Thursday, 28 February 2013

ITALY-EU: ''Election Results'': A Political alarm for Europe

With Italy facing political deadlock after this week's election, European leaders are on edge about what are likely to be negative effects on the currency union.

Financial markets and ratings agencies, the everyday harbingers of economic turmoil, have reacted negatively to concerns that despite a deep recession, much-needed reforms will not continue in the euro-zone's third-largest economy.

Though reform-minded Democratic Party head Pier Luigi Bersani's center-left camp managed a slim majority in Italian parliament, they were unable to gain the upper hand in the Senate didn't gain an edge against the center-right, led by anti-austerity comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement and populist Silvio Berlusconi and his followers. Meanwhile Brussels-backed technocrat and former Prime Minister Mario Monti garnered only about 10 percent of the vote.

With the center-left and center-right now pitted against each other, there is little to indicate that economic progress will be made in Italy. But that hasn't stopped appeals from European leaders for politicians to consider the consequences for the euro crisis, which many fear could now return.

Italy is an uncertain and polarized country rife with fear, resignation and anger.The election results must be a political alarm for Europe. Europe can no longer afford for the euro zone's third-largest economy to be ungovernable for an extended period of time.

A race is taking place in Europe between those backing austerity and reform policies on the one side and the populists on the other and one thing we know for sure is that a stable government in Italy is important to the euro zone. To pull Europe from an economic quagmire, stable politics are required, also Italy should not give in to populism.

Right now, the populists are leading by a nose. Political leaders in particular must be shuddering with fear after the Italian elections. Yes, it may be true that Italy was already considered to be ungovernable even before the crisis. It's not unusual that the country is already talking about the prospects of new elections. The difference this time is that the country's political stability has become far more important since the introduction of the common currency.

The Italian election made one thing certain: European economies will continue drifting apart and their ability to compete will not equalize at a good level. Great uncertainty weighs on this currency union once again.

The Italian election result is a disaster for Italy and for Europe. Whether they voted for the Christian Democrats, the Communists, Berlusconi or the reform-minded left, little changed in the bloated, ineffective and corrupt state -- except that taxes rose. Earlier, their frustrations with their own country led Italians to turn toward Europe. No other country showed as much enthusiasm for the EU. But Brussels is no longer seen as a lifeline. Rather, it is seen as a lead weight that is pulling Italy into the abyss.

If a new government in Rome, regardless of whether it is liberal or conservative, refuses necessary reforms in the long term, it will also have effects on the entire euro zone. Mariano Rajoy in Spain and François Hollande in France, both under enormous public pressure, could try to further soften their austerity and reform goals. And even Greece, which withstood a popular uprising by the skin of its teeth, could waver (on reforms). Last but not least: The EU fiscal pact (requiring countries to implement a so-called debt brake in their constitution to limit annual deficit spending) would be worth less than the paper.

Europe can't afford for Italy and other Mediterranean economies to be strangled by tough austerity measures, leaving an entire generation of young people from Malaga to Athens without a future. Shrill alarmism also won't help, as it only serves to accelerate the downward spiral on the markets. Instead, measures must be taken to give the lost generation prospects for the future. Only then will the EU have a chance to survive, both economically and politically.

Crashing head-on is the fate that awaits not just Italy, but the euro zone too. Italy faces a political deadlock. Either Europe changes course, or it's headed straight into a wall.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: Pier Luigi Bersani

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

GREECE: '' Inspection Time'': TROIKA returns to Greece

The troika mission has returned to Greece, but this time things are different. No front page headlines are warning about new painful demands made by Greece's international creditors, no government officials are pleading for unity in the three-party coalition in support of unpopular measures. And there is no overhanging fear of a long drawn-out process of evaluation, full of innuendos about a catastrophic default or euro-zone exit.

For the moment, Europe is watching developments in Italy. Following the election debacle there, concerns have reawakened that the euro crisis might return. The Greek government, on the other hand, is confident that the inspection started on Monday by the troika -- comprised of officials from the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- will be over by March 10 and will approve the release of the next two tranches of bailout aid -- €2.8 billion in March and a further €6 billion in April. No one seems to fear a repetition of the drama of the previous troika inspection, which lasted a full five months.

On the contrary, the government in Athens is going on the offensive this time, presenting its own list of demands. The Greek government is determined to push lenders to agree on a list of concessions it hopes will help to alleviate the crisis. They include a lower VAT, or sales tax, for restaurants, the allocation of EU funds to combat unemployment and a new law aimed at making life easier for indebted households.

But such complacency seems unfounded given the situation on the ground. The Greek economy remains mired in recession, and is expected to contract by another 4.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2013. The latest statistics show that 27 percent of Greeks are unemployed, and among those under the age of 24, that figure is 62 percent. Many are already fearful of the "Bulgarian syndrome," a reference to the street violence and anti-austerity protests that have shaken the government in Greece's northern neighbor.

Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear that the government in Athens is failing to implement promised reforms:
1) On the privatization front, Greece is supposed to generate €2.5 billion in proceeds by the end of 2013. To meet this goal, the government plans to sell the state gambling monopoly OPAP and Greece's natural gas assets before the summer. Yet given the dismal track record, optimism is misplaced. Total revenues so far for all of Greece's previous privatizations have been a meagre €2 billion, making the 2020 revenue target of €25 billion look increasingly unattainable.

2) Even the sale of those companies that have been dubbed the "crown jewels" of publicly owned enterprises and have attracted a lot of interest from foreign investors, is full of pitfalls. OPAP is considered a cash cow, and many are wondering why the government should sell one of the few companies it has that is actually making money.

3) Different but equally serious are the problems at state gas company DEPA and its subsidiary DESFA. Russian gas giant Gazprom and Sintez are among the bidders and they have awoken the resistance of the EU as well as the United States, which want to keep Moscow away from valuable energy resources in Europe.

4) Nor is much progress being made in the matter of slimming down the public sector. Under the provisions of the bailout program, the public sector is to shrink by 25,000 employees by the end of the year, half of them by June. So far, only 2,000 employees have been put on reserve (meaning they will receive 75 percent of their income for a year and are to be dismissed if they aren't moved to another post within the public sector by the end of a 12-month period). Courts have frequently been overturning decisions made under this provision and the latest data shows that more than half of those employees put on reserve have already returned to their old posts. Greek media reports indicate that of the 500 municipal workers put on reserve, a full 300 have won their jobs back by court order or interim measures.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras believes that if the government manages to remain on top of things by June, then Greece will be out of the woods. A record number of tourists are expected in Greece this year and Samaras is calculating that a good summer season will boost the economy.
Still, Samaras is very aware that a lot can happen in six months. He wants to preserve the good faith his government seems to be enjoying in Europe at the moment and deal with the maladministration in his government. Greek government representatives have already stated that the troika is expected to demand immediate dismissals if the bailout provisions for reducing the size of the public sector aren't met. Athens continues to insist that the reduction can be achieved via retirements and the firing of corrupt public officials.

Still, Samaras appears to be losing his patience as well. He has publicly expressed his frustration over delays in reforms, and a cabinet reshuffle appears to be imminent. Samaras is expected to sack ministers who have proven unable, unwilling, or both, to implement the terms of the bailout. The cabinet reshuffle is expected in early March.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras

LATIN AMERICA: '' Regional Leadership'': The race to fill Chávez’s shoes

The prospect that Chávez will soon leave not only the presidency of Venezuela but also his undisputed position as the most prominent of the leftist leaders in Latin America has triggered a race to fill his revolutionary boots.

The charismatic and histrionic Chávez burst on the scene at about the same time that another iconic, theatrical figure started to wind down his unofficial job as commander-in-chief of Latin America’s would-be leftist revolutionaries. Nobody would have dared challenge Cuba’s larger-than-life revolutionary, Fidel Castro, for the mantle of leadership of the regional left. But the aging Castro embraced the Venezuelan as his heir. Chávez glowed inside Castro’s politically charged bear hug. The Venezuelan president wrapped himself in the flag of revolution and set out to create a solid bloc of “21st century socialists.” 

Chávez invented 21st century socialism and his “Bolivarian” revolution, named after the independence hero Simon Bolivar. The model, with some variations, was replicated in a handful of other countries by leaders emulating Chavismo’s aims. Chávez’s ideological allies in the region moved to improve the lot of the poor and aggressively empower political supporters by taking control of as many levers of power as possible. They rewrote constitutions to extend the length of the presidency, nationalized key industries, launched large-scale social programs, challenged Washington and other rich nations, took down Latin America’s traditional elites by a peg or two, and fortified themselves with the love of the long-suffering masses.

