Thursday, December 31, 2009

Belarus Falling Out With Russia

Once not long ago, the leaders of Belarus and Russia fawned over each other and talked glowingly of their coming fusion in one union, with even one currency.  Those days are fading now as relations fray and the EU and Washington nudge into the picture, trying to pry away away one of Moscow's last true allies.   The latest sign of souring relations is the failure of Moscow and Minsk to agree on oil deliveries for 2010.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Former Soviet States Dumping Dollar

For decades, the people of the Soviet Union craved the dollar, a sign of stability and the prosperity they dreamed of in the West.  Now the dollar is on the outs in most former Soviet states. It's just the latest sign of the dollar's creeping decline as currency numero uno, a leading economist has told the Informant.  Russia, with the globe's third largest currency reserves at $443.7 billion, is already moving away from the dollar to a wider basket of currencies.  Not coincidentally, Russia along with China have been leading the charge for a new world currency.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Did Kosovo Albanians Harvest Human Organs?

They are some of the gorier allegations to come out of the Kosovo conflict.  In the summer of 1999 as the war was entering its final days it's alleged Kosovo Albanians first kidnapped then transported some 300 people, namely Serbs, to Albania where their organs were "harvested" for sale abroad. 

The chilling allegations briefly grabbed headlines in 2008 when former chief UN prosecutor Carla Del Ponte published lots of circumstantial evidence in her book, "The Hunt."  Now, Serb investigators say they have witnesses to some of the gruesome deeds and further information on who some of the victims may have been.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Lithuania Shuts Down Chernobyl-Type Reactor

Believe it or not, the type of reactor once found in the nuclear house of horrors, Chernobyl, is still churning out power in Europe.  But the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithunia, which provides 70 percent of the power of that small Baltic state, is living on borrowed time.  Under an agreement with the EU, Lithuania will pull the switch on Ignalina on New Year's eve.  While Europe will be rid of one more dangerous nuclear site, Lithuania is stuck with a problem.  Where to get the power Ignalina provided in bunches.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

French Plans To Sell Warship To Russia Raises Fears

France is planning to sell one of its most advanced warships to Russia in a move that would greatly beef up Moscow's military might. 

However, former Soviet states are jittery about the Russians getting their hands on a Mistral warship, the second largest in the French fleet.  Some in Washington are warning the first ever sale of such high tech military equipment by a NATO country to Russia could upset regional stability.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lithuanian Parliament: CIA Had Two Black Sites

Two CIA black sites but no proof 'al-Qaeda terrorist suspects' were ever housed there. 

That's the main finding of a much ballyhooed parliamentary probe in Lithuania, site of the latest reports of CIA-run 'interrogation' sites in eastern Europe. 

The report is riddled with lots of cautionary wording like 'may have', and 'could have', but the lawmakers did not issue a whitewash. Not exactly.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Demjanjuk: War Criminal Or War Victim

The world's last big Nazi war crimes trial is underway now in the Bavarian city of Munich.
An 89-year-old former autoworker from Cleveland, John Demjanjuk, is charged with aiding in the murder of 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor camp in occupied Poland.  Demjanjuk, a native of Ukraine, denies the charges. 

The case is a milestone for Germany.  Never before has such a minor figure -- Demjanjuk was allegedly a camp guard -- been charged without a shred of evidence of a specific offence. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ukraine's Orange Revolution Coming To An End?

Hopes were high five years ago when Victor Yushchenko came to power in the so-called "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine.

Ukrainians dreamed he would end the endemic corruption, spur economic growth, and for his ethnic Ukrainian base, namely in the west, pull the country out of Moscow's orbit and into the embrace of the West.  Now, with elections set for January, the man on whom Ukrainians hung their hopes, Victor Yushchenko, will likely be removed from office, and convincingly.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

US Aid To Nagorno-Karabakh Angers Baku

Location of Nagorno-Karabakh. World inset adde...Image via Wikipedia
Eight million dollars is a drop in the bucket for the United States Congress, which is busy as bees tacking on as long a string of zeros as possible to the ever ballooning U.S. debt.

