News & Current Affairs

June 22, 2009

West ‘seeks Iran disintegration’

West ‘seeks Iran disintegration’

A protester throws an object towards police in Tehran, 20 June 2009

Saturday saw some of the worst violence since the election

Iranian authorities have deployed thousands of security officers on the streets of Tehran, after a week of mass protests over a disputed election.

Witnesses said there were no rallies in the capital on Sunday, a day after 10 people were reported killed in clashes between police and protesters.

State media said 457 people had been detained over Saturday’s violence.

The authorities have also continued a crackdown on foreign media – expelling the BBC’s Tehran correspondent.

The corporation confirmed Jon Leyne had been asked to leave the country, but said the BBC office in Tehran would remain open.

Campaign group Reporters Without Borders says 23 local journalists and bloggers have been arrested over the past week.

Roof-top chanting

The protests were sparked by the presidential election on 12 June, which officials said incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide.

Supporters of his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, believe the election was rigged and have demonstrated since the results were announced.

But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has backed Mr Ahmadinejad and made it clear in a speech on Friday that no further protests would be tolerated.

Some analysts interpreted the ayatollah’s speech as giving a green light for security forces to use live ammunition.

Iranian state TV reported that 10 people had died and 100 were injured when protesters and police clashed on Saturday.

On Sunday, thousands of security officers were out on the streets but protesters stayed away.

The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, in Tehran, says many residents of northern Tehran could be heard shouting from the rooftops “death to the dictator” and “Allahu akbar” on Sunday evening.

The chants have become a popular form of protest, and our correspondents says men, women and children joined in and Sunday’s chanting was much louder than on previous days.

Mousavi’s plea

Security forces continued to round up protesters on Saturday – with state media saying 457 people had been arrested.

Among the detained were several family members of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – a powerful opponent of Mr Ahmadinejad.

Analysts said the arrests came as a surprise because Mr Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts – a cleric run group which has the power to remove the supreme leader.

All of Mr Rafsanjani’s relatives were reported to have been freed by Sunday evening.

Meanwhile, Mr Mousavi, whose supporters make up most of the protesting crowds, urged them to continue their rallies.

“Protesting against lies and fraud is your right. In your protests continue to show restraint,” a statement on his website said.

Analysts say Mr Mousavi’s statements and the street protests his supporters have organised represent the biggest challenge to the state in the Islamic republic’s 30-year history.


Are you in Iran? What do you think of the current situation? Are you taking part in the demonstrations?

If you have any information you would like to share us!

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December 30, 2008

Caroline Kennedy fails to impress

Caroline Kennedy fails to impress

Caroline Kennedy

Caroline Kennedy wants to become a New York senator

Caroline Kennedy’s latest attempt to press her case to be the replacement for Hillary Clinton as a senator for New York has been widely criticised in the US media.

Ms Kennedy – daughter of former President John F Kennedy – broke weeks of silence on her bid, by giving a series of interviews at the weekend.

But she was criticized for being unknowledgeable on key policy areas, being unable to articulate why she was seeking public office for the first time – and even for possessing a verbal tic.

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Under the headline “Caroline Kennedy no whiz with words”, the New York Daily News mimicked Ms Kennedy’s speech pattern during the round of interviews.

“Caroline Kennedy, you know, might need, you know, a speech coach, um, if she, you know, wants, um, to be a senator,” the paper said.

Totting up the number of “verbal tics” during its 30-minute interview, the paper counted “you know” more than 200 times… and added that “‘um’ was fairly constant, too”.

Asked if President George W Bush’s tax cuts on the wealthy should be repealed immediately, Ms Kennedy replied: “Well, you know, that’s something, obviously, that, you know, in principle and in the campaign, you know, I think that, um, the tax cuts, you know, were expiring and needed to be repealed,” the paper reported.

It consulted experts to give their opinion on her speaking manner. One said it was not necessarily an indication of weakness or doubt, just inexperience. Another advised her to get coaching, to pause more often, and “to listen to her father”.

Columnist Michael Goodwin wrote: “The wheels of the bandwagon are coming off. Fantasy is giving way to inescapable truth. That truth is that Kennedy is not ready for the job and doesn’t deserve it. Somebody who loves her should tell her.”

