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.
Ladies in gentleman, we have Biden's first Ukraine gaffe. From his meeting with Viktor Yushchenko:
During a quick visit by a handful of reporters, Biden also could be overheard expounding on the virtues of Ukrainian women.
“I cannot believe that a Frenchman visiting Kiev went back home and told his colleagues he discovered something and didn’t say he discovered the most beautiful women in the world; that’s my observation,” Biden said. Although it was unclear who the Frenchman the vice president was referring to, one Russian journalist speculated Alexander Dumas, who was well known for traveling extensively in the region. “It’s certain you have so many beautiful women.”
All in all, this could have been a lot worse. I'll bet his meeting with Yulia Tymoshenko was fun, though.
An open letter to President Obama from a number of Eastern European former heads of state and intellecutals was published yesterday in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. The signatories include former presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa and the editor of Foreign Policy's Bulgarian edition, Ivan Krastev. An exceprt:
We welcome the "reset" of the American-Russian relations. As the countries living closest to Russia, obviously nobody has a greater interest in the development of the democracy in Russia and better relations between Moscow and the West than we do. But there is also nervousness in our capitals. We want to ensure that too narrow an understanding of Western interests does not lead to the wrong concessions to Russia. Today the concern is, for example, that the United States and the major European powers might embrace the Medvedev plan for a "Concert of Powers" to replace the continent's existing, value-based security structure. The danger is that Russia's creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de facto neutralization of the region. There are differing views within the region when it comes to Moscow's new policies. But there is a shared view that the full engagement of the United States is needed.
Many in the region are looking with hope to the Obama Administration to restore the Atlantic relationship as a moral compass for their domestic as well as foreign policies. A strong commitment to common liberal democratic values is essential to our countries. We know from our own historical experience the difference between when the United States stood up for its liberal democratic values and when it did not. Our region suffered when the United States succumbed to "realism" at Yalta. And it benefited when the United States used its power to fight for principle. That was critical during the Cold War and in opening the doors of NATO. Had a "realist" view prevailed in the early 1990s, we would not be in NATO today and the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace would be a distant dream.
We understand the heavy demands on your Administration and on U.S. foreign policy. It is not our intent to add to the list of problems you face. Rather, we want to help by being strong Atlanticist allies in a U.S.-European partnership that is a powerful force for good around the world. But we are not certain where our region will be in five or ten years time given the domestic and foreign policy uncertainties we face. We need to take the right steps now to ensure the strong relationship between the United States and Central and Eastern Europe over the past twenty years will endure.
You can read the whole thing at Radio Free Europe.
In May, FP and our readers enjoyed going through the many, many silly acronyms in use around the world, including PIIGS, STUC, MILF, and MANPADS. But last week's agreement between Nigeria and Russia on a joint gas venture has a name that tops all of those for awkardness:
It probably seemed a good idea at the time. But Russia's attempt to create a joint gas venture with Nigeria is set to become one of the classic branding disasters of all time -- after the new company was named Nigaz.
The venture was agreed last week during a four-day trip by Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev to Africa. The deal between Russia's Gazprom and Nigeria's state oil company was supposed to show off the Kremlin's growing interest in Africa's energy reserves.
Instead, the venture is now likely to be remembered for all the wrong reasons -- as a memorable PR blunder, worse than Chevrolet's Nova, which failed to sell in South America because it translates as "doesn't go" in Spanish[...]
An article in Brand Republic pointed out the obvious: that the name has "rather different connotations" for English-speakers.
Stan Marsh sympathizes.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
The worldwide recession has hit Russia's economy harder than most. The World Bank expects the economy to contract by almost 8 percent this year, its stock market has the dubious honor of being the first bear market since a worldwide stock rally in March. Now, the number of places to escape the doom and gloom is about to shrink significantly, as Russia plans to effectively shut down the entire casino industry on July 1.
The government is shutting down every last legal casino and slot-machine parlor across the land, under an antivice plan promoted by Vladimir V. Putin that just a few months ago was widely perceived as far-fetched. But the result will be hundreds of thousands of people thrown out of work.
