafi's interests to "send out conflicting signals about possible deals, in the hope that it will sow confusion among the rebels and the fragile Western alliance trying to push him out."
But according to David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. diplomat in Libya when Qaddafi first came to power, that analysis doesn't hold up. Qaddafi, he says, is depending on his supporters thinking they don't have any other way out other than backing him until the end. Making the world think his exit is actually an option harms that narrative.
"It's our strategy to try to convince people around Qaddafi that there are better options," Mack said.
One thing is clear -- as NATO bombs continue to target Qaddafi and his backers, and as the rebel army and Qaddafi's forces battle each other in the east and west of the country, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering.
Russia, the United Kingdom, and Turkey are all in back channel talks with his government, according to Vandewalle. The United States is participating in defacto talks through the United Kingdom. And South African President Jacob Zuma has been pushing a diplomatic solution since the fighting started. He's met with Qaddafi several times and yesterday said NATO countries should assist in persuading the Transitional National Council (TNC) "to remove some of the preconditions that are making it hard or impossible to start with the negotiations process" -- such as the insistence on prosecuting Qaddafi.
On Sunday, there were signals that the TNC was softening its position. In an interview with Reuters, opposition leader Mustapha Abdul-Jalil said the TNC had offered Qaddafi the option of resigning but staying in Libya. (The next day he backtracked a bit, saying that it was just a scenario that was discussed internally but that there was no "current or future possibility for Qaddafi to remain in Libya").
Yesterday, the Libyan government said it held talks with the TNC on several occasions in Italy, Norway, and Egypt about finding a peaceful solution (an Italian government spokesman called the reports untrue).
"The one thing that is going on is there's an enormous amount of back channels," said Vandewalle.
Vandewalle is skeptical Qaddafi is really looking for a negotiated exit.
As the debate over "don't ask, don't tell" rages on in the United States, it seems Turkey is also facing its own domestic dilemma over military participation.
While gays are barred from military service in Turkey, the armed forces allegedly are "asking for 'photographic' proof that people seeking an exemption from compulsory military service on the grounds of their homosexuality are actually gay," Hurriyet reports.
The practice is not official, and the military has firmly denied the claims but there have been consistent accusations from Turks who were allegedly subject to the practice, and the 2009 European Union progress report also cited concerns over the issue.
Turkey's dilemma is not so much "don't ask, don't tell," -- it's more over "show and tell."
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Give the Bulgarian government points for efficiency, if not productivity. On the same day the country's defense minister lifted its ban on women serving on submarines, the parliament voted to mothball the country's only submarine. It's the thought that counts, I guess.
The U.S. navy also lifted its own ban on women in subs this month and a group of female officers are currently in training to begin service onboard four nuclear submarines in December 2011. Presumably, the USS Wyoming, USS, Georgia, USS Ohio, and USS Maine will still be there when they're done.
Russia may have recently scrapped a missile defense deal with Iran -- but the Russians are now seemingly helping out another aspiring nuclear power/purpoted "axis of evil" stand-in: Venezuela.
According to news reports,
Russia agreed ... to help build Venezuela's first nuclear power plant, sell it tanks and buy $1.6 billion of oil assets, reinforcing ties with President Hugo Chavez who shares Russian opposition to US global dominance.
The announcement comes at the end of a two-day visit to Moscow by Chavez; if Venezuela keeps this up, they may be able to take Iraq's beloved lost spot on the roster and become the media darling commentators have been longing to find.
While the agreement between the two powers is preliminary, the move is aimed at concerns over Venezuela's heavy dependence on oil. The Guardian reports, "Venezuela's economy is 94 or even 95% made up of oil... They [the Venezuelans] want to widen their sources of energy so they are less dependent on it."
In remarks that can only be interpreted as congratulatory, State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley stated, "This is something that we will watch... very, very closely."
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister and style icon Yulia Tymoshenko is not happy about the new dress restrictions put in place by her rival, President Viktor Yanukovych:
"The Queen of England and (Libya's leader Muammar) Gaddafi, for instance, for sure would not have been allowed in the Cabinet," Tymoshenko, who is now a top opposition leader, quipped at a news conference Wednesday.
The code adopted this week calls on men working at the Cabinet of Ministers to wear mostly gray and dark blue suits and not wear the same suit to work two days in a row. Women are asked to stick to business suits and low-heeled shoes, and refrain from excessive makeup and jewelry.
Tymoshenko's stylish outfits and traditional Ukrainian braid have earned her a reputation as a glamour and fashion icon, but also angered some Ukrainians as too luxurious at a time when the country is battered by a severe economic crisis.
Some observers noted that a new dress code was overdue for government offices and other institutions in Ukraine, where women often wear tight, low-cut dresses to work while men are often seen in the same outfit for days in a row.
The Rada sure seems like an interesting place.
On a related note, Colum Lynch takes a look at some of the more interesting sartorial choices made by leaders at the recent U.N. General Assembly meeting.
