Friday, July 24, 2009

Request for the Day

We hear it often - usually from governments who are criticized for their less than open and transparent political and economic systems:
"(Fill in Country)practices its own form of democracy."

Note to the media. Please stop repeating this stuff. Western democracies vary in their systems, but Russia, China, Iran and similar states do not practice "a form of democracy". They practice a form of government that is distinct from Western forms of democracy. They are not democratic systems regardless of what they say.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious

According to Agence France-Presse (no link) opposition candidates in the Kyrgyz Republic's presidential election being held today claimed massive fraud.

Bakiyev will win with a percentage approaching 90%, if not higher.

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Biden in Ukraine

Condoleezza Rice and Arseniy Yatsenyuk.Image via Wikipedia

As reported in Hurriyet, V.P. Biden breezed through town yesterday and gave a speech at Ukrainian House where he pointed out the obvious to Ukrainians - that their politicians put personal gain ahead of the nation's interests.

Since about 2005, as the alliance among the Orange Revolution participants began to unravel, the personal political ambitions of the leaders, including opposition leader and perennial presidential hopeful Victor Yanukovych, have trumped Ukrainian national interests. The apathy in Ukraine as to their political leadership is palpable. So, V.P. Biden's correct observation and admonition to, essentially, grow up, may fall on deaf ears.

He also met with all the potential and declared presidential candidates, which, I assume, was to get a read on their positions regarding NATO, the EU, Russia and energy issues. The pity is that the newest and freshest candidate, Arseniy Yatsenyuk pictured here, probably has no chance. It will come down between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych. President Yushchenko is dead last in the polls and approaching negative support at 2%.

The Hurriyet article makes a strange statement at the end which is not supported by any facts that "Biden leaves Ukraine later today for Georgia, another post-Soviet country with strong NATO ambitions..." The vast majority of Ukrainians do not support NATO membership.

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Tough Times in the Baltics

Latvia is approaching an economic meltdown that could bring people out on the streets and the IMF is not helping the situation with its demands that collide with what the EU wants, and has received.

Latvia is not alone in Europe to feel the effects of the global recession, but it's recent failed bond sale back in June was, to say the least, eyebrow raising. All of Europe has struggled with stimulation plans that simultaneously increase budget deficits. For example, public debt in the UK was 52% of the GDP in 2008. Now,it is over 68%. Similar problems have appeared in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Spain and Estonia, to name a few.

Street demonstrations have became violent in Latvia at the beginning of 2009. As countries seek budget cuts to deal with deficits, demonstrations have increased in France and Greece.

Latvia's bond sale failure raised an issue with its monetary peg to the Euro (a requirement) prompting a demand by the EC to cut its deficit, which it did by dropping 10% from its pension funding. The EC then provided loan funds to help stabilize the economy. This is a tough decision, as cuts in social programs can easily translate into street riots. But, the EC required that 50% of the tranche be spent on shoring up the banking system.

Enter the IMF. They don't care as much about the banking system. So, their demand is a further cut in social programs - particularly in the pension system. This is asking for trouble and continues the history of the IMF demanding budgetary reforms which it knows, or should know, will result in social unrest. In the Baltics, of course, this plays into the hands of Russia which is happy to provide loans for political and not economic reasons.

The IMF is requiring changes that the EC does not. It is knowingly requiring budget cuts that will result in social unrest. During a global recession, this is certifiably stupid and I don't blame the Latvian Prime Minister Dombrovskis for saying "no".

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ads Removed

You will see that I have removed ads from the site. That's because, despite a page of instructions, I could not filter the ads. Scientology was placed on the site and the adsense site would not show any of the urls for the ads so I would be able to block them. This is a giant no-no. So until Google gets its act together - no more ads.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

MEND and Nigerian Elections

Since I may be going to Nigeria in 2010 for a large project, I thought I should try to understand what exactly MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) and the government are up to with the recent amnesty plan, release of MEND leader Henry Okah from detention and the 60 day cease-fire that took effect on July 15.