And in a move that at times seems to have taken on almost farcical overtones, the Kremlin has offered the gambling industry only one option for survival: relocate to four regions in remote areas of Russia, as many as 4,000 miles from the capital. The potential marketing slogans — Come to the Las Vegas of Siberia! Have a Ball near the North Korean Border! — may not sound inviting, but that is in part what the government envisions.
All the same, none of the four regions are prepared for the transfer, and no casino is expected to reopen for several years. As of July 1, not even two decades after casinos began proliferating here in the free-for-all post-Soviet era, the industry’s workers will be out on the street.
“This is shaking my life to the core — such a blow for me and my family,” said Irina Mysachka, 32, a single mother who is a supervisor at the Shangri-La Casino in Moscow, which appears as orderly and preened (if your tastes run to fire-breathing neon dragons and other Oriental kitsch) as any similar luxury attraction in the United States.
“The authorities are taking this step without thinking at all,” she said. “They have not considered what this decision means for the workers. With the crisis, it is going to be very difficult for us."
The law behind the restrictions was introduced in late 2006, and there appear to be reasons both honest and not-so-honest behind it.
The gambling industry here does not have the loftiest of reputations, and many Russians will not grieve for it. Still, many of the 40 or so casinos in Moscow sought in recent years to behave more respectably, even as hundreds of slot-machine parlors retained a seedy, enter-at-your-own-risk feel[...]
The industry has been largely unregulated, and especially in recent years, almost anyone could get a license, for as little as $50. Russia is not a strait-laced place - rates of smoking and drinking are high - but an outcry about gambling ensued. "It is not only young people, but also retirees who lose their last kopecks and pensions through gambling," Mr. Putin said in 2006.
His plan was announced during a spy scandal between Russia and its neighbor Georgia, and the timing suggested that Mr. Putin was in part seeking to wound the Georgian diaspora here, which is said to have an influential role in the industry.
Shorter Russia: what happens in Moscow is Georgia's fault.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Schwirtz of the New York Times reported Tuesday on some, uh, innovative crime fighting techniques of Russian police in St. Petersburg. To catch a man seeking to kill his boss, police faked the murder in public, all the way down to staged blood and media reports, and arrested the culprit when he delivered money to an undercover officer for the completed hit.
As Schwirtz highlights, this could be why so few Russians trust the media or the police.
Such elaborate sting operations are not uncommon in Russia, where the police routinely manipulate the news media in criminal investigations, said Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a former police detective here who is now the deputy director of a St. Petersburg Internet news agency, fontanka.ru. In his previous career, Mr. Vyshenkov said, he once had a journalist agree to publish a fake article to coax a suspect to divulge information about accomplices.
Another question: where was all this creative crimefighting after the broad daylight murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya? On Monday, the Russian Union of Journalists released a report condemning Russian authorities for failing to protect journalists.
Dan Senor and Christian Whiton have an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal with some suggestions for how the United States could effectively help the reformists in Iran. It's a tricky subject and creative thinking is certainly welcome (my colleague Chris Brose has weighed in on this), but Senor and Whiton's bold declaration that "Our own experience with dissidents around the world is that proof of concern by the U.S. government is helpful and desirable" worries me a bit, paritcularly in their choice of Ukraine's 2004 Orance Revolution as a model:
Mr. Obama should deliver another taped message to the Iranian people. Only this time he should acknowledge the fundamental reality that the regime lacks the consent of its people to govern, which therefore necessitates a channel to the "other Iran." He should make it clear that dissidents and their expatriate emissaries should tell us what they most need and want from the U.S. This could consist of financial resources, congresses of reformers, workshops or diplomatic gatherings. The key is to let the reformers call the shots and indicate how much and what U.S. assistance they want. Simply knowing we care, that we are willing to deploy resources and are watching their backs -- to the extent we can -- often helps reformers.
The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine is a model. In that case the West joined Ukrainians in refusing to accept the results of a stolen election. This combined effort helped to force a final run-off vote that reflected the people's will. In Iran, this would mean not only redoing elections but also allowing a full field of candidates to run. As with Ukraine and the Soviet Union before, Mr. Obama could at least make it clear that the U.S. will separate the issues of engagement and legitimacy. Our engagement of the Soviet Union in arms-control talks did not prevent us from successfully pressing human-rights issues and seeking an alternative political structure. So it can be with Iran. Engagement without an effort to talk to the "other Iran" would not only be a travesty but tactically foolish as well.