Just hours before Chávez made his unannounced, middle-of-the-night return to Caracas, one of his possible heirs scored an impressive electoral victory. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa won re-election by a wide margin, and promptly positioned himself as candidate for a regional leadership role, declaring, “We will be present wherever we can be useful, wherever we can best serve our fellow citizens and our Latin American brothers.”

Chávez’s backers in Venezuela seemed warm to the idea. The Venezuelan government, officially led by Chávez, issued a statement calling Correa’s victory “a victory for ALBA, for the Bolivarian and socialist forces of our America.”

ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, was founded by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 as a trade bloc to counteract the proposed Washington-centered Free Trade Area of the Americas. Chávez expanded the group by supporting ideological soul mates with generously subsidized sales of Venezuelan oil.

Correa aspires to the regional leadership role, and he too possesses charisma, smarts and oil. Despite his electoral landslide, however, Correa’s victory does not guarantee smooth sailing ahead. He has faced sharp criticism at home and dramatic confrontations with a variety of groups, including indigenous communities. Ecuador has a track record of removing presidents while they are still in office. So Correa, who has an ambitious and controversial agenda for his new term, will not be able to take his attention away from domestic matters for very long.

Also struggling at home and eyeing a larger regional role is Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The Argentine president traveled to Havana to pay a personal visit to the ailing Chávez, perhaps hoping for an anointment as his successor. But her domestic troubles may make a larger role unattainable, even if she has proved masterful at manipulating nationalistic passions for political gain, a key element of the Chávez doctrine.

Fernandez has deftly stoked anti-British sentiment over the contested Falkland Islands, known as the Malvinas in Argentina. She has taken on Uruguay, the IMF, the World Bank and other outside forces, blaming them for her country’s woes. But the tactic seems to be losing effectiveness as Argentina’s inflation rate spirals and her critics gain traction.

Fernandez’s approval ratings are now plummeting, eroding her chances for a prominent role on the Latin American left.

Other leftist followers of the Chavista model hail from countries too small and impoverished to cut a major figure on the international arena. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who has already traveled to Caracas to meet with Chávez since his return, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega preside over the poorest countries in Latin America, with such profound problems that there’s little time for the global stage.

In Uruguay, the former guerrilla fighter-turned-president, Jose Mujica, has strong popular support, and his country has posted extraordinary economic gains. But the aging Mujica is hardly a devotee of Chávez’s theatrical method acting.

None of the potential leaders of the Latin American left can count on the massive oil wealth that lubricated Chávez’s path as he spread his largesse to build alliances with neighboring countries. The candidates for the unofficial leadership post also face the Chávez legacy: a mixed bag of social empowerment, political polarization and economic mayhem. The Chávez message does not resonate the way it once did.

Chávez’s anointed successor at home, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, will have his hands full holding on to power in Venezuela. Chávez may yet try to give his seal of approval to another regional leader. But there is little hope that anyone will be able to fill his shoes as the leader of Latin America’s 21st century socialist project.

The task of convincing the poor in Latin America that Chavismo is the way forward has become much more difficult since another route has proved much more effective. The model made popular by former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, aggressively raising the income of the poorest while unabashedly supporting the business community and welcoming foreign investment, has brought prosperity without strife. In countries such as Peru, leftist President Ollanta Humala won election by explicitly rejecting Chavismo, and moved on to follow a different model and bring the fastest economic growth rates in the region.

The race to fill Chávez’s shoes will unfold in the coming months and years. The understudies will be auditioning before the crowds, but it is likely that Chávez’s most historic role -- that of internationally recognized revolutionary and global headline-maker who upends the traditional Latin American model and endlessly irritates Washington -- will be retired when he leaves the scene.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

ITALY: ''Election's outcome'': The Prospect of coalition government

The first exit polls from the election in Italy were greeted with relief in Brussels on Monday; the stock markets in Milan, Frankfurt and London ticked upwards and the interest rates on Italian sovereign bonds dropped. Silvio Berlusconi had fallen short of his goal. His opposite, it seemed, had won the election, the center-left candidate Pier Luidi.

New forecasts showed that Berlusconi had won a majority in the Senate, the second house of parliament in Rome. And the "Five Star" movement of the ruthless former comedian Beppe Grillo had nabbed 24 percent in the Senate, according to exit polls.

As a result, Berlusconi and Grillo together have a blocking majority. Without their approval, laws cannot be passed. They may not like each other, but they are both euroskeptics, opposed to "the Brussels bureaucrats." Indeed, they stand opposed to everything that a Bersani government seeks to -- and must -- accomplish. Already, there are voices -- mostly from the Bersani camp -- speaking of new elections. Post-election Italy, they say, is ungovernable. At the very least, it is likely to take some time before a government can be assembled, if it can be done at all.

The results from the election on Sunday and Monday present perhaps the worst scenario possible, short of a Berlusconi victory. Europe is bound to suffer. An ailing Italy -- the third largest economy in the euro zone -- with a weak government is bound to once again become a plaything of the financial markets. Rome's massive, €2 trillion mountain of debt will continue to grow, as will risk premiums on Italian bonds, tearing new holes in the country's budget. And a wobbly Italy presents an acute danger to all of Europe. Unless Bersani can find a partner that grants him a Senate majority, an eventuality which looks highly unlikely.

In parliament, the center-left was able to secure a majority. His lead over Berlusconi's alliance is not large, but Italian law grants the winner a minimum of 340 seats, representing a 54 percent majority. The rule is designed to ensure a stable government, and it works, in the lower house at least.

But in the Senate, extra seats are granted on a regional basis. And there, the situation doesn't look good for Bersani's dream of a stable government. Given Berlusconi's tiny lead, the center-left leader would need but a small coalition party to secure a majority. Indeed, that was to be the role played by outgoing prime minister Mario Monti.

But Monti, an economics professor once celebrated as Italy's savior, lost big on Sunday and Monday, landing well behind even Grillo. He had influential backers, including the Catholic Church, Italian business leaders, foreign leaders and, most of all, Brussels and Berlin. But he failed to gain significant support among the electorate. He received a mere 10.5 percent in the parliament and a weak 9.2 percent in the Senate, according to exit polls, a feeble result.

The majority of Italians -- young and old, rich and poor -- have suffered from rising taxes, shrinking buying power and a wave of bankruptcies triggered by Monti's austerity policies. They opted for anything but a continuation of his government.

Still, even Monti's meagre haul would be enough to push Bersani beyond Berlusconi in the Senate. But if Grillo's Five Star block votes with Berlusconi's alliance against the center left, they can easily block any law not to their liking. And without the Senate, it is impossible to govern Italy. Every law has to find approval in both houses. Which means that Bersani will have to go looking for additional allies.

During the campaign, he said that he was open "to all alliances," and a pact with Monti seemed the most likely. But even that partnership would be fraught. Monti belongs to the center-right camp and his economic policies tend to be conservative. Prior to becoming prime minister, he was a consultant for Goldman Sachs and a board member of the Bilderberg Conference, where the world's rich and powerful meet away from the public eye. Bersani, for his part, comes from a communist grouping that morphed into a Social Democratic reform party. His friends are union leaders rather than global players of the financial worl.

Furthermore, Bersani is allied with Niki Vendola, head of Left Ecology Freedom. He is even more opposed to EU-wide austerity than the Democratic Party. Monti said during the campaign that he was uninterested in joining Vendola in a coalition, saying Bersani would have to jettison the party if he wanted his support. The openly homosexual Vendola also hopes to establish a legal basis for gay marriage -- a plan to which Monti is opposed.

And should Bersani make too many compromises in the effort to secure Monti as a partner, Vendola is likely to turn his back. A coalition would become impossible under such a scenario. If a partnership with Monti seems difficult, however, one with the "Grillini," as Grillo's followers are called, is virtually impossible to imagine.

