Thursday, January 26, 2006
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?
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
Thursday, January 12, 2006
"Never has there been a good war or a bad peace." —Benjamin Franklin
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
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: http://blackboxvoting.org/baxter/baxtervpr.mov.) 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....