But the U.S. lawmakers' decision to allocate that paltry sum to Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, has irked the leadership in Baku, and possibly put a dent in relations between the U.S. and Azerbaijan, long in the crosshairs of U.S. foreign policy mandarins for its fossil fuel wealth.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ex-Lithuanian Leader Claims "Impeached" For Saying No To CIA Camp

president Rolandas Paksas in Mazeikiai August ...Image via Wikipedia
A former president of the Baltic state of Lithuania has dropped a bombshell.

Rolandas Paksas says his impeachment in 2004 was linked to his refusal to allow the CIA to set up a black site for interrogating terror suspects on his country's soil.

Paksas made the jaw-dropping remark during parliamentary hearings into claims that at least eight al-Qaida terror suspects were held by the CIA at a secret site outside the capital, Vilnius between 2004 and 2005.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

GECF, A New Natural Gas OPEC?

Gazprom ГазпромImage via Wikipedia
Could a cartel of natural gas suppliers team up to form a cartel much like OPEC?

That could be in the cards if you believe Leonid Bokhanovsky, the newly elected secretary general of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, GECF.

That may be a new alphabet soup group we'll have to get used to, although it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue like OPEC, and maybe fear a bit. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NATO Demanding Russian Help In Afghanistan

Never underestimate the chutzpah of the West.

Never stated publicly, one of NATO's goals is to "contain" Russia, in euphemistic speak.

But NATO, read Washington, needs help.  The Afghan foray is in shambles.  U.S. casualties are at all time highs.  The Taliban rules most of the country, and even the fortress that is Kabul is not safe.  The world heroin trade is in full swing thanks to all the poppy coming out of Afghanistan, although the UN has announced a drop in production, but that's due to over supply in Afghanistan and depressed prices in the West. 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Soccer To Save Ukraine?

Ukraine has been immune from good news of late.  This country of 50 million on the eastern edge of Europe has been especially hard hit by the credit crunch and now a stronger strain of H1N1 that has killed 3,000.   But amid the gloom, Europe's soccer honchos gave Ukrainians something to cheer about, announcing they would not snatch away their role as co-hosts with Poland of Europe's 2012 soccer championships.   

Saturday, December 12, 2009

US Troops To Be Stationed In Poland

Empire never sleeps.

One hundred U.S. troops will be making Poland their home soon.   They will be stationed at a Patriot missile base the U.S. military is to build on Polish soil.

Ellen Tauscher, U.S. under-secretary of state for arms control and international security, a liberal's liberal, according to Wikipedia, says the U.S. is eager to get the soldiers in Poland as soon as possible.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What Really Happened To The Kursk?

Wreck of Russian submarine K-141 Kursk in a fl...Image via Wikipedia

For those with an hour to spare, this French documentary is well worth the viewing.  For those who need a refresher on what allegedly happened to the Russian sub in 2000, click here for Wikipedia's version of events.  This film offers a very different take on those fateful days, when the world, as the film's narrator intones, was on the threshold of a third world war.  

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Russia's New European Security Blueprint Draws Yawns

In late November, to a near media blackout in the United States, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev unveiled a Russian blueprint for rejiggering Europe's security relations.

The draft was full of flowery rhetoric, obligating all signatories to the pact to follow the principle of “indivisible, equal and undiminished security.”

Monday, December 07, 2009

Kosovo And International Law

A legal process that will likely have no direct impact, but long term consequences is underway at the UN's International Court of Justice, at The Hague, in Holland.

The Serbian government has brought a case to the court, asking it to rule on Kosovo's 2008 unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Berlusconi To Belarus, Say What?

It was a visit that hovered below the media radar, but a biggy, nonetheless.

For the first time in fifteen years, a Western European leader has visited Belarus, referred to as Europe's last dictatorship due to Alexander Lukashenko's heavyhanded rule.

The European official to break the diplomatic boycott of the former Kolhoz director's country? None other than Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

NATO Keeps Growing

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO, created to 'defend' against a Soviet attack into Western Europe, keeps growing.

On Friday, NATO defense chiefs issued what's called a Membership Action Plan to Montenegro. In other words, Montenegro will become NATO's 29 member.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Obama Gets 'Big' Support From NATO On Afghanistan

That's the way NATO's spinning it at least.