NEW YORK POST

The New York Post also counted up the number of times Ms Kennedy said “you know” during its interview – 235 times in 41 minutes – “which works out to saying the phrase once every 10.5 seconds,” it said.

The speech expert it consulted described it as a “very, very common” verbal tic called a “vocalized pause,” and said it was a “Kennedyism” as demonstrated by her uncle.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Associated Press said “Kennedy offered no excuses for why she failed to vote in a number of elections since registering in New York City in 1988”.

“I was really surprised and dismayed by my voting record,” she told AP. “I’m glad it’s been brought to my attention.”

AP reported that “since word of her interest leaked out in early December, Kennedy has faced sometimes sharp criticism that she cut in line ahead of politicians with more experience and has acted as if she were entitled to it because of her political lineage”.

In response, Ms Kennedy said: “Anybody who knows me knows I haven’t really lived that way. And I think that in my family, I come into this thinking I have to work twice as hard as anybody else. Nobody’s entitled to anything, certainly not me.”

NEW YORK TIMES

“[Ms Kennedy] still seemed less like a candidate than an idea of one: forceful but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way,” the paper said.

“She provided only the broadest of rationales for her candidacy for the Senate, saying her experience as a mother, author and school fund-raiser, her commitment to public service and her deep political connections had prepared her for the job.”

The Times said Ms Kennedy spoke “knowledgeably about education issues”.

But the paper added: “… She said she hoped to be a consensus-builder, and declined to describe her positions on other pressing public issues – even in education, where she has some expertise. Ms. Kennedy would not say, for example, whether she supported proposals to abolish tenure for teachers and offer them merit pay instead.”

Ms Kennedy “seemed irritated” when asked to describe the moment she decided to seek the Senate seat. She said “she couldn’t recall”, the article said.

“Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?” she asked the Times reporters. “I thought you were the crack political team.”

HUFFINGTON POST

Huffington Post writer Diane Tucker gave her take on the emphasis other media were placing on Ms Kennedy’s speech patterns.

“The real reason her interview is riddled with ‘you knows’ is because she mocked the two Times reporters halfway through the interview.

“Rookie mistake, Caroline! You gotta play nice in the media sandbox. Good manners are important. …No one ever says ‘you know’ in my interviews for HuffPost. We edit that garbage out. I’m sure Kennedy won’t make that mistake twice. After all, she went to Harvard.”

Tucker adds: “We Americans are a kind-hearted people, and we have always felt deeply sorry for her loss. Couldn’t we make it up to Kennedy by gifting her a Senate seat? Wouldn’t that be nice?

“Never mind that she’s made it perfectly clear over the years that she really isn’t into politics. Never mind that there are hundreds of New Yorkers with more experience. If Prince Charles is entitled to be King, then by golly Caroline Kennedy is entitled to be Senator.”

SALON

Salon’s Joan Walsh writes: “Overall, [Kennedy] was slippery, and regrettably, because I admire her, I came away with the feeling that she views her single best credential for the Senate seat as her celebrity, and, secondarily, her wealth.”

Regarding Ms Kennedy’s comment to the New York Times journalists about writing for women’s magazines, Walsh wrote: “I’ve written for women’s magazines, and I can anticipate people who might object to that remark as condescending, but I thought it was smart and funny: it captured the traditional media’s growing infatuation with the telling sappy anecdote over important discussions of policy – even, sadly, at the New York Times.”

October 2, 2008

Toyota eyes European growth

Toyota eyes European growth

Toyota Avensis

The launch of the Avensis was a low-key affair

Given its significance, the Monday night preview of Toyota’s new Avensis was a remarkably low-key affair.

A few dozen journalists and company executives witnessed the car’s unveiling at the event at the Pavillon Gabriel in Paris.

Tadashi Arashima, president and chief executive of Toyota Motor Europe, started out by bemoaning the “current business situation”.

By the time he got around to talk about the Avensis – a model that is not only designed for and built by Europeans but also kick-starts a frantic launch period as Toyota aims to bring 18 new models to market by the end of 2009 – any celebratory mood had been replaced by earnest concern.

However, Toyota’s new models will include a few attention-grabbing cars. These include the next generation Prius, which will have its global premiere at the Detroit motor show in January, and Paris premieres of the iQ mini-car and the Urban Cruiser.

