News & Current Affairs

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.”

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August 27, 2008

Clinton urges party to back Obama

Clinton urges party to back Obama

Hillary Clinton urges her supporters to get behind Barack Obama

Hillary Clinton has called on Democrats to unite behind Barack Obama as the party’s presidential candidate, saying she was his “proud supporter”.

Speaking at the party’s nominating convention, Mrs Clinton said they could not afford to lose to the Republicans.

“Whether you voted for me or voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose.”

Mr Obama, who beat Mrs Clinton in the primary race, will formally accept the party’s nomination on Thursday night.

He will stand against Republican John McCain in the presidential election on 4 November.

Mrs Clinton, who was given a standing ovation as she took the stage, thanked those who supported her through her campaign but said Mr Obama was now “my candidate”.

The party could not afford “to see another Republican in the White House squander the promise of our country and the hopes of our people”, she said.

“We are on the same team and none of us can sit on the sidelines,” she said.

She described Mr McCain as “my colleague and my friend” but went on to attack his record and links with President George W Bush.

“We don’t need four more years of the last eight years,” she said.

‘Deep faith’

Giving the convention’s keynote speech beforehand, ex-Virginia Governor Mark Warner said Mr Obama was the leader the US needed in the “race for the future”.

“We need a president who understands the world today, the future we seek, and the change we need,” he said.

We need a President who understands the world today, the future we seek, and the change we need
Mark Warner
Former Governor of Virginia

Key excerpts: Mark Warner

“We need Barack Obama as the next president of the United States.”

He also attacked Republican presidential contender John McCain as promising “more of the same” as the Bush administration.

Mr Warner is running for a Senate seat in Virginia, targeted as an important swing state by the Democrats in the November elections.

He commented on the daunting prospect of speaking after the last convention keynote speaker – Mr Obama in 2004 – and before Mrs Clinton in 2008, but said Americans should let hope replace fear.

“Tonight, looking out at all of you, and with a deep faith in the character and resolve of the American people, I am more confident than ever that we will win that race and make the future ours,” he concluded.

Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean sought earlier to dampen criticism that the convention so far had been too soft on Mr McCain, saying there was still “plenty of time” for tough-talking.

He also played down suggestions of a rift between supporters of Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton, saying there was “not a unity problem”.

Personal tensions

Mrs Clinton had already thrown her political weight behind Mr Obama and dismissed suggestions that the party is divided.
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But opinion polls had indicated that despite her repeated statements of support for Mr Obama, many of her supporters said they would rather vote for Mr McCain than for her former rival.

The BBC’s Jamie Coomarasamy, in Denver, says her many supporters seem divided between those who are, however reluctantly, supporting Mr Obama and those who say they may vote for Senator McCain.

Terry McAuliffe, who was the chairman of Mrs Clinton’s campaign, told the BBC: “Every single night we need to be laying out why John McCain’s bad for America.
John McCain speaks to veterans in Phoenix, Arizona, 26 Aug 2008
Some Democrats feel the party needs to focus its attack on Mr McCain

“Bush is the worst president in our nation’s history. We need to remind people every single day, and John McCain is nothing but Bush’s third term.”

A poll from CNN/Opinion Research Corp suggests that American voters are evenly divided between Mr Obama and Mr McCain, at 47% each.

Mr McCain is due to be nominated next week at the Republican Party’s convention in Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota.

He campaigned in Arizona on Tuesday, telling veterans that Mr Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war and preference for multilateral diplomacy could undermine US leadership in the world.

On the attack

While the first night of the convention was devoted to fleshing out the life story of Barack Obama, Tuesday was billed as “Renewing America’s Promise” and featured political heavyweights, including state governors and prominent House and Senate leaders.

Iowa Governor Chet Culver used his time on the convention floor to suggest big oil firms were backing Mr McCain, “bankrolling his campaign and gambling with our future”.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter, also attacked Mr McCain’s energy policy, suggesting he was more interested in giving tax cuts to oil firms than in safeguarding the environment.

CONVENTION AGENDA
Tuesday: Hillary Clinton speech; keynote speech by former Virginia governor Mark Warner
Wednesday: Speeches by Bill Clinton and Joe Biden; vote to confirm Barack Obama as party’s candidate
Thursday: Barack Obama to accept nomination with speech in stadium

Convention programme
Voters’ views on the convention
Convention diary

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said: “John McCain offers four more years of the same Bush-Cheney policies that have failed us.”

Mrs Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, takes the stage on Wednesday night, when Mr Obama is to be formally nominated.

Democratic officials are said to have brokered a deal between the Obama and Clinton camps for the nomination that is meant to appease die-hard Clinton supporters.

Some states would be allowed to cast votes for both Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton on Wednesday before the roll call is ended with the unanimous nomination of Barack Obama.

The first African-American to be nominated as a US presidential candidate, he makes his appearance on the closing night of the conference, when he is to address a crowd of an expected 80,000 people at a sports stadium.

