Monday, November 20, 2006

Energy Is What It's All About

A gabfest worth taken a closer look at is taking place in Brussels. EU suits are huddling around tables to discuss the energy conundrum Europe finds itself in. You see Russia has Europe by the energy taps. Russia supplies a quarter of Europe's oil and over two-fifths of its gas. Some more numbers. Europe gets about 50 percent of all its energy from abroad. Add to that the fact it's own energy sources, mainly oil in the North Sea, are drying up. Add to that demand for energy around the planet -- but mainly in China and India -- is skyrocketing. But what's the problem? After all, Europe sits next door to the huge supplies of both gas and oil buried under the earth in Russia. Aha, there's the problem. It's the ol' unreliable Ruskies with all that energy wealth. And the Europeans know it and don't like it. You see, the Europeans got a scare last winter when the Russian gas spiggot to Europe was turned off briefly during a spat between Russia and Ukraine over gas prices. The horrible Russians wanted the Ukrainians -- veering Westward at the time under President Viktor Yushchenko -- to pay market prices for gas, and not the subsidized price -- about four times under market price -- they had enjoyed. For some reason, all those market-uber-alles guys in the West, condemned Russia for its effrontery. Since then, EU apparatchiks have bleated about a "united energy policy," i.e. the Europeans have got to stand together to beat back Vladimir Putin, who they accuse of using Russia's energy resources as a tool of foreign policy. The nerve of that Putin. The EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, reminded the Russians that EU cash is fueling Russia's rebirth. I give you here cryptic diplomatese: "The substantial and reliable flow of revenues that Russia obtains from selling energy to the EU has undoubtedly been one of the key factors in Russia's economic revival." The EU's head don, Jose Manuel Barroso, was equally ridiculous, saying "Russia is an important parter for the EU in energy. But it is not, and should not be, the EU's only partner." Yeah, you tell 'em Jose. On a serious note Barroso said the EU has signed an energy cooperation agreement with Ukraine which covered nuclear safety, the integration of electricity and gas markets, enhanced security of energy supplies, and the transit of hydrocarbons through the country. He said a similar agreement has been signed with Azerbaijan and another will be signed shortly with Kazakhstan. The EU strategy is clear: line up as many energy pals as possible to counter the Russians. Putin, meanwhile, has not sat pat. Russia and Germany have agreed to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. So much for EU team play. Like the EU, Poland doesn't like the plan either because it bypasses their territory, and weakens their leverage with the Russians. So now, Poland is holding up talks on a new EU-Russia Pact. Maybe Solana said it best: "The scramble for energy risks being pretty unprincipled." No kidding.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Czechs Finally Get Their Lightness

After 22 years of anticipation, readers in the Czech Republic have been snatching up copies of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, the book that vaulted Milan Kundera into the ranks of great 20th century writers.

Although written in Czech in 1984, the book, like much of Kundera’s work, was translated into dozens of languages, but never appeared in his native land, in his native tongue.

Until now. Some 30,000 copies were sold in a mere two weeks, leaving the small Czech publisher Atlantis gladly scrambling to print more.

For Jiri Penas, cultural editor at “Tyden”, or Week, (the Czech equivalent of Time or Newsweek), publication of Lightness is further proof the Czech Republic is more a “normal” country than the totalitarian one of its past.

“The book is popular in Spain, Italy, all over Europe, and even in America, it’s considered a major work of the twentieth century,” explains Penas. (TO ME) “It only made sense that a book dealing with the fate of Czechoslovakia, with its Czech themes should be available in Czech to readers here.”

The book focuses on the fateful year of 1968 when the hopes of the Prague Spring were crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks and replaced by a hardline period of “Normalization.” The tale is told through the eyes of two young couples and is smattered throughout with existentialist musings about the futility of it all.

The novel in fact was first published in Czech in 1985, by “68 Publishers,” a small Toronto-based publisher made up of then writers in exile. Only a handful of copies, however, made it through the Iron Curtain. Pirated copies have also floated around the Internet.

While the Czech literary community welcomed the book as long overdue, some suggested its relevancy has expired.

Vladimir Novotny, a literature professor, told the “Prague Post,” that while Lightness is “one of the most stunning texts of Czech postwar literature,” it has come to Czech readers too late. He told the English weekly it “comes as a museum exhibit, not as an alive book that could engage more readers. People will look at it as a valued classic, it will be read but cannot grip as it could right after 1990.”

So why did it take the 77-year-old Kundera so long?

The quirky native of Brno is famed for being a perfectionist and carefully checks every one of his works before publication and even then he is rarely satisfied. Kundera was so disappointed with the 1988 Hollywood adaptation of Lightness that he vowed never to sell the rights to any of his books again.

“It took me some time to put together the translation because I wanted it to be definitive – without leaving out any words or including mistakes” he himself explains in the introduction to the Czech version of Lightness.

That’s all the reclusive Kundera has said on the subject and few expect anything more. He rarely if ever gives interviews and when he does travel back home to the Czech Republic, he does so in disguise to avoid publicity.

Czech commentators, however, have been abuzz with their own theories for the delay.

Some point to Kundera’s testy relation with his intellectual counterparts back home. Kundera has lived in France for more than 30 years after having his citizenship stripped while there on a trip in 1974. He now rights in French, not Czech. And when Czech dissidents urged him to join the underground movement to agitate against the Communist regime in the 1980s, Kundera ignored them and instead plunged further into writing novels.

Jan Culik from Glasgow University says some dissidents panned Lightness when it came out, and Kundera hasn’t forgotten.

“Maybe, the reason for Kundera’s books from the 1980s not being published in the Czech Republic is the fact that when “Unbearable Lightness of Being” was published in the West, it was a major success for Kundera, and Czech dissident critics slammed the book,” Culik explains. “They really didn’t like it. They thought it was kitsch, they said it was too black and white, they had various small criticisms. And I think Kundera was offended.”

Penas doesn’t agree. He says while some dissidents did criticize the book, most praised it. He says some Czechs feel slighted by Kundera’s refusal to talk with Czech media or return home without disguise.

“But you have to understand, Kundera doesn’t give interviews not only to Czech media, but all media. He doesn’t want to be a celebrity, he shuns that type of life,” he says.

As to why it took so long for the book to appear, Penas says it has nothing to do with badblood but rather Kundera’s sense of obligation to his readers back home.

“Kundera promised his publisher Atantis in the early 1990s to give them one of his works every year. He never did, and they probably gently pushed him to work on this book, knowing what a commercial success it would be. And he agreed.”

With the book finally in their hands, however, Czech readers could care less.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Victim of Skinhead Attack In Slovakia Could Face Jail

Hedviga Malinova was speaking Hungarian to a friend on her mobile phone back in August in the Slovak town of Nitra.
Unfortunately, a few skinheads happened to be walking by and hearing Hungarian they attacked like Pavlovian dogs. Malinova says they ripped an earring out of her ear, scrawled "Slovakia for Slovaks' and stole her phone and other valuables. The incident happened with Slovakia and Hungary trading slurs and insults, at soccer games and in the halls of power. Among the most adept ethnic mudslingers was and is Mr. Jan Slota. Malinova became a media celebrity, a reminder of how far and ugly things had come between the neighbors. Now, fast forward three months, and everything is different. Not only are Slovak police not trying to track down the neo-Nazi skinheads Ms Malinova says brutally beat her, but they are mulling levelling charges against her for making the whole thing up, and she could be sent to the slammer for up to five years! Slovakia's Interior Minister Robert Kalinak says Malinova made the whole thing up. Malinova had changed her account, but she later said the Slovak police made her. Slovak police said further evidence the whole thing was made up is Malinova's phone didn't register a call on the incriminating day. Malinova says she wasn't speaking on a mobile, but trying to help lost Hungarians tourists who happened to drive by. There are questions about her wounds. The hospital in Nitra where she was treated said Malinova was slightly hurt, the Slovak police say experts reject all her injury claims. Malinova says Slovak police never were interested in investigation her charges, not even looking for the skinheads she described. Malinova lawyer's request to reopen the police probe was rejected. Who to believe. Well, Slovak police are far from saints. They locked up the chief of a Slovak mobile phone company allegedly because he was a big backer of an opposition party. On the other hand, there seems to be scant evidence of the the horrific injuries Malinova says she suffers. You decide.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Politics Of The 'People'