We expect to grow our market share month by month in 2009
Tadashi Arashima, chief executive, Toyota Motor Europe

“We have a lot of new products that are meeting the current market conditions,” says Mr Arashima, pointing to how cars developed to meet stricter emission regulations in Europe are also delivering the fuel economy currently demanded by frugal consumers.

So does this mean the Japanese carmaker is set to take advantage of the economic downturn by boosting its market share in Europe?

When BBC News posed the question during a pre-launch briefing, Mr Arashima responded with a modest smile.

“Maybe by accident,” he said. “We didn’t really expect the market to go down so quickly.”

Bouncing back

In Toyota’s case, sales have slipped 15% so far this year in Western Europe, though a 25% rise in sales in Russia helped to compensate for the slump.

Nevertheless, its European market share has shrunk to 5.3% during the year to date, down from 5.6% a year ago.

Mr Arashima acknowledges that in 2008 it will be “tricky” to match the sales seen in 2007, when Toyota hit its 11th consecutive sales record in Europe.

However, he insists the tables will turn come the New Year.

“I am fully convinced there is no better time for our new line-up to hit Europe,” Mr Arashima says.

“We expect to grow our market share month by month in 2009.”

Shrinking markets

Globally, Toyota hopes to add 200,000 sales to its books during 2009, to 9.7 million cars and other vehicles.

Western Europe is definitely going to go down
Thierry Dombreval, chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Europe

That would be no mean feat at a time when pretty much all its rivals are cutting back.

In Western Europe, total car sales by the industry as a whole are set to fall 10% in 2009, according to Toyota’s own internal forecast.

“Western Europe is definitely going to go down,” Thierry Dombreval, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Europe, told journalists during a briefing.

“Spain is now down 32% in September, and the UK is very fragile.”

In Russia, Europe’s fastest-growing market, growth is set to slow to 5% next year, from some 25-30% growth so far this year, Mr Dombreval added.

This latest prediction is much lower than Toyota’s previous forecast of 15% sales growth in the Russian car market during 2009.

Long-term growth

Toyota’s optimism is not limited to its growth in market share in 2009. Over time, regardless of whether or not the current economic downturn is lengthy or not, the company predicts that global demand for cars will grow fast.

“Cars are indispensable anywhere in the world for people to move, and the current financial situation does not change that,” says Mitsuo Kinoshita, executive vice president, Toyota.

September 19, 2008

Rice criticises ‘isolated’ Russia

Rice criticises ‘isolated’ Russia

Russia is becoming increasingly authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said.

In a strongly-worded speech, Ms Rice said Moscow was on a “one-way path to isolation and irrelevance”.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Russia have been strained by the recent conflict in Georgia.

Earlier, Russia’s president said the two nations should not risk established ties over “trivial matters.”

Dmitry Medvedev said it would be “politically short-sighted” if Washington and Moscow were to endanger their political and economic ties.

However, Ms Rice suggested in her speech that following the conflict in Georgia, Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization had been put in doubt.

Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and launched a full-scale invasion
Condoleezza Rice

The US has already shelved a civilian nuclear deal with Russia, but despite tensions the two countries are maintaining diplomatic links.

Ms Rice held a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just hours before delivering her speech, and Russia is also due to join an international meeting on Iran’s nuclear program on Friday.

Our correspondent says Moscow is also telling the US that its co-operation is needed over issues like Iran and North Korea, with many in Washington feeling the Russians have a point.

Several hours after Ms Rice spoke, it emerged that a Russian submarine test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

An official from Russia’s defence ministry is quoted as saying that the test – carried out in Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka peninsula – went according to plan.

‘Deeply disconcerting’

Speaking at an event organized by the German Marshall Fund in Washington, Ms Rice acknowledged that Georgia had fired the first shots in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Russian troops in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali

Ms Rice said Russia had tried to dismember Georgia

“The Georgian government launched a major military operation into Tskhinvali [the capital of South Ossetia] and other areas of that separatist region,” she said.

“Regrettably, several Russian peacekeepers were killed in the fighting,” she added.

But Ms Rice said that Russia had escalated the conflict.

“Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and launched a full-scale invasion across an internationally recognized border,” she said, adding that Russia had also violated the terms of a ceasefire negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ms Rice said it had been “deeply disconcerting” that Russia had tried to “dismember” Georgia by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and argued that Russia’s actions were part of what she described as a “worsening pattern of behavior”.

“I refer… to Russia’s intimidation of its sovereign neighbours, its use of oil and gas as a political weapon… its threat to target peaceful neighbours with nuclear weapons… and its persecution – or worse – of Russian journalists and dissidents,” she added.

Pledging help to rebuild Georgia, Ms Rice said the US and Europe would not let Russia benefit from aggression.

‘Taking the bait’

Ms Rice admitted that Georgia could have responded better to the events last month in South Ossetia.

We will not allow Russia to wield a veto over the future of our Euro-Atlantic community
Condoleezza Rice

“We warned our Georgian friends that Russia was baiting them, and that taking this bait would only play into Moscow’s hands,” she said.

However Ms Rice, an expert on the Soviet Union, also said that Russia could not blame its behavior on the enlargement of Nato.

“Since the end of the Cold War, we and our allies have worked to transform Nato… into a means for nurturing the growth of a Europe whole, free and at peace.”

The promise of Nato membership had been a positive incentive for states to build democratic institutions and reform their economies, she added.

And she insisted that Russia would not be allowed to dictate who joined the Nato alliance.

“We will not allow Russia to wield a veto over the future of our Euro-Atlantic community – neither what states we offer membership, nor the choice of those states to accept it,” she said

“We have made this particularly clear to our friends in Ukraine.”

The secretary of state was also critical of the domestic situation inside Russia.

“What has become clear is that the legitimate goal of rebuilding Russia has taken a dark turn – with the rollback of personal freedoms, the arbitrary enforcement of the law [and] the pervasive corruption at various levels of Russian society,” she said.

Russia’s leaders were risking the future progress of the Russian people, she said, declaring that Russia’s leaders “are putting Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance”.

September 18, 2008

Karadzic’s broken Bosnia remains

Karadzic’s broken Bosnia remains

In the old days we would trot along to see Radovan Karadzic often. He would see us at the drop of a hat.

He was affable, jocular, hugely confident that what he was doing was right.

From time to time he would roll out his maps. There were lines separating the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) in Bosnia from the rest.

There was a line through the heart of Sarajevo – these quarters for the Muslims, those for the Serbs.

The term “ethnic cleansing” was not invented by the foreign journalists he courted so warmly. It was how his own followers described what they were doing.

Radovan Karadzic in 1993

Radovan Karadzic would freely outline his plans to journalists

Republika Srpska is the land that Radovan built. Ethnic cleansing was the means by which he achieved it.Go back there today and you see, starkly, that while the ideologues and architects of the policy are, for the most part, behind bars, the foot soldiers of ethnic cleaning are still at large.

They are still, in many cases, at their desks in the town halls and police stations across Bosnia.

Mirsad Tokaca runs Bosnia’s Research and Documentation Center.

It collates evidence of crimes committed during the 45-month war.

He believes there are between 3,000 and 5,000 war criminals who should face prosecution.

The Hague tribunal has restricted itself to a few dozen “big fish” and has said it will issue no more indictments.

Bosnia’s own state-wide war crimes court came into existence three years ago and has so far brought prosecutions against about a hundred people.

The local courts are supposed to prosecute local war criminals. They do not.

Where it started

Bijeljina, in north-eastern Bosnia, is where it all started.

Ten times they took me outside and told me they were going to kill me – it was a terrible experience
Jusuf Trbic
Bosnian Muslim survivor

On 31 March 1992, a paramilitary unit led by the feared Zeljko Raznatovic – known as Arkan – crossed the river from Serbia and unleashed a reign of terror.

Civilians were shot dead in the street. Prominent Muslims were rounded up, and some of them murdered.

The Muslim (Bosniak) population – tens of thousands of people – was driven out.

Eighteen years on, only a small proportion of those who were expelled have gone back, despite the legal right to do so.

Saalem Corbo is one of the returnees. He remembers how Arkan’s men rampaged through the town. And, he says, they had local help.

Mirko Blagojevic, a Bijeljina Serb and head of the Serbian Radical Party in the town, formed and led his own paramilitary unit, according to evidence presented to the Hague tribunal.