A few days after US President Barack Obama announced the U.S. will be sending 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, NATO's 27 other nations announced how many they'd chip in.

On Friday in Brussels following another NATO bigwig pow wow, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced the figure: 7,000.

Not exactly a lot, and on closer look it's even worse.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hussein Planned Rocket Attack On RFE Prague HQ

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, bent on ending broadcasts to his country, allegedly planned a rocket attack in 1999 on the Prague headquarters of the U.S. radio station, Radio Free Europe, according to a Czech media report.

Television Nova quotes the Czech counterintelligence service, BIS, as saying the former Iraqi dictator planned to use a RPG-7 anti-tank missile launcher to fire on RFE's former offices at the top of the famed Wenceslaus square in the heart of the Czech capital.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pipeline Puzzle

In Europe, the movers and shakers are always gabbing about the continent's security being... secured by 'diversifying' their energy resources.

That, of course, means weaning itself off as much as possible from Russian gas. Here at the Informant, we'll be updating important developments in the great Energy Game.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Poland Bans Communist Symbols

A Che Guevera t-shirt may be chic fashion elsewhere, but in Poland it could get you busted.

Poland's President Lech Kaczynski has signed into law on Nov. 27 legislation that criminalizes the possession, purchase or propagation of material containing communist symbols. Fines and even up to two years of prison could be meted out to lawbreakers.

The legislation was introduced by the rightwing Law and Justice party, which Kaczynski helped create. It beefs up existing legislation banning the propagation of Nazism or other totalitarian systems.

Critics, many on Poland's left say the legislation is too broad and vague and does more to violate human rights rather than protect them. Enforcing it, critics say, will be next to impossible.

The law highlights how even twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern Europe is still struggling to come to terms with its communist past.

Hungary passed a law in 1994 banning symbols of communism, like the hammer and sickle -- along with the swastika -- as "symbols of tyranny." Rightwing politicians in the Czech Republic have tried to ban the Communist Party. In the European parliament, delegates from eastern Europe have called for banning Communist symbols to match an EU ban on Nazi signs.

Der Spiegel Online has a nice piece on the Poland law here.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Azeri President Threatens War Over Nagorno-Karabakh

The dictator cum president of the Caspian oil kingdom of Azerbaijan is threatening to retake a breakaway region by force. Ilham Aliyev was speaking a day ahead of another round of talks on Nagorno-Karabakh with his Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisian. Nagorno-Karabakh is located inside of Azerbaijan but is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians who declared their independence from Baku in the early 1990s. A conflict left 30,000 deads and tens of thousands homeless. Talks on settling this conflict have been going on for years now. Ahead of Sunday's meeting in Munich, Aliyev boasted to ethnic Azeri refugees from the region that: "Azerbaijan is spending billions on buying new weapons, hardware, strengthening its position on the line of contact." Israel, of all countries, has been pouring weapons into Azerbaijan. That piece in Haaretz has this interesting point:

Foreign news outlets have reported that the two countries maintain intelligence and security contacts. The bolstering of these ties has reportedly been achieved by former Mossad agent Michael Ross.

Turkey is also playing a role here. They backed Muslim Azerbaijan in their conflict with Armenia and closed their border with Armenia in 1994 in a "sign of solidarity." Now Turkey and Armenia are set to kiss and make up, (despite huge differences over what the Armenians and most of the world calls the 'genocide' of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during WW I. The Turks say the dead were victims of the war and not a coordinated campaign). Anyway, Turkey won't ratify a treaty to reopen diplomatic ties with Armenia unless progress is made on Nagorno-Karabakh. Get it. Any way, the region is percolating with oil, as the ever stellar Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out the obvious earlier this year when the Azeri foreign minister visited Foggy Bottom:

“Azerbaijan has a very strategic location that is one important not only to their country, but really, regionally and globally….”

As Rick Rozoff who does some of the best analysis of NATO in the former Soviet sphere puts it in this piece here:

The foundation of Western plans for Azerbaijan’s role in not only regional but ultimately global energy strategies began immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the creation of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the same year. After three and a half years of negotiations the so-called Contract of the Century was signed in the capital of Baku in 1994 with British Petroleum and other foreign oil companies including the American Amoco, Pennzoil, UNOCAL, McDermott and Delta Nimir firms.

