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Madagascar pays a steep price for its political stagnation

Almost a year and a half since protests spurned a coup that removed democratically-elected President Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar's political crisis continues to drag along. The government remains paralyzed and isolated, and formal development is reeling, with hundreds of millions of much-needed aid dollars frozen by donors.

Yesterday, the interim government, led by former DJ and mayor of Antananarivo, the country's capital and largest city, President Andry Rajoelina, who also has the backing of the country's military, reached an agreement with nearly 100 smaller political parties for new election dates. The accord is set to be adopted tomorrow, but it looks to have little impact: The three main opposition parties are boycotting discussions. These parties say they will only take part in elections that they help orchestrate, not just one organized by Rajoelina's government.

The accord sets presidential elections for the middle of next year, with a vote on a constitutional referendum on November 17. Originally, the referendum was supposed to be held this month and presidential elections in November, but opposition parties balked at these too. Earlier power-sharing negotiations, conducted in South Africa, also failed to bring all parties to an agreement.

This news does not bode well for the Malagasy people, of whom about 70 percent live below the poverty line. The EU, World Bank, and USAID have blocked development aid.  Also in peril is the island nation's delicate and extraordinarily unique environment, famous for endemic species like lemurs and baobab trees. Instability caused by the coup has created an illegal logging crisis in Madagascar's national parks. Loggers plunder rosewood trees, while lemurs have been hunted for bushmeat. This month, UNESCO's World Heritage committee added Madagascar's tropical forests to its Danger List of threatened ecosystems.

"What has been happening in Madagascar since the coup is little more than a smash-and-grab raid," Conservation International head Dr. Russell Mittermeier told Mongabay. "Unscrupulous companies have been taking advantage of the upheaval and the willingness of the current regime to allow highly damaging practices which bring no benefit to the nation and simply enrich a few greedy people."

In a surprisingly positive twist, a World Bank report (with the cautiously optimistic title: "Why has the Malagasy economy not yet collapsed?") published last month said Madagascar had largely avoided financial disaster thanks to a strong informal economy, which has grown an estimated 13 percent since 2009, and good weather. Rice yields have hit record levels after two years without cyclones.

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Iraqi general to US military: Stay longer!

First Tareq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's former deputy, said that the planned U.S. troop withdrawal was "leaving the country to the wolves." Now, the chief of staff of the Iraqi military, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari, says that the U.S. pullout was "too soon" -- and that his forces might not be able to secure the country for another decade. Well, at least the representatives of Iraq's old guard and its new regime are able to agree about something.

Zebari, who I'm going to go out on a limb and assume is a Kurd, undermines his case by calling for U.S. forces to stay in Iraq for another 10 years. But it's hard not to sympathize with him: When I interviewed former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker in March, following Iraq's parliamentary elections, he gently opposed Obama's plan to draw down to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1, reasoning that, because of the time-consuming government formation process, the Iraqi government may well not have made much progress in resolving its pressing political issues. Crocker said that the negotiations over government formation could take "two or three months" -- a suggestion that struck me as pessimistic at the time, but now, over five months into the process, turned out to be wildly optimistic.

"[T]hings aren't going to be much further along come August than they are right now," Crocker also said. Boy, was that prescient. But the bigger conundrum is this: Iraqi politicians must realize that U.S. forces are pulling out, whether they like it or not, and that their only hope of holding on to power in the aftermath is to reach some sort of modus vivendi with their domestic rivals. Given that reality, it's a tremendous failure of Iraq's political elite that they haven't agreed to bury the hatchet and form a government - while some of them, like Zebari, are calling on the United States to pay the price for their intransigence.

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