Market concern that the country's election result, in which anti-euro parties took more than 50 percent of the vote, could hamper economic reforms and fuel its costs of borrowing, was seen most markedly in the financials sector. The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index declined by 1.3 percent to 1,151.73 points while the euro zone's blue-chip Euro STOXX 50 index fell 2.6 percent to 2,584.98 points. German Bund futures jumped to a two-month high on Tuesday while equivalent Italian futures tumbled as an indecisive Italian election fuelled fears of political instability in the euro zone's third biggest economy.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

EU-U.S.: '' John Kerry's Europe Trip'': Is Europe still matter to Washington?

The new US secretary of state is visiting Europe. He's promising grand things -- and he has a soft spot for Europe. But John Kerry has little room for maneuver. The Old World is of little interest to people in Washington, particularly President Obama.

John Kerry's first trip overseas started in Europe. He visited United Kingdom and Germany yesterday and expected to visit France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.

Alliances take hard work and require attention from all parties involved. Regrettably, the Obama Administration attaches little importance to the transatlantic alliance, and Europe has barely figured in the Administration’s foreign policy. This was recently demonstrated during President Obama’s hour-long State of the Union address, in which the word Europe was mentioned once and the word NATO not at all.

Europe should still matter to the U.S. Many of America’s closest allies are in Europe. The transatlantic relationship has vitally important defense, intelligence, and economic dimensions. For more than 63 years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been the bedrock of transatlantic security. The economies of Europe, along with the U.S., account for approximately half of the global economy.

NATO has been the premier security alliance since the beginning of the Cold War. It has done more to promote democracy, peace, and security in Europe than any other multilateral organization, including the EU. Continued active U.S. participation is essential to the alliance’s future health. The U.S. should lead NATO, help it prepare for its future after Afghanistan, and not neglect the alliance.

The Administration has removed two U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams from Germany and a U.S. Air Force A-10 squadron from Italy. These cuts will only weaken NATO and America’s leadership in Europe. Furthermore, continued reductions in the size of the U.S. military presence in Europe would reduce the flexibility of American military responses in the region, result in no financial savings, and send a message of U.S. indifference toward Europe and NATO.

Obama's support for a planned free-trade agreement between Washington and the European Union is so half-hearted that he only added a sentence about it to his recent State of the Union address at the very last minute -- and even then, it only came after statements about the implementation of a trans-Pacific trade agreement.

Above all, though, Obama is the ultimate pragmatist when it comes to diplomacy.
The desire of the American people is clear. They would rather rebuild their country's economy than focus on the rest of the world. Right now America is looking inside rather than outside, and moving forward it wants to act in the background rather than march at the front, as evidenced by its positions on Mali and Syria. In Washington these days, the usefulness of each diplomatic transaction trumps past priorities.

A politically unified Europe is not in the interest of the U.S., and the U.S. should not back an “ever closer union” within the EU, including the critical areas of foreign policy and defense integration. U.S. policymakers need to start seeing Europe for what it really is: a collection of sovereign nation-states. A Europe of cooperating, friendly, and independent nation-states would advance both democracy inside Europe and the U.S. interest in a robust and enduring transatlantic alliance.

From Obama's perspective, there is no alternative to America's new foreign-policy restraint. The United States no longer wants to be the "irreplaceable nation" that Madeleine Albright once touted. And even if the country wanted that role again, it is unlikely that it would suddenly increase its focus and pay more attention to Europe. When the Americans actually do look to Europe, it will only be when working together actually pays dividends, as with the planned free-trade agreement.

It is fitting of the current state of the US that the most divisive trans-Atlantic debates during Obama's second term could surround poultry processing or medicine standards rather than the future of the West. Indeed, the role of America's top diplomat today is more that of a trade commissioner than a global strategist à la Kissinger or Marshall. Someone now just has to explain that to Kerry.

Still, the transatlantic alliance needs stronger leadership from Washington. Kerry needs to make a firm commitment to advancing ties with America’s key allies in Europe while supporting economic freedom and national sovereignty in Europe.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

CLIMATE: ''Melting Permafrost'': Warning Dangers of Trapped Carbon

Research published  last week in the journal Science says that even slightly warmer temperatures could start melting permafrost, which in turn threatens to trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases trapped in ice.

The frosty dungeon hides a dark secret. At least a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere's landmass is frozen and, like a vault, it holds 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon. This unimaginably high quantity of carbon comes from countless generations of creatures that have lived and died in the area over millions of years.

A portion of those dead plants and animals weren't decomposed by microorganisms because, at a certain point, it was simply too cold for that. But the permafrost is slowly melting. If large areas of ground underneath were to thaw one day, the bacterial decomposition process would pick up where it left off, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases. In total, permafrost contains twice as much carbon as what is currently billowing through the Earth's atmosphere.

If major portions of that carbon become released, the world's climate would suffer fatal consequences. For this reason, scientists have for some time now been asking the frightening question of just how strongly global warming affects permafrost areas.

Using ingenious measuring methods, they are meticulously monitoring the fate of the planet. A new study, published in the professional journal Science last week, suggests that it's possible that even slightly higher temperatures could thaw out significant portions of the region's permafrost areas.

A team of researchers led by Anton Vaks at the University of Oxford examined calcareous deposits from a total of six Siberian caves. Specifically, they looked at so called speleothems, which are mineral deposits -- including stalactites and stalagmites -- that form in limestone and other caves. Speleothems only grow when rain and meltwater can seep through cracks into the caves. And that process only occurs when temperatures are above the freezing point."

Since water from the frozen earth can't reach cracks deep within the caves, the mineral deposits are precise records of the climate. In warmer times, the so-called interglacial periods, stalactites and stalagmites form. In colder phases, so called glacial periods, they don't. So there is a pattern similar to how tree rings can be used to tell their age.

A total of 36 speleothems were dated using the uranium-thorium method. Over time, uranium decays into thorium. The uranium isotopes dissolve in water that penetrates into the speleothems, while thorium does not and thus remains in the deposits.

Researchers can look back about 500,000 years in the past using this method. Speleothems in today's permafrost areas must have come from a significantly warmer period in which water was flowing.
At that time, average temperatures were about 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than they are today. Traces of this particularly warm period were also proven with pollen deposits and residue of algae found in the sediment of Elgygytgyn Lake, in northeastern Siberia, as well as from other sources of evidence. During this time, there were probably even numerous trees in southern Greenland.

In periods with higher tempatures, the permafrost retreats further north. The Lenskaya Ledyanaya Cave lies at 40 degrees north latitude, in an area currently on the border of continuous permafrost. If the temperatures rise another one or two degrees, to approach something like what they were in the interglacial period 400,000 years ago, the situation would most likely look differently.

The research is well-argued and conclusive, the data is great, and it's very diligent. It is the first time that speleothems have been used to prove the changing areas of southern permafrost borders.

So what does this newly released research now mean for these areas in the high Arctic? that even slightly warmer temperatures could start melting permafrost, which in turn threatens to trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases trapped in ice.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Climate Change Campaigner
Activist of ''11Hour''

Monday, 25 February 2013

CYPRUS: '' Nicos Anastasiades'': The New President and the ''bailout'' dilemma

Cypriot voters clearly expressed their preference for a euro-zone bailout of their financially struggling nation on Sunday, electing the conservative Nicos Anastasiades to be the country's next president. Conservative candidate Nicos Anastasiades soundly defeated his leftist rival Stavros Malas, garnering 57.5 percent of the vote to Malas' 42.5 percent. The cornerstone of Anastasiades' campaign was a pledge to quickly reach a deal with Cyprus' euro-zone partners on a badly-needed bailout. He will be sworn in on Thursday.

"We will be absolutely consistent and meet our promises," he said in his victory speech on Sunday. "We will restore the credibility of Cyprus in Europe and internationally, I promise you."
Nicos Anastasiades's victory, a ''Pro-European'', could speed up Cyprus's bailout negotiations with the troika, comprised of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF.

Cypriot finances are in bad shape, with the country needing up to €17.5 billion to ward off insolvency and to prop up its ailing banking industry. The amount is roughly equal to the country's annual gross domestic product, which would make it by that measure the largest euro-zone bailout yet undertaken.

The most radical option would be to directly tap money that has been deposited in the country's bank accounts, including that of wealthy Russians. But officials at the European Commission in Brussels are divided over the suggestion of a so-called "bail-in," with many viewing it skeptically. Some are concerned the dramatic step could shake financial-market trust in the euro zone and drive investors away from crisis-plagued countries.