When does the will of the people matter and when is it insignificant? Well it depends on where you sit and with whom.
On Sunday, a little-known speck of land, South Ossetia, votes in a referendum on independence.
The Caucasus is awash with ethnic groups of all stripes, making it the world's biggest melting pot. But some in the soup want out, including the South Ossetians who fought a bloody war against the Georgians in the early 1990s. (Ethnically, South Ossetians are different from Georgians -- their language is related to Iranian.) Since then, the 70,000 or so South Ossetians have run things on their own without international recognition.
Enter Mikheil Saakashvili, the U.S.-trained lawyer, (as boilerplate dictates I tell you), who vowed to bring to heel South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, when he came to power in 2004. Saakashvili has made no secrets about his intentions to join all the Western clubs he can from NATO to the European Union. That hasn't sat well with Russia, of course, which has been accused of stirring up things in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. True, the Russians are chummy with South Ossetians separatists.
The outcome of Sunday's vote is hardly in doubt. Most of the South Ossetians want independence, and even eventual union with Russia. Since the South Ossetians outnumber ethnic Georgians.... well do the math.
So, will the vaunted West listen to the will of the people and uphold the principle of self-determination? Um, not likely. Mikheil's their friend, and the South Ossetians are Moscow's. Simple as that.
Contrast that with Kosovo, where the majority of ethnic Albanians want to breakaway from Serbia. The conventional wisdom holds the ethnic Albanians have been brutalized by the evil Serbs and are deserving of independence. I'm not buying this black-and-white version of events. For those interested on another take of things there, read this . To gauge the caliber of people in Kosovo's leadership ranks, take a look at Agim Ceku, the so-called prime minister. Plus, as I've pointed out the U.S. has a humongous military base in Kosovo, and if the Serbs hold the reins of power there Camp Bondsteel could be caput.
Contrast that stance with the Western take on Bosnia-Hercegovina, made up of a ethnic Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation. Here, the West wants strong central institutions, despite objections from the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims to keep this artificial construct just that.
The Russians have pointed out the hypocrisy of the West pushing for Kosovo independence on the one hand, while opposing it on the other in Southern Ossetia or Transdniester, a sliver of land in Moldova where the ethnic Slavs -- Russians and Ukrainians -- want no part of the central government.
Having a Russian-friendly statelet on the western border of Ukraine is a no-no in Washington and Brussels, doing all they can to whittle away any influence Moscow may have in its former empire. That Moldova is ruled by a Commie matters little to the U.S. and the EU. Vladimir Voronin is not in Moscow's pocket and has even criticized the Kremlin over gas shipment delays. Like the South Ossetians, the people of Transdniester held their own plebiscite on independence back in September. They voted overwhelmingly for independence, as the South Ossetians are about to do. The West, however, ignored the Transdniester vote, and will do the same in South Ossetia.

Rummy To The Dock?

From the Pentagon to the slammer? Not likely, but one can always hope. An effort to bring Donald Rumsfeld to account for the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo has been renewed by a group of lawyers. For details go here. This is a rerun of an effort undertaken by more or less the same actors in 2004, with one big difference now, Rummy is no longer the head of the world's most deadly military, but, theoretically anyway, a mere civilian like you and me and therefore answerable, in theory again, to the law. Why Germany? Well, unlike the United States, it signed on to the 2002 Code of Crimes Against International Law, which grants German courts universal jurisdiction in cases involving war crimes or crimes against humanity. That wasn't the first time the Europeans had the temerity to judge US. In 2003, Belgium, once derided by the White House, as "Chocolate Makers", charged Tommy Franks, who led the Iraq invasion. Rumsfeld went ballistic, threatening to block funding for a new NATO headquarters. The Belgians eventually backed down, dropping the suits against Franks, former president Dad Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Poles Go Mum On CIA Prisons

First it was Romania, now its Poland that's being less than cooperative with an investigation by the Council of Europe over CIA 'rendition' flights in Europe. Pity these poor self-appointed guardians of the democratic way for making the rounds in European capitals trying to dig up some dirt on what the CIA was doing on the continent. That governments would incriminate themselves offering details on how they allowed the US spy agency break European laws on their soil defies logic and makes this whole exercise seem silly, which it is. Although, in Poland the wall of silence was truly impressive, as this BBC report hints at. And the guy heading this Council of Europe probe, Carlos Coelho, was pretty blunt as well, saying "Nowhere have we seen such a lack of willingness to cooperate as in Poland." How much of a blowoff did the Council endure? From the government ranks, only an aide to Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski deigned to meet with the dozens of lawmakers who traveled to Poland on Wednesday (November 8). Making matters worse, or more humiliating, the aide lacked cabinet status and therefore was unable to answer all the team's questions. To refresh Informant readers' booze-marinated minds, back in June, Poland's then prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, dismissed as "libel" a report by said Council of Europe alleging that Poland may have been involved with the flights. To be fair, the Polish government has probed what the Polish government did vis-a-vis the CIA flights. The only problem is they never told anyone what they found out. Human Rights Watch and others have pointed at Romania and Poland as two of the CIA's most faithful henchmen in this whole rendition-flight-torture-detention-center saga. Both countries have been accused not only of letting CIA flights cross their air space, but of housing so-called "detention" centers. In both cases, the likely sites of where these camps would be has been guessed at, but that's it. But as the Council has pointed out Romania and Poland may be the most eager to please, but they are certainly not alone with abetting CIA skullduggery. It's pointed the finger at Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, as in the doodoo as well.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

There's a lot a to Slota

The Informant has been giving its reader, oops, sorry, legions of readers, little snippets about some of the characters who hold power in these parts. One is Jan Slota, the leader of the Slovak National Party, and part of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Robert Fico. Slota has a gift for the gab of the extremist sort. He has said he would kick the Hungarians out of Slovakia across the Danube River back to their original home. Talk like that has stirred up not the most neighborly feelings between these... neighbors, whose ties go back hundreds of years, when Slovaks lived up the Magyar yoke and bad blood simmers just below the surface. Just how ugly things have gotten between Slovaks and Hungarians was brought home when Slovak skinheads brutally beat up a Hungarian woman who they overheard speaking her native tongue on her mobile phone. The inclusion of Slota in the Slovak government has many a commentator and bureaucrat in Brussels all a flitter. It's also come with a price for Prime Minister Fico and his "Smer" or "Direction" Party. Smer was recently given the boot by their comrades among the European democratic socialist parties. That's the first time any Socialist-associated party has been blacklisted by the group. Ouch!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Poland Veering Further Right

As readers of the Informant know Poland has taken a hard right turn since the Kaczynki twin brothers came to power. Extremists hound gays, rabbis and other unfortunates.

The fragrance of intolerance has been sprayed about by the conservative Law and Justice party of prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Abortion is now all but outlawed, thanks to a Catholic Church now free to flex the crucifix.

Now Poland's conservatives have turned their attention to the nation's schools. Poles were shocked in October when a 14-year-old girl in the northern city of Gdansk hanged herself after being undressed and fondled by boys who did this despicable act in front of classmates!

The country's Education Minister Roman Giertych is to announce a so-called "Zero Tolerance" plan to fight school violence. Kaczynski has blamed liberal "tolerance" for the upswing in violence at Polish schools. "The time of tolerance and doing nothing about these matters is behind us," he said. According to the AP news agency, Kaczynski will send police and prosecutors to all the country's schools soon to get a handle on the disciplinary problem plaguing the schools. The Poles are talking pretty radical stuff, like separate schools for boys and girls. Getting tough on toots is all the talk among Law and Justice party member who want kids who commit crimes as young as 15 treated as adults, i.e. send 'em to the clinker with adults.

Turning the schools into prisons isn't all the Polish rightwingers have on their plate. Abortion is allowed in Poland only in cases of abortion, rape and whent the life of the mother is at risk, but even here the Poles find things need tightening. The League of Polish Families, part of the ruling coalition, wants to have a "right to life from the moment of conception" written into the constitution just to make sure slimey liberals can't tinker with the draconian abortion law sometime in the future, and maybe, just maybe, to outright ban all abortions whatever the circumstances. Needless to say, the Catholic Church likes the idea.

Some people, namely feminist and leftwing groups, are fighting this one. On November 4, about 400 of 'em demonstrated in Warsaw against the country's abortion legislation, among the toughest in Europe.

Pro-choice people predict a total ban on abortion will be a boom for the country's already flourishing back street abortion industry.

"We calculate at between 80,000 and 200,000 a year the number of illegal abortions," Wanda Nowicka, president of the country's family planning federation, told AFP recently.

