Archive for March, 2010

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What Greece’s Bailout Means for Germany

March 30, 2010
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou (L) talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the start of a European Union leaders summit in Brussels March 25, 2010.

“Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks—and the Acropolis too!”

It was the headline that ran this month in Bild, a German tabloid. While the quote was a bit more colorful than the German politician’s actual statement—”A bankrupt party must use everything he has to make money and serve his creditors” and that “Greece owns buildings, companies and several uninhabited islands, which can now be used to repay debt”—it wasn’t that far off either.

Even Germany’s paper of utmost gravity, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, is losing its composure with the profligate country. It recently noted that in the midst of all of the Greeks’ petulance over raising its pension eligibility age from 61 to 63—including two nation-wide and crippling strikes— Germany has raised its own pension age from 65 to 67. The paper then asked sardonically: “Does that mean that the Germans should in future extend the working age from 67 to 69, so that Greeks can enjoy their retirement?”

Germany is fed up with making weighty sacrifices in the name of “European unity.” The hesitancy of the Euro-zone’s biggest economy has thrown a wrench into an EU bailout. Even as next week’s EU summit in Brussels approaches, it is still wholly unclear whether EU partners will intervene. On Friday, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, asserted that the commission is ready to propose a bailout plan that would likely involve some combination of loans and borrowing guarantees for an estimated 25 billion Euros. But comments by senior German officials Friday signaled that Germany is not. Indeed, Germany is pushing for an International Monetary Fund rescue instead.

The interesting thing is why Germany is reacting this way now. After all, German taxpayers have been financing European currency, not to mention farming subsidies and highways in Spain and Ireland for decades with hardly a grumble. Indeed, the creation of the European Union in the 1950s has been seen by Germany as the perfect opportunity to bury its WWII image.

But times have changed. Germany is mired in its own recession. And for the first time in a long time its citizens are feeling anxious over their financial present and future. Then there’s Greece’s uncanny ability of adding insult to injury. In the midst of discussions over an EU bailout and consequent penalties championed by Germany, the Greek consumer organization has actually called for a boycott of German products. Germany’s demands for needed budget cuts have simply been too unpalatable to the Greeks.

More chaffing still is the recent Grecian cry for WWII remittances. The mayor of Athens has demanded $95 billion for the damage the Nazis left behind after the war. According to a Greek minister broadcast on BBC, the Nazis “took away the Greek gold that was in the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back.”

Some assert that Germany is approaching the end of its rope with the EU. It is now run by a generation with no personal memories of the war. And it’s only a matter of time until they deem that that enough penance has been paid. Others, however, maintain that Germany is unlikely to actually let Greece default when it can instead use its deep pockets to impose strict conditions on Greece and secure primacy within the EU.

For the time being, investors are growing more and more skittish. On Friday the Euro sank to the lowest level in nearly two weeks.

-Ellesse Sorbonne

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Geert Wilders, Prime Minister?

March 12, 2010

REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Last year, controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders was detained and turned away at Heathrow Airport as he attempted to enter Britain for a screening of his anti-Islam film Fitna. A letter sent on behalf of the British home office claimed Wilders’ presence, “Would pose a genuine, present and significantly serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society.”

That decision was eventually overturned and on Friday, Wilders returned to Britain to screen his film—the latest in a series of victories for the right-wing politician this week. Should his luck hold up, the bouffant-haired Wilders could find himself a key player in the formation of his country’s next government.

A one-time MP for the mainstream center-right Dutch Liberal party, Wilders has never been far from controversy. Wilders left the Liberals in 2004 over the party’s support for Turkey’s ascension to the European Union and founded his own outfit, the right-wing Freedom party. In a continent not lacking in nationalist and anti-Islamic political movements, Wilders has cut a unique platform for his party, combining liberal, free market positions on the economy, gay rights advocacy and feminism with hard-edged immigration policies.

Wilders has never been shy in his critique of Islam, calling it a “fascist ideology” and comparing the Quran to Mein Kampf. After the viewing of Fitna Wilders held a press conference and warned Britons they risked seeing their country transformed into “Londonistan” if immigration from Islamic countries continued unabated. He warned ominously, “Islamism and democracy are incompatible. The more Islamism we have, the more freedom we will lose and this is something worth fighting for.”

Wilders’ warnings have struck a chord among his historically tolerant countrymen. The Freedom party performed enormously well in this week’s municipal elections, widely viewed as a test-run for June’s general election. Opinion polls put the Freedom party in first place for that vote. More importantly, the same polls show a theoretical rightist coalition of Freedom, the Liberals and current Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkendende’s Christian Democrats within a few seats of an overall parliamentary majority. Wilders would find himself in a strong position to influence the next government, even laying claim to the premiership, if those polls bear themselves out. Both the Liberals and Christian Democrats—who ruled with a similar party in 2002—have refused to rule out a coalition with Wilders.

Speaking after his party’s strong showing in last week’s local elections, Wilders crowed, “The leftist elite still believes in multiculturalism, coddling criminals, a European super-state and high taxes. But the rest of the Netherlands thinks differently. That silent majority now has a voice.” The Dutch majority, silent or otherwise, will soon have its chance to test Wilders’ claim.