Not every revolution is a "color" revolution. The visuals from Tehran may resemble Kiev in 2004, but the message from the streets is different. Both are nationalist movements in addition to democratic movements (as most successful democratic movements are) but Ukrainian and Iranian nationalism are very different beasts.
In Ukraine that nationalism could be directed against a government dominated by an outside power, Russia. The orange coalition (like the Polish Solidarity movement, which Senor and Whiton also cite) welcomed overt U.S. signs of support because it counteracted the support the pro-government forces were receiving from the Kremlin. The coalition billed itself as pro-Western.
In Iran, the protesters are crying allahu akbar from the rooftops and marching behind a fairly conservative hero of the 1979 revolution. They're protesting a probably rigged election, yes, but the nationalist rhetoric coming out of the movements leaders is not about rejoining the West but about protecting the Islamic state from Ahmadinejad's corrupt and bungling rule.
On a more practical level, U.S. NGOs were involved in the run-up to the Ukrainian election, supporting poll monitoring and training activists so when the trouble started, they were in place to help out. This is certainly not the case in Iran.
This is not to say that a Mousavi presidency wouldn't be better for the United States, or that the U.S. government shouldn't be seeking out ways it can help (Evgeny Morozov has one novel idea) but it seems odd to assume that the young people marching in the streets of Tehran would welcome the outspoken support of the U.S. president just because other young people marching in other streets have welcomed it in the past.
I'm way late to the story of the Russian military historian who posted an article on the Defense Ministry's website blaming Poland for starting World War II by objecting to totally reasonable Nazi demands. Here's the key exceprt from Col. Sergei Kovalyov article, “Inventions and Falsifications in the Assessment of the Role of the USSR on the Eve and at the Start of World War II”:
“[The war] was begun as a result of the refusal of Poland to satisfy … extremely moderate demands such as including the free city of Danzig in the Third Reich [and] permission for the construction of extra-territorial highways and railroad, which would connect East Prussia with the rest of Germany.”
Sounds reasonable. Not surprisingly the ministry is now distancing itself from the article.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will conduct joint military exercises in August-September in Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, the Belarusian defense minister said on Wednesday.
The defense ministers of the post-Soviet security bloc comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan held a regular meeting in Moscow on June 3.
"The joint drills will be held in Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus to practice the deployment of CSTO's joint rapid-reaction force," Leonid Maltsev told reporters after the meeting.
He said the exercises in Belarus will also involve the Russia-Belarus joint military grouping created within the framework of the CSTO.
According to media reports, Russia is planning to build a strong military contingent in Central Asia within the CSTO comparable to NATO forces in Europe.
Russia was highly irritated by 19-country NATO war games held in Georgia last month. Interestingly, Kazakhstan, where part the CSTO drills are to take place, was one of the countries invited to participate in the NATO exercises but declined in solidarity with Russia.
The exercises in Belarus, right on NATO's eastern border, are likely to be seen as a response to NATO's actions in Georgia.
In some countries, notably Iceland, the financial crisis and its political fallout has proved an unexpected boon for women's rights.
Other countries do this sort of thing:
The global economic crisis has hit the Baltic state of Latvia particularly hard and left the population feeling blue. But one group of Latvian women has taken a novel approach to fighting the pervasive feeling of doom and gloom.
On Sunday, a procession of more than 500 blondes paraded through the capital Riga wearing pink and white. Many were escorted by lap dogs wearing the same cheerful hues. Their goal: to use their beauty to shine a little light into the dark mood caused by the global downturn.
The march was organized by the Latvian Blondes Association. I have to wonder what sort of issues this group addresses during normal times.
ILMARS ZNOTINS/AFP/Getty Images
"Today, to be very blunt with you, I personally, and the leadership of my country is worried ... about the direction of your country and your future." ...