I'm sure many a family-values type in the U.S. would love to replicate the Polish model on the other side of the Atlantic.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Bulgarian Vote Barometer On 'Reforms'

Little doubt the coven of Informant readers will ho-hum about the topic I'm about to raise: a runoff for the mostly ceremonial post of president in the faroff East European land of Bulgaria. So why raise it? Because I have nothing else to write about. Just kidding.... kinda. Seriously, the vote may seem insignificant at first, and second, and third glance (alright time to get serious), but there is something deeper brewing here that I mention in my catchy headline. Georgi Parvanov, is a 49-year-old historian, who holds a pretty much ceremonial post of president in Bulgaria. Bulgarians admittedly admire the guy for raising the country's image on its path to joining NATO in 2004 and its invitation to join the EU on January 1, 2006. Parvanov also will go down in history as heading the reform of the Socialist Party following Bulgaria's 1996 economic meltdown from a hard-lined communist to a more European model. But all is not well in Bulgaria, the birthplace of yogurt. Voters are frustrated. Their purchasing power is less today than it was before the 1989 fall of communism. Half of its 7.8 million people live on less than $2.5 a day! Its economic output is about a third of the EU average. Enter, Volen Siderov, a former hack and the leader of the Attack party. His second-place showing in the first round of voting was totally unforeseen. But his anti-everything from the IMF, the EU, NATO and the U.S., resonated with enough of those Bulgarians fed up with Western-styled economic "reforms." The story of the 'losers" of reforms is one largely not told in the Western press, which focuses mainly on progress, and there is much, largely concentrated in cities and enjoyed by the young, and well-educated. Those struggling in the countryside are largely ignored. Siderov has been dismissed by diplomats and mainstream parties and commentators, as a xenophobe and ultranationalist. He has himself to blame in part for statements he's made against Bulgaria's large minority communities of ethnic Roma and Turks. Siderov may be no hero, and his chances are nil of winning on Sunday, but his candidacy is just the latest reminder that sweeping reforms in Eastern Europe may have dismantled the old Communist system, but have failed to meet the needs of many.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Romania Does Little To Investigate CIA Rendition Flights

The Informant brings you the latest details of the ongoing soap opera of CIA "rendition flights" and other skullduggery in Europe. Romania has gotten low marks for its efforts to investigate whether CIA flights were flying in and out of their country, carrying 'terrorist suspects" destined for torture sessions in distant lands. In other words, Romania did little to figure out if Romania was doing anything dark. Surprising, isn't it? Here's how the head of the European parliament investigation, Claudio Fava, put it: "The way the authorities conducted the investigations on the alleged CIA flights in Romania seems superficial. We are talking about more than 20 flghts." He was speaking in Bucharest on October 19, after a fact-finding mission, that evidently didn't turn up many facts.... again. To remind my brilliant and very very select readers, Romania and Poland have been accused of housing CIA detention centers by the Council of Europe and Human Rights Watch. Fava also said it was unclear whether the CIA was using the Kogalniceanu base for its dirty work. The Black Sea base was used by the U.S. military during the 2003 Iraqi invasion. So, it doesn't take a leap of logic to assume the CIA would use the base, although figuring out 'which' base the U.S. was using seems secondary to nailing the Romanians for letting the CIA use their country to abet tourture. Just my thoughts. Carlos Coelho, president of the EU parliament commission investigating the flights, said a final report will be ready next year. The Informant will be there....

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Hungarian Goulash

After more than a decade's worth of Western-prescribed economic reforms, people in Eastern Europe are saying they've had enough. On the day Hungary marked the 50th anniversary of the Soviet crushing of their uprising against the then Communist regime, thousands took to the streets. This was no reenactment. Hundreds were arrested, and a like number injured as police used rubber bullets, batons, and water canons to hold back a crowd trying to reach the parliament building in Budapest on October 24.

Hungary has been on edge for nearly two months since the country's prime minister was caught on tape, admitting he had cooked the books to paint a rosier economic picture. The lie helped win reelection in April for Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, a socialist in name, but uber capitalist in practice, who made millions, like other ethically-challenged go-getters in Eastern Europe, during the firesale privatization drives of the early 1990s.

Victory assured, Gyurcsany dropped a bomb, telling his compatriots the state of the economy wasn't that good after all, (in fact, the deficit was close to 11 percent, the highest in the EU), and belt-tightening reforms were needed to save the state's finances. Rosy became rotten.

More state cutbacks were to come, meaning gloomier prospects for many already reeling from reforms that have dismantled much of the old command economy system, but created little, outside of pockets of prosperity centered around the cities. Hungarian anger and disillusionment may be unchallenged in the region, but the underlining sentiments are not. Poland and Slovakia have booted out their "reformers", and in Bulgaria a relatively unknown journalist made it to a runoff vote for president, largely by campaigning against the reforms that have left most Bulgarians with lower purchasing power than before the 1989 fall of communism.

In Poland after years in the political wilderness, the Kaczynski twins came to power last year with pledges to weed out corruption and what they called "cliques" of former secret service agents, ex-communists and businessmen. They also preached a hodgepode of economic "populist" measures from i.e., boost social spending.

In Slovakia, a populist government has gained power by making a pact with two right-wing parties, one of whose leaders has opined that Hungarians living in Slovakia should be shipped back home across the Danube. Talk like that has fueled a feud between the two neighbors, marked by an attack by Slovak skinheads on a girl caught speaking Hungarian on her cell phone.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Europe's Last Dictator Ready For Exit?

It's easy to make fun of Alexander Lukashenko. A former Kolhoz director, a brusque way of talking, a cheesy moustache and a slavish loyalty to Russian don, Vladimir Putin, make it easy comical picken's with the Belarus strongman. Now that Slobodan Milosevic has truly exited the European scene forever, the boilerplate applied to Alexander is that he is Europe's last of the dictators. It's not a hard case to argue. Belarus is caught in a time warp. It's like the Soviet Union never died. Hammers and sickles abound, the KGB is still kicking, usually the crap out of what opposition there is, and the shops are bereft of all the consumptible goodies found in the West. On the other hand, the economic indicators aren't all bad either. The World Bank, of all institutions, admits from 1996 to 2004 the economy grew by 6.6 percent and one fifth of the people moved out of poverty. And that other bastion of capitalism, the IMF, says real wages have nearly tripled. Ol' Luke has ruled Belarus for twelve years now, and one Sunday he'll likely get another five as the country holds a presidential election. Nevertheless, Lukashenko is a little nervous. He's seen old guard communist-vintage leaders fall in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, all due in large part to p.r. savvy and internet-connected 'youth movements', all coached and funded by the West, namely Washington. Lukashenko has done his darndest to make sure they don't get into his country to corrupt his country's youth, not entirely successful however. Not one to mince words, Luke has vowed to "ring the necks" of anyone who thinks there'll be a revolution in Belarus a la Georgia and Ukraine. The KGB has warned it'll lock up protesters on charges of "terrorism" if they take to the streets after polls close on Sunday. On Saturday, anonymous leaflets in Minsk called for revolution and mobile phones received text messages either encouraging protests or warning people not to fall victim to bloodshed. The leading opposition candidate, Alexander Minkevich has called for his protesters to take to the streets on Sunday as soon as polls close, making it almost inevitable things will get ugly. Interestingly, the Czech "Week" news magazine reports many of Belarus's yuggens are likely to vote for Lukashenka. Many have joined the president's "Youth Union." The reason is simple. Membership opens doors to sought after university faculties. The rector of the country's top university put it simple to his students, telling them their stipends are two times higher than in Russia, and in the Baltic states they've practically disappeared. "See where so-called capitalism leads?"

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Devil Went Down To Georgia

The military monster, aka, the US of A, may be bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan but that doesn't mean the war of terror doesn't go on. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know the US is gearing up for a 'military campaign' against Iran, who, wouldn't you know it, is on the cusp of acquiring those weapons of mass destruction, in fact, the deadliest of the lot, nuclear, and this has to be stopped. Anyway, this is not a report to debate or lampoon this scenario, alll pretty much a repeat of the Iraqi charade. This is to point to the latest developments in preparing for said attack-to-be. There's an interesting report in the Moscow News saying the U.S. is courting the Caucasus nation of Georgia to use it as a base to launch aerial raids on Iran’s several nuclear sites. The entire report is here.

As readers of the Informant know, Georgia is now led by one Mikhail Saakashvili, a Harvard-trained lawyer and certified Washington stooge. His Velvet Revolution was due to a healthy dose of US pr magic and internet savvy, following the template trailblazed in Serbia and then copied successfully in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and not so successfully in Belarus. That’s not to say that his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, was a saint, but once he put U.S. Caspian oil pipeline plans into doubt, he had to go. And go he did. Saakashvili has been one of the few European leaders to give unquestioned support to the Iraqi war-cum-quagmire. After President Bush was reelected, Georgia announced plans to increase its number of troops stationed in Iraq from 159 to 850. The Washington Times notes that given Georgia’s small population, this increase makes it one of the top contributors on a per capita basis

Saakashvili is now a shameless US backer and Russian basher. Out with the Russians and in with the Americans! During the Soviet era, Krtsanisi military base outside Tbilisi was home to the Red Army. Now it is US soldiers who are in charge and, according to the US Ambassador in Tbilisi Richard Miles, they are in Georgia to stay. In 2002 the Bush administration set up an 18-month, $65m program aimed at training and equipping Georgia's impoverished army.