“He knew where the prominent Muslims in the town lived,” says Mr Corbo.

“He led Arkan’s troops to their houses so that they could be rounded up. Few of them survived.”

Survivor

Jusuf Trbic is one who did survive.

“Mirko Blagojevic came to my father-in-law’s house at 1600 on 1 April,” he told me.

“He was with Arkan’s men. They took me to Arkan’s headquarters and told me I had to make an announcement on local radio instructing all the Muslims to surrender their weapons.

“But I didn’t know anything about weapons. They held me all night and beat me.

“Ten times they took me outside and told me they were going to kill me. It was a terrible experience.”

We live with the former war criminals, we see them every day in the streets
Branko Todorovic
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights

Mirko Blagojevic is not a convicted war criminal. No case has ever been brought against him, far less proven.

He is not hard to find. He has enjoyed a long career as an elected politician in the years since the war ended.

He emphatically denied co-operating with Arkan’s men. He denied all the allegations made by Mr Corbo and Mr Trbic.

Branko Todorovic runs the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bijeljina.

He said only two war crimes trials had been brought by local prosecutors since the war ended – and both of these were against Muslims who had co-operated with Serb guards in a concentration camp.

Karadzic and Arkan in Bijeljina, 1995

Arkan salutes troops in Bijeljina, where he unleashed terror in 1992

The Bijeljina courts, by the way, have jurisdiction over the Srebrenica area, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered in a few days in July 1995.

“We live with the former war criminals, we see them every day in the streets,” says Mr Todorovic.

Why does it matter?

The ethnic partition of Bosnia endures. The Dayton agreement of 1995 ended the war. But it divided Bosnia into two, ethnically defined entities – Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

The leaders of Republika Srpska long ago abandoned their original dream of union with Serbia.

They have accepted some of the symbols of Bosnian statehood – a common currency, a shared passport, a flag.

Survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and their relatives watched the hearing

Mr Karadzic’s hearings at The Hague have been broadcast on TV

The one truly successful example of reintegration is – ironically – in the army, where former Muslim, Serb and Croat enemies now serve alongside each other.Beyond that, there is little that is truly Bosnian.

The entities, not the Bosnian state, have real executive power.

The Bosnian state barely functions. It is incapable of carrying out the reforms that Bosnia desperately needs.

And so as Croatia and Serbia continue their respective journeys to the European mainstream – to EU and possibly Nato membership – Bosnia, still broken, still paralysed, is being left behind, and is in danger of sinking further into corruption, poverty and organised crime.

Look at Republika Srpska today and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Radovan Karadzic got much of what he set out to get.

Uganda seeking miniskirt ban

Uganda seeking miniskirt ban

A woman wearing a miniskirt in Uganda

The minister said wearing a miniskirt was akin to going naked

Uganda’s ethics and integrity minister says miniskirts should be banned – because women wearing them distract drivers and cause traffic accidents.

Nsaba Buturo told journalists in Kampala that wearing a miniskirt was like walking naked in the streets.

“What’s wrong with a miniskirt? You can cause an accident because some of our people are weak mentally,” he said.

journalists found the minister’s comments extremely funny.

Wearing a miniskirt should be regarded as “indecent”, which would be punishable under Ugandan law, Mr Buturo said.

And he railed against the dangers facing those inadvertently distracted by short skirts.

“If you find a naked person you begin to concentrate on the make-up of that person and yet you are driving,” he said.

“These days you hardly know who is a mother from a daughter, they are all naked.”

Vice list

According to the minister, indecent dressing is just one of many vices facing Ugandan society.

“Theft and embezzlement of public funds, sub-standard service delivery, greed, infidelity, prostitution, homosexuality [and] sectarianism…” he said.

Earlier this year, Kampala’s Makerere University decided to impose a dress code for women at the institution, our reporter says.

The miniskirt and tight trousers ban has yet to be implemented, but our correspondent sought the opinions of women on campus about the minister’s opinions.

“If one wants to wear a miniskirt, it’s ok. If another wants to put on a long skirt, then that’s ok,” one woman said.

But others had more sympathy with Mr Buturo.

“I think skimpy things are not good. We are keeping the dignity of Africa as ladies and we have to cover ourselves up,” one woman, called Sharon, told.

