Thursday, 28 March 2013

EUROPE: The denial of the austerity's health effects

The rigid austerity measures brought on by the euro crisis are having catastrophic effects on the health of people in stricken countries, health experts reported on Wednesday.  Mental illness, suicide rates and epidemics are on the rise, while access to care has dwindled.

Not only have the fiscal austerity policies failed to improve the economic situation in these countries, but they have also put a serious strain on their health care systems, according to an analysis of European health by medical journal The Lancet. Major cuts to public spending and health services have brought on drastic deterioration in the overall health of residents, the journal reported, citing the outbreak of epidemics and a spike in suicides.

In addition to crippling public health care budgets, the deep austerity measures implemented since the economic crisis began in 2008 have increased unemployment and lowered incomes, causing depression and prompting sick people to wait longer before seeking help or medication, the study found.

The countries most affected by this have been Portugal, Spain and Greece, the latter of which saw outbreaks of both malaria and HIV after programs for mosquito spraying and needle exchanges for intravenous drug users were axed. There were also outbreaks of West Nile virus and dengue fever.

"Austerity measures haven't solved the economic problems and they have also created big health problems," Martin McKee, a professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the research, told news agency AP.

It will take years to understand the health consequences of the euro crisis and the policies it has prompted, but some effects are already clear, the study said. Not only has there been an increase of mental disorders in Greece and Spain, but the number of suicides for those younger than 65 has increased in the EU since 2007 -- "reversing a steady decrease."

In Greece, the Ministry of Health reported a 40 percent jump in suicides between January and May 2011, compared to the same period the year before.

While budget cuts have restricted health care access with increased costs for patients in these three nations, Greece has also seen shortages in medication, hospital staff and supplies, according to the study, commissioned in part by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, a partner of the World Health Organization.

The study authors also accuse European officials of failing to address these issues, writing that "public health experts have remained largely silent during this crisis."

"There is a clear problem of denial of the health effects of the crisis, even though they are very apparent," lead researcher McKee told Reuters, comparing their response to the "obfuscation" of the tobacco industry. "The European Commission has a treaty obligation to look at the health effect of all of its policies but has not produced any impact assessment on the health effects of the austerity measures imposed by the troika."

The troika, made up of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, has been in charge of bailing out ailing European economies -- most recently in Cyprus -- and of policing the implementation of the austerity measures the study blames for deteriorating health in these countries.

But it doesn't have to be that way, the study suggests, citing Iceland as a success story. Though the country was one of the first to be hit by the financial crisis, it "rejected the economic orthodoxy that advocated austerity … and invested in its people who, evidence suggests, have had very few adverse health consequences."

Par Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

ITALY: ''Vote of confidence'': The Political deadlock drags on

Weeks after Italy’s disastrous elections, the political landscape in Rome is still quite nebulous and uncertain. Italy's political deadlock appears set to drag into next month after the centre-left Democrats failed to persuade the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to back their project to form a minority government. 

Pier Luigi Bersani, the Democrats's leader, with a mandate from the head of state to try and win support for a centre-left administration, came away empty-handed after meeting parliamentary leaders of the Five Star Movement on Wednesday morning. Talks with Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right alliance also came to nothing on Tuesday.    

Vito Crimi, senate leader of the Five Star Movement, expressed approval for the eight-point programme of political and economic reforms put forward by the Democrats. But he ruled out giving Mr Bersani's proposed government the support it needs to pass the first hurdle of a confidence vote in the upper house.

The Five Star Movement faced with a dilemma: to govern or not to govern. If the Movement
 accepted Bersani’s offer, it would have lost its credibility for two reasons. First,  the Five Star Movement voters would have criticized the party for signing an agreement with the old establishment that the Movement was supposed to overturn. Second, the whole country and the world would have understood the Movement's inadequacy to lead a country in a time of crisis.

By refusing to compromise right away, the Five Star Movement might lose its ''charm'', seen as an alternative to the same old system and blinded by its anti-establishment ideals. Also in this case, Italians realize that the movement is just an opposition party, unable to lead the country.

Mr Bersani is scheduled to report back to Giorgio Napolitano, head of state, On Friday. Given the Democrats's failure to secure guarantees they would win a vote of confidence in the senate, Mr Napolitano is expected to launch a fresh round of consultations with all parties after the Easter break in his search for an alternative.

Mr Napolitano, 87, wants to avoid an early re-run of elections that risks producing similar deadlock.

Analysts suggest that the head of state would ask Mr Bersani to step aside and name another centre-left politician, possibly his deputy, Enrico Letta, as prime minister to lead a coalition government with the PDL. Angelino Alfano, secretary of the PDL, who is close to Mr Berlusconi, could be named as deputy prime minister. Other alternatives would be for Mr Napolitano to appoint a technocrat prime minister or to extend the term of Mario Monti's current caretaker until new elections are held.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit AFP Mr Bersani

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

FRANCE: Hollande's nightmare: A record high unemployment

Ten months after the election of French President Francois Hollande, the number of people registered as unemployed is nearing the national record set in 1997, at just below 3.2 million. Nearly 2 million have been searching for work for more than a year, and every month an additional 80,000 people lose their claim to unemployment benefits, often falling into poverty.

Unemployment is 10.8 percent higher than last year -- a harsh blow to Hollande, who promised during his campaign to curb the crisis on the job market. Instead, the jobless rate has steadily risen, bringing to memory a statement made in 1993 by Hollande's predecessor and fellow Socialist, Francois Mitterrand: "Against unemployment, we've tried everything."

In anticipation of catastrophic new reports on the labor market, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told the National Assembly on Tuesday that one "has never done enough against unemployment," calling for "a general mobilization" to create jobs in the public and private sectors.

The government has taken a number of measures to combat youth unemployment, such as generous subsidies to companies that hire employees between 16 and 25 for at least one year. The plan was to create 100,000 "contracts for the future" in 2013, but so far only 15,000 people have benefited from the program.