According to Arms Trade Resource Center,for a country that is slightly smaller than South Carolina, with only 4.6 million citizens, Georgia receives a staggering amount of military support from the United States.

According to the center, in 1997 Georgia received its first FMF grant of $700,000. In 1998, Washington increased FMF more than 7 times over, granting $5.3 million in aid. Since those first years, Georgia has received a total of $107.7 million in FMF grants.[138] The Bush administration requested an additional $12 million in the 2006 budget.

Both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Georgia in 2004, pledging continued U.S. support to the country.

Georgia, an aggressive force in a number of border disputes and a state with a well-documented history of human rights violations, does not seem like an ideal candidate for U.S. military aid. Human Rights Watch says the country is, "one of the most corrupt in the world, is desperately short of money, and has a record of persistent and widespread human rights abuses."

The State Department agrees, finding in its most recent Human Rights Report that "nongovernmental organizations blamed two deaths in custody on physical abuse. NGOs reported that police brutality continued, and in certain areas increased. Law enforcement officers continued to torture, beat, and otherwise abuse detainees."

Despite his sycophancy, Saakashvili seems a little weak in the knees about getting involved in the next US attack. Apparently he does not share the unabashed enthusiasm of the Busheviks and feels there could be reprecussions for his small Caucasus nation should it play any role in a U.S. attack on Iran. Stay tuned...

Monday, February 13, 2006

Islam And Europe

Every two-bit pundit has rubbed his chin on this one, so why not yours truly. I never thought I'd see the day fuzzy, progressive countries like Denmark and Norway would be targeted by angry mobs. But the TV images don't lie. Pissed off crowds have set on their embassies in Beirut and Damascus and demos have erupted everywhere else across the Muslim world and in major European cities as well, Paris, London, and Berlin. All over images like the one pictured here, in this cartoon chaos. It would be easy to jump on the bandwagon, expressing outrage over how many of these protests have turned really ugly, with the torching of embassies in Syria and Lebanon, in particular. The violence is a tactical no-no, turning away anyone maybe willing to listen to their argument that the Danish paper that started this mess exhibited religious intolerance, fanned the flames of hatred, ecetera... all by the way legitimate points, especially, as the Guardian has pointed out, the same obscure Danish rag balked at printing some risque Jesus drawings out of fear of offending Christians. It's a shame, the focus now has shifted to the violent response, and not to the cause of it, at least in the vaunted "West," just further ripping the gulf further apart between what are, I have to admit, two very different worlds, but I won't get sucked into the "Clash of Culture" trap. Here in Europe, there's been a backlash against "multiculturalism," sparked I guess, if you can peg such things, to the killing in Holland of director Theo Van Gogh. A Muslim, Mohammed Bouyeri, who is now serving a life sentence, shot and stabbed Van Gogh as he cycled through Amsterdam in 2004. He claimed he acted out of religious conviction. Now that happened in hip Holland, best known for its red light districts and hash brownies in Amsterdam, all underscoring its liberal image. The Van Gogh murder prompted lots of Dutch to question their liberal live-and-let-be policies to immigrants under which there wasn't even a requirement to learn the Dutch language. That debate also comes with much of Holland's generous welfare safety net being chipped away at by its right-wing government. When people are either out of work or fear losing their jobs, they tend to take a less charitable view of those worse off. Then this November France was racked by the worst urban violence since the student-worker riots of 1968. In three weeks of rioting, about 9,000 vehicles were torched, hundreds of schools and public buildings attacked, and more than 3,000 people arrested. Many of those doing the damage were offspring of emigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, a remnant of France's colonial past. Some progressives pointed to France's failure to integrate them, highlighting that country's shameful racism. But the unrest furthered the divide between blacks and whites, Christians and Muslims across the continent. Television images of youths setting fire to cars, trash bins, shops, buses, did little to soften up French or other European peoples to the plight of the migrant poor. In Denmark, the government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has courted the right in his country, creating a less tolerant, anti-Muslim atmosphere there. The Europeans aren't the only ones seeing objectionable images on their television screens. Muslims routinely see or hear or read stories of Muslims being tortured or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan where the Americans have reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. Lest we forget, Abu Ghraid and Guantanamo and those images of torture. In the latest affront, a British tabloid, the News of the World, got their hands on a very nasty video, depicting what looks like British soldiers having a good ol' time beaten up Iraqi boys. Elsewhere, Palestinians are still routinely humiliated by the Israelis without much objection from Europe, let alone the U.S. These injustices goes largely unnoticed in the West, not in the Muslim world. While the anger is real, that doesn't mean others aren't exploiting it for their own purposes. It's no coincidence that Iran and Syria-- currently on the U.S. blacklist and possibly on deck for military action -- have witnessed some of the more violent protests. Stirring up anti-Western sentiment can give them a little breathing room and shore up their own sagging support. Sadly, when more reasoned and calm voices are needed, it is the shrill that are being heard right now.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Strange Days in Poland

Imagine a government led by Pat Robertson. Scary, right? Well, Poland may be the closest thing to a "700 Club" fantasy on the face of the earth. Take the governing "Law and Justice" party, which backs conservative favorites, like "traditional values", and an agenda that is full of 'antis' like gay, immigrant and EU. Oddly, the party backs a generous social welfare network, not something Pat and his crew would likely take a shining to although in synch with other populist parties. Now, Law and Justice won parliamentary elections back in September, but they didn't win enough seats to form a government. So, what do they do? Turn to even smaller, and more rightwing parties to govern. It's getting pretty scary in Poland.

How bad is it in ultra-conservative Catholic Poland? Just ask Alicja Tysiac. She is pretty close to blind and wears really think glasses to see. Last year, three eye specialists warned her she risked going completely blind if she took her third pregnancy to term. Slightly freaked, Tysiac sought frantically for a doctor to give her an okay to abort the pregnancy. Legal under communism, abortion is now illegal in Poland, unless the health of the mother or child is at risk. Tysiac did finally find one doctor who did agree having the child would threaten her eyesight. However, when she went to a Warsaw hospital, the staff there didn't see it that way(pardon the weak pun), and refused to do it. After the birth, Tysiac's vision did deteriorate. Now, the single-parent Tysiac sits at home in Warsaw, next to blind and living off a meager monthly welfare check. It won't bring back her vision, but Tysiac has taken her case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Robertson wouldn't be the only American-that-mattered to be all a titter with Poland. Our Prez, Mr. Bush has called Poland America's best European ally outside of Britain, and its poodle quizzling, Tony Blair. Chalk that up in part to a strong ethnic Polish lobby in the U.S., (Chicago has the highest concentration of Poles outside of Warsaw) whose feverish anti-Communist has ingrained a strong pro-US stance. During the Iraqi quagmire, Poland has stood at attention saluting commandante Bush. Remember the "Coalition of the Willing" El Salvador ecetera in Iraq? Well Poland is still there, even though their 1,500 troops were set to come home in January. (While most Poles are Yankie-friendly, like all Europeans most do not support the U.S.-led war in Iraq.)But the Law and Justice Party said nope, and now the Poles will remain in southern Iraq. And those furtive CIA prisons in Eastern Europe? Yep, Poland is said to house at least one of them along with fellow top suspect Romania. It's not all that eye-brow-raising given that Poland's Defense Minister Radek Sikorski is a committed neo-conservative who worked as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he toiled alongside such neo-con stalwarts Michael Ledeen and Richard Perle.

According to Insider Magazine, Sikorski has a spooks past working for the CIA. Polish intelligence sources report that Sikorski became a U.S. intelligence asset during the Reagan Cold War years. Sikorski was a Solidarity leader in the 1970s. He was visiting Britain in 1981 when martial law was declared in Poland. In 1984 Sikorski became a British citizen.

Sikorski operated under the cover of a journalist in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan during the mid 1980s and in Angola in the late 1980s where he liaised with pro-U.S. UNITA guerrillas backed by apartheid South Africa and noted GOP activists, including recently convicted Jack Abramoff as well as Karl Rove friend and adviser Grover Norquist.

Some in Europe, including ol' French President Jacques Chirac, look warily at Poland, fearing Warsaw is a fifth column doing the bidding of Washington at the expense of efforts to build an EU superstate, complete with a robust foreign policy outside of Washington's control.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

NATO, What's It For?