"The only real future is to join Europe," Biden said. "Right now you are off that path. You can follow this path to Europe or you can take an alternative path. You have done it before," Biden said, referring to the 1992-95 war.
"Failure to do so will ensure you remain among the poorest countries in Europe. At worst, you'll descend into ethnic chaos that defined your country for the better part of a decade."
The parliamentarians apparently cheered at the end of the speech, but given that Biden is already not exactly loved by ethnic Serbs who resent the strong anti-Serbian stance he took during the 1990s, I'm not sure that this kind of lecture is exactly productive.
What the vice president said is probably correct (and as Edward Joseph points out, he's probably the only one in a position to say it) but this is precisely the sort of thing you normally say in a closed-door meeting with a country's leaders, not in a public address before its parliament.
Biden's boss said last month that the United States has, in the past, "shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive" toward Europe and vowed to change the tone. But Biden essentially telling Bosnia to follow his recommendations or continue to be known as a violent, poverty-stricken hellhole is American arrogance of near-Rumsfeldian levels and seems very much at odds with the administration's stated approach to foreign policy.
Taking a page from former Japanese finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa's playbook, Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko ended his political career in humiliating fashion this week after after a public drunkenness incident. Allegedly, Lutsenko and his teenage son had a few too many at the Frankfurt airport and then got into a fight with some cops. Lutsenko says he only had a beer and just got angry when the police handcuffed his son. He is threatening to sue the German tabloid Bild for libel.
In any event, Lutsenko offered his resignation yesterday, leaving Yulia Tymoshenko's already embattled government without an interior minister, a foreign minister, or a finance minister. Not a particularly welcome development given the scale of the economic and political challenges they're facing.
This incident combined with Nakagawa's downfall could be a warning to government ministers to take it easy on the booze while traveling on official business, but somehow I doubt it.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Despite Russian annoyance, NATO is conducting military exercises in Georgia today. But not all states that are elligible to participate are taking part. As Stratfor notes in its (annoyingly gated but possible to get for free) analysis, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia, Estonia and Latvia are all staying out of the drills. The first four countries all have good relations with Russia and aren't that surprising, but Estonia and Latvia have tradionally relished a good chance to thumb their noses at Moscow. What gives?
Stratfor says it's a sign of the times:
Estonia and Latvia have been severely affected by the ongoing economic crisis, with both countries facing double-digit drops in gross domestic product forecast for 2009 (-10.1 percent and -13.1 percent, respectively) as a result of foreign capital flight and exports that are in free fall. Extreme social tension has set in as a result of the harsh economic realities, with both countries witnessing violent protests in January. In the meantime, the Latvian government collapsed early in 2009, and Riga has had to take out a $2.4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Estonia’s government is set to face a vote of no confidence this week, and a similar loan from the IMF is likely later in 2009.
These conditions have caused Estonia and Latvia to temper their aggressive stance toward Russia. While the two countries are typically vocal and eager to take advantage of Russia’s weaknesses for media attention, they are now backing down as they realize their own positions are weak while Russia’s position is growing stronger. This explains Estonia’s and Latvia’s withdrawal from the NATO exercises, as they realize that their participation would be far more damaging to their relationship with Russia and that their financial situations would make joining in on the drills even more difficult. For these two countries, showing solidarity and support for Georgia makes a great deal of sense in theory (i.e., supporting in principal Georgia’s struggle against Russian influence). But it becomes increasingly hard to justify in practice when Russian influence is being felt in a real sense on their home turf.
As FP's own Evgeny Morozov wrote in Newsweek recently, Estonia has also toned down its cyberwarfare rhetoric directed at Russia. Real rapprochement between the Baltics and Russia is probably still a ways off, but this is an interesting development to watch.
(Hat tip: Johnson's Russia List)
Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko's PR machine kicked into overdrive yesterday during a meeting with Pope Benedict. RFE/RL's Luke Allnut notes that the Belarussian strongman's adorable son Nikola stole the show at the event: "Resplendent in a white cardigan among the papal grays and purples... playing with a football and presenting the pope with his ABC's book." It certainly sounds like Lukashenko is getting his money's worth from his top-shelf British spin-doctors.