Hollande had also hoped the job market would get a boost from "generation contracts," which win subsidies for small companies that hire a younger person while still committing to keep an employee over 57 on the payroll. The scheme is meant to allow seniors to keep their jobs while passing on their skills and knowledge to younger talent. The government hopes to sign a half a million of these contracts over the next five years. It also hopes an additional 2,000 employees at the National Agency for Employment will help mediate these contracts.

In contrast to Mitterrand's time in office, the Socialists today are not facing the end of a crisis. They're preparing themselves for long-term stagnation instead. An expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris said early this year "we're standing before a tendentious worsening of the labor market with historic peaks."

A turnaround is not yet in sight, though. France will start creating more jobs only once the economy starts growing by more than 1 percent, the OECD says. But the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies projects the economy will stagnate in the first trimester of 2013. Similarly dismal are the expectations for growth in savings, investment and household purchasing power. Reports of layoffs, buyouts and bankruptcy declarations are a near daily occurrence.

In order to reach the target of 0.8 percent growth this year, France's economy would have to expand in the latter two-thirds of the year by about 2 percent -- a value economists believe is unattainable. Labor Minister Michel Sapin himself warned that unemployment "will be bad for several more months before our policies take effect."

While the government blames the general economic woes on the euro crisis, the conservative opposition accuses President Hollande of undermining confidence in the economy with a draconian "tax shock," coupled with an initial increase in public spending followed by a sudden halt.

And it's not just company executives who are critical. A poll over the weekend by the CSA polling institute found that 68 percent of the country is pessimistic about the state of the nation. "In light of this situation," CSA analysts said, "there is an emergency of spontaneous criticism of the government, whose measures appear to increase France's fears for the future."

The negative atmosphere has also hit President Hollande, whose approval ratings have reached historic new lows.  He plans to increase the appeal of his government with an appearance on the France2 broadcaster on Thursday. Labeled a "conversation with the president of the republic," Hollande wants to convince the country he can still turn the economy around. But in light of near-record unemployment figures, it will be an enormous challenge.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit AFP

TURKEY:''Analysis'': PKK's Peace deal & Middle East

A call for peace announced by the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan on March 21 reverberated throughout the Middle East. The promised rapprochement between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish government may have set into motion what could be a game-changer in the Middle East.

Syria, Iraq and Iran have significant Kurdish minorities concentrated in regions contiguous to one another. The nations have been targets of Kurdish irredentism and, at times, used the Kurdish card to Turkey’s detriment when mutual relations, as is the case today with Syria and Iran, have been tense.

PKK supreme leader Ocalan’s statement on the Kurdish New Year, calling for an immediate end to PKK hostilities against the Turkish state and withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey to the Kandil Mountains by August was the result of painstaking negotiation underway at least since October.

By and large the Kurdish population has welcomed Ocalan’s announcement of a ceasefire, visible in the celebratory atmosphere in Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital of Turkey, on New Year’s.

By incorporating the Kurdish minority into the body polity, Turkey would end discriminatory treatment of the Kurds by denial of their ethnic distinctiveness – all the more essential when Turkey is undergoing democratic consolidation. But Turkey also has faced increasing tensions with neighbors to the east and south – Syria, Iraq and Iran – especially since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in early 2011.

While the Kurds in Syria and Iran continue to be restive and chafe under Assad's regime, those in Iraq have carved out an autonomous region for themselves in the Kurdish north, thanks to the US 2003 invasion. Even so relations between Erbil, capital of the autonomous region, and Baghdad remain tense because of the acrimony over disputed regions, especially oil-rich Kirkuk, and distribution of oil income.

Turkey has acted not only as economic lifeline of the landlocked Iraqi Kurdish region, but also as its primary political supporter in disputes with the Shia-dominated government of Baghdad. Statistically, Turkey has become Iraq’s largest trading partner for the simple reason that 90 percent of northern Iraq’s trade is conducted with Turkey. Turkish companies in construction and other sectors have become ubiquitous in Iraqi Kurdistan. The close relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government has helped immensely in convincing both Ankara and the Kurdish leadership in Turkey that beneficial relations between the two are not only possible but imperative.

Syria’s relations with Turkey deteriorated dramatically in the summer of 2011 when Ankara decided to throw its support behind the anti-Assad opposition and became principal base for the armed opposition as well as the chief conduit for the supply of weapons to insurgents within Syria. With the Syrian regime’s control shrinking, Damascus decided to pull its forces out of parts of northern Syria contiguous to Turkey populated by Kurds, in part to teach Turkey a lesson: The vacuum was largely filled by the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK considered hostile to Turkey.

From Ankara’s perspective, a deal with the Turkish PKK was essential to neutralize the threat of Syrian Kurdistan becoming a haven for PKK fighters similar to the Kandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. With KRG pressing PKK to give up its fight, it would have been convenient for the PKK fighters to move to PYD-controlled safe havens in Syria to continue attacks on Turkish targets.

Tehran, though plagued by Kurdish separatism, has extended assistance and refuge to PKK fighters when its relations with Turkey have been tense. This was the case from 1979 to 2002, when the AKP came to power in Ankara and began improving relations with Iran for both economic and strategic reasons.

Turkey’s good relations with Iran were aided by the improvement in Ankara’s relations with Damascus, Iran’s principal Arab ally, during the past few years thanks to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” However, in 2011, Iran and Turkey split over Syria: Turkey supported the opposition to the Assad regime while Iran continued to be the regime’s principal supporter.

The Turkish decision to allow NATO to position an anti-missile defense system in southeastern Turkey aimed, despite Turkish denials, at Iranian missiles bound for Israel and other western targets, also hurt Iranian-Turkish relations. Consequently, it was reported that Iran was once again reviving support for PKK.  A deal with PKK's leader, Ocalan, therefore indirectly strengthens Turkey’s hands against Iran as well as Syria – all the more essential as tensions between Iran and Turkey have increased in recent months over competing aims in Iraq. Iran supports Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, and Turkey supports Sunni Arab opponents of the Maliki government as well as acting as the patron-saint of the KRG in Erbil.