The countries that would provide the bailout are concerned it will create another problem. In the event of an aid package totalling €17.5 billion, the Cypriot deficit would rise to 140 percent of gross domestic product, well above the 120 percent that is considered serviceable. This has prompted the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to push for participation by owners and creditors of the banks in order to reduce the size of the total bailout. But this option could also open the door to legal disputes in the countries whose depositors are affected.

The sources in Brussels said that the euro-zone also has to take into consideration the financial stability of the currency area. One possible way of addressing a bail-in could also be to ensure that the deposits of Cypriots would not be touched -- and that only those of foreign depositors would be part of the debt haircut. Although that would address concerns about Russian money laundering, it could also provoke Moscow at a time when the euro-zone members are encouraging Russia to participate in the Cyprus bailout.

Money laundering is also thought to be a major problem, and it is believed that Russians have deposited billions in assets on the island from dubious sources.

Furthermore, there are deep concerns in the euro zone, that a bailout would ultimately help the rich Russians who have parked their money in Cypriot accounts -- in addition to worries that the Mediterranean country isn't doing enough to combat money laundering.

The country has essentially been cut off from international capital markets for the last two years and the current interest rate on its 10-year bonds -- despite being an 18-month low -- is an unsustainable 9.96 percent. In recent months, the government has been forced to borrow heavily from the pension funds of state-owned companies. Its banking industry is in a shambles as well, having been hit hard by write-downs of Greek debt on their books.

But in contrast to the previous government -- which had turned to Russia for possible bailout aid before approaching Europe -- Anastasiades is an avowed pro-European. "Cyprus belongs to Europe," he said on Sunday. "We want Europe on our side." He also promised to "take all of the necessary measures to lead Cyprus out of the financial crisis."

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: Cyprus' President: Nicos Anastasiades

SOUTH-KOREA: '' Park Geun-Hye'': First Female President: Inaugurated

Park Geun-hye was sworn in as South Korea's first female president Monday, pledging economic revival and educational system overhaul and urging the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to rid itself of nuclear programs.

"The new administration will usher in a new era of hope premised on a revitalizing economy, the happiness of our people, and the blossoming of our culture," Park said in an inauguration speech delivered to some 70,000 people gathered in front of the parliament for the ceremony.

The 61-year-old vowed to root out "unfair practices" that stifled the growth of small and medium-sized businesses, reform the educational system to allow more room for creativity and bring about "flourishing culture."

Park, whose inauguration came on the heels of a widely condemned nuclear test by the DPRK, also sent a warning message to the unpredictable northern neighbor.

"North Korea (DPRK)'s recent nuclear test is a challenge to the survival and future of the Korean people, and there should be no mistake that the biggest victim will be none other than North Korea itself," Park said. "I urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions without delay and embark on the path to peace and shared development."

At the same time, she reaffirmed her pledge to seek a so-called "trust-building process" between the two Koreas to "lay the groundwork for an era of harmonious unification."

"Trust can be built through dialogue and by honoring promises that have already been made. It is my hope that North Korea will abide by international norms and make the right choice so that the trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula can move forward," Park said.

Observers have said the recent nuclear test significantly reduced wiggle room for Park, who appears willing to extend an olive branch only when Pyongyang complies with the very international regulations it has violated by developing nuclear programs.

Her first call after beginning her five-year term midnight Sunday was to Gen. Jung Seung-jo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a move designed to highlight her commitment to border security.

The 61-year-old daughter of late military strongman Park Chung- hee won the Dec. 19 presidential election, becoming the first-ever president to earn a majority of the popular vote since democratic elections were introduced here in 1987.

Park, a political veteran with the moniker "queen of elections, " acted as the de facto first lady to her father after her mother was assassinated by a DPRK agent and is credited with reviving the ruling party mired in corruption scandals.

She remains widely popular among older people nostalgic for rapid economic growth under the senior Park's 18-year authoritarian rule, while critics point to ruthless suppression of dissidents during his reign.

She replaced Lee Myung-bak, her political nemesis who beat her in the 2007 ruling party primary to win the presidential nomination.

Lee, who was constitutionally barred from running for re- election, returned to his residence in southern Seoul.

One of the immediate challenges facing the Park administration for now is forming the Cabinet, with opposition parties looking to foil some of the Cabinet nominations in the coming weeks.

The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, to which Park returns for the first time in 33 years, also remains in disarray. Senior presidential aides have been named but are yet to be officially confirmed for their posts, while working-level staffers have not even been tipped.

Parliamentary confirmation hearings for the minister nominees are set to begin as early as Wednesday, but observers expect an administrative vacuum and bitter partisan fights down the road.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Blogger.com/AFP

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: Park Geun-Hye

Friday, 22 February 2013

INDIA: '' Defense Capacity'': Getting U.S.'s and Russia's attention


From the Middle East to the Magnitsky affair (when a Russian lawyer was arrested and later died in jail in 2009 after allegedly uncovering a vast network of corruption), Russian and US officials continue to see past each other. When US officials worry about democracy in Russia, Vladmir Putin never hesitates to bring up the specter of Guantanamo. However, there is one area of the globe where Russian and American interests intersect: arming India.

The US and Russia have strengthened their ties with India in recent years, partially because they see the sub-continent as a counterweight to China. Historically, Russia has had much stronger relationships with India than any other BRICS country.

And one of the unheralded successes of President George W. Bush was the decision to give India the geopolitical attention it deserves. Obama has largely maintained that policy.

In recent years, both countries have competed for arms exports to India. Last year, India signed a 1.4 billion dollar contract for 22 American-made AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters, another 1.6 billion dollar agreement for 42 Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets (to be built in India), and a third deal worth 1.3 billion dollars for 71 Mil Mi-17 helicopters. Two worries remain: the US is reluctant to sell some of its most advanced weapons systems to India, and arms deals with Russia have frequently resulted in delayed deliveries.

In naval matters, American software compliments Russian hardware. India is determined to have a naval presence east of Suez and east of Malacca.

In recent years, the US has accommodated that desire, exchanged intelligence with the Indian navy and participated in the joint Malabar naval exercise. Russia is preparing to finally deliver the aircraft carrier “Admiral Gorshkov” to India by the end of this year (after many delays).

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama have both signaled that they will renew their political engagement with Asia. From the Indian perspective, it is advantageous to attract interest from both countries and to maintain a diverse array of arms suppliers. That is one of India’s geo-strategic goals. Indeed, the development of India’s defense capacity is one area where American and Russian interests could align for the coming years.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP: India Advanced Air Defense (AAD) missile.

UKRAINE:'' Yulia Tymoshenko'': Prosecutors: Gearing up for a seond trial

Yulia Tymoshenko is already serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office during her term as Ukraine's prime minister. Now public prosecutors in Kiev are gearing up for a second trial that could extend Tymoshenko's sentence to life. This time, the charge is murder.

The crime in question occurred so long ago that solving it would be difficult even in a country with a better functioning legal system than Ukraine. In 1996, businessman Yevhen Shcherban was fatally shot at the airport in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Shcherban was a member of the country's parliament, but more importantly he was also one of the country's "bisnismeni" -- half entrepreneur, half mafia -- who made a fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Shcherban worked in the gas trade and his company Industrial Union of Donbass made its profits importing gas from Russia.

In doing so, the public prosecutor's office argues, Shcherban became "one of the obstacles" to competing "bisnismeni" looking to expand their own interests in the city of Dnipropetrovsk. Tymoshenko also comes from this city, which dominated the Ukrainian economy in the mid-1990s. "Kiev may be the country's political capital, but its economic heart is in Dnipropetrovsk," the Financial Times wrote at the time.

Another businessman from this industrial center on the Dnieper River went on to become the country's prime minister during the same period, a man whose name is closely linked to Tymoshenko's in the prosecutors' charges: Pavlo Lazarenko.

Transparency International named Lazarenko the eighth most corrupt political leader in the world and in 2006 a US federal court sentenced Lazarenko to nine years in prison for money laundering and extortion. According to court files from that case, Lazarenko diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in Ukrainian public funds during his time in office, transferring the money to foreign bank accounts.

The natural gas business was considered particularly lucrative in Ukraine in the 1990s. In 1995, Lazarenko wanted to award the monopoly in gas imports to Tymoshenko's company United Energy Systems. In return, the prosecutors claim, Tymoshenko "systematically transferred 50 percent of all profits to bank accounts stipulated by Lazarenko."