Unbeknownst to most of you, assorted generals and majors from that military dinosaur NATO got together in Munich recently for their yearly powwow to chit chat on "security issues." NATO is still something of a lost child after losing its play partner the Soviet Union years ago. Since then, NATO has been in search of a new "mission." Bombing Yugoslavia in 1999 to "save" ethnic Albanians in Kosovo was part of that effort. It was the first time the military club had used its weapons for real not to repel an invasion -- as spelled out in its charter to justify action -- but to attack a sovereign nation that hadn't threatened it. Anyway, that mission didn't solve all the problems of NATO which now stands at 26 members having taken in lots of former enemy Warsaw Pact states. Anyway to the meeting. Angela Merkel, Germany's first female chancellor, has been in sycophant overdrive taking every available opportunity to brown nose the Busheviks in Washington, who felt snubbed by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, whose anti-Iraq war rhetoric peeved off Bush and crew. (However, as the Informant and other top news sites have pointed out, it seems the German intelligence services were providing the Yanks with some furtive bombing target data during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.) So what did Angela have to say? Lots. She opined NATO "should be the first place to discuss international conflicts." I guess Angela forgot about another international organization with a slighly larger membership -- 190 countries or so --call the United Nations, set up for just the purpose Angela would like handed over to the more selective NATO club. Merkel called for NATO to engage in "broader operations" and take on "a primary role in the world." I can just see Bush and his bunch standing off by the side, rubbing their hands, saying "excellent, Angela, excellent."

Not to be outdone in the butt-licking department, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung also saw lots of work ahead for NATO. "Terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, failing states -- these are the scourges of our times," Jung told the conference. "The old NATO as a purely defensive alliance is history," he added. In hindsight, what do you expect a military man to say?

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thanked Merkel for her "thoughtful and important remarks on NATO." But Rummy lectured the Europeans on their shyness not to splurge on military spending like in the ol' US. "Insufficient" military spending, as Rummy put it, is holding back NATO's "potential."

The United States was spending 3.7 percent of its GDP on defense but other NATO members were spending far less, he said.

Leave it to the French, however, to be difficult. French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie took a more skeptical view on NATO's role and stressed the importance of the European Union's growing security capability, reflecting widespread concerns in France that a stronger NATO would mean a weaker EU.

Hey, wait a minute, how can NATO and the US keep an eye and control over the Europeans, if the EU is stronger? Bad idea, Michele, bad. You're getting a little too uppity.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, however, supported "pragmatic" cooperation between NATO and the European Union and sought to calm French fears. He did say something very, very interesting. De Hoop Scheffer, (phew, that's a name) said NATO could "protect energy supply lines" from "terrorists." Protecting energy sources with military might? Sounds like the stuff those conspiracy nuts have been saying all along that motivates the U.S. in the former Soviet Union, specifically in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea region, where oil and pipelines abound.

Just try, try, for a moment to look at this from Russian President Vladimir Putin's position. His country's erstwhile enemy is now talking about 'protecting' energy resources that lie within the old Soviet empire and not too far from presentday Russia. Might make him antsy, no?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Europe In The Doldrums

The Austrian Alpine retreat of Salzburg held a birthday bash on January 27 to celebrate the 250th birthday of the city's most famous son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It wasn't the only show in town. Europe's business, political and cultural elite also were in town but not to party but rather to mourn the falling fortunes of Europe's bureaucratic behemoth, the European Union.

These are dark days for the EU bureaucrats. Last year, the French -- rah-rah backers of the EU project -- said Non! to a draft EU 'constitution' along with voters in Holland. Eurosceptics, mostly based in Britain but growing, said it was time to stick a fork in the constitution which wasn't really such, but would have streamlined the workings of the EU and, maybe, just maybe, gave Brussels more muscle in foreign affairs, dragging Europe out of Washington's shadow.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin struck a flat note at the "Sound of Europe" confab in Salzburg, warning the EU is losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the European public by expanding too fast and opening membership talks with Turkey.

Europeans like to treat the EU as their whipping boy, blaming it for all that ills the continent, be it true or not. And more see the EU as nothing more than a Trojan Horse for advancing a neoliberal agenda, putting at risk the continent's social welfare model. Taking in ten mainly former Soviet bloc countries in 2004, expanding the EU to 25, has sparked fears in western Europe that their well-paid jobs will move further east, not to faraway Asia, but to new members like Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. Even cheaper workers will join the club when the EU nets snag Bulgaria and Romania in 2008.

For the most part, the fears are legit, just ask the 1,700 workers at an AEG home appliance factory in the southern Germany city of Nuremburg. Electrolux, the parent company of AEG, announced in January it will shut the plant and move production to Poland and Italy where wages are a fraction of those in Germany. The workers did stage a strike, but not to save their jobs, rather to salvage decent severance packages, according to IG Metall trade union which represents them.

Further afield in Asia, however, the dogs of globalization are barking as well. Fears of losing jobs to cheaper Asian competitors sparked a continent-wide 24-hour strike by Europe's 50,000 dockworkers on January 16, shutting down ports in Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp among others. They were protesting a EU plan to liberalize cargo handling, which its backers said would offer the usual neo-liberal recipe of more efficiency and competition at lower cost. In the French city of Strasbourg, thousands of stevedores clashed with riot police -- 64 of whom suffered injuries -- outside the European parliament where EU lawmakers debated and eventually defeated the dock liberalization measure, a slight setback for the EU's pro-business agenda.

Many Europeans feel the EU does the bidding of business rather than attend to the needs of everyday folk, if findings of a recent Eurobarometer opinion poll are to be believed.

Even the wealthy Austrians are down on the EU. Only 32 percent of the country's of those polled considers Europe a good thing, compared with 46 percent a year ago, making it the most euro-skeptic of the EU's 25 member states. Their ethnic kin in Germany aren't any more optimistic. They blame the EU for their country's economic and social problems. A stunning 84 percent of those polled fear that German jobs are likely to be lost to EU countries where labor cost are lower.

The Germans fear taking in either Turkey or maybe Ukraine will lead to an economic crisis. And while they don't blame the EU, Germans see EU membership as "part of the negative development" making German life less agreeable.

Turkish membership is the latest push-button issue to turn many off to the EU project. Most Europeans don't want Muslim Turkey in their club, and point out only a morsel of its territory lies within "Europe".

If things weren't bad enough, Frits Bolkestein, the former EU Commissioner for the internal market, said that the EU's new single currency, the euro, may not survive in the long term. Bolkestein warned that the euro would face a dramatic test in about ten years time when the pension crisis hits Europe "ruthlessly," with a swelling number of baby-boomers reaching retirement while too few young workers are available to pay the taxes needed to service the pensions.

Important states like Italy, the third largest economy in the Eurozone, are wholly unprepared for this crisis, Bolkestein warned.

A nightmare scenario is predicted for Germany which now has the world's highest proportion of childless women. The statistics, collected by the EU in 2005, found that thirty per cent of German women have not had children, and women graduates were even less likely to breed, with 40 percent of them having no children.

Not to be outdone in the doom-and-gloom department, another former Commissioner, Austria's Franz Fischler, has warned the EU risked becoming "the first empire in history to go down before it was founded."

Is it time to strike up Mozart's Requiem?

Ah... Dicky, Dicky

The super sleuth for the Council of Europe, Dick Marty, came out snarling. First he accused the Europeans of having to know that the CIA was "renditioning" at will on their soil. Then he accused the US of soiling human rights with its CIA detention camps in Europe, which know one admits exists, although reports suggest they do. It was a teaser ahead of the Swiss lawmaker's first report for the Council of Europe, billed as Europe's most-storied defender of democracy. Well, on January 24, Marty came out with his initial report. It's most damning charge is that the US put more than 100 terror suspects through its "rendition" program in Europe. But he repeated his earlier charges, and Marty himself, poor guy, admitted he had no evidence. Well back in Washington, the US State Department had a field day with Marty's charges. Spokesman Sean McCormack branded Marty's allegations "bumper-sticker rhetoric." Obviously not meant ironically, McCormack also said the US does not torture. Remember Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Well obviously the White House and the Busheviks don't. This is interesting; from the AFP report on Marty's report, McCormack was asked whether European governments were informed of the CIA's activities in their territory. He refused to answer that one. Also on the CIA probe front, A special inquiry committee of the European Parliament says it'll press US and European foreign and defense ministers to testify on alleged CIA flights of terror suspects and secret prisons in Europe. Committee members, at their first session in Brussels, acknowledged they had no authority to summon ministers, but said they would use political pressure to uncover the truth. The 46 members picked the Portuguese conservative Carlos Miguel Coelho as their chairman. Most hearings would be open to the public, he said. In Berlin, the German parliament has called for basic human rights to be upheld in dealing with terror suspects. Indirectly, it also urge the United States to close its prison camp at Guantanomo on Cuba.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

From the Informant Archive: NGOs Not Always So Benign

It had all the trappings of a John LeCarre pulp classic. A shady character looks left and right before approaching of all things a rock lying incongruously on the curb of a busy downtown street in the Russian capital, Moscow. He points what looks like a TV remote at it for a few moments before moving on. However this is no ordinary rock, but rather a hollowed out facsimile housing a relaying device. Our character, a British citizen, thinks he has successfully passed on his secret information to London without being detected. He's wrong. A Russian television network has caught it all on film and on Monday the incriminating footage will be aired across the country, sparking denials and embarrassment in London.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Death of Rugova Reminder of Kosovo Fiasco

Remember Kosovo? Back in 1999, NATO bombed Serbia back to the stone age to end what we were all told was a brutal Serb repression of the Kosovo Albanians living in this scrap of land somewhere far off in a corner of the world called the Balkans.