The Turkey-PKK (Ocalan-Erdoğan) deal, therefore, brings advantages to Turkey that go well beyond its borders. The devil is, of course, in the details about which not much is known so far. One hopes that the Turkish government acts with sagacity, indeed with magnanimity, when implementing the agreement even if some parts may not be palatable to ultranationalist hardliners. Acting otherwise will be shortsighted for nothing less than Turkey’s strategic future rides on successful implementation of this agreement.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit AFP-Getty Images

CYPRUS:'' Capital Flight'': The Parliament's suspicious mind

Banks have been closed and accounts frozen in Cyprus recently. Nevertheless, large amounts were moved out of the country's crippled financial institutions on the eve of the bailout package. Lawmakers are suspicious and are investigating both the government and the Cypriot central bank.

There are indications that large sums flowed out of the two banks just before the first bailout package was signed in the early morning hours of March 16. At the end of January, some 40 percent of all savings held in Cypriot accounts were on the books of those two banks. Since then, however, much of it has been transferred elsewhere, despite orders from the central bank that accounts at the two institutions frozen.

The central bank now stands accused of not doing enough to control the movement of capital. Transfers for humanitarian aid were permitted which, while certainly an acceptable exception, opened a loophole for abuse. Many are also furious that the bank allowed "special payments," the definition of which was never adequately established.

The Cypriot central bank has defended itself by saying that it was impossible to completely prevent all transactions, despite the account freeze. Much of the money was withdrawn from overseas, where Cyprus had no authority. Branches of Cypriot banks in non-euro-zone countries such as Russia and Britain do not answer to the European Central Bank. Their liquidity is controlled by central banks in those countries.

Holders of smaller savings accounts have been unable to access much of their money for almost two weeks, companies have been unable to pay their suppliers and across the country people are concerned that their salaries will not arrive on schedule on the first of the month. Meanwhile, rich businesspeople and those with connections overseas have been able to transfer their money into foreign accounts.

Parliament in Nicosia is suspicious. Lawmakers have demanded that the central bank assemble a list of those customers who withdrew large amounts of money prior to the closure of the country's financial institutions. In particular, parliamentarians want to know if central bank employees or members of the government received early warning and were able to quickly rescue their assets.

But that's not all: holders of smaller accounts should be prepared for the fact that not all bank services will immediately be available. There are growing speculations that Cypriot banks might not be opened on Thursday, as scheduled. They mightwi be operational from April 1st. And those who had more than €100,000 parked at the Bank of Cyprus will likely lose "about 40 percent" of their assets. Bank customers could suffer for much longer and experts say that those with more than €100,000 in their accounts stand to lose up to 90 percent of their deposits.

The parliamentary investigation indicates just how great the mistrust is between lawmakers and the government.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Getty Images

ISRAEL: '' Ben Zygier'': His death and Mossad's vulnerability

Mossad agent Ben Zygier was found hanged in his cell and his case made headlines around the world. New information shows that Zygier, once a passionate Zionist, had become a turncoat who delivered sensitive information to Hezbollah.

It has been two years since the prisoner died, but only now are bits of information coming to light. The case has made headlines around the world, putting both the governments of Israel and Australia on the defensive. In Tel Aviv, the affair has been treated as a state secret with a gag order, which has only recently been loosened, imposed on the media. Conspiracy theories about his fate have been plentiful, including speculation that Zygier was murdered in prison.

The man known as "Prisoner X" unwittingly caused the arrest of two Hezbollah supporters who were spying for Israel. Ben Zygier, the Australian-Israeli who allegedly was a Mossad agent, leaked highly classified information in a botched attempt to recruit a spy for the agency.  Zygier, who had been returned from the field to a desk job at Mossad headquarters, was attempting to restore his reputation at the spy agency by attempting to turn an enemy into an ally.

In the end, however, Hezbollah managed to extract from him the names of two Lebanese men working for the Mossad -- Ziad al-Homsi and Mustafa Ali Awadeh -- who were arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail, German magazine SPIEGEL reports.

The report said Zygier started working with the Mossad in 2003 but was ordered back to Israel in 2007 because he was not delivering for the agency. He returned to Melbourne and operated independently in an attempt to restore his reputation, the magazine claimed.

But as he tried to prove his bona fides to a man linked to Hezbollah who he wanted to become a double agent, he was the one who became the double agent, leaking the classified information.
On Dec. 15, 2010, the 34-year-old father of two was found dead in his Tel Aviv cell. Reports said he hung himself.

Israeli informants have certainly changed sides in the past. But a regular Mossad employee has never done what Zygier did. It is a bitter defeat for Israel, but for Hezbollah it is one of the rare instances in which an Arab intelligence service prevailed over its Jewish counterpart. Zygier's betrayal is also a heavy blow to the Mossad because it raises doubts as to the integrity of the agency's own people -- and the manner in which it recruits employees.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo Credit: AFP: Ben Zygier's tombstone

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

SOUTH AFRICA: ''BRICS' Summit'': The creation of a joint development bank

South Africa, the newest entrant to the BRICS ( Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is hosting this year BRICS' summit in Durban. This is the fifth BRICS summit, and the first time South Africa has hosted since being invited by China to join the club in 2011.

Leaders from China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa, known as the BRICS, are gathering in the coastal city of Durban, South Africa, on today and tomorrow.

The leaders will discuss reports prepared by working groups led by Brazil on the proposed reserves pool, and another by India and South Africa on the creation of a joint development bank, which would provide financing to emerging and developing economies for infrastructure projects. The pool of central bank money would be available to emerging economies facing balance of payments difficulties or could be tapped to stabilize economies during periods of global financial crises, according to documents outlining the plan

The proposals reflect frustration among emerging market nations at having to rely on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which they see as still reflecting the interests of the United States and other industrialized countries.

BRICS countries were also considering injecting an initial $50 billion into the new infrastructure bank. Details on the scale, location and structure of the bank will be discussed, but not agreed at the summit. The bank would support the ever-growing financing needs in emerging and developing nations for roads, modern-day port facilities, reliable power and rail services.