The pivotal Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline project was agreed upon in 1998 and went into effect in 2006.

Imagine that, it's all about oil!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lithuania Third Country To 'Host' CIA 'Torture' Camp?

Say what you will about the MSM and all their failings, but sometimes they get it right. In this case, ABC news has uncovered information that a hooty-tooty horseback riding school in Lithuania, of all places, was used by the CIA to 'interrogate' Al-Qaeda suspects. ABC says up to eight suspects could be interogated/tortured at one time at the facility outside the capital, Vilnius. It said the CIA constructed thick concrete pillars inside the site, which it bought using a front company. Earlier this month, Lithuanian lawmakers launched a probe into such claims and looked into whether any Lithuanian officials were complicit. The Informant covered earlier charges, and probes on secret torture sites in Romania and Poland. In both cases, there was lots of circumstantial evidence but no political will to go into it. More to come....

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Friday, November 13, 2009

PRAGUE - Down the street from our apartment in Prague is where the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution” got its spark twenty years ago.

Students had gathered on November 17 at Charles University to mark the killing of own of their own by the Nazis decades ago.

Events were not taking place in a vacuum, however. Tectonic shifts were underway across Eastern Europe. East Germans were fleeing in the thousands to the West. The Solidarity trade union under Lech Walesa was taking power in Poland. Hungary was dismantling its one-party rule system. The ultimate blow to the bankrupt system, however, was the crumbling of the Berlin Wall on November 9.

With revolution on their mind, Czech students marched to the center of town where they were met by a phalanx of grim-faced police in riot gear. It is common lore that the overthrow of Communism in Czechoslovakia went smoothly, peacefully, hence the “Velvet” tag. But that day, police were at their brutal best, attacking with batons protesters who approached them with flowers.

The crackdown was a catalyst. Angered by the police action and sensing the system was on its last leg, Czechs took to the streets in massive protests, jingling keys for change. Less than two weeks later, the Communist system was unraveling, and, Vaclav Havel, a playwright, political prisoner, and Lou Reed fan, would soon become the first president of a free Czechoslovakia.

Today, a small plaque commemorates the site where that fateful crackdown took place, but few take notice. Many are busy rushing in and out of a nearby supermarket. Capitalism is firmly entrenched here.

The cobble-stoned streets of Prague are lined with restaurants, pubs and upscale boutiques. With its architectural heritage given a needed scrubbing after decades of Communist neglect, Prague has become a top target of the camera-clicking crowd. The city’s roads are clogged with more and more upscale cars, pushing out the old boxy, Skodas, the Czech automaker.

Skoda, like most of the country’s industrial gems have either closed down or been snatched up by multinational conglomerates. Skoda is now part of the German giant Volkswagen, with all profits sent to Wolfsburg, its corporate headquarters.
Pisner Urquell, the Czech’s "King of Beers", from the city which gave the world a breakthrough in brewing and a beer type, Pilsen, is now just one brand of many of a South African-based beverage behemoth.

On the other hand, what has remained in Czech hands, has found navigating the free market waters tricky at best, treacherous, at worst. Czech glassware, renowned around the world, has taken it on the chin with most glass works either shutting down, or radically scaling back operations. In the town where my family has a summer retreat, the country’s oldest glass works, dating back to the 16th century, has closed its doors forever, not only throwing about 100 people out of work, but consigning to history’s scrap heap another part of the country’s industrial heritage.

But overall, Czechs are working, especially in the capital Prague, where go-getters equipped with better-than-average English face a favorable job market where unemployment is still just about 3% even with the current economic crisis. With a very good salary considered about $2,000 a month, it’s no wonder multinationals have flocked to Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest to cut costs.

Not all, however, have been embraced by capitalism. Homelessness is on the rise. Police have been ordered to push the unwashed, drug-addicted and unemployable out of the city center and out of the gaze of tourists, cherished for the needed coin they put in the city’s coffers.