-By Brian J. Forest

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Eric Cartman: Alive and Armed?

March 9, 2010

Eric Cartman, popular animated character from Comedy Central's South Park.

In September 2008, an officer at a U.S. military storehouse in Kabul signed over more than 200 AK-47s to a Blackwater contractor named Eric Cartman. The exchange is singular for two reasons: first, military contractors are not allowed access to those weapons; and secondly, “Eric Cartman” is a “South Park” character. Indeed, no “Eric Cartman” has ever been employed by the company.

Remarkably, this incident is only one in a series of Blackwater scandals. Last week’s Senate investigation committee had their hands full addressing a number of charges against the contracting firm.

In addition to illegally obtaining hundreds of weapons that fall, a Blackwater subsidiary also hired violent drug users to help train the Afghan army. What’s more, a November 2008 e-mail from a Blackwater vice president brazenly declared, “I got sidearms for everyone….We have not yet received formal permission from the Army to carry weapons yet but I will take my chances.”
More alarming still, are the several security incidents associated with Blackwater personnel, including the 2007 shooting at Nisoor Square in Baghdad that killed 17 people, including women and children. Following the public outcry, Blackwater renamed itself Xe Services and overhauled its management.

But the overhaul of the North Carolina-based company did not subdue its lawlessness. Last May, Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff, two drunken Blackwater employees—again armed despite protocol—engaged in a tragic shooting. The men killed two Afghans, injured a third, and quickly inflamed anti-Western sentiment in the region.

Mark Corallo, a Blackwater spokesman, told the committee that management was taking steps to address shortcomings in the program when the shootings occurred. He further asserted that the men “clearly violated clear company policies and they are being held accountable.”

But considering Drotleff’s lengthy criminal record, it seems absurd that the man was hired by Blackwater at all. His three-year career in the Marines ended after seven unauthorized absences and multiple charges of assault and battery.

Cannon additionally has an alarming past. He secured his job with Blackwater after being discharged from the Army for going AWOL and testing positive for cocaine, although he later petitioned successfully to have his military records changed to an honorable discharge.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s chairman, is determined to find who is accountable for the gaps in oversight that led to these lawless incidents. He has declared that “Blackwater operated in Afghanistan without sufficient oversight or supervision and with almost no consideration of the rules it was legally obligated to follow.”

Still, Levin has stopped short of suggesting that Blackwater be ousted from working with the military overseas. At present there are over 100,000 contractors working in Afghanistan, apparently one chubby animated character included.

-Ellesse Sorbonne

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Oligarchs of the World, Unite!

March 9, 2010

AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin

As CEO bonuses continue to outrage, let us not forget the exorbitantly wealthy who deserve some pity—Russian Oligarchs. Apparently few things are more ulcer-inducing than being a Russian billionaire.

The woes of this class of ultra-wealthy businessmen came with the election of the second president of the Russian Federation. For the decade preceding Putin, oligarchs had lived the high life. By grabbing the critical sectors of the dissolved state, these individuals accumulated massive fortunes and political sway. But Putin had other plans; months after assuming office, the Kremlin began systematically targeting the class.

In 2005, the Kremlin ousted oligarchs from the critical business sectors and replaced them with security officials. Then the global financial crisis hit. Russia’s financial, economic, and energy sectors all went into a tailspin. Instead of the Kremlin tapping into its $600 billion in government funds to bail the country out, it turned on the oligarchs to “donate” their funds and services out of loyalty to the state. The wealth was swiftly commandeered. Some of the oligarchs relinquished the money directly to Moscow. Others were explicitly instructed in which stocks to invest. Within the span of a few months, tycoons like Oleg Deripaska, Alexei Mordoshov, and Mikhail Fridman—originally worth $20-30 billion—were left with a few billion. Still others, like Elena Baturina, don’t even qualify as billionaires anymore.

Remarkably, most of the oligarchs remain loyal to the Kremlin. They accept that the recovery of any wealth hinges on gross subservience to Moscow’s bidding. Russia’s new class of business elite is “no longer independently minded.” The Kremlin appears to have realized that security-minded Kremlin loyalists did not provide economic security. Now the Kremlin is allowing loyal oligarchs to return to their lofty positions.

As for those few surviving oligarchs not kissing the Kremlin’s derriere—well, they have been warned.

Last Wednesday Putin publicly impugned Viktor Vekselberg, Leonid Lebedev, Vladimir Potanin and Mikhail Prokhorov for failing to live up to their obligations to Russia as investors. Such threats are typically Putin’s final flourish before the state moves against their assets or persons. The Prime Minister did not hide this fact. During the broadcast he openly declared saying that unless these oligarchs fulfill their obligations, they would be fined or banned from working in that sector. Russia’s bourgeoisie certainly have reason for alarm.

-Ellesse Sorbonne

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Is Iran Losing an Ally?