While BRICS started as an economic bloc with China at the helm, it has been transformed into a geopolitical institution representing the developing world, as well as a growing political force.
Now BRICS accounts for about 40 percent of the world's population and has long seen itself as a counterweight to established powers, such as the United States or the European Union.

BRICS, in positioning itself as a rival to the G8, has become a club that many developing countries would like to join. Nigeria, Indonesia and Turkey have all been touted as potential members, while Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi this week suggested the grouping be expanded to “E-BRICS.”

It is also becoming an alternative force to Western powers on political and security issues. In a message passed by a senior adviser this week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asked for intervention by the BRICS nations “to stop the violence in his country and encourage the opening of a dialogue.”

BRICS' countries have exceeded all expectations. In slightly over a decade the group's GDP has grown from approximately $3 billion to $13 billion. The BRIC countries have the potential to avert a global recession and to grow faster than the rest of the world and to pull all of us along with them as a (growth) engine.

While the creation of a BRICS-led development bank to rival the IMF and World Bank is expected to be a key outcome, this will only be on paper. An actual bank ready to extend loans is likely years away.

At this point, it would be important for the BRICS countries to launch concrete projects if they want to be more than a club that is loosely tied together. They have already agreed on measures to facilitate trade between them and issued joint demands on some foreign and environmental policy topics. More can be done.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo Credit : AFP

LEBANON: Analysing Najib Mikati's resignation

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati surprised very few when he resigned on Friday, causing the technocratic government that he created with Hezbollah’s blessing two years ago to collapse.

This final chapter of Mikati’s tenure seemed to be written well before he took the post in January 2011. Mikati, a prominent Sunni politician and millionaire businessman with international contacts, knew very well that Hezbollah, which effectively controls Lebanon’s government, would make life very difficult for him. Nevertheless, he accepted the challenge, perhaps naively believing that he could do something that no politician has been able to do since former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed on February 14, 2005: bring stability and normalcy to a country seemingly always on the verge of sectarian strife. In the end, though, he could not.

Armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites have since resumed in the city of Tripoli, the country’s second largest after Beirut. The Syrian government continues striking targets in the Bekaa Valley and in the north. Ransom kidnappers run wild. The threat of a serious internal war between Hezbollah and Sunni backers of the Free Syrian Army hangs heavily over the country.

Najib Mikati is not a Hezbollah member. And if the leaders of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group thought they could use him as a tool, they were wrong, at least for the most part. They’re the reason he got the job in the first place, but they’re also the reason he quit. Mikati has been pressing for Lebanese neutrality in the Syrian war, but Hezbollah wants Lebanon to side with Bashar al-Assad.

There are a couple of reasons Hezbollah picked Mikati for prime minister. Primarily because he is not Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik Hariri whose assassination in downtown Beirut kicked off the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution in 2005.

Second, their pickings were slim. They couldn’t select one of their own. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the prime minister be from the Sunni community. (The president, meanwhile, must be a Christian while the speaker of parliament is reserved for the Shias.) And the number of competent Sunni politicians in Lebanon who sincerely support Hezbollah is zero. Syria has a small number of Sunni allies—and Mikati made his money in Syria—but Hezbollah doesn’t have any.
Mikati was the best they could get.

He looked like a Hezbollah ally on the surface, but only if you squinted hard and didn’t watch what he did or listen to the things that he said. He acted and sounded like an independent, and sometimes even like he was aligned with the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc. The man has not been easy to read, and it’s important not to get suckered when Middle Eastern politicians say things you want to hear just to get you on side.  A Wikileaks cable published in 2011 quotes him describing Hezbollah as “cancerous” and saying he wishes to see their Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist statelet destroyed.

To fulfill his ambitious plan, Mikati sought to create a moderate center in Lebanese politics that could mediate the ongoing feud between Hezbollah, the party accused of killing Hariri, and Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq and prime minister between 2009 and 2011. He convinced Michel Suleiman, the serving president, and Walid Jumblatt, the influential Druze leader, to join his coalition. Then, for added credibility, Mikati sought political backing from regional powers, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Even Iran and the United States, which had been fighting a cold war in the Middle East (often through proxies on Lebanese soil), gave their blessings to Mikati’s plan.

For its part, Hezbollah, the dominant party in Lebanon’s politics since Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and Syria’s forced exit shortly afterward, judged that it could afford having Mikati in charge of the cabinet as long as he did not cross any red lines that threatened Hezbollah’s security. To be sure, the Shia party kept putting Mikati in some very uncomfortable positions.

First, in 2011, Hezbollah’s leaders rejected calls for Lebanon to support the United Nations’ special tribunal on the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Mikati threatened to resign if Hezbollah kept obstructing. Grumbling, Hezbollah decided to cut its losses and agree to cooperate, despite the fact that the international body was about to implicate the group in Hariri’s murder.

Second came the assassination in October 2012 of Wissam al-Hassan, the director of the intelligence branch of Lebanon’s internal security forces (the Hariri camp believes that Hezbollah and Syria are behind the killing). With ties to the Hariri family and Saudi Arabia, he was a major Sunni figure in Lebanon’s sectarian politics. He was, in effect, the country’s intelligence tsar, the man who knew the state’s most intimate secrets. Supposedly, one of those secrets was evidence of a spate of assassinations of anti-Syrian individuals by Hezbollah, starting with Rafiq Hariri in 2005. And that knowledge had made him a target.

The political shock and (limited) sectarian violence that followed Hassan’s death made Mikati think seriously about resigning -- he even informed the cabinet of his decision to quit. But Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States counseled Mikati to soldier on for the sake of Lebanon’s stability. So he did, but the political costs for him of governing above an unpopular Hezbollah-controlled government were starting to pile up. Among his main support base, which is Sunni, he was losing ground.

Hezbollah is on the verge of losing one major regional ally if Bashar al-Assad goes in Syria. Further, a confrontation between Iran and Israel and the United States over the nuclear issue could spell doom for the Shia party. In that respect, it does make some sense for Hezbollah to try to fortify its position in Lebanon by eliminating its opponents.