Well on Saturday, the "Ghandi of the Balkans", as the media dubbed Ibrahim Rugova, died at 61 from lung cancer; he was a chain smoker. This bumbling professor, and poet, best known for his signature scarves, worked tirelessly to free his Albanian brothers from Serb oppression, or so reads the official hagiography likely to take up lots of print in the West. Ironically, it's not what Rugova did, but what he didn't do or say that made him a hero to his people. In a land where gunrunners, drug traffickers and sundry miscreants hold power, it's no wonder that Rugova, in comparison, looked like a saint. Oh yeah, he was also a Western stooge, patsy, quisling, pick your pejorative.

But still better, nevertheless, than the KLA retreads who have stashed away their Kalashnikovs and fatigues and taken up briefcases and suits to become respectable politicians. The KLA was once called a terrorist organization -- involved in everything from gun-running, drug trafficking and prostitution -- by the State Department but became respectable rebels when pursuing Western goals namely to weaken what was left of Yugoslavia. Many of their crimes have been forgotten, or airbrushed away. Not all. Kosovo's former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj is one of the few former KLA leaders to face war crime charges at The Hague, 37 of 'em, from murder to rape. Back at home in Kosovo, however, he's a 'hero."

Today, Kosovo is a mob-run anarchical playground, with U.N. soldiers and bureaucrats sitting on the sidelines dazed and confused wondering what they have wrought and trying to figure out how to get the hell out of there.... sort of.

Betcha didn't know the U.S. has a huuuge military camp-cum-community in Kosovo. Yep. It's called Camp Bondsteel. And it's immense, 775-acres big. Houses up to 5,000 U.S. soldiers has gyms, a mall and a friggen Burger King! The ultimate military suburb.

And wouldn't you know it, it also happens to be built in the path of the Albanian-Macedonian-Bulgarian Oil (Ambo) Trans-Balkan pipeline, the pipeline connecting the oil-rich Caspian Sea region to the rest of the world. The initial feasibility project for Ambo was done by KBR, that's Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of everyone's favorite corporation -- especially Dick Cheney -- Haliburton. By the way, KBR built Camp Bondsteel.

There are some other goodies in Kosovo as well, namely the vast Trepca mines, some of the richest mineral deposits in the world. After Hitler captured them in 1940, the mines supplied German munition factories with 40 percent of their lead. Miraculously, during 37,000 sorties by NATO bombers in 1999 Trepca remained untouched, whereas other branches of industry were destroyed with deadly precision. This is major war bootie. Shortly after the invasion, NATO troops swooped in, took control of Trepca, which were later turned over to the Washington Group, a large U.S. defense contractor with partners in France and Sweden. At least the looting gets spread out a bit.

Like Trepca, the U.N. has ruled Kosovo since 1999, and now is about to go through the theatrics of 'debating' Kosovo's future. The Albanians, the Europeans and Americans want it yanked away from Serbia. There's only one problem some Serbs are still left and some allowances will have to be made to them. Whatever results, a few things are clear: one, Kosovo will be forever dominated by the West (read U.S.) ; two, Camp Bondsteel ain't going nowhere and will serve as a perfect means to project U.S. power not only in the Balkans but beyond, like the Caspian basin, three the mineral riches Kosovo does have will be safely in the hands of the Western corporations. Aren't humanitarian missions fun?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Let The Race To The Bottom Continue

Say bye-bye to more union-wage jobs in Germany. An AEG home appliance factory in the southern city of Nuremburg is set to close its doors. The move will throw some 1,700 people out of work. On Friday, the workers there walked off the job in a quixotic strike action. Apropos of our globalizing world, the decision to shut down the factory was made far away in Sweden in the offices of Electrolux, the parent company of AEG. The company said it will move production to Poland and Italy where wages are a fraction of those in Germany. The IG Metall trade union has admitted that there is little chance of getting Electrolux to reverse its decision. In a sign of the sinking bargaining position of labor, AEG said yesterday's strike at AEG in Nuremburg was aimed not at saving jobs but rather salvaging decent severance packages. How low can we go, folks?

What The Hell Was Chirac Thinking?

Let me start by first saying I am not now, nor have I ever been a Frenchbasher. In fact I like the French. Like the indispensable help they gave us during the Revolutionary War, like the esteemed statesman Lafayette, the Statue of Liberty... and french fries. (Sorry, couldn't pass that up, and yes, french fries actually came from Belgium.. I think) Now to the matter at hand: As little Arnold was wont to say on "Different Strokes": "What you talking 'bout Jacques?" France will launch a nuclear strike on any nation that launches a "terrorist" strike on France. Huh? Did Jacques glug-glug too much cabernet sauvignon? Maybe yes, maybe no. But Chirac seems to pick an interesting time to say what he said. It was Thursday, the same day as the tenth anniversary of France breaking a nuclear testing moratorium in 1995. It doesn't take a genius to figure out given all the chest-thumping, war-drum-beating talk circulating now over Iran's nuclear program that part of Chirac's message was directed at the mullahs in Tehran. However, the smarter folks over at Deutsche Welle say his remarks merely reflect a reshaping of France's defense thinking. It's actually kinda simple: facing no Soviet bogeyman, or any other national enemy, for that matter, France's nuclear arsenal needs a target, any target, to retain its relevancy. So, if there are no nations worth bombing, you turn to the new bogeyman: the terrorists. France spends some 10% of its defense budget on a shiny nuclear submarine, "Le Vigilant." In fact, on the board of said vessel did Chirac make his remarks. Paris' war.... err, defense thinking is quite in line with Washington's. They're all itching to figure out a way to use those swell nukes. So, Paris in Washington are pursuing a policy of developing nukes which strike precisely at the enemy but without all the messy radiation fallout. It's insane, but, sadly sensible among the military elites who decide such things. One more thing on Chirac's remarks, they are ill-timed given the amped up tensions already out there over Iran. On the same day, that Yale dropout, and Vietnam five-time deferral, VP Dick Cheney added his own drum-beating bullshit, saying if Israel is attacked the U.S. will "obviously" support it militarily. Uh, like duh, really, dude? You had to really say this? We're talking Israel afterall. Nuff said. But all such talk is part and parcel to the Iranian gameplan, every page of it taken from the Iraqi attack playbook and leading, unfortunately, to the same ends. Let the farce of negotiations run their course making sure at every turn they have no chance of succeeding. That's followed by the grave announcements that no diplomatic effort has been spared to end the nuclear standoff peacefully. Finally, it's bombs away! God, I hope I'm wrong.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Ukraine's Yushchenko Goes From Hero To Goat