Belarussian opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko put the meeting in context for the AP:
"Lukashenko's main goal is to improve his image and to receive absolution from the pope ahead of the EU summit in Prague, where many European politicians will not extend a hand to the Belarusian dictator," he said.
On this site last week, David Kramer and Irina Krasovskaya (whose husband was "disappeared" by the Lukashenko regime) argued that the E.U.'s efforts to reach out to Belarus were ill-advised and would only lead Lukashenko to crack down more on political dissent.
Most E.U. leaders, at least, seem fairly embarassed by the prospect of standing next to Lukashenko. Some even say they won't shake his hand. Even Silvio Berlusconi, who became the first Western European leader in 14 years to meet with him yesterday, didn't hold a press conference and made it clear that he would press Lukashenko on human rights. On the other hand, the Vatican said only that some "internal problems" were discussed at the Pope's meeting but in a "positive climate"
What is Benedict thinking? There are certainly times when talking with human rights abusers can be productive. But the Pope isn't a realist, nor should he be. Unlike national leaders he's in a position to act as a voice of conscience without worrying about political expediency.
Considering the bad press he's gotten over the last few months, it couldn't have hurt the pope to say a few words in public about Lukashenko's stiffling of free speech and dissent in Belarus. Instead, he gave the dictator a photo-op to die for without a critical word.
Given the role his predecessor played in dispatching authoritarian governments from the rest of Eastern Europe, Benedict's conduct was especially shameful.
CHRIS HELGREN/AFP/Getty Images
Ukraine says its security service says it caught three persons attempting to sell radioactive material, which they said was plutonium-239, for $10 million. A government spokesperson said the material could possibly have been used in a "dirty-bomb" attack, and that it was of Soviet origin.
Relatedly -- Jeffrey Lewis and Meri Lugo discuss the draw-down of nuclear weaponry in an excellent FP Argument post today.
Yesterday, given a spate of bad economic data, I wondered which country would be the next to tap the IMF's new flexible credit line.
Today, the answer: Poland.
The country has sought a precautionary $20.5 billion dollar loan, to help it meet large short-term financing needs.
Poland hopes to adopt the euro currency in 2012; if taking the precautionary IMF loan demonstrates financial responsibility and helps keep the country's fundamentals sound, it should not disrupt that process.
Update: The head of the IMF indicates the organization will meet the request. "Its economic fundamentals and policy framework are strong, and the Polish authorities have demonstrated a commitment to maintaining this solid record," Dominique Strauss-Kahn said.
Gathering over 50 percent of the vote, Moldova's Communist Party (PCRM) won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections on Sunday. Interestingly, until this election Moldova was the only state in Europe where clinging to the Communist brand remained politically expedient. In fact, since Moldova declared independence in 1990 the PCRM has never relinquished power. However, today's violent protests have shown that over the last decade a socio-political chasm between young and urban voters and the elderly and rural has split Moldovan society.
It's important to note that the PCRM's platform, based on such Marxist notions as encouraging entrepreneurship, attracting foreign direct investment, and protecting human rights, isn't really all that Communist. Unlike other nominally Communist parties, the PCRM doesn't even pay lip service to Communist principles and openly advocates seeking closer socio-economic relations with Europe. Their key difference with the Liberals is that the Communists are wary of reunification with Romania, a country with which Moldova shares historical and linguistic ties
The wide margin of victory provides the PCRM with a clear mandate to pursue its proposed policy of closer integration with Europe, but as Moldova expert Elizabeth Anderson pointed out, its many years in power has left the Communist Party over-institutionalized and corrupt. The next Moldovan president will have to tread lightly, institute reforms within his own party, and try to build coalitions with the minority parties in parliament. Otherwise, Moldova risks falling into the same kind of vicious cycle that neighboring Ukraine has experienced since the Orange revolution in 2004.
Czech Prime Minsiter Mirek Topolanek softens his AC/DC-inspired critique of the U.S. economic stimulus a bit in a new Times column. Topolanek says he simply meant that Europe does not need the same amount of stimulus as the United States. Call it the Simon & Garfunkel version:
I expected that this strong expression would not go unnoticed. But I did not expect that this legitimate warning, which comes to me as naturally as telling a friend walking next to me on an uneven path that he may stumble, would be rejected in principle and interpreted by some as criticism of the US Administration.