Regional authorities in Donetsk, though, weren't willing to sit by and watch their rivals in Dnipropetrovsk edge them out of the lucrative gas business. Instead, the regional government granted itself rights to gas imports in the region. The company that benefitted from this arrangement was Shcherban's Industrial Union of Donbass.

Shcherban's Yak-40 aircraft landed in Donetsk on Nov, 3, 1996. The businessman was returning from Moscow, where he had attended the silver wedding anniversary celebration of singer Joseph Kobzon, known as "Russia's Frank Sinatra."

The hired killers followed as Shcherban's red Cadillac drove onto the airfield and when Shcherban disembarked from the plane, they fired at him with a Tokarev pistol and a submachine gun. Shcherban was fatally wounded, as were his wife and the flight mechanic. Even for Ukraine, where at the time contract killings were not uncommon, it was a shockingly brutal crime.

"He got in the way, so he was killed," says Renat Kuzmin, the country's first deputy prosecutor general and a powerful figure in Ukraine's legal system. Prime Minister Lazarenko, he claims, hired the hit on Shcherban, while Tymoshenko paid the fee to a gangster known by the nickname "Sailor." It is claimed that $3 million changed hands.

Prosecutor Kuzmin has a number of witnesses he says can prove Tymoshenko's involvement. Serhiy Zaitsev, for example, claims Tymoshenko had received a threat: One day, he says, someone brought a cake into her office bearing the inscription, "Greetings from Donetsk, the next time it will not be a cake." In other words, the next time it might be a bomb. Zaitsev says it was this that caused Tymoshenko to turn to Prime Minister Lazarenko, who set about "solving the Donetsk problem."

Another witness is Ihor Maryinkov, who was once "an important businessman in Donetsk with contacts to the criminal world," as he himself says. Maryinkov admits that he never had anything to do with Lazarenko or Tymoshenko directly, but he claims those who carried out the hit confided in him that "Yulia was the one organizing it all."

Tymoshenko's lawyers want to know why Maryinkov is only now coming forward with his accusation, since he has appeared in court previously. Maryinkov's answer is, "I don't know."

Tymoshenko's supporters are convinced current President Viktor Yanukovych is trying to frame Tymoshenko for the murder, to take his political rival out of the picture once and for all. "If they could, they would shoot Tymoshenko," says the former prime minister's lawyer and confidant Serhiy Vlasenko.

The case against Tymoshenko is certainly a shaky one. All witnesses named in the case so far have nothing more than rumors to draw on. And proving the charge isn't made any easier by the fact that Shcherban's murderers themselves didn't live long either. One was shot in 1997, another died in pre-trial detention and a third seems to have disappeared.

This means that the sole one of Shcherban's killers the authorities managed to catch alive plays a key role in the upcoming trial. Hitman Vadim Bolotskikh, nicknamed "the Muscovite," was accused of firing shots at Shcherban and sentenced to life in prison. Tymoshenko's lawyers fear the government will offer Bolotskikh early parole if he agrees to incriminate Tymoshenko.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

U.S.-NATO: ''Leaving Afghanistan'': Washington's post-2014 plans

Officially, the West plans to continue helping Afghanistan beyond the conclusion of the NATO mission at the end of 2014. But the US is planning a massive withdrawal, leaving behind a skeletal force of only 10,000 troops. Washington's allies will have to fill the gaps that result.

Douglas Lute, special assistant to the US president on Pakistan and Afghanistan, informed NATO ambassadors of the plan at alliance headquarters in Brussels in the second week of February. He said that only half of the units stationed in Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be made available for training Afghan troops.

Lute's confidential briefing was the first official confirmation that the US foresees an extremely limited presence in the country going forward. And the numbers presented by Lute have alarmed the alliance. Though the post-mission support and training mission in Afghanistan -- to be carried out by NATO in conjunction with eight non-alliance countries -- has been under development for months, the extremely limited number of US troops available puts the alliance in a bind.

The aim of the mission -- now called Resolute Support after a pair of name changes -- is to ensure that the Afghan army, built up with great effort in recent years, doesn't immediately fall apart once the NATO mission, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), concludes.

But Lute's presentation made it clear that US President Barack Obama is determined to radically shrink the American presence in Afghanistan following 2014. In his State of the Union address this month, Obama publicized his intention to bring home half of the 60,000 US troops currently stationed in Afghanistan by the end of this year.

The details of Washington's post-2014 plans were not known until Lute's briefing. Weeks prior, the US media had written of a "minimal option" calling for fewer than 10,000 soldiers to remain in the country, but the US government had made no official comment. Whether the topic is up for discussion at the meeting of NATO defense ministers this Thursday and Friday in Brussels is unclear. Because Chuck Hagel has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta traveled to Europe in his stead.

Presidential aid Lute left no doubt during his meeting with NATO ambassadors that Washington seeks to bring the unpopular mission to a rapid conclusion. As of this spring, all combat operations are to be led by Afghan military and security personnel while ISAF forces are to shift into a supporting role. Only by taking that step now, the US has told its European partners, can a withdrawal by the end of 2014 be achievable.

The strategy is not without risk. Such a rapid shift of responsibility could overwhelm the Afghan military, Lute acknowledged during his visit to Brussels. But the US envisions a division of its forces. Only 5,000 of the 10,000 American troops foreseen by the plan are to be made available for the training mission. The other half will be earmarked for targeted operations against terror cells and al-Qaida camps as well as for the protection of US facilities in the country such as the embassy in Kabul.

In total, the post-2014 training mission is to encompass 15,000 troops. The US expects its NATO partners to plug any gaps that might result due to its limited presence.

Lute's comments regarding Washington's future troop numbers weren't the only part of his presentation that gave his European allies pause. While the US is prepared to continue offering air support after 2014, tactical capabilities such as the helicopter evacuation of the wounded are to be discontinued.

That is cause for concern. Almost all countries present in Afghanistan are dependent on American Medevac aircraft.  Even if the post-2014 mission is to exclude combat operations, a functioning system to treat the wounded is indispensable.

Despite Lute's outline of US plans, NATO's allies still hope that details can be revised, noting that the final numbers have not yet been approved by Obama. But in his recent State of the Union address, the president made clear that "the nature of our commitment will change."
Military strategists in Europe now know what he meant. The US will keep their future presence in Afghanistan as small as possible.

Many Afghans, however, fear that any quick drawdown will destabilize a country that is still fighting insurgents more than 11 years after the American invasion.
More importantly, many of those who supported America's intervention think the U.S. has not fulfilled what they perceived was a promise to leave Afghanistan a safe and economically stable country.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Reuters. President Obama's State of Union address

Thursday, 21 February 2013

ITALY: ''Looming Elections'': The Fear of Berlusconi's return

Italy votes on Feb 24. A new wave of “nominated” MPs will soon take their seats in the Chamber and Senate. Thanks to the electoral reform passed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2005, Italians do not choose their MPs.

Italian elections are based on a “closed list” system: you can only vote for a party and who gets elected is determined on the basis of candidates’ ranking on the list. With the exceptions of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the 5 Star Movement (5SM), which held primaries to select their candidates, the incoming MPs will have therefore been once again “nominated” by party leaders, usually for their loyalty rather than their competence.

Berlusconi reformed the electoral law in 2005 precisely in order to be able to nominate his lawyers and close allies into parliament, to avoid rebellions and to reward “Bunga Bunga'' friends. Although other parties may have used different criteria to co-opt MPs, the lack of individual accountability will remain a feature of Italian politics in the next parliament, too.

But this is not the only drawback of this electoral law. In 2005 Berlusconi had another problem: he was facing a likely defeat at the upcoming 2006 elections and was trying to achieve two objectives: 1) to shift all the campaign attention away from individual candidates and on to party leaders (thanks to the closed list system), hence fully capitalising on his amazing campaigning skills; and 2) to give a hard time to winners by using two different electoral rules for the lower and the upper chambers, rules that can potentially generate two different majorities and therefore a stalemate (since the confidence of both chambers is required to form a government). This electoral law, devised for the 2006 election, is proving very useful again for Mr Berlusconi.