In Lebanon, governments and prime ministers come and go, but Mikati’s departure signals a sad end to what was a worthwhile political experiment in moderate centrist politics. Had Mikati succeeded, his effort could have been emulated across the Middle East. With his failure, though, Lebanon’s fault lines will continue to deepen -- and absent necessary Sunni-Shia reconciliation, the country could slide into another civil war. The country is closer now to collapse than it has been at any time since the civil war ended.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit AFP: Najib Mikati

Monday, 25 March 2013

CYPRUS: '' New Bailout deal'': Short term relief

A Cypriot exit from the euro zone has been averted by a last-minute deal in which the government bowed to the demands of international lenders. Rich depositors, including wealthy Russians, will face heavy losses in return for a 10 billion euro bailout, and the island's banking sector will be radically downsized.

In the end, despite all his pleading, threats and horsetrading, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades had no option but to bow to the terms of international lenders. Early on Monday morning, the Euro Group of euro-zone finance ministers agreed a bailout of €10 billion ($13 billion) for the tiny Mediterranean island. In return, the Cypriot government agreed to radically scale down its oversized banking sector. Bank customers with deposits of over €100,000, including wealthy Russians who had deposited funds in Cyprus, will lose a large part of their assets.

Anastasiades caved in after days of resistance. The other 16 euro finance ministers breathed a sigh of relief that the cliffhanger was finally over.

The new bailout deal focused on the island's two insolvent major banks. It will wind down the largely state-owned Popular Bank of Cyprus, also known as Laiki, and shift deposits below €100,000 to the Bank of Cyprus. Deposits above €100,000 euros in both banks, which are not guaranteed under EU law, will be frozen and used to resolve Laiki's debts and to recapitalise Bank of Cyprus through a deposit/equity conversion.

An initial agreement reached 10 days ago had provoked angry protesters in Cyprus and was rejected by the country's parliament because it entailed a levy on all deposits. The plan also led to international criticism because it cast doubt on the EU's deposit guarantee for all assets up to €100,000.

The raid on uninsured Laiki depositors is expected to raise €4.2 billion. It's not yet clear how high the losses for deposits exceeding €100,000 will be. That will be decided in the coming weeks by the Cypriot government and the troika of EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The final bailout terms are expected to be agreed by mid-April. Before that, the parliaments of Germany, Finland and the Netherlands will have to give their blessing. Nothing else can block it. The Cypriot parliament can't stop the deal because it has already approved a restructuring of the banks.

The agreement reached on Sunday night begs the question as to why they didn't come up with it in the first place. European leaders indirectly blamed the Cypriot government for the delay. They claim that the same deal had already been on the table last week, but that no agreement had been reached on it then.  Anastasiades had wanted to spare wealthy foreign bank customers in the hope of rescuing the country's status as an international financial center.

Now it's clear that the banking center will shrink to normal EU standards. European leaders have got what they wanted. But they have no reason to be proud. The initial assault on small savers has done lasting damage to confidence in Europe's crisis management.

Cypriots faces a bleak future. It will block potential capital flight in coming weeks by imposing strict controls on money transfers. But the country is bound to plunge into a deep recession. The near future will be very difficult for Cyprus.

The country's long-term debt sustainabily is by no means assured either. IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said the bailout should ensure that Cypriot government debt would amount to "around 100 percent" of GDP by 2020. But experience with other nations hit by the euro crisis shows that such forecasts can quickly start wobbling.

Nevertheless, the new agreement would prevent Cyprus's disastrous exit from the euro zone.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Friday, 22 March 2013

MIDDLE-EAST: ''Obama's visit'': Obama's revolutionary speech

From the moment the White House announced that President Barack Obama would travel to Israel, the administration undertook a systematic effort to lower expectations, calling the trip a ''listening mission''. On that count, the president’s trip succeeded before it started.

The first part of Obama's visit seemed a clear effort to patch up some of those differences. The president was received at the airport by Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and the country's entire cabinet. Almost immediately upon arrival, Obama began calling his host by his nickname "Bibi" and the two even spent a great deal of time whispering to each other during dinner on Thursday night at the presidential residence.

Obama also said all the right things, saying that the US-Israeli alliance was eternal and emphasizing that all options remained on the table when it comes to Iran's nuclear program.

Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Egypt soon after his first election left many in Israel feeling abandoned by Washington and last year, Netanyahu even publicly threw his support behind Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

 Practically no one expects the Obama visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan to achieve any kind of a historic triumph. Syria's and Iran's issues were obviously the hot topics of the President trip to Israel but the important moment was Barack Obama's speech to Israelis students.

US President Barack Obama's message was clear as he spoke to hundreds of hand-picked Israeli students at the convention center in Jerusalem. Palestinian and Israeli leaders, he said, will not come to agreement on a peace deal without pressure from below.

"I can promise you this," Obama said. "Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see."

He also implored his listeners to "put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes," in reference to the Palestinians who, he said, live "their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls their movements." Just as Israelis have been able to build up their own country, he said, Palestinians "have a right to be a free people in their own land."

That his remarks were greeted by applause is likely a testament to the painstaking process of application students had to go through to be allowed to attend the address. In official Israel, in any case, the speech was not well received. Netanyahu released a curt statement thanking Obama for the "unreserved support for the state of Israel" the president pledged in his speech. Beyond that, he said merely that he too believes peace must guarantee security for Israeli citizens and "agrees with President Obama that we have a wonderful country."

Obama's address and Netanyahu's reaction to it represented perhaps the most honest moments of the president's Middle East visit thus far. It is the president's first trip to Israel in over four years in the White House and it has long been clear that there is very little love lost between the two leaders.

Obama held a good speech in front of the Israeli students in Jerusalem. He delivered a few uncomfortable truths to the younger generation of Israelis and asked them to see things from the Palestinian perspective. It was an attempt to break through the peace-cynicism that many Israelis understandably hold on to. But he did so in a way that wasn't demanding so much as it was full of understanding and sympathy. Obama struck a tone that most Europeans have abandoned when it comes to Israel.