I believe that I do not need to explain that my country has been a long-standing partner of the US. And I also believe that as a conservative politician I do not need to explain that the welfare states of Europe act as “automatic stabilisers”, sustaining consumer spending even in a slump. This means that Europe does not need such a large fiscal stimulus compared with the US, which does not have such a system of social support.
FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images
The financial crisis seems to be boosting extreme nationalist sentiment in Ukraine:
On March 15, voters in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine elected a new regional assembly. This was an Orange Revolution bastion, a region that has long sought to embrace the West and shun Russia.
But it is also has Ukraine's highest unemployment. In a crowded field, the previously little-known Freedom Party won 50 of the regional assembly's 120 seats as voters embraced its hard Right leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, who has urged the expulsion of all Jews and Russians from Ukraine.
"The problem is less the popularity of the nationalists than the universal disappointment with mainstream parties," said Viktor Chumak, a political scientist in Ukraine's capital, Kiev. "Voters are sympathising with radicals more and more as a result of the crisis."
I'm actually surprised we haven't seen more of this around the world yet.
It's the rumor that continues to haunt U.S. South Asia envoy Richard Holbrooke: that in 1996 he promised then Bosnian Serb leader, now genocide defendent Radovan Karadzic that he would never face prosecution.
Karadzic makes the claim every time he appears in court -- claiming that Holbrooke offered him the deal in exchange for stepping down after the Bosnian war -- but he hasn't been taken to seriously. Now, it seems some others are talking:
Two of the people cited anonymously in the new study, a former senior State Department official who spent almost a decade in the Balkans and another American who was involved with international peacekeeping there in the 1990s, provided additional details in interviews with The New York Times, speaking on condition that they not be further identified.
The former State Department official said he had been told of the offer by people who were close to Mr. Holbrooke's team at the time. The other person said Mr. Holbrooke had personally and emphatically told him about the deal on two occasions.
While the two men agreed, as one of them put it, that "Holbrooke did the right thing and got the job done," the recurring story of the deal has dogged Mr. Holbrooke.
Holbrooke continues to deny that any such deal was ever made. Here's what he had to say in a "Seven Questions" interview with FP from right after Karadzic's arrest:
Let me just say that Karadzic should have been captured in the first few months after [the signing of the] Dayton [Peace Accords], in early 1996. Even though everybody knew where he was, he was not brought to justice because the NATO commander, Adm. Leighton Smith, failed to exercise his authority. Smith said it was not a mission of his command, which was a terrible thing to do. Had Karadzic been arrested back then, the history of the Balkans would have been much easier during the last 13 years, because Karadzic wouldn’t have been able to actively try and undermine political stability and reconciliation in the Balkans.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
If, as is looking more likely, the Obama administration moves to delay or cancel the deployment of a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, one possible diplomatic downside could be the effect on U.S. relations with Poland and the Czech Republic, the two countries that signed agreements with the Bush administrations to host parts of the shield. On a visit to Washington, Poland's Foreign Minister seemed to give Obama a bit of an out on this issue:
“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.”
State Department political director William Burns has also indicated that missile defense might be one area where the administration is willing to compromise with Russia and will certainly be on the agenda when Hillary Clinton meets her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov next week. The administration might feel a more productive relationship with Russia is worth some damage to its image in Eastern Europe, but it would be nice if they didn't have to make the choice.
DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Latvia's four-party ruling coalition collapsed on Friday and the president called for talks to forge a new government to tackle a deepening economic crisis.
The coalition's fall, the second European government to succumb to the financial crisis, adds to the economic problems of the small Baltic state, which last year had to take a 7.5 billion euro ($9.43 billion) IMF-led rescue loan last year.
Political and social tensions exploded in January into a riot, though there has been little sign of a repeat in Latvia, a European Union and NATO member since 2004.
Latvia's president Valdis Zatlers will start work on forming a new government next week. Hopefully the country -- one of Eastern Europe's great success stories -- we soon be able to get back on track. At least the cattle mutiliation can stop now.