It wasn't too long ago that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was addressing throngs of adoring followers in downtown Kiev after their 'Orange Revolution' overturned a fixed presidential election that annulled victory for pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych and set up a revote won by Yushchenko. Those were heady days back in December 2004. Ukrainians cheered as former president Leonid Kuchma and his corrupt cronies -- among them Yanukovych -- were shown the door and welcomed Yushchenko with his promises to clean up politics -- quite messy in the former Soviet republic -- and reposition the country's compass due West. Russian leader Vladimir Putin didn't like the fact his candidate Yanukovych lost and was nervous about Yushchenko's talk of Ukraine joining the European Union, and even more unthinkable: Ukraine joining NATO. Notions of NATO soldiers and hardware in Ukraine, flush on Russia's borders, spooked Russia's military brass. It was only a question of time before ties between the "brotherly" Slavic nations got heated. Ironically, it was natural gas turning up the temperature. Ukraine balked at Russian gas giant Gazprom's demand to charge Ukraine four times more for gas deliveries. Russia answered by turning off the gas taps on New Year's day, sending a shiver through the rest of Europe which saw their own Russian gas shipments dip. An agreement between Moscow and Kiev was finally cobbled together and Ukraine would pay just double rather than quadruple for Russian gas thanks to cheaper gas from Central Asia being added in to the mix. Both Yushchenko and Putin hailed the agreement, but not the parliament in Ukraine, which accused Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanov of selling out the country. Last week, the lawmakers voted to boot out Yekhanov and his government, a move Yushchenko rejected as anti-constitutional. Whether it was or not was tough to figure out since Ukraine's legislation is getting a much needed overhaul. Regardless, the once lionized Yushchenko was looking more and more like a fallible politician vulnerable to attack. Ironically, launching some of the sharpest barbs was Julia Tymoshenko, a stylish firebrand and erstwhile Yushchenko ally dubbed the "Joan of Arc" of the Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko was prime minister up till September last year when Yushchenko fired her. Their fallout was reportedly over a decision by Tymoshenko to allow the intelligence services to shed some light on the shady figures behind the company, Rosukrenergo. Tymoshenko is no stranger to the sometimes dirty gas business, having been the president of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, a privately owned company which became the main importer of Russian natural gas in 1996. During that time, Tymoshenko earned the sobriquet, the "gas princess," after charges she reaped huge profits illegally selling abroad siphoned off Russian gas. But her probe into Rosukrenegro reportedly got too close to exposing ties between the company and Putin. Eager to avoid angering the Russian bear, Yushchenko unceremoniously sacked her. Interestingly, the shady Rosukrenegro is integral to the recent deal brokered between Kiev and Moscow. Under its terms, Gazprom sells gas at $230 to Rusukrenegro. Ukraine buys the gas at about $95, the price slashed due to cheaper gas added to the batch from central Asian states including Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Confusing? Absolutely. So is who exactly owns Rosukrenegro. Gazprom's banking unit owns about half, while the other is in the hands of unknown owners represented by an Austrian bank, Raiffeisenbank. The shadiness of the deal has further disillusioned Ukrainians, already losing patience with Yushchenko's failure to change their lives for the better. And with parliamentary elections coming in March, if not sooner, Yushchenko's enemies are exploiting the gas imbroglio to the max for political gain, including Yanukovych and Tymoshenko who expect to make inroads at Yushchenko's expense. Yushchenko has been wobbled by the crisis but he is still standing. Whether the upcoming election will deliver a knockout blow is unclear.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

CIA Camps Making EU Look Weak

It's one of the worst kept secrets that European governments, despite their ocassional whining and criticism, more or less, do the bidding of Washington. However when that inconvenient reality is rubbed in their collective face the little bureaucats sitting on their fannies in Brussels become apoplectic. Reports the CIA were whisking terrorist suspects through their airports and operating secret prisons on their soil is making the Europeans look, at best, weak, at worst, hypocritical accomplices to their own sceptical publics.

A top EU lawmaker has told the Reuters news agency that nothing less than the credibility of the EU is at stake. Oh dear! Not that.

"There must be no Guantanamo on European soil," foreign affairs committee chair Elmar Brok told the agency. "We want to be clear to our people and to the rest of the world that we do not violate human rights."

Meanwhile, another committee has been set up to look into the reports of secret U.S. camps in Romania, Poland and other countries who have all denied letting the American set up camp, as it were. This committee is being created by the European Parliament, something of a joke here due to its toothless growl. A British member of the parliament, Sarah Ludford, said the parliamentary committee would pressure member states to find out the truth, (editorial interlude: yeah right.) Ludford wants top EU honchos, like Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, to visit some of the sites said to house the aforementioned U.S. camps.

The Europeans are already suffering a black eye from reports the Germans, despite all the anti-war rhetoric of erstwhile chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, did help the U.S. a bit during bombing raids in Iraq in 2003. The German parliament has heard the testimony of two German BND agents who said they did not tell the Americans what to bomb, but what not to bomb. According to Deutsche Welle, they also said they had no direct contact with US forces before they entered Baghdad. Norbert Roettgen, the committee's chairman, said their evidence was credible.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Strasbourg Latest Anti-Globalization Battleground

Armed with slingshots, whistles, and placards, thousands of workers from across Europe descended on Strasbourg-- one of the EU's nerve centers -- on Jan. 16 in the latest battle against the corporate-friendly form of globalization. Police were out in force and fired water cannons and tear gas to hold back the workers who were eager to break a cordon around the headquarters of the European parliament, where European lawmakers with little if any standing among the people they 'represent' were mulling a measure to 'liberalize' services across Europe. At the same time, dock workers in Antwerp, Rotterdam, Le Havre and other ports walked off the job, shutting down shipping operations across Europe. The law under question is supposed to introduce a dose of competition that unions fear will lead to job losses and the race-to-the-bottom deterioration of wages. On the BBC on Tuesday, a shill for European business interests, laid out their line, saying Europe is "afraid of globalization" and change. To prove change is good for you, he pointed out that phone liberalization on the continent led to more choice for consumers at a lower price. say what you want, it's hard not to respect people willing to fight for their rights and not roll over to the man.....

Greed Will Tear Us Apart

Stanislav Vojkovsky looks out across acres of fields covered in a quilt of snow in NoŇ°ovice, in the eastern hinterlands of the Czech Republic. A few tidy log homes dot the landscape backdropped by the jagged Bezkydy mountains in this idyllic setting. For six generations, the Vojkovskys owned most of these lands, despite a fifty year hiccup under the communists. Until now. The Korean automaker Hyundai was smitten not by Nosovice’s beauty but its location smack dab in Europe and the eager masses there and nearby willing to work for meager wages. The carmaker wants to build a plant here and has managed to convince all the people owning land to sell, including Vojkovsky who held out as long as he could.

Vojkovsky says the fat payout Hyundai offered split the town in two between those willing to sell and those wanting to stay. „The money turned people into hyenas,“ he told the Czech weekly „Respekt. „ We used to all go out for beer, play the harmonica at the bar… now people don’t do anything together anymore,“ he laments.

Vojkovsky, like the other last holdouts, said they gave in after anonymous threats of violence and even death that made the rounds in Nosovice. Many of the threats were uttered in the local drinking hole, ironically named „The Friendship, „ where many of those eager to sell met and vented against their obstinate neighbors.

Bar owner Anna says all that tough talk was nothing more than empty words fueled by lots of beer. Instead of the grimmer side of events, she’d rather talk about the Koreans who were kind, polite and all smiles when they visited her drinking establishment. Plus, she says, the local beer was to their tasting, and they left generous tips. As for who threatened whom, the police say they are investigating, but no one is holding their breathe.

Not everyone in Nosovice is despairing. The eager ones say the money the Koreans offered was just too generous to turn down. Honza Brabec, lives with his father in a home slated for demolition to make way for the car plant. The twenty-year-old has no regrets at all. „We’ll just move and that’s that. The price offered was very fair, „ he told Respekt.

Marie Olsarova also sold right away. She looks on her decision through more altruistic eyes. „There’ll be thousands of new jobs. That plant will simply help a lot of people.“

The town’s mayor, Dana Ticha, says a community spirit fostered over time has forever been destroyed by the dispute. „It’s pretty sad here. Threats and violence are still in the air. People, who were forced to sign [over their land], feel humiliated. People who once trusted one another, now don’t even say hello,“ she explains.

The auto industry has been something of a savior of the Czech economy, accounting for a full fifth of all industrial production and employing more than 200,000 people. So keen was the government to entice the Koreans to Nosovice, it threatened to seize the land of stubborn owners, in a move taken out of the communists‘ playbook. Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek also offered a raft of tax breaks plus promises to build infrastructure for the plant. Critics wonder whether all that public money is worth it, questioning just how many Czechs will get the new jobs. They point out a similar plant in Kolin, about 50 miles east of the capital Prague, has not been the local job bonanza as first promised. Many of the spots at that plant producing cars for Toyota and Peugeot have been filled by Poles and Slovaks. The vice-governor of the Czech national bank, Miroslav Singer, doubts Hyundai or the other car plants here are the key to securing the country’s economic future. Singer says the Czechs aren’t inputting anything other than cheap labor. And he wonders what will happen in ten years, when the Czechs adopt the Euro, and prices rise, including salaries for the workers at Nosovice. In all likelihood, Hyundai and other automakers, will move further east to the cheaper pastures of Bulgaria, Romania or Ukraine. By then, Vojkovsky and others will long have moved on. But for those left in what remains of Nosovice, they may ask if it was all worth it.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Schroeder Anti-War Afterall?