It seems unlikely that Obama's visit will do much to advance the cause of peace in the region. The two sides at the moment remain so far apart that Netanyahu's skepticism of the president is only rivalled by that felt by the Palestinians, who feel that the White House hasn't done enough to help them secure statehood.

Obama's visit to Israel was also an attempt to correct past mistakes he has made in the region. It was necessary that Obama expand his charm offensive (from the Muslim world) to include the Israelis, who have long seen this president as an opponent. And it looks as though he was successful. At the same time, though, Obama remained critical of Israeli settlements, but he also made it clear to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he would no longer accept the issue as an excuse for not participating in negotiations. It is a move which places Obama on neutral ground from where it becomes easier to make progress.

Israel's policies could become a serious threat to US interests in the region -- and America, no matter how deep the friendship may seem, will not allow that. Because the balance of power in the relationship is clear, there are only two possibilities. Either Israel adjusts and takes on the American position at least in part. Or the US will ultimately create more distance to its tiny ally.

One could see signs of that even during this week's staged pageantry. The pinnacle of Obama's visit was not, after all, a speech before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as the leadership in Jerusalem had wished. Instead, Obama chose his own audience and presented his vision of peace to a group of university students -- not to politicians.

Even though skepticism runs as deep as the distrust between Israelis and Palestinians over Obama's latest effort, he was intent on testing the waters anyway in his first official trip this week to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

After all, his biggest risk is nothing more than failure - but that's something almost every recent U.S. president has experienced in Middle East peacemaking. The upside is clear for a second-term president who will never again have to face an election: a potential boon to his presidential legacy.

For now, though, Obama is moving cautiously, with soothing rhetoric, friendly pressure and popular outreach marking his visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah. His speech was indeed a ''revolutionary speech'' afterall.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Amalyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo Credit: AFP

INDIA: Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India

An analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds that the blatant gap between poor and rich is growing in India almost faster than anywhere else on the globe. Although the world's largest democracy amended its constitution in 1976 to declare that it was a socialist state, the fact of the matter is that the country is failing to give the huddled masses a fair share of the country's economic miracle.

This is one of the main differences between India and China, its rival up-and-coming Asian economic powerhouse: In China, some 13 percent of the population subsists on the equivalent of less than $1.25 (€0.97) a day, while one-third of all Indians have to make do with the same amount.

Experts at the University of Oxford have concluded that the level of poverty in some areas is roughly equivalent to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African country that has been ravaged by years of civil war. To make matters worse, if the comparison is restricted to nutrition, Madhya Pradesh is significantly worse off than the DRC.

Critics contend that India's rapid economic growth, which began in the 1980s, has not led to a decline in poverty. The fragmentation of Indian society into castes and religions thwarts modernization -- and it prevents India's poor from jointly rising up against the rich.

Shankar Singh is one of those who dreams of a better life in vain. The 53-year-old works a few blocks from Shahnaz' residence as a security guard at Panchsheel Park, an enclave for the rich surrounded by walls and gates. He protects the villa of a Sikh businessman.

Shankar's boss has amassed a fortune selling sinks and toilets, but his security guard still lives with his wife and six children in an impoverished hovel right behind the gated community -- beyond the walls, where stray dogs and cows rummage through the refuse of the rich.

This is where the gardeners, cooks, chauffeurs and chambermaids of the nouveau riche live. Their neighborhood may be in one of Delhi's better slums, but they live in constant fear that they will slide back into abject poverty if they get sick or are fired. According to the results of the OECD analysis, informal jobs without any protection against dismissal are more prevalent in India than in virtually any other emerging economy.

It is early afternoon, and Shankar is resting in his windowless dwelling in preparation for the night shift. He is wearing the same dark baseball cap he wears on duty. A small Hindu altar hangs on the wall. Shankar worships the god Shiva, the "auspicious one," who brings good fortune.

Shankar and his family are still waiting for their luck to change. They do not even have a washbasin. He and his sons wash up in front of the door every morning, while his wife and daughters somehow bathe inside. Water only flows between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., so that's when all the neighbors quickly fill up buckets and pots.

When Shankar moved to Delhi from the province of Uttar Pradesh 32 years ago, he dreamed of a better life. He hasn't been back to his home village for seven years now because he can't afford to travel there. Shankar earns 8,000 rupees a month, or the equivalent of €110. He pays 2,000 rupees a month in rent, and lives off the rest.

He can't even honor the Hindu gods with a modest display of fireworks at Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Instead, he gazes in amazement at Panchsheel Park, where well-heeled Indians stage increasingly extravagant firework displays year after year

 Indeed, it is the relatively well-educated who primarily benefit from the Indian economic miracle: IT engineers and college graduates who speak fluent English and work in call centers. Out in the countryside, though, the only hope is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). This 2005 law guarantees every adult in the country 100 hours of paid work every year.

Under NREGA, the government currently pays the country's poor over $7 billion to improve roads and build bridges. That's better than begging.

Furthermore, India helps its poor with food rations and other subsidies. But the aid often doesn't reach those in need. In a bid to cut out corrupt middlemen, the government has been making money transfers since January. It now directly pays scholarships and pensions to the accounts of some 245,000 needy individuals in 20 districts.  But what the governing Indian National Congress party praises as a "pioneering reform" is criticized by the opposition as a political trick to buy votes in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections.

The widening gulf between those at the top and those at the bottom is steadily increasing the pressure on the many fissures in this highly fractured society.

Despite boasting the world's second-fastest economic growth, India has made little progress in eradicating poverty, according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Instead, the gap between the incomes of the rich and poor has doubled, so the top 10 percent of workers now earn 12 times the amount earned by the bottom 10 percent — while 42 percent of the country's 1.21 billion people survive on less than a dollar a day.

One cause is a high population growth rate, although demographers generally agree that this is a symptom rather than cause of poverty. While services and industry have grown at double-digit figures, agriculture growth rate has dropped from 4.8% to 2%. About 60% of the population depends on agriculture whereas the contribution of agriculture to the GDP is about 18%. The surplus of labour in agriculture has caused many people to not have jobs. Farmers are a large vote bank and use their votes to resist reallocation of land for higher-income industrial projects.