Despite ratifying the Lisbon Treaty this week, the Czech Republic seems hell-bent on offending the European Union as much as possible while it holds the organization's rotating presidency. First it was that sculpture, then yesterday, Czech President Vaclav Klaus -- an outspoken Euroskeptic -- spoke to the European parliament and compared them to a communist dicatorship:
"Here, only one single alternative is being promoted and those who dare thinking about a different option are labelled as enemies of European integration. Not so long ago, in our part of Europe we lived in a political system that permitted no alternatives."
A number of MEPs walked out in a huff.
Say what you will about Klaus, the guy's not afraid to speak his mind. Jiri Pehe wrote about his unconventional views on global warming in the May/June issue of FP. (Hint: He compares environmentalists to communists too.)
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
This past Tuesday, Kosovo made it through its first year as a self-declared independent country. People there may be celebrating, but Kosovo's continued poverty shows that independence is no quick fix. In fact, in the eyes of many countries, Kosovo isn't even an independent country at all. Only 54 countries recognize it, meaning it still needs to work on Step 3 of "How to Start Your Own Country in Four Easy Steps."
Learn all about it in this week's FP photo essay, "Kosovo: Year 1."
And while you're at it, enjoy these previous FP photo essays:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reportedly told an interviewer that former Polish President, Solidarity leader, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa has been banned from entering the country to speak to a student opposition group:
Chavez instructed authorities on Tuesday to ensure that Walesa does not enter Venezuela, which is preparing for a Feb. 15 referendum on a proposal to lift term limits for all elected officials.
Chavez made the comment after an interviewer suggested that Walesa had received a new invitation.
Granted, Walesa has turned into a bit of a blowhard in recent years, (a Polish friend once told me that he can only stand to read Walesa speeches after they've been translated into English) but the role he played in Eastern Europe's struggle for democracy is legendary. Chavez just put himself in some pretty bad company by denying him the right to speak.
Photo: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images
I must say, this is kinda metal:
The agriculture minister of Latvia has been forced to resign in the wake of growing protests by farmers, while the government faces a no-confidence vote.
Minister Martins Roze announced his resignation even as the cabinet agreed a big rescue package for farmers.
On Tuesday they picketed the agriculture ministry and delivered cows' heads in a coffin.
I'd probably resign after that too. Totally gross, probably NSFW picture here.
On a more serious note, Latvia's government faces a no-confidence vote today over its handling of the economy. Will it be the first government on our "next Iceland" list to fall? Stay tuned.
The inauguration of Barack Obama wasn't just the event of the day in the United States. It received above-the-fold coverage in countries all over the globe, as Jan. 21's front page of the United Daily News in Taipei, Taiwan, above, shows. To see more Obama-blaring newspaper front pages from Namibia to Israel to Poland and more, check out this week's photo essay, "The Inauguration Heard 'Round the World," which features images obtained from the Newseum.
When Russia ceased natural gas flows into Europe through Ukraine on Jan. 7, many people -- and animals -- in southeastern Europe got left in the cold. At the Sofia Zoo, about 1,300 animals were left without central heating, and electric heaters, such as the one Larry is with here on Jan. 12, were brought in. The zoo’s four Siberian tigers, however, appear to be enjoying the colder temperatures.
The Czech Republic, having only taken over the rotating European Union presidency in January, has already managed to offend its EU peers with a sculpture it installed in the atrium of the European Council headquarters in Brussels. Titled "Entropa," the sculpture makes light of European national stereotypes:
[C]ountries digested depictions of their national character as a Dracula-inspired theme park (Romania), a rudimentary toilet (Bulgaria) or a flooded land with minarets poking through (the Netherlands)...
Other national depictions in ”Entropa” include Luxembourg as a lump of gold on sale to the highest bidder, France emblazoned with the word ”Greve” (”strike”), Denmark made of Lego, and Sweden lying within an Ikea flatpack. Britain is simply missing – supposedly a reference to its deep Euroscepticism.