Remember Gerhard Schroeder, one of two evil European leaders (along with that slicked back greaser French President Jacques Chirac; forget Vladimir Putin of Russia, the Russkies have always been despised) who had the temerity to speak out against the U.S. war in Iraq? Well, it now seems maybe Gerhard's anti-war diatribes may have been nothing more than fodder for the cameras and a suckered German public. Stories are now out here that Germany's intelligence service, the BND, helped U.S. forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In particular, BND agents in Iraq allegedly helped U.S. forces by identifying targets for bombing raids. The German parliament -- like parliaments the world over -- will likely set up a commission to probe the charges. Ah, another commission to softpedal the political fallout. The opposition Greens, Free Democrats and Left Party are all for that. Meanwhile, Schroeder's successor, Angela Merkel, has made her first visit to Washington as German chancellor to patch up 'relations' bruised by Gerhard's alleged failure to bow down like a suppine servant to Master Bush. Given the new allegations, it's hard to figure out what exactly the Busheviks wanted ol' Gerhard to do? True to form, Bush said at a press conference with Merkel that he was unaware of the claims.

CIA Camps In Europe

The first inklings of evidence backing claims the CIA had run, or is running secret torture...err, interogation facilities in eastern European has come to light, thanks to Switzerland's SonntagsBlick newspaper. Writing on January 10, the paper says the CIA held 23 people in a secret prison in Romania and maintained similar detention facilities in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Macedonia and Kosovo. It said these allegations were contained in an Egyptian government fax obtained by Swiss Security services. I myself was a little surprised to see just how wide the CIA web is. At the same time, the lead sleuth for a European investigation into the allegations had some choice words for the European elite. Dick Marty, of the Council of Europe, Europe's venerable democracy watchdog, chided them for "turning a blind eye to the dirty work of the CIA. He didn't pull punches either when addressing the Busheviks. Quoted by the BBC, he said: Washington's policy "respects neither human rights nor the Geneva Conventions." Ouch! Marty makes a good point, saying it's highly unlikely European spooks couldn't have not known what was happening on their territory, given the CIA's busywork. "It's not possible to transport people from one place to another in such a manner without the secret services knowing about it," he said. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Calling Inspector Clouseau

Here's a dozy from the AP wire. The U.S. army launched an investigation into abuse charges made by an Iraqi detainee who claimed U.S. soldiers kicked and punched him, plunked him naked in front of an air conditioner, put a bag over his head and time-to-time poured water over the bag. Sounds like basic Abu Ghraib hijink. The army came, investigated and found the claims to be groundless. There is a teansy weansy problem. Seems our super sleuths at the Army never once talked to any of the American soldiers involved in the capture or interrogation of the Iraqi in question. How 'bout records of the interrogation? Army didn't look at them either. But the Army is equipped with an excuse on this one: computer malfunction meant the records were lost. How convienient. Makes me wanna go out and get a new "Support the Troops" sticker for my 4X4!

"Never has there been a good war or a bad peace." —Benjamin Franklin

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Russia's Predicament

Pity Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the U.S. has done all it can to snatch up as much influence in Russia's former imperial playground. Oil surely plays its part especially in the Caspian region. There, the U.S. has grown chummy with most of the "stans" outside of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where a brutal crackdown on protesters last year led to a meek U.S. response, but strong enough for local strongman Islam Karimov to boot the U.S. soldiers out of that country. Still the U.S. military has use of bases in Kyrgyzstan for 'operations' in Afghanistan. Further west, U.S. troops are ensconced in Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the Baltics, a thinly veiled cover for American military might, NATO, is the tool-de-jure. So desperate is Putin, that Alexander Lukashenko, a former kolhoz, or state farm manager, and two-bit tyrant and first-class clown, is the Russian leader's best bud. Enter Ukraine. Ask a Russian, and he will blather on about their "brothers" in Ukraine, who do share a lot linguistically and culturally with their "Big Brothers" further east. Indeed, for many Russians the Ukrainians are the "Little Brothers" who are really not that different than them, it's just they speak Russian funny. Now that upstart Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko wants to move his country closer to the West and further away from Russia. That doesn't sit well with Putin or the Russian military brass, which has use of a naval base on Crimea. So the Gas War has to be viewed thru that prism. Yeah, the Russians blew it big on the p.r. front, cutting gas off totally to Ukraine, interrupting gas supplies to the rest of Europe, didn't win them lots of sympathizers, even though their economic reasoning was sound. Selling Ukraine gas at four times under Market price surely must have struck a greedy chord in the Market-uber-alles crowd in the U.S. and Europe. But maybe the Russians intended it that way. Moscow made clear not only to Ukraine but to Europe that its military may be creeky, their ill-equipped, ill-trained, and just plain ill soldiers bogged down in Russia's own quagmire in Chechnya, yet Russia has a more effective weapon than any gun or missile: natural gas. It's real politik baby and all nations play by it.

Think You Live in a Democracy?

One of the things I remember most from my time spent in the ol' Soviet Union is when expats would gather 'round a group of starry-eyed Ruskies and tutor them on the civic wonders of our great American democratic system. Yes, the U.S. system beats hands-down what the commissars were able to create, but the Busheviks are doing their best to close the gap. Consider the following:

1. 80% of all votes in America are counted by only two companies: Diebold and ES&S. 2. There is no federal agency with regulatory authority or oversight of the U.S. voting machine industry. 3. The vice-president of Diebold and the president of ES&S are brothers. 4. The chairman and CEO of Diebold is a major Bush campaign organizer and donor who wrote in 2003 that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." 5. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel used to be chairman of ES&S. He became Senator based on votes counted by ES&S machines. 6. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, long-connected with the Bush family, was recently caught lying about his ownership of ES&S by the Senate Ethics Committee. 7. Senator Chuck Hagel was on a short list of George W. Bush's vice-presidential candidates. 8. ES&S is the largest voting machine manufacturer in the U.S. and counts almost 60% of all U.S. votes. 9. Diebold's new touch screen voting machines have no paper trail of any votes. In other words, there is no way to verify that the data coming out of the machine is the same as what was legitimately put in by voters. 10. Diebold also makes ATMs, checkout scanners, and ticket machines, all of which log each transaction and can generate a paper trail. 11. Diebold is based in Ohio. 12. Diebold employed 5 convicted felons as consultants and developers to help write the central compiler computer code that counted 50% of the votes in 30 states. 13. Jeff Dean was Senior Vice-President of Global Election Systems when it was bought by Diebold. Even though he had been convicted of 23 counts of felony theft in the first degree, Jeff Dean was retained as a consultant by Diebold and was largely responsible for programming the optical scanning software now used in most of the United States. 14. Diebold consultant Jeff Dean was convicted of planting back doors in his software and using a "high degree of sophistication" to evade detection over a period of 2 years. 15. None of the international election observers were allowed in the polls in Ohio. 16. California banned the use of Diebold machines because the security was so bad. Despite Diebold's claims that the audit logs could not be hacked, a chimpanzee was able to do it! (See the movie here: 17. 30% of all U.S. votes are carried out on unverifiable touch screen voting machines with no paper trail. 18. All -- not some -- but all the voting machine errors detected and reported in Florida went in favor of Bush or Republican candidates. 19. The governor of the state of Florida, Jeb Bush, is the President's brother. 20. Serious voting anomalies in Florida -- again always favoring Bush -- have been mathematically demonstrated and experts are recommending further investigation.

The Russians must be laughing....

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More Important Than Politics

I thought I'd be greeting my friend Tim on Friday morning when he came in to take over for me at work. Like the millions of times before, we'd rag about work and talk about getting together for a beer when I could catch up on things, see how repairs at his new home were going, how Xmas back in Texas went, ecetera. Just the normal stuff that makes up most of what passes for the lives we live. But Tim didn't come in that Friday. He won't be coming to work ever again. He had enough of this life. Now he's gone. One moment you're thinking about shooting the shit with an ol' pal, the next you're pondering something you never thought you'd ever have to think about: why a friend took his life. Whatever drove him to do it, I'll never know and, at this point, does it really matter? When he was still here, I didn't/couldn't? do anything. It still hasn't really sunk in. Part of me still expects him to walk through the doors any moment. He's more in my thoughts now than when he was alive. Politics, sports all that ambient noise just means nothing. My wife means more. My family, my friends matter more. I miss you Tim. You're in a better place now. Peace be with you.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sharon is a....

Here I sit drinking my Kozel beer, pondering whether if no one reads this will I have written it? All news all the time is the health of that beer keg-cum-general-cum-peacenik Ariel Sharon. You know I wish I could tell all the truth about how the media pull out the velvet gloves when writing about Israel and all Jewish. Let's put it this way, there is great sensitivity to how events affecting that state and people are reported. Tags such as political correctness never apply to it. Let me shut up, lest I be tarred the anti-Semite. That is if anyone's reading.