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

September 12, 2008

Poland’s former leader on trial

Poland’s former leader on trial

General Wojciech Jaruzelski. File photo

Gen Jaruzelski remains a highly controversial figure in Poland

Poland’s last communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, has gone on trial accused of committing a crime by imposing martial law in 1981.

Eight other former officials will also be tried for the clampdown against the opposition Solidarity movement, during which dozens of people were killed.

Gen Jaruzelski, who is now 84 and in poor health, says he had to act to prevent a Soviet invasion of Poland.

If found guilty he faces up to 10 years in prison.

Although there is little public clamor in Poland to send Mr Jaruzelski to prison, a crowd of journalists and members of the public packed the courtroom as the trial began.

Gen Jaruzelski and three of his co-defendants were identified before a panel of judges.

Four of the eight accused men were absent, citing poor health.

‘Lesser evil’

Reading the charges, the prosecutor said the men had violated their own communist constitution when they created what he called a “criminal military organization” to implement martial law in December 1981.

The trial, in Warsaw, marks the first time Poland has held its former communist leaders criminally responsible for imposing martial law.

Immediately after the fall of communism in 1989, the new Solidarity government rejected calls for political retribution.

But in recent years moves to bring the senior communist party leaders to account for martial law have hastened.

Gen Jaruzelski has always maintained he chose the lesser evil when he ordered tanks onto the snowbound city streets on that night in 1981.

If he had not acted against Solidarity, he says, Soviet troops would have.

According to surveys, many Poles believe him.

August 30, 2008

McCain unveils ‘The Barracuda’

McCain unveils ‘The Barracuda’

There were no late night text messages and perhaps not the same build up that preceded the announcement of Barack Obama’s choice for running mate.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (29 August 2008)

Mrs Palin has been credited with bringing in reforms in her time in office

But because it was kept a secret almost until the end, John McCain’s choice did generate a fair amount of rumor and speculation.

Was he going to pick a traditional candidate, a safe bet – someone like the young governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, or would the veteran Arizona senator go for the wild card?

The answer came on a private jet that flew in from the Alaskan city of Anchorage on Thursday night and landed outside Dayton, Ohio, apparently carrying on board a woman, two men and two teenagers.

All the journalists who were covering the story started looking up the biography of Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old governor of Alaska.

‘Average hockey mom’

She may be seen by some as a rising star of the Republican Party, but she was relatively unknown on a national level.

As he took to the stage, in front of a packed audience, Mr McCain introduced her as “exactly who I need, exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of me first and the country second”.

For observers, it showed Mr McCain felt he needed to make a bold move to help change the course of the race to the White House.

SARAH PALIN

Elected Alaska’s youngest and first woman governor in 2006

Grew up in Wasilla, near Anchorage, and was voted Miss Wasilla in 1984
Studied journalism and political science at University of Idaho
Is mother of five, including a son with Down’s syndrome
Her husband Todd is an oil production operator
Likes hunting and fishing

The two presidential hopefuls have been running head to head, with Mr Obama gaining eight percentage points in the polls in recent days.

The choice of Sarah Palin is a high risk bet that could bring high rewards, but there are no guarantees.

Mrs Palin, a mother of five, is the first woman to be on a Republican presidential ticket.

Married for 20 years to Todd Palin, her high school sweetheart, she was nicknamed “Sarah Barracuda” during her college years for her aggressive basketball playing style – the name has stuck.

On stage, dressed in a conservative black power suit, her hair raised in a high ponytail, she described herself as “an average hockey mom from Alaska”.

She drew applause when talking about her anti-corruption drive, her standing up to big oil companies and even the “good old boys club”, which drew a smile from Mr McCain.

She eats moose meat and is an inveterate hunter, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

One of her sons is heading to Iraq in September. The other, born in April, is diagnosed with Down’s syndrome.

‘Exciting choice’

In many ways, her story is all American and her values will appeal to the conservative base and to blue-collar voters.

With 80% approval ratings back home, she seemed to also get the approval of the crowd she was addressing, drawing very enthusiastic cheers, as she spoke in a relaxed, accessible way.

It turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all
Sarah Palin

Mrs Palin also ticks several required boxes – she is fiscally conservative, in favor of drilling for oil and very staunchly anti-abortion.