In the lower chamber there is a majority premium: the party (or coalition of parties) which gets a plurality of votes at the national level receives 54 per cent of seats. To put things in comparison, if the centre-left coalition with, say, 35 per cent of votes, obtained 54 per cent of seats in the lower chamber then that would not be very different from what happened in the recent UK elections with single member districts. In the upper chamber, however, the majority premium is given on a region-by-region basis: this particular feature makes any predictions of the outcome very difficult. Although the centre-left coalition is estimated to have an overall advantage of about 5 per cent over Berlusconi nationally, the distribution of votes across regions leaves a lot of uncertainty over the final outcome.

Berlusconi and Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the PD, are neck and neck in some key large regions: Lombardy, Sicily and Campania. They are all too close to call.

To complicate things further, there are five contenders likely to be above the minimum threshold required to gain seats in the Senate and one of these contenders, Rivoluzione Civile, is estimated to be just at the threshold, which creates a further uncertainty and possible discontinuity. If Rivoluzione Civile does not reach the threshold then more seats are available for the other parties. The problem is, again, that in the upper chamber the threshold applies on a region-by-region basis. This system, nicknamed porcellum (a kind of piglet) whether intentionally or not, seems to have been invented to create as much uncertainty and random variation as possible.

Many commentators have noticed similarities with the elections in 2006. In reality there are some important differences to note, primarily the fact that in 2006 there were basically two broad coalitions, while in this election there are at least five players (excluding various parties which are not likely to meet the thresholds). This creates more uncertainty and makes a deadlock more likely.

In the two weeks preceding an election the publication of opinion polls is forbidden by Italian law. Based on previous trends, it is clear that Berlusconi has managed once again to come back during the last weeks of the campaign.

This was entirely predictable, when Berlusconi announced he would run again, even though Berlusconi’s allure is regularly underrated by his opponents. Apart from the undeniable qualities of Berlusconi as a campaigner, his comeback is also due to the electoral law, as explained, and to his control of the media machinery. He owns large parts of private free-to-air television networks and has powerful insiders in the public television stations that he controlled indirectly for many years as Prime Minister.

Television remains by far the most powerful electoral medium. It is possible to get hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, but these tweets are mostly preaching to the converted. Television is still best at reaching undecided voters: those who often don’t follow politics, don’t read newspapers, and will form their opinions in the final days of the campaign.

Moreover, internet usage by Italian politicians is still very rudimentary. The only exception is Beppe Grillo’s 5SM, which decided to boycott TV and focused instead on the internet and face-to-face campaigning. Some people are just fed up with quarrelsome and often useless talk shows: the more they see candidates on TV the less they want to vote for them, and this time they have the choice of an anti-TV movement.

However while the strategy can work for an ‘outsider’ anti-system movement, it could hardly be applied more broadly. While we await future developments in the media market, pluralism in traditional media remains a crucial ingredient for a functioning democracy.

The new leader of the Italian government (unless it’s Berlusconi himself) should pass a law to ensure greater media pluralism as their very first act, if they really intend to put an end to ‘telecracy’. There is little reason to feel encouraged on this front as none of the major parties’ manifestos contain plans to increase media pluralism, party leaders have yet to mention it in the campaign, and no journalist has raised a question about it.

Beyond Italy, European leaders, investors and bankers are watching carefully the Italian's election campaign. The euro crisis seemed to have been fading into the background. But the potential comeback of Silvio Berlusconi in Rome have investors nervous.

Berlusconi pledges to revoke an unpopular property tax and to reimburse some €4 billion to those who have paid the tax imposed by Monti. Given Berlusconi's rather dismal record as an economic reformer while in office, his potential return has increased market skittishness.

One Italian bank even went so far this week as to issue a report arguing that a Berlusconi election would almost certainly force the country to apply for emergency bailout aid from the EU. Mediobanca, Italy's largest investment bank, wrote that "a last-minute Berlusconi victory would scare the market sufficiently to put pressure on the spread."

A Berlusconi victory, many fear, could result in an immediate rise in Italian borrowing costs and a return to the critical situation in which Rome found itself in late 2011, when Berlusconi was essentially forced to step down in favor of the technocratic government led by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia. Sylvio Berlusconi

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

AFRICA: ''Land Grabbing'': The new form of neo-colonialism and ''forced labor''

Foreign investors are buying or leasing vast amounts of farmland in Third World countries to profit from surging demand for food crops as a result of rapid population growth. "Land grabbing" amounts to a new form of colonialism that often runs counter to the interests of locals.

Land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals. While used broadly throughout history, land grabbing as used today primarily refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the 2007-2008 world food price crisis.

There is nothing new about land grabs, although the age-old problem of powerful groups and individuals displacing communities from land that they have farmed for (usually) centuries has been aggravated by the rapid increase in the world's population in the past few decades, and the strong economic growth of populous nations such as China, India, Indonesia and others.

Foreign investment in land has been criticized by many civil society actors and individuals as a new realization of neo-colonialism, signifying a renewed economic imperialism of developed over developing nations. Critics have pointed to the acquisitions of large tracts of land for economic profit, with little perceived benefit for local populations or target nations as a whole, as a renewal of the economically exploitative practices of the colonial period.

A number of developing nations have sold or leased much of their farmland to foreign investors. The list is led by Liberia, whose arable land is 100 percent under foreign ownership, Ethiopia, both Sudan, Drc, Ghana, Somalia, Madagascar, Congo, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and South Africa.

Investment in land often takes the form of long-term leases, as opposed to outright purchases, of land. These leases often range between 25 and 99 years. Such leases are usually undertaken between national or district governments and investors.

Large-scale investments in land since 2007 have been scrutinized by civil society organizations, researchers, and other organizations because of issues such as land insecurity, local consultation and compensation for land, displacement of local peoples, employment of local peoples, the process of negotiations between investors and governments, and the environmental consequences of large-scale agriculture.

The term "land grabbing" is itself a controversial issue. The phrase 'global land grab' has become a catch-all to describe and analyze the current explosion of large scale (trans)national commercial land transactions, and the popular term 'land grabbing', while effective as activist terminology, obscures vast differences in the legality, structure, and outcomes of commercial land deals and deflects attention from the roles of domestic elites and governments as partners, intermediaries, and beneficiaries.

Initially hailed by investors and some developing countries as a new pathway towards agricultural development, investment in land has recently been criticized by a number of civil society, governmental, and multinational actors who argue that it has had negative impacts on local communities. In many cases, the population suffers from this new form of colonialism, and the planting of monocultures tends to sap the soil.

The Ethiopian government's acceptance of cash crop-based land acquisitions reflects its belief that switching to cash crop production would be even more beneficial for food security than having local farmers produce crops by themselves. However local populations have been displaced, ignored for consultations and in most cases ''forced'' to work with low pay in their owns ''lands''.

In Ghana and elsewhere, governments officials often negotiated directly with investors without the input from other villagers, taking it upon themselves to sell common land or village land on their own. Most  communities were/are  rarely aware of their rights and, even in cases where they were, lacked the ability to interact with investors or to explore ways to use their land more productively.

The Sudanese government has been noted as having paid minimal attention to existing land rights and neglecting to conduct any economic analysis on potential projects. In addition, many countries, including, Congo, Sudan, and Ghana, have neglected to catalog and file even general geographical descriptions of land allocation boundaries.

In South Sudan, numerous large-scale land acquisitions have taken place in spite of the country's unresolved political and security situation. One of the most prominent, involving a former AIG partner named Philippe Heilberg, garnered attention in Rolling Stone for his provocative pursuit of land in conflict-ridden regions. Heilberg, who is planning to invest in 800,000 ha of land in partnership with many of South Sudan's top generals and civilian officials, attracted criticism with his remarks (regarding Africa and land grabbing) that "the whole place is like one big mafia — and I'm like a mafia head.

In Madagascar, the anger among the population about land sales led to violent protests. The South Korean corporation Daewoo was in the process of negotiations with the Malagasy government for the purchase of 1.3 million hectares, half of all agricultural land, to produce corn and palm oil. This investment, while one of many pursued in Madagascar, attracted considerable attention there and led to protests against the government.

In Drc, the ''land-grabbing'' process has displaced more people than the civil war. Drc's government has been found, in many reports, the ''most corrupted African government'' in history, simply brushes aside local lands owners, regardless their concerns and rights and without any compensation.