MEND is a mixture of criminals and those wanting oil revenues to be shared more equitably in the Delta. My impression - and if anyone has some good information it would be welcome - is that the majority of MEND soldiers are simply the tools of some wealthy local criminal organizations more interested in extortion of funds from oil companies and keeping it for themselves. If that is truly the case, then why would the government provide a sweeping amnesty and why would a ceasefire only operate for 60 days?

If the government ruling party (the PDP) is making a deal, then it appears it is all related to securing its hold on the country, if not expanding it, during the election. If that is the case, will funds extracted from the oil companies end up in the PDP coffers? Since negotiations between MEND and the government will continue during the cease fire, I would think that the final deal between them will result in MEND helping, through intimidation and violence, the PDP to secure a massive election victory.

Anyone having deeper insight into Nigeria and MEND is welcome to comment.

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Friday, July 17, 2009


Sberbank Rossii Сбербанк РоссииImage via Wikipedia

President Medvedev and Chancellor Merkel signed a credit agreement yesterday worth 500 million euros to finance joint projects, primarily in mechanical engineering, RIA Novosti reported. The credit agreement was signed between Vnesheconombank and KfW Ipex-Bank. Medvedev and Merkel also signed a memorandum of understanding to modernize Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg. Medvedev also urged Germany to support the purchase of Opel by an international consortium of the Austrian-Canadian auto supply company Magna and Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank.

Germany under Merkel is a threat to European energy independence through its increasingly close ties to Russia. It is a threat to European independence from Russia in general. Time for the US to ramp up support for France, Poland and Turkey.

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Apollo 11 Launch The American flag heralds the...Image via Wikipedia

Forty years ago I was studying in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, USSR when Apollo 11 was launched. I was still there in a dorm at Leningrad Polytechnic Institute when they landed. This is what it is all about...Raise a glass.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What to do with Chernobyl

Entrance to the Zone of AlienationImage via Wikipedia

I was reminded in a conversation with a key project director handling atomic power plant safety for the EC in Ukraine about a recent article in the Guardian (I think) discussing the growing participation in, basically, "visits to hell" tourism. The article described the tours that are given in the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. These tours sometimes result in contamination by those careless enough to sit on the ground, brush up against dust or otherwise collect radioactive material on clothing, hair and skin. It doesn't seem to dissuade people from paying for these tours.

The exclusion zone is extensive and divided into 4 zones, but the most dangerous part is the 30 square kilometers around the plant. The radioactive material covering this area will not be going anywhere for a very long time, to say the least. Clean-up within this area would be astronomically expensive and it is unlikely that the EU will or would want to foot the bill. However, my friend reminded me that the commercialization of the inner zone by utilizing it as a radioactive waste storage facility could help to fund a clean-up of the surrounding zones and pay for itself.

The commercialization itself would avoid the unending search for radioactive waste sites which would destroy existing eco-systems and are subject to not-in-my-backyard protests. It certainly would not require an environmental impact statement.

Commericialization would need to be funded, of course and I have no idea if this is feasible. But, if the European Commission wanted to fund something useful, perhaps this is a project that should be investigated

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Jaw Dropping...

KFC's Original Recipe fried chicken and French...Image via Wikipedia

A diversion to American politics...from Salon.

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee was asked how he plans to attract "diverse populations" into the Republican Party. "My plan is to say, 'Y'all come. Cause a lot of you are already here." The questioner remarked, probably with a broad grin, "I'll bring the collard greens." Steele replied, "I got the fried chicken and potato salad."

You can't make this crap up. Why are there any Republicans in Congress?

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Notice: Newt Gingrich is a Private Citizen with NO POWER

WASHINGTON - APRIL 10: Former Republican Spea...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The other day I said that I thought it would be a good idea to tone down the rhetoric about Iran. In line with that, all foreign readers, particularly in the Middle East should understand a very important fact:

Republican Newt Gingrich is not a member of the US Government. He is a private citizen. To call him eccentric is kind. The fact that news organizations continue to give him air time (in this case Al Jazeera) is the mystery of the decade. He is a disgraced former member of the House of Representatives, has no power and his ideas will not be implemented. Particularly those involving blowing up Iranian oil refineries (even though he thinks there is only one that produces gasoline).

