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.