Other points of view hold that the economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s are responsible for the collapse of rural economies and the agrarian crisis currently underway.

According to data from the United Nations Development Programme, an estimated 37.2% of Indians live below the country's national poverty line. A recent report by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) states that 8 Indian states have more poor people than 26 poorest African nations combined which totals to more than 410 million poor in the poorest African countries.

The 2012 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report places India amongst the three countries where the GHI between 1996 and 2011 went up from 22.9 to 23.7, while 78 out of the 81 developing countries studied, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria, Myanmar, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi, succeeded in improving hunger conditions

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

CYPRUS: Banks facing insolvency: A miracle's needed

The disastrous financial situation in Cyprus is largely a result of the country's crumbling banks. For years, the island nation profited from its bloated financial sector, but now it will likely have to liquidate its two largest banks. In Nicosia, government leaders fear that could decimate the economy.

If Cyprus doesn't receive billions in foreign aid within a few weeks, the country will default by June at the very latest. But insolvency could come even sooner for the country's two largest banks. The Bank of Cyprus and Laiki Bank are only able to survive at the moment through emergency aid from the European Central Bank, which on Thursday threatened to cut off all liquidity on Monday if terms of a European Union bailout deal aren't finalized with the government in Nicosia.

The banks are actually the very core of Cyprus' problems at the moment. They are bloated, pumped full of Greek sovereign bonds and more or less already bankrupt. Without these banks, Cyprus wouldn't need to seek aid from the permanent euro bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). The banks' difficulties have destroyed Cyprus' reputation on the international financial markets and investors are no longer willing to lend to the country.

Already last year, the government had to prop up Laiki, the country's second largest bank, with €1.8 billion, an amount that accounts for about 10 percent of Cyprus' annual gross domestic product. Now the ailing financial sector requires an additional €10.8 billion in aid -- an unimaginably large figure for a small nation that has just under a million residents. The EU aid would represent the lion's share of the €17.5 billion bailout Cyprus currently requires.

As such, it makes sense that euro-zone member states and the International Monetary Fund have made it a precondition that these banks also participate financially in the rescue. The only question is whether there's any viable alternative than to tap the accounts of banking customers directly in order to raise the €5.8 billion missing in the bailout.   

The bank's investors have already lost massive shares of their investments. In the fall of 2011, the three biggest financial institutions still had a market capitalization of €2.4 billion, but it has since fallen to €500 million. Since mid-2012, the Cypriot government has owned 84 percent of Laiki Bank. By then, private investors were only still in possession of shares that held a total value of several million euros. Major shareholders at other banks also have relatively little to contribute to any rescue package. Just take billionaire Russian investor Dmitry Rybolovlev, who owns 5 percent of the Bank of Cyprus. In recent months, he has had to sit back and watch as the value of his holding shrank to around €20 million.   

Holdesrs of bank bonds were to be next in line to be held liable for the bailout. They lent money to the financial institutions and had to assume that, in the worst case, they wouldn't get it back. In a passage that attracted little attention over the weekend, the Euro Group also announced that second-tier bonds would also be seized as part of the restructuring program. Those possessing Tier-1 guaranteed bonds would not be hit. Still, it is doubtful that this channel would suffice to raise the €5.8 billion needed. Cypriot banks have long relied on the gigantic deposits held in their accounts and have not needed to issue large quantities of bonds to raise cash. As such, there is a paucity of bonds that could now be seized as part of a restructuring program.

This leaves the depositors. This is by far the largest single source of potential money. Statistics collected by Greece's central bank suggest that some €68 billion is deposited in Cypriot banks. Around €25 billion of that sum originated from foreign depositors, a large share of them from Russia and Ukraine. This is where the so-called "one-off stability levy" rejected on Tuesday by the Cypriot parliament was supposed to be applied.

Many experts believe that the cleanest solution would be to provide for an orderly insolvency for the banks and for them to be liquidated. Still, if the banks were made to go bankrupt, depositors would still feel the pain -- but only the big ones. Deposits of up to €100,000 would be protected by state deposit guarantees. Under this scenario, it would be the shareholders and bondholders who would lose a good deal of their investments.

Another proposal being considered is to wind down the two banks, park their most toxic assets in a "bad bank" and then sell the rest to Russia's VTB Bank, which is active on the island.

The only country that faces any significant risks is Greece, where subsidiaries of Cypriot banks active there would have to be split off from their parent companies and operated as separate entities, possibly under the tutelage of Greek financial institutions. But that is already envisioned in the Euro Group's rescued plan.

According to reports, a solution for winding down the two banks had also been part of the negotiations among euro-zone member states, Cyprus and the IMF. Together with the agreed to €10 billion from the ESM, it would generate enough money to prevent the entire country from going bust.

But the Cypriot government has so far vehemently opposed the plan, because a liquidation of the country's two biggest banks would bring instant death to the very business model that has made Cyprus a small banking center. Hardly any investors would continue parking their money there, no matter how low the tax rate was.

Ultimately, Cyprus will have to reinvent itself. Until the crisis hit, the financial and real estate sectors comprised a quarter of the country's gross value add. Another quarter comes from tourism. Industry only comprises about 12 percent. Cyprus, it appears, tied its entire fate to its banks. And as long as the government remains unprepared to change this, the country could well be headed for bankruptcy.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Getty Images.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

RWANDA: ''Bosco Ntaganda'': Extradition to the ICC

Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, who turned himself in at the US embassy in Rwanda for extradition to the International Criminal Court, will be transferred to The Hague within days, the court's chief prosecutor said Wednesday.

"We are working very closely with those who can help us to ensure he's transferred in the shortest possible time," said ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. She estimated he would be brought to The Hague within "a couple of days" to face charges for using child soldiers, keeping women as sex slaves and participating in the murder of at least 800 people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between 2002 and 2003.

The ICC specifically charged Ntaganda with war crimes, crimes against humanity in the Ituri region.
"Once he has been transferred to The Hague there will be a first hearing," Bensouda told reporters in Paris. "Judges will set a date for the confirmation of the charges. In my experience this may take three months."