This has been a public service message. That is all.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Blog System Update

We are no longer requiring a sign-in for comments and comments within ten days of a new post will not be moderated. However, any comment we deem inappropriate will result in permanent banning.


Map of Nabucco Gas PipelineImage via Wikipedia

The Nabucco pipeline agreement has been signed. This pipeline is designed to pump gas from Central Asia to Europe without transiting Russia. That's good news for Europe. The bad news is that there is no gas yet to fill it, is far from complete and would need support from Iran and Armenia.

Still, it is a good start and should start to focus Russia's attention on its inappropriate use of energy as a foreign policy weapon against Europe.

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Slow Burn in Tehran

Previously, I said that I would not turn back to this subject until the "revolution" was over. I think it is, but now a new dynamic - one that will be played out over the long-term - seems to have taken hold.

Last week, the opposition called for more demonstrations. They were small, apparently in 1000s, but nevertheless were beaten back with teargas and clubs. Text messaging was cut off on last Thursday (the anniversary of the 1999 student protests that were crushed violently) to prevent communication. The government appears to be creating a permanent underground movement.

The continuing low-grade fever of opposition to the current government will gradually drain Iran of regional legitimacy to the extent of its ability to effectively interfere in regional issues. Everyone should simply let this happen rather than indulging in ill-advised bellicosity or, worse a military strike against nuclear facilities.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Russia's Problem

It did not take long for President Medvedev and PM Putin to reveal that the veneer of success portrayed in the press on the meetings in Moscow with President Obama is just that - a veneer. That veneer was scraped off as President Medvedev announced on July 10 that Russia will deploy short range missiles in Kaliningrad aimed at Warsaw if the BMD deployment in Poland by the US goes forward.

Clearly, the refusal by the United States to discuss either the deployment of the BMD system or Russia's claim of a sphere of influence over its neighbors is a deep annoyance to Putin, who cancelled his attendance at a gala in the Kremlin, resulting in a similar cancellation by President Obama.

As I have posted earlier, the interests of Russia and the United States are not at all similar. Russia wants US and European influence restricted, if not eliminated, in bordering regions. It would be a mistake for the US to accede to Russian desires. Although the BMD system deployment could, and likely should be cancelled, more positioning of US assets in Poland and the Baltic States would be more effective in focusing Russia's attention on the distrust it has cultivated in its near-abroad, Europe and the US.

The problem with Russia is that it does nothing but "oppose" by throwing up roadblocks to any movement toward settlement of issues in key areas of the world - Palestine, Iran, Georgia and Central Asia. This proclivity to create, rather than solve problems, represents the actions of a weak and paranoid state. For it to keep thrusting itself on the political stage as a world power equal to China, the EU or the US is absurd for a variety of economic and social reasons.

Although it deserves respect, Russia's inability to propose solutions other than those masquerading as such but which are always solely targeted at expanding its political sphere of influence, preclude reasonable dialogue at this time.

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Obama in Ghana

Since I am on my way to Ghana again I've been following the progress of President Obama to that West African country.

At the G-8, agricultural growth in Africa was one of the primary targets of the participants and resulted in a commitment to allocate $20 billion to Africa. Leaving aside whether these funds will ever make it through the bureaucratic systems in individual countries of the G-8, this type of aid needs to be re-directed. The G-8 appear to have recognized that the policies of aid supply to African agriculture have not produced the expected results over the past 20 years, and have actually harmed local farmers. It is about time that agricultural aid is recognizing that the focus should be on helping farmers help themselves rather than attempting to impose non-indigenous concepts. So far, so good.

Yet, as President Obama correctly emphasised that each country must, in effect, help themselves, nothing in agricultural aid will produce the results necessary without a significant reduction in farm subsidies in the US and, more importantly, Europe. Given European agricultural policy, such a reduction is politically impossible.

The other aspect of agricultural reform in Africa is the slow rate of land tenure security. Agricultural reform will not be successful unless farmers have clear tenure over their land. This is a major problem in Ghana, for example, as the growth of cities is exponential - and is not due to population increases but rather an exodus from the rural areas into cities. Local chiefs, the true power in Ghana, are in some areas literally giving away land to get people to stay. But the legal system established to secure tenure is inefficient, expensive and corrupt. Although huge sums have been and will be spent in Ghana by the World Bank and USAID to improve tenure security and improve agricultural policies and practices, they have so far been unsuccessful.