After being attacked as a “celebrity” by the McCain campaign, the Democrats used the opening night of the convention to try to show the Illinois senator as a family man with normal concerns.

August 14, 2008

BA seals alliance with American

BA seals alliance with American

British Airways says it has sealed an alliance with American Airlines that will allow the two carriers to agree fares, routes and schedules together.

The move will also include Spain’s Iberia, which is merging with BA.

With aviation fuel prices near record levels and spending on air travel slowing, airlines are looking at ways to cut costs.

But the carriers will have to persuade the US that the deal does not break US rules on foreign ownership of airlines.

Challenges

Under the business agreement, the three airlines will co-operate on flights between the US, Mexico and Canada and the EU, Switzerland and Norway.

“We believe our proposed co-operation is an important step towards ensuring that we can compete effectively with rival alliances and manage through the challenges of record fuel prices and growing economic concerns,” said Gerard Arpey, chairman and chief executive of AMR Corp, the parent company of American Airlines.

However, BA’s rival Virgin Atlantic, owned by Sir Richard Branson, said the plan would reduce competition in the airline industry.

“What they’re proposing is to create the world’s biggest airline with American Airlines,” said Virgin’s Paul Charles.

“But we know what dominant players do – they snuff out competition, they raise prices and they become even more dominant.”

Competition

Peter Morris, an aviation analyst from Ascend, told that it was unlikely that the deal would be anti-competitive.

“I think BA would argue that it will reduce its cost structure, which it can then pass on, to a degree, to passengers.

“BA is far less dominant than any of Air France, KLM or Lufthansa are out of their hubs.”

AA and BA tailfins

The airlines hope the alliance will help them to cut costs

Mark Pritchard MP, a member of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee, also saw the decision as “good news” for both UK and US consumers.

“With tougher trading conditions for most airlines – coupled with the need to support the spirit of the Open Skies Agreement, Congress has no real excuse to delay the deal unnecessarily,” he said.

The airlines said they planned to apply to the US Department of Transportation for immunity from US anti-competition rules and they would also notify European regulators.

They have previously failed to win an exemption from these laws because of their dominance at Heathrow, where BA and AA control nearly half of all the landing and take-off slots to the US from the airport.

‘Good news’

However, BA chief executive Willie Walsh said the relationship would strengthen competition by providing consumers with easier journeys to more destinations.

“This may not be good news for Richard Branson but it is good news for consumers,” Mr Walsh told.

Earlier this week, Sir Richard said he had written to presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain to warn that the proposed alliance between BA and American Airlines would severely damage competition on transatlantic routes.

August 6, 2008

Troops stage coup in Mauritania

Troops stage coup in Mauritania

map

The president and prime minister of Mauritania, in north-west Africa, have been taken into custody by soldiers in a military coup.

President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and Prime Minister Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef are being held by men loyal to a general sacked by the president.

Mauritania staged elections in June 2007, two years after a military coup.

The country has been gripped by political crisis for a fortnight, after a vote of no confidence in the cabinet.

On Tuesday, 48 MPs walked out of the ruling party.

Unusual troop movements

Earlier on Wednesday, President Abdallahi replaced several senior army officers, including the head of the presidential guard, Gen Ould Abdelaziz.

Shortly afterwards, Gen Abdelaziz led soldiers in a coup against the president.

Officials loyal to the general said that all the officers sacked by the president have been re-instated.

A statement issued by them also said Mr Abdallahi was no longer president of Mauritania.

The first indications of a military coup came as state television was taken off the air amid reports of unusual troop movements in the capital, Nouakchott.

The president’s daughter, Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi, told Reuters news agency soldiers seized her father at his house at 0920 local time (0920 GMT).

The streets of the capital are said to be calm with no violence reported.

Political instability

Mauritania is one of the world’s poorest nations as well as its newest oil producer.

The desert nation, a former French colony of more than three million people, has been looking to oil revenues to boost its economy.

Presidential elections held in 2007 ended a two-year period of military rule – the product of an earlier coup in 2005.

The elections were deemed to have been free and fair and appeared to herald a new era of democracy.

Earlier this year, however, the president dismissed the government amid protests over soaring food prices.

The cabinet that replaced it has been dogged by instability, lacking the support of a moderate Islamist party and a major opposition group that were in the former government.

August 5, 2008

Obama urges opening oil reserves

Obama urges opening oil reserves

US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has outlined his plans to tackle the growing cost of energy and its impact on the American economy.

It is an issue that is expected to play a critical role in the presidential election in November.

In a reversal of policy, Mr Obama said the US should release 70m barrels of oil from its strategic reserves to lower petrol prices in the short-term.

He also suggested releasing more of the national petroleum reserve in Alaska.

Mr Obama reiterated a statement made at the weekend that he could support limited US offshore oil drilling if it were needed to enact a compromise energy policy.