When not displaced, the conversion of local farmers into laborers holds numerous negative consequences for local populations. The number of jobs created varies greatly dependent on commodity type and style of farming planned. In spite of this volatility, guarantees of job creation are rarely, if ever, addressed in contracts. This fact, combined with the intrinsic incentives towards mechanization in plantation-style production, can lead to much lower employment than originally planned for. When employed, locals are often paid little: In investments by Karuturi Global in Ethiopia, workers are paid on average under $2 a day, with a minimum wage of 8 birr, or $0.48, per day, both of which are under the World Bank poverty limit of $2 per day.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

BULGARIA: Protesters forced the government to resign

Bulgaria's government bowed to political pressure Wednesday morning, stepping down after violent demonstrations in the capital Sofia over low living standards and government corruption. For nearly two weeks thousands of protestors have taken to the streets across the country, first demonstrating against rising electricity prices. In recent days the protests spiraled into general anti-government demonstrations.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had tried to assuage protesters by firing his finance minister and asking the country's energy regulator to cut power prices by 8 percent starting March 1. He had promised Tuesday to revoke the power distribution license of CEZ AS, the Czech Republic's biggest utility and Bulgaria's largest foreign-controlled power supplier.

But those measures weren't enough to quell unrest in Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest country.

On Tuesday night clashes turned more violent with dozens of injuries as protestors threw stones and fire crackers against police and damaged cars and windows. The police arrested 25 people.
"I did everything in my power to meet the people's demands yesterday," Borisov told parliament as he announced his resignation on Wednesday four months ahead of scheduled elections. "I won't be part of a government in which the police is fighting with the people," said Borisov, who has been in power since 2009.

Borisov has yet to announce whether he'll move forward elections from July to April or whether he'll propose a new leader from his party.

Despite the country's slow growth, Bulgaria has managed to avoid international aid and navigate Europe's debt crisis through strict austerity measures. A new government will have to make good on promises to improve living standards across the country.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Blogger.com/AFP

Photo-Credit: AFP

Monday, 18 February 2013

TUNISIA: ''Political Crisis'': From Revolution to Islamist Government

Tunisia's young democracy has never seemed to be in so much jeopardy. The political opposition is accusing the ruling Ennahda party of the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a popular figure on the political left who was murdered Feb. 6 in front of his home, and hundreds of Tunisians are holding ongoing protests to demand the government’s resignation. Several parties, including one of Ennahda's coalition partners, are threatening to pull out of the Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with rewriting Tunisia's constitution and the prime Minister still conducts negotiations to form a cabinet of technocrats for the new government. Another round of negotiations is scheduled today.

The current political turmoil is an outgrowth of Tunisia’s many challenges, which have multiplied over the past few months and culminated in Belaid’s assassination. Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that many of the revolution’s achievements remain in place amid the current crisis and in the face of broader political and socio-economic tensions.

Politically, the Ennahda government’s single most important shortcoming has been its failure to demonstrate a real commitment to combating rising religious extremism in the country. Salafist groups, some violent, have emerged throughout the country, increasingly posing a threat to the security of the state and its people. News reports about jihadist training camps on Tunisian soil are multiplying, and ongoing illegal weapons trafficking from Libya and Algeria keeps radical groups supplied with arms.

In addition, Ennahda's close relations with several Salafist leaders, as well as the ideological proximity of some of the ruling party’s own supporters to the ultraconservatives, have led many Tunisians to suspect a secret alliance between the two Islamist forces, aimed at eventually enforcing Shariah law over the country.

Delays in constitution-drafting and upcoming elections, as well as sporadic attacks on press freedoms and personal liberties, have only reinforced fears among more secular Tunisians that the Islamist-led government is not genuine in its commitment to democracy and the rule of law, resulting in widening rifts between Islamists and secularists in recent months.

Adding to this political disillusionment is persistent economic hardship that has made life for many Tunisians more difficult since the revolution. Falling revenues from tourism, a decrease in foreign investment and negative spillover effects from the ongoing economic crisis in the European Union -- Tunisia’s main trading partner -- are making economic recovery a challenge. Tunisia’s youth, one of the main drivers behind the 2010-2011 revolution and a central force in the current protests, have been hit particularly hard, with youth unemployment running as high as 40 percent in some parts of the country.

Combined, these political and socio-economic strains have reinforced widespread mistrust of Ennahda's capacity to govern Tunisia and the party’s willingness to promote democracy. Lack of confidence in the ruling party in turn partially explains the speed with which much of the population accused Ennahda of Belaid’s murder, even though the identity of his assassin is still unknown.

The tragic assassination and the crisis that followed, however, do not spell the loss of Tunisia’s many revolutionary achievements. In fact, the thousands of people taking to the streets throughout the country, and the government’s somewhat compromising response to the unrest, suggest quite the opposite: namely, that it is the Tunisian people who are still in control of the future of their country.

Moreover, though tear gas was used to disperse some protests, most protesters were allowed to demonstrate peacefully and to publicly display their outrage over Belaid’s assassination. Meanwhile, the fact that the media not only covered the events but in some cases accused the government of the assassination is illustrative of how Tunisia has changed, and has in many ways become more democratic, since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. That degree of press freedom and public willingness to criticize the government was previously impossible.

Most importantly, perhaps, Ennahda's two most influential political figures, party leader Rachid Ghannouchi and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, have reaffirmed their willingness to redistribute power in the government, although disagreements still persist as to how this will be done. Partly in response to pressure from other parties in the Constituent Assembly, Ghannouchi announced late Monday that negotiations are underway for the formation of a government of national unity; Jebali still seems to favor a government of technocrats. In any case, Ennahda does not appear willing to enforce a monopoly on power.

If Ennahda can find a compromise with other parties on how to redistribute power, Tunisia might be able to come out of the current political crisis stronger and more democratic than before, with power more equally distributed among diverse political constituencies. In the end, such an outcome might be advantageous for everybody: for the political opposition, because it would gain influence, and for Ennahda, because it would no longer have to shoulder the responsibility for all of Tunisia’s political and socio-economic problems alone.

A major obstacle to finding a speedy compromise stems from divisions within the ruling party itself on how to distribute power. Some hardliners within Ennahda seem unwilling to give up key posts of power and are resisting plans to form a new government. At the same time, Tunisia's political opposition has to be willing to engage in a compromise that is feasible for both sides.

Even if Ennahda reaches a compromise, it remains to be seen whether a more diverse government will result in further political deadlock and stagnation, or whether the members of such a government will actually work together to continue to smooth Tunisia’s difficult path to democratic transition.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: Tunisian Prime Minister: Hamadi Jebali

EU-US: ''Economic NATO'': EU should not test US's patience

The planned free-trade pact between the US and EU divides European governments in two bloc.
On one side, Germany, Sweden,Finland and the UK push for a broad '' free trade agreement between EU-US but on the other side France, Italy, Spain and Portugal would like to have a number of issues affecting their farming industries to be excluded from the talks. Washington could run out of patience.

France and other Southern European nations which want to exempt issues like food regulation and gene technology from the talks in order to protect the interests of their farmers, could damage the core essence of this planned free trade agreement between EU and US by limiting  the agenda from the start and to exclude certain areas and the US might in this case respond by demanding exemptions itself, which would end up producing only a modest agreement.

From Germany's, Finland's and Sweden's perspective, an "economic NATO" would be a sign of European unity and would open up the possibility for cooperation from countries with similar market philosophies from other regions. But France and other southern countries are not completely convinced yet over the farmng industries details of the planned free trade agreement.

The benefits would be greater if the governments also introduced common technical norms, safety standards and competition rules. In that case the standard of living would rise by more than 5 percent in the US, more than 6 percent in Europe and more than 8 percent in Germany in the coming two decades, Ifo predicts. Trans-Atlantic trade could more than treble.
Negotiations are due to start in June after President Barack Obama called for talks on a free trade agreement in his annual State of the Union speech last Tuesday.

"Tonight, I'm announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership with the European Union," he said. "Because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs."

Trade between the two regions already accounts for more than 50 percent of the global gross domestic product and secures an estimated 15 million jobs. US investments in France and Belgium alone in 2010 were as high as in India and China combined. Should this trade become easier due to the elimination of tariffs and, in particular, cumbersome regulations, it could generate economic growth of up to 1.5 percent on both sides of the Atlantic.

If customs duties are abolished, GDP per capita in the EU and the US would only grow by 0.1 and 0.2 percent respectively.

Obama regards a trans-Pacific trade agreement as far more important. But the proposal was intended as a political signal to encourage Europeans to stay together in the euro crisis -- and to preserve the idea of a "common West".