That’s not the only relatively new ill Czechs are confronting.. “Night clubs” that hardly hide the prostitution going on inside, can be found on the back streets off the famed Wenceslaus Square, site of massive anti-Communist protests back in 1989. Those looking for cheap booze and sex have made Prague a top destination, leading one English paper to call Prague one of Europe’s sleaziest cities.

Outside the cities, change and prosperity has come, but at a much slower pace. As I mentioned the country’s oldest glassworks where our summer home is located near the border with Germany has shut its doors. A friend there had a scare years ago when the German owners of the thread factory where he works announced they might be moving operations further east to Romania, where wages are even cheaper. My friend makes about $700 a month.

The end of Communism has been good for the environment with some of the worst offending smokestack industries shutting down or upgrading to more environmentally-friendly equipment. Ironically, when we head to the country for fresh air, we get a lung’s full of coal grit. It’s like a time warp back to Pittsburgh when the city skyline was blanketed in grayness. With gas just too expensive for many, Czechs turn to burning coal, wood and whatever else is flammable -- even tires -- to keep warm in winter. Stocking up wood becomes a necessity bordering on obsession for some.

With all it warts, few here or elsewhere in the former East Bloc want to trash the free market and return to the past, despite the sense of security it did offer along with the cruelty and limitations.

I asked a friend who lives in Chribska, site of our rustic retreat, whether the current credit crunch had shaken his faith in the free market. Pepa had just had his hours cut back at the thread factory. He looked at me like I was kidding, before answering with a heaping dose of sarcasm, “Oh, sure we could go back to the way things were, when the shops were full, and we all drove Trabants,” the tiny clunker once churned out in bunches in East Germany.

The Trebants are gone as are the Soviet troops. The Czech Republic and other former Warsaw Pact nations are now members of what was the enemy, NATO. Membership in the now not-so-exclusive European club, the European Union, means the Czechs and other eastern Europeans are out of Moscow’s orbit, although the Kremlin is still reluctant to see it that way.

That partly explains why Moscow stomped its feet over U.S. anti-missile shield plans to deploy ten missiles in Poland and build a radar in the Czech Republic, ironically on the site of a former Soviet military site.

Vox populi in both Poland and the Czech Republic showed little support for the plan. However, the leadership in Warsaw and Prague believed it would further anchor them in the Atlantic alliance.

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced those two components would be scrapped in a rethink of missile defense, political leaders and thinkers here felt betrayed, and fear that Obama is caving to the Russian bear as Washington looks to “reset” relations with Moscow.

A former foreign minister, Jiri Dientsbier, told me such thinking is nothing more than scaremongering.

He has a point. Obama is not “abandoning” missile defend (whose genesis dates back to President Reagan and his “Star Wars” plan) but merely tweaking it. Mobile missiles are in and Poland may still get them, something Russia will not like, feeling already hemmed in by NATO which has swallowed up all of its former Warsaw Pact allies, and now sits on its borders in the Baltics and may some day encroach further in Ukraine and Georgia.

The Czechs have also been assured by Vice President Joe Biden that the Czechs could get in on the project too. He gave them that assurance on a recent trip to the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. In the U.S. press, it was called a ‘mending-fences’ tour to reassure allies that Washington is not abandoning them in exchange for warmer ties with the Kremlin.

As noted, Washington has no plans to abandon missile defense, still pushes for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, despite misgivings and opposition from many of their European allies, and the Pentagon is still at work to add to the over 1,000 military bases Chalmers Johnson says the U.S. military has around the globe.
Just before Biden arrived in Bucharest in October, the U.S. military announced it would be spending some $50 million to expand and modernize a military base in Romania. Neighboring Bulgaria will get $60 million of Pentagon money for a similar task there.

James Robbins, a senior fellow in national security affairs with the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council think tank, said “the U.S. efforts in Romania and Bulgaria are part of a global redeployment strategy started in the early years of the Bush administration to shift U.S. forces out of Germany and move them eastward.”

That would put them closer to the Caspian Sea, whose abundance of oil and gas, has put the region in the cross hairs of Washington’s Machiavellian mandarins. Moscow, and increasingly China, are wary to say the least.

For some here, Eastern Europe has thrown off one master from the East and is being saddled with another from the West. At least this time, the shops are full.