Stalin's postmortem downfall was (quite literally) on display last night in Gori, Georgia, where a statue of the Soviet leader was dismantled from its decades-old perch in the square of Uncle Joe's hometown. The unceremonious removal -- conducted without announcement or fanfare in the dead of night -- sounded strangely reminiscent of a criminal enterprise (albeit one carried out by amateur vandals). Stalin's unexpected departure, however, came at the directive of the city's parliament, which explained its decision as a necessary product of modernization. Even President Mikheil Saakashvili weighed in to express his approval: "A memorial to Stalin," he declared in televised remarks, "has no place in the Georgia of the 21st Century."
Saakashvili's assessment isn't as cantankerous as it may sound -- in fact, Stalin-bashers in Gori are by all measures behind the curve. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, rioters across the crumbling USSR eagerly demolished all signs of the former leader (à la Baghdad in 2003), but Georgians in Gori staunchly resisted the revisionist portrait of their homegrown hero: Hundreds of locals reportedly gathered to protect the statue against its would-be defilers. Stalin's corpse was removed from its original resting place inside Red Square in 1961, just a few years after its entombment; half a century later, what's thought to be the last remaining statue of the leader in its original locale has finally come down.
Of course, these Georgians aren't merely catching up with a trend; they plan to take their protest one step further. In a not-so-subtle gesture to their neighbors, the now-ousted statue will be replaced by a memorial for Georgian soldiers who died in the country's 2008 war with Russia.
The now-dismantled Gori Stalin made FP's list of the world's ugliest statues in April.
After doing their best last week to convince the world that their economy was on the brink of a Greece-style crash, sending their own currency as well as the euro into a tailspin, the ruling Fidesz party is now awkwardly trying to repair the damage:
"It is blatant that Hungary is not Greece," said Mihaly Varga, chief of staff to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in a television interview on Monday. "Greece has 230 billion euros ($274.8 billion) worth of public debt, and in the case of Hungary, we've got only ... €76 billion public debt. So Hungary is not Greece."[...]
Varga was also quoted on Saturday as saying comparisons to countries such as Greece were "unfortunate."
To be clear, those comparisons were made by the chairman of Varga's party and then reaffirmed by his boss's chief spokesman.
The conventional wisdom on the Hungarian government's strange behavior over the last week now seems to be that they were trying to make the situation sound more dire than it really is in order to deflect blame for the fact that they won't be able to deliver on the promises of tax cuts and stimulus that got them elected.
FT's Lex calls it a "boneheaded exercise in expectations management," which sounds about right. It hasn't been a stellar debut for Hungary's Fidesz government. Not that the Socialists were any more honest, but at least when they lied, it sort of worked.
As most of the attention has focused on Europe's PIIGS economies, debt-laden Hungary has, for a few weeks now, been the dark-horse candidate for the next European economy to collapse. This week, the country's new government seems to have been doing everything in its power to reinforce that view:
On Thursday, Lajos Kosa, deputy chairman of the governing Fidesz party, said Hungary was facing a Greece-like financial meltdown. And former Fidesz finance minister Mihaly Varga said the deficit could reach 7-7.5 percent of GDP, about twice as much as planned for 2010 by the previous government.
While Hungary isn't part of the euro, the default fears have weighed on on the euro, which fell to a four-year low of $1.20 today.
The Prime Minister's spokesman described Kosa's characterization as "no exaggeration," though added, not particularly convincingly that ""The government is ready to avoid the Greek path."
The thing is, the actual situation in Hungary doesn't seem quite as dire as the government's gloomy assessment:
Some analysts said the politicians' statements seemed exaggerated, as Hungary's public debt of 78 percent of GDP was high but well below Greek levels.
"Any comparison with the situation in Greece is a little misplaced," Capital Economic's Shearing said, noting that Hungary's short-term debts, those which needed to be repaid to foreign creditors within the next year, equaled just 2.4 percent of GDP.
Is it possible that that the Hungarian government is trying to make the economy sound worse that it is? They would certainly have the incentive. Promising tax cuts, Fidesz won parliamentary elections in a landslide in April, unseating a Socialist governing that had instituted painful austerity measures in order to restore investor confidence. FT's Alphaville notes:
Market observers are struggling with trying to determine the extent to which the announcements may be a result of political manuevering to back away from campaign pledges to reduce taxes all the way to concerns that there may be a similar credibility gap to Greece regarding past budget numbers.
It's certainly not out of the question that the Socialists were engaging in some creative accounting. Concealing the true state of the economy is becoming something of a tradition in Hungarian politics. In 2006, former Socialist Prime Minsiter Ferenc Gyurcsany was caght on tape telling members of his party that he had concealed the true state of the economy in order to win an election, saying, "Evidently, we lied throughout the last year-and-a-half, two years. It was totally clear that what we are saying is not true."
A recent Pew survey found that an astounding 77 percent of Hungarians describe themselves as "not satisfied" with democracy. That number's becoming a little easier to understand.
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.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
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.
ELENA PALM/AFP/Getty Images
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.
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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.
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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
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