Most of all she is a reformer and a fresh face for the Republican ticket.

President George W Bush said she was “an exciting choice” and Mrs Palin certainly adds energy and sizzle to the McCain campaign.

She also clearly reached out to disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters, who are disappointed their candidate did not make it on to the Democratic ticket, not even as vice-president.

“I can’t begin this great effort without honoring the achievement of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and of course, Hillary Clinton, who showed determination in her presidential campaign,” Mrs Palin said.

“It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”

The Democrats for McCain group sent out an e-mail saying its supporters, especially the women, were “ecstatic” about the choice of Mrs Palin.

But other Democrats said they felt insulted that Mr McCain thought he could woo women by just putting any woman on his ticket, with one sentence making the rounds: “Palin, you are no Hillary Clinton”.

Experience questioned

It all made for an exciting day in Dayton, a city of just over 150,000 that has been hard hit by job losses in the past few years.

But the whole of the US is probably now scouring the internet for more information about Governor Palin and trying to assess her credentials.

Sarah Palin visits troops in Kuwait (24 July 2007)
What is it exactly that a VP does every day?
Sarah Palin

Many will be wondering whether she is ready to be vice-president and even lead the US, should something happen to Mr McCain if he is elected president.

As commander of the Alaska National Guard, she visited troops in Kuwait last year, but has a very thin foreign policy background.

Similarly, while she does have executive experience, the Obama campaign wryly pointed out she had been the mayor of a town with just 9,000 people.

As governor of Alaska during the past two years she has gained more experience, but even some Alaskans calling into talk shows on US network television said they doubted whether that had prepared her for the challenge of national politics.

She did herself no favors in a recent interview.

“As for that VP talk all the time, I can’t answer until someone answers me. What is it exactly that a VP does every day?” she said just a month ago on CNBC when asked about her chances of being on the ticket.

“I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that this VP slot would be fruitful type of position especially for Alaskans and for the kind of things we are trying to accomplish here for the rest of the US.”

Investigation

By choosing her, Mr McCain may have undercut his best attack against Senator Obama – if he uses the inexperience card now it will be turned against him and his running mate.

While conservatives, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Bush adviser Karl Rove, hailed the Palin surprise, there were also dismayed reactions from some Republicans, who felt the choice underscored Mr McCain’s weaknesses and was too risky.

Polls in the coming days, and Mrs Palin’s performance at the Republican National Convention, will help assess the impact of Mr McCain’s decision.

In the meantime, Mr McCain and his new partner have something else to worry about – Mrs Palin is facing an investigation in Alaska for alleged abuse of power involving her former brother-in-law. Her deposition is expected to be scheduled soon.

She says she has “nothing to hide” and is “cool” about the investigation.

August 25, 2008

Pakistan government bans Taleban

Pakistan government bans Taleban

Baitullah Mehsud

Baitullah Mehsud is the head of Pakistan’s Taleban

Pakistan has banned the Taleban militant group which has been behind many suicide attacks in the country since 2007.

The Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) will have its bank accounts and assets frozen, the interior ministry said.

Last week the Taleban claimed responsibility for an attack on a munitions plant in Punjab province in which 67 people were killed.

It is not yet clear what impact the ban will have on the militants.

The TTP is a loose grouping of militants headed by Baitullah Mehsud who is based in Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal district on Afghanistan’s border.

The ban on the Taleban comes a day after the man likely to be Pakistan’s next president, Asif Ali Zardari, advocated such a move in a BBC interview.

‘Created mayhem’

“We have banned Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan because of their involvement in a series of suicide attacks,” interior ministry chief Rehman Malik said.

“They themselves have claimed responsibility of several suicide attacks and the government cannot engage in a dialogue with such people,” he said.

Mr Malik said the Taleban had “created mayhem against the public life”.

A ministry official told that the state bank had been asked to freeze any accounts the organization might have.

The Pakistan Taleban is fighting for an Islamic state. They see it as their religious duty to fight the international forces currently in Afghanistan.

Meeting journalists in May, Baitullah Mehsud said his organization did not want to fight Pakistan’s army, but that it was being forced to because the army were “slaves to US demands”.

There have been a number of local ceasefire deals with the Taleban and other militants but none have been successful in stopping the violence or preventing incursions into Afghanistan, our correspondent says.

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