In a similar reversal, his Republican rival, John McCain, has expressed his support for new offshore drilling, as part of an energy plan that includes nuclear energy and tax relief on gas production.

Mr Obama said US politicians have failed for three decades to deal with the energy crisis, and that Mr McCain has been “part of that failure.” In a new TV advert he accuses Mr McCain of being under the sway of big oil firms.

The ad shows Mr McCain with President George W Bush, as a narrator says: “After one president in the pocket of big oil, we can’t afford another.”

A spokesman for Republican Senator McCain said the advert was misleading.

The advert’s narrator says that “big oil’s filling John McCain’s campaign with $2m in contributions”.

The ad also promotes Mr Obama’s plan to use a windfall profits tax on big oil companies to give American families a $1,000 (£508) tax rebate, at a time when many are struggling with high energy prices.

‘Suffering’

In a statement, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said the advert failed to mention that Mr Obama had voted in favour of a 2005 bill giving tax breaks to energy producers.

Mr McCain voted against the bill, which was supported by Mr Bush.

“Barack Obama’s latest negative attack ad shows his celebrity is matched only by his hypocrisy,” Mr Bounds said.

“Also not mentioned is the $400,000 from big oil contributors that Barack Obama has already pocketed in this election.”

Mr Obama said his proposal to sell 70 million barrels from the reserve could help in the short-term to drive down the price of petrol at the pump.

His call to release oil from the US strategic reserves represents a change from the energy policy he proposed in June, in which he advocated keeping the reserve intact in case of emergency.

Campaign spokeswoman Heather Zichal said Mr Obama had reconsidered.

“He recognises that Americans are suffering,” she said.

During a speech in Lansing, Michigan, Mr Obama said: “Breaking our oil addiction is one of the greatest challenges our generation will ever face.

“It will take nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy.”

Mr Obama proposed releasing light crude oil from the stockpile, to be replaced at a later date with heavy crude oil.

Light crude oil is easier to turn into fuel for vehicles and other petroleum products.

The Bush administration has opposed tapping the reserve, saying it should be kept for dire emergencies. In 2005, some 10 million barrels were released in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, after supplies to refineries were disrupted.

Mr Obama’s comments came two days after he confirmed he was broadly supportive of a plan for energy independence, which includes limited offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

August 4, 2008

US election at-a-glance: 26 July-1 Aug

US election at-a-glance: 26 July-1 Aug

WEEK IN A NUTSHELL

Barack Obama completes his tour of Europe with a visit to the UK, where he meets Prime Minister Gordon Brown and opposition leader David Cameron. John McCain’s campaign launches a number of attack adverts against Mr Obama, accusing him of cancelling a visit to wounded soldiers because “cameras” would not have been allowed (a charge dismissed as false by Pentagon officials), and of being “the biggest celebrity in the world” over footage of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

KEY QUOTES
“There has been a long list. It seems to be getting shorter. And I’m still being mentioned. A lot can change day-to-day. But we’ll see.”
Democratic Virginia Governor Tim Kaine hints about his vice-presidential prospects

“Assuming that Governor Tim Kaine and Governor Kathleen Sebelius are both on Obama’s short-list, I wonder what the tight-lipped Obama world thinks about the leaks coming from Kaine allies as compared to the nada-nothing-bupkis coming from Sebelius’s orbit?”
Marc Ambinder, Atlantic monthly

“He’s the biggest celebrity in the world.”
Voice-over from a John McCain campaign advert, played over footage of Mr Obama’s fellow “celebrities”, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears

“We want to have a serious debate. But so far, we’ve been hearing about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. I do have to ask my opponent: is that the best you can come up with?”
Barack Obama

“There is legitimate mockery of a political campaign now, and it isn’t at Obama’s. For McCain’s sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop.”
Former McCain adviser John Weaver hits out at his former employer’s new team

“John McCain and the Republicans, they don’t have any new ideas… they’re going to try to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills…”
Was Barack Obama playing the race card?

“A throng of adoring fans awaits Senator Obama in Paris – and that’s just the American press.”
John McCain

“Race wont have any role in my campaign, nor is there any place for it. I’m disappointed that [Mr Obama]’s used it [the race card].”
John McCain thinks so

NUMBER NEWS

Quinnipiac published polls from three of the key swing states this week – Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Although Barack Obama held leads in all three of them, they all suggested that Mr Obama’s lead has shrunk since June 18, when the company last published polls from the states.

In Florida, he fell from 47% to 46%, with his opponent John McCain rising from 43% to 44%.

In Ohio, Quinnipiac also had Mr Obama beating Mr McCain 46%-44%, but previously the pollster had had them at 48%-42%.

In Pennsylvania, Mr Obama’s 12-point lead in June has dropped to seven, according to the poll.

None of these shifts in the polls provides enough evidence on its own for us to conclude that Mr Obama’s lead is slipping, but taken together, they would appear to indicate a slight weakening for Mr Obama in the most important battleground states.

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