March 6, 2010

AP Photo Bassem/Tellawi

It’s been a long time coming, but the United States has officially nominated an ambassador to Damascus. After deliberating for nearly a year, the position has been designated to the Mideast expert and former envoy to Algeria, Robert Ford. The appointment comes exactly five years after the U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Syria in response to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri—an assassination which was widely attributed to the Syrian regime. Since then, the United States has only communicated with Syria via Saudi interlocutors.

The reengagement was prolonged since it hinged on strict adherence to U.S. demands. Syria not only had to assist in controlling cross-border militant traffic into Iraq and undermining Hezbollah and Hamas, but also had to publicly distance itself from its Iranian allies.

In exchange, Syria insisted upon Western and regional recognition of Syrian dominance in Lebanon as well as the repeal of sanctions and the facilitation of negotiations with Israel. Indeed, according to a STRATFOR source, Syria has proposed that Syrian and Israeli negotiators meet face to face in a European location. While Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently declared his country’s interest in a peace agreement with Syria, Israel will not move until Syria commits to close overland routes for Hezbollah armaments as well as zero preconditions. In addition, Israel has echoed the U.S. demands for Syrian cooperation over Iraq and Iran.

Ultimately, despite the slow progression, the U.S. appointment of an ambassador to Damascus is a clear sign that the American-Syrian—and perhaps even Israeli-Syrian—relations are improving. Admittedly, Syria is careful to reassure Iran with each diplomatic step it takes toward the West, but there are ample reasons for Iran to be concerned.

-Ellesse Sorbonne

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Ukraine: Now, the Hard Part

March 2, 2010

AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov

After a narrow victory over the Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, Viktor Yanukovych was inaugurated as Ukraine’s fourth post-communist president. It is a remarkable comeback for the man who was accused of rigging the 2004 vote in his favor—charges that sparked the Orange Revolution and an unprecedented electoral re-run that he lost.

His victory is impressive, but the problems have only begun for Yanukovych.

Ukraine, after all, is a bit like Belgium—a country split down the middle politically and linguistically. In the east and south, most Ukrainians speak Russian and want a warmer relationship with Moscow, while western Ukrainian speakers are firmly oriented toward Europe and, to a lesser extent, NATO—anathema to their compatriots in the east.

Outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko, the victor in the 2004 election, had his base in western Ukraine and worked to pull the nation toward Europe and the West. His antagonism of Russia made him massively unpopular in the east, and his constant bickering with Ms. Tymoshenko, a former ally in the Orange Revolution, exasperated his supporters in the western half of the country. His approval rating now hovers in the single digits.

Yanukovych starts off his term with a narrow mandate and a hostile western Ukraine suspicious of his ties to Russia. He is also likely to continue jousting with Yulia Tymoshenko in the near term; she has refused to concede to him and remains prime minister. Under a power-sharing deal agreed after the Orange Revolution, executive power is divided between the president and prime minister. Without a sympathetic premier in place, Yanukovych will have little influence over the budget or other internal policies.

Tymoshenko has called a non-confidence vote in her government for next week—if she wins, Yanukovych will likely have to let her remain in office or dissolve parliament for new elections. It’s doubtful that his Regions Party will increase its share of seats in a new vote, and could even lose ground to the opposition.

For Yanukoych, the easy part was winning the presidency. Now he must prove he can govern a country with a rough-and-tumble political culture and a split identity.

-By Brian J. Forest

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What’s Next for Niger?

March 2, 2010

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

It’s an event that in the past has come to define politics in much of sub-Saharan Africa, yet has become more rare in recent years: In mid-February, a coup led by factions within Niger’s armed forces ended with President Mamadou Tandja under lock down and a military junta in charge of the impoverished West African country. While military rule and coups are nothing new for Niger, the results of these events for the country and the rest of the international community are yet to be seen.

Following the unseating of the president, the interim political authority, calling itself the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy (CSRD), announced that it would clean up the government. President Tandja, while democratically elected, has been increasingly unpopular since last year, when he dissolved the country’s parliament after the national court ruled that he could not run for a third term.

Niger’s new military leader, Salou Djibo, has announced that the country will hold proper elections this month, saying, “To ensure a serene and impartial transition, we pledge that no member of the Supreme Council or of the transition government will be a candidate in the coming presidential elections. The days of autocratic regimes in this country are over,” he added, swearing that, “our only goal is to accompany the return to democracy in our dear homeland.”

Reactions to the coup and the CSRD’s ensuing proclamations have been mixed. The military’s actions have been fairly popular within Niger, while the international community, in its ongoing attempt to discourage them in other parts of the world, has been more wary.

Following the CSRD’s pledge to not be involved in the upcoming elections, however, the West African regional organization ECOWAS has remained cautiously optimistic about the country’s political future: “We of course welcome the decision of the junta not to be candidates in whichever elections they are going to hold as soon as possible. But we are also very cautious because we have recent experiences where the military comes to power and then they promise one thing and then a few months later they start prevaricating,” an ECOWAS official said.

The first test for this profoundly politically beleaguered and economically underdeveloped country will be its upcoming democratic elections. Depending on the results, the international community will be able to determine whether this particular coup was ultimately for the better or worse.

-By John Bavoso, Africa Contributor