There are many reasons for the slow rate of success in land tenure security, including a highly bureaucratic system and central government/chief rivalry, but until significant movement toward secure tenure is achieved, agricultural growth will remain slow and intermittent.

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Turkey and China

It is difficult to understand the rhetoric, now highly charged, coming from Prime Minister Erdogan, who referred to the crack-down on Uighurs in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang a “genocide.” That is not a term that Turkey tosses around easily, given the issue with the Armenian claims of genocide by the Ottoman Empire.

Clearly, there is domestic pressure on the ruling AKP to take a strong stand, but aside from that it is difficult to understand why Turkey would deliberately poke China, a major trading partner, in the eye with an inflammatory condemnation and statement that it would raise it in the UN Security Council. The latter is unlikely since China would need to give permission to raise the issue, which is clearly considers internal.

So, what's up with Turkey? I understand that the Uighurs are Turkic and Muslim. But Turkey has even less connection with them than the other Central Asia Turkic peoples. I suspect that the escalation is due to local politics as the AKP wants to establish its leadership in the Muslim world closer to home.

China's response has, so far, been dismissive. Whether this escalates to involve the trade and political relationship between Turkey and China is the next stage.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stick a Fork in it...

Done deal. There will be a new START treaty that limits nuclear weapons and delivery systems. This should not be downplayed. Both the US and Russia wanted and needed it. It is a big deal in Russia. Russia will resume military contact with the US, including a visit by Russian cadets to West Point and 4500 military flights over Russian territory will be permitted to transit for the Afghan war.

So. What's left. No overt compromise on Eastern Europe or other areas in Russia's "near abroad". Not a lot left. I disagree with Drezner that the US has a market in Russia. It is limited, temporary and does not recognize the geopolitical imperatives of both - which are not subject to many areas of compromise. Drezner believes that Russia is a useful market for the US. This is plain crap. Period. There is nothing in Russia that is other than marginally open to the US producer. Nothing. Russia produces nothing other than energy that anyone else wants. The Russian environment is simply not suitable for US producers. But you need to live there to understand that, frankly.

So, what comes out of Moscow is what was generally expected. And a new nuclear treaty is nothing to sneeze at. Don't expect much more and thankfully, don't expect a US compromise on Eastern Europe. The US should understand that Russia is not a friend. It is not a democracy by any definition and it is not China.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Meeting in Moscow

Moscow (Russia) - the Red SquareImage by eesti via Flickr

The meetings being held as I write in Moscow will decide how the US and Russia will deal with each other for rest of 2009 and perhaps beyond. The US wants Russia's help with Afghanistan, Iran and Palestine. Russia wants the US to draw back from Eastern Europe, Georgia and Central Asia. Both Russia and the US want to sign a successor treaty to START.

Russia has stated that the US can transport non-lethal and lethal materials over and perhaps on its territory for the Afghan effort. This will not come without a quid pro quo. The question is - what will the US give up? The BMD's in Poland will likely be postponed. The US will also likely agree to draw back a little on efforts to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. In the former, there is simply no strong desire and in the latter, the current government behaves too eratically to be considered an ally.

The BMD placement is really not a big deal since they are of questionable utility and Poland has just received significant military hardware from the US (50 F16) and will soon deploy Patriot missles as well. This will allow Poland to feel a little more secure and will satisfy Poland to the extent that it needs to at the moment. What else can the US give up? Very little, I would imagine, without damaging its credibility in Eastern Europe.

Ultimately, aside from a reduction in nuclear arsenals which both countries want, the geopolitical differences are not that flexible. I don't expect much to come out of the meeting other than a new START treaty, postponement of the BMDs and a temporary lull in the expansion of NATO.

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A Week Hiaitus

I'm back after a quiet week and celebrating the 4th at Spartak Stadium in Kyiv. Today President Obama is in Moscow. This is going to be interesting.

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