Worse still, the piece turns out to be an eleaborate prank. It was not the work of artists from all 27 EU member states, as had been claimed, but was created by a single Czech artist, David Cerny. (You probably want to make sure your speakers are turned off if you click on that link at work.) The Czech government has been forced to make a public apology.
Arguably, the Eurocrats should have known what they were getting into. As anyone who's read Kafka or seen a Jan Svankmajer movie can attest, Czech culture has always had a somewhat dark, surrealist edge to it. This is, after all, a country that elected an absurdist playwright as its first post-communist president. I reported on the country's strange obsession with Frank Zappa for Radio Prague in 2004. The documentary, Czech Dream, a feature-length prank in which hundreds of real Prague residents were tricked into attending a fake supermarket opening in an empty field, is another good example.
So while Cerny's sculpture might not be great diplomacy, I like that a bit of classic Czech weirdness has been injected into one of the world's stuffier organizations.
(Hat tip: Passport reader Aaron Lovell)
Update: Cerny responds to the controversy:
Grotesque hyperbole and mystification belongs among the trademarks of Czech culture and creating false identities is one of the strategies of contemporary art. The images of individual parts of Entropa use artistic techniques often characterised by provocation. The piece thus also lampoons the socially activist art that balances on the verge between would-be controversial attacks on national character and undisturbing decoration of an official space. We believe that the environment of Brussels is capable of ironic self-reflection, we believe in the sense of humour of European nations and their representatives.
That belief was clearly mistaken.
Photo: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
Another cold Russian winter, another dispute about Russian gas prices. Time's Yuri Zarakhavich has a useful summary:
In the buildup to Dec. 31, Russia accused Ukraine of having arrears of more than $2 billion on its expired gas contract. Ukraine said that it had paid all its debt. Moscow said it would start charging a new price, which it presented as both the "market" price and a "preferential" rate—just $250 rather a sharp rise on the 2008 price of $179.5 per 1000 cubic meters of gas. Ukraine said that it could pay $201.
In response, Gazprom, Russia's state-run natural gas monopoly, dropped its "preferential" offer and said it would have to charge the real "market" rate of $418. It also insists that Ukraine still owes Moscow $ 614 million, and, at 10am on Jan. 1, turned off gas taps to Ukraine.
Pretty much the same thing has happened for the last three winters. Worried about its own supply, the EU is anxiously working to broker a compromise between Ukraine and Russia. As a European Commission representative said:
"Since we are the main market for Russian gas ... we have an obvious interest in applying pressure on these parties to reach as soon as possible an agreement which is definitive."
It's easy enough to cast Gazprom -- a state monopoly with a penchant for heavy-handed ultimatums -- as the villain in this recurring drama. But that lets Europe off the hook a bit too easily. As energy investor Jérôme Guillet wrote for FP during the 2007 edition of the dispute, Gazprom doesn't behave all that differently from any other company and its demonization is a convenient way for European leaders to divert attention from their lack of a coherent energy policy:
[I]t’s a bit rich to see the supposedly pro-market Westerners calling for heavy subsidies. And a country like Ukraine that’s angling to join NATO (an organization that Russia understandably perceives as anti-Russian) can hardly expect a discount on its gas. So why is Russia getting demonized for defending its interests? The answer lies with European leaders, who are trying to distract the public from the mess they’ve made of European energy policy. Europeans themselves are to blame for their dependency on Gazprom, which is doing what any company would do in its place. [...]
As for European leaders, they have no one but themselves to blame for turning worrying domestic gas problems into a major international crisis. Europe, led by the United Kingdom, has made a conscious choice to rely on gas as its main new source of energy at a time when its domestic supplies are declining—and declining a lot faster than everybody expected. And Europe’s economic liberalization encourages market players to build easier-to-finance gas-fired plants, thus feeding demand for more gas. If political leaders were really worried about gas supplies from Russia, they should change that structural feature of the market rather than wailing about Gazprom’s clumsy—but ultimately harmless—fights with its neighbors.
Two years after Guillet wrote that, Europe is still just as dependent on Russia for its energy supply, meaning that this New Year's tradition is likely to continue. If the corner store continually rips you off, yet you continue to patronize it, can you really keep blaming the store?
Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
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