Sunday, November 29, 2009
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
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
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.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
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
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....
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.