Obama's support does not mean the agreement is a done deal. The devil is in the details. Whether it has to do with the length of car bumpers, the permissibility of genetically modified corn or the correct method to be used when slaughtering beef, trade talks are often just as complicated as nuclear non-proliferation negotiations. By their very nature, they touch on issues that are often vital to the cultural identities of certain countries or regions. Already, small armies of officials have failed to find adequate answers to such questions.

Some interest groups have refused to budge. The powerful US agrarian lobby, for example, insists on unlimited access to European markets, including such products as genetically modified produce, which is controversial on the Continent. European companies, for their part, refuse to accept the diktats of US regulatory authorities regarding whether and how they can pursue state contracts.

Washington wants a swift trade deal, before the 2014 congressional election if possible, and that its patience with European power-plays and prevarication will be limited. Many economists are predicting a robust recovery for the US, while austerity-hit Europe is at risk of years of recession.
If the Europeans hesitate too long, America may switch its focus towards Asia with even greater vigor.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Friday, 15 February 2013

WORLD: ''Nuclear War'': The danger of nuclear weapons proliferation

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resultant end of the Cold War, the threat of a major nuclear war between the two nuclear superpowers (US-Soviet Union) was generally thought to have declined. Since then, concern over nuclear weapons has shifted to the prevention of localized nuclear conflicts resulting from nuclear proliferation.

A key development in nuclear warfare throughout the 2000s and early 2010s is the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the developing world, with India and Pakistan both publicly testing several nuclear devices, and North Korea conducting its third nuclear test.

There are more than 17,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons ready for deployment and another 14,000 in storage, with the U.S. having nearly 7,000 ready for use and 3,000 in storage, and Russia having about 8,500 ready for use and 11,000 in storage. In addition, China is thought to possess about 400 nuclear weapons, Britain about 200, France about 350, India about 80-100, and Pakistan 100-110. North Korea is between 3 and 10. Israel is also widely believed to possess usable nuclear weapons. NATO has stationed about 480 American nuclear weapons in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Turkey, and several other nations are thought to be in pursuit of an arsenal of their own.

North Korea's third nuclear test and Iran's nuclear preparedness, India and Pakistan dispute, the rising of China's military raise the question whether the world is heading toward a nuclear war.

The steady progress made by North Korea on its nuclear and missile programs is deeply concerning.
The regime in North Korea would gladly be described as unpredictable. That's not true, at least not any more. The country has actually become rather predictable in its provocations, which above all serve one goal: to demonstrate the power of the ruling Kim clan to the world. North Korea's regime does not act unpredictably.

Many analysts would agree with me that the enduring India-Pakistan conflict as the one "flash point" most likely to escalate into a nuclear war. This conflict remains the only war (of any sort) between two declared nuclear powers. Now, we have a nuclear standoff between Pakistan and India, and Iran is on its way to building the bomb and a North Korea bent on developing intercontinental nuclear missiles.

Another potential geopolitical issue which is considered particularly worrisome by military analysts is a possible conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan. Although economic forces are thought to have decreased somewhat the possibility of a military conflict, there remains worry about the increasing military buildup of China (China is rapidly increasing their naval capacity), and that any move toward Taiwan independence could potentially spin out of control.

After the Cold War, there were five recognized nuclear powers, now we have nine. If Iran gets the bomb, we could end up with nuclear arms in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It seems that sooner or later, Iran and North Korea will develop nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. Some experts even argue it would be naïve to believe otherwise.

Five years ago, 40 countries had weapons-usable nuclear materials. Now there are only 28 left. And a number of nations have given up their nuclear weapons entirely, like Kazakhstan, Belarus or Ukraine. Others like South Korea or Brazil could have developed nuclear weapons, but did not do so.

The reason is simple: There is a pervasive mistrust that grew out of the Cold War and still continues today -- even though there are a lot more mutual interests between Europe, Russia and the United States than ever before.

There are more than 17,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. The number of nuclear armed countries is increasing, the technology is spreading. But negotiations on nuclear arms reductions have been going on for decades..North Korea, Iran, India and Pakistan do not inspire trust about nuclear weapons stability.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP. The Titan II Intercontinental ballistic missile.

EU: ''Horsemeat Scandal'': Horse DNA found in some products in UK

This week the scandal over horsemeat in hamburgers and lasagne has spread beyond Britain, revealing cracks in the Continent's food supply chain. Authorities are now trying to trace the meat's circuitous path across Europe to prevent future problems.

The horsemeat was first discovered in frozen hamburgers, but later in lasagne and more recently in the spaghetti product. In Britain, people are starting ask whether it is possible to eat frozen foods with a good conscience. For days now the ground horsemeat scandal has been leading the headlines as the main political issue in the country. On Tuesday, the House of Commons spent its second day in a row debating practices in European meat production that can get dicey.

And now the scandal is spreading. Traces of horsemeat have also since been discovered in other countries, including supermarkets in France and Sweden.

Nowhere has the outrage been as great as in Great Britain. Angered members of parliament have demanded a freeze on meat imports from the Continent. Euroskeptics in the country have also taken advantage of the opportunity to attack the EU as some kind of uncontrollable behemoth. "The EU single market is an invitation to fraud," commented Bernard Jenkin, a conservative member of parliament.

The British tabloid Sun has reported that a "grim Romanian slaughterhouse built with EU cash" has been one of the sources of the horsemeat at the center of the scandal. During a debate in parliament on Tuesday, Environment Secretary Owen Peterson, whose portfolio also includes agriculture and food, lambasted what he called a "criminal action" from abroad that led to a situation in which thousands of unwitting British people had eaten burgers or lasagne containing horsemeat. Over the weekend, he had already warned of an "international conspiracy."

But it appears that British firms have been caught conducting similarly deceptive practices. Officials at the government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) and police on Tuesday inspected horse slaughterhouses in Yorkshire County and a meat plant in Wales. Both companies are alleged to have used horsemeat in kebabs and burgers.

The British government is now on the defensive after ignoring the first case of deceptive labelling one month ago. In mid-January, horsemeat was discovered in frozen hamburger meat sold at discount supermarkets in Britain and Ireland.

Today, in a public letter, 11 firms, including Tesco and Asda, said they shared shoppers ''anger and outrage''. Several retailers say results so far show no sign of horsemeat, but Compass Group and pub supplier Whitbread have found horse DNA in some products. Meanwhile, the results of up one third of tests on the presence of horsemeat in processed meals ordered by the Food Standards Agency are being released.

It appears that improved monitoring is in fact needed. So far the British government assumes there are two isolated cases. Irish firm Silvercrest Foods supplied horsemeat in the hamburgers in question. And French producer Comigel provided ground meat with the lasagne and Spaghetti Bolognese.

Things start to get murky with the convoluted route taken from a slaughterhouse in Romania to supermarket shelves in Britain, a supply chain so complicated it has shocked many in the country. The Luxembourg-based Comigel subsidiary Tavola had ordered the ground meat for the lasagne from Spanghero, a subsidiary of France's Poujol. The parent company had acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader who had subcontracted the order to a Dutch firm that ultimately obtained the horsemeat from a slaughterhouse in Romania.

The question that must now be addressed is the point where the meat got mislabelled in this long supply chain. So far, all the intermediaries involved are refusing to accept responsibility. The men who run the slaughterhouse, who happen to be the brothers of Romania's agriculture minister, have even presented receipts indicating the horsemeat had been correctly identified as such at the time they sold it. Seeking to contain possible damage to the country's image, Prime Minister Victor Ponta is warning against making his country the EU's scapegoat, as often happens.

Since the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in the 1990s, systems have been put in place that allow every kilo of meat in the EU to be tracked to its precise origin. But apparently that alone is not enough to stop acts of deception.

The horsemeat scandal has shown how complex the UK's meat supply chain has become, and it also highlights how little retailers and customers alike know what is actually going into the food that we eat.

The British government believes that too much in the EU internal market is based on trust. Politicians are now calling for regular spot checks in the future instead of relying on the information supplied on shipping documents. The prospect of large fines might also force the industry rethink its practices. Many of the companies affected in the scandal are now considering suing their suppliers.

For now, though, politicians and experts alike are offering some simple advice for Britain's consumers: Buy British.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Blogger.com/AFP