ICC envoys are travelling to Rwanda to collect the former warlord in the capital Kigali, a top US diplomat said earlier. Ntaganda surprised US embassy staff in Kigali on Monday when he walked in off the street and asked for help in reaching the ICC.

"Officials from the ICC are, as we speak, en route to Kigali," the top US diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, told reporters. "The timeline is uncertain but the need for rapid and quick action is clear," Carson added, speaking on a conference call from Washington. "The next 48 hours or so will be critical in all this," he added.

Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said that Ntaganda "voluntarily walked in" to the embassy, but had no clear answer as to why he chose a United States diplomatic mission for his surrender.

Carson also appealed to Rwanda to allow Ntaganda free passage to the airport in Kigali on his way to trial "without interference".

Carson said there had been "very open and good contact" with Rwandan officials, who have given assurances they will allow Ntaganda to go to The Hague. But he also said the "realities in practical terms" of how Ntaganda would travel to the airport were still to be ironed out.

While Rwanda has suggested no reason it would hold up the transfer, analysts speculate officials might interfere because of Rwanda's alleged support for the Rwandan-born Ntaganda and his M23 movement, and possibly fears that he could divulge information about that relationship if brought to court.

The DR Congo government said Gen Ntaganda, who comes from the Tutsi ethnic group, crossed into Rwanda on Saturday after he and some of his followers were defeated by a rival faction of the M23 group.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Blogger.com/AFP

CYPRUS: ''Plan B'': The ECB issues an ''Ultimatum''

The European Central Bank has given Cyprus until Monday to hammer out a bailout deal, or it will withdraw its support for its banks. After rejecting a euro-zone bailout deal on Tuesday night, Cyprus is now desperately searching for funding.

The ECB saying it cannot guarantee emergency liquidity funding to Cypriot banks beyond Monday, the European Central Bank is pressuring Nicosia to find the 5.8 billion euros needed to ward off insolvency. Talks with Russia continue on Thursday, but a bank-account levy remains likely.

After hinting strongly on Wednesday that it was unwilling to continue providing emergency liquidity to Cypriot banks for much longer, the ECB on Thursday issued a statement that it could not guarantee funding beyond Monday, unless a bailout deal emerges.

The ECB can only provide emergency liquidity to solvent banks and ECB has doubts that Cypriot banks are solvent. If Cyprus didn't come up with a new plan quickly, then the banks won't open on next week because the ECB will not provide any more liquidity. That is a more horrible scenario than what is on the table now. ECB will ultimately  and most certainly help the Cypriots, but only under conditions that make sense. Certainly neither the ESM nor the ECB can allow a bottomless pit.

Bottomless pit seems to be something of an exaggeration. The numbers involved are not huge; the plan rejected on Tuesday called for the European bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to provide a €10 billion emergency loan. A further €5.8 billion was to come from a one-time levy on those who hold accounts with Cypriot banks. The modest size of the bailout is likely the reason for the apparent lack of concern with which financial markets have taken note of the Cypriot rejection. The euro is up against the dollar on Wednesday. A Portuguese debt sale also went off without a hitch.

On Wednesday morning, all eyes were on Russia in the hopes that the country might jump in to provide Nicosia emergency aid. Russian investors have parked billions of euros in Cypriot bank accounts -- indeed the presence of Russian money is one reason why Cyprus' banking sector holds assets worth more than seven times the country's annual gross domestic product. According to media reports, Anastasiades spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately following the failed parliamentary vote and the Cypriot finance minister flew to Moscow on Tuesday night.

The rapid turn toward Russia on Tuesday night makes it clear that Cyprus is quickly pursuing a potentially promising Plan B. Because many rich Russians have long used Cyprus as a low-tax locale to park their money, it is hoped that Moscow might spring for the €5.8 billion in bailout money left open by Tuesday evening's parliamentary rejection. According to media reports, the Cypriot government is attempting to strike a quick natural gas deal with Russia, granting Moscow concession rights to the large natural gas reserves that lie off the coast of Cyprus in exchange for much-needed cash.

The Euro Group would only be able to accept such a compromise if the money from Russia did not come in the form of a loan. That, after all, would increase Cpyriot sovereign debt to an unsustainable level -- exactly what the first deal was trying to avoid.
The alternative would be for Cyprus to allow the European deal to fall apart completely, eschew the €10 billion from the ESM and try to find the €17 billion it needs from elsewhere. Here, too, Russia would be the primary hope.

In the coming negotiations, the Euro Group must be careful as it seeks to maintain its credibility. The vote on Tuesday evening made one thing clear: The main concern in Nicosia was not in fact those who held smaller sums in Cypriot accounts. By Tuesday morning, the original deal had been changed to exempt from the bank levy those holding less than €20,000 in their savings accounts. That the parliamentary veto was nonetheless unanimous shows that lawmakers are primarily interested in maintaining Cyprus' role as a low-tax paradise and offshore business haven. It also shows that Cypriots are unwilling to be bullied from abroad.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

SYRIA : ''Allies' War'': My Interests-My War

The West insists that for any negotiations on an end to the Syrian civil war to happen, President Bashar Assad must first step down. The demand is fatal and only prolongs the bloodletting, allowing Syria to slip into anarchy while radical Islamists slowly hijack the revolution.

The war has cost nearly 70,000 lives. At least a million have fled their home and face an uncertain future. But that is only half the truth.

World powers are also fighting over who is to have influence in the region. It's the West and its allies against the old allies of the regime. No one is openly getting involved in the conflict, and no one is sending soldiers to Damascus -- the West appears to have had enough of an all-out policy of invasion. Still, the United States, Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have interests in Syria.

What do the West and its partners want? They want to decrease the influence of Syria's allies Iran and Hezbollah for their own security, but above all for the sake of protecting Israel. Meanwhile, the Turks and the Saudis are interested in strengthening the regional influence of Sunnis, who also make up a majority of their own populations. What France accomplished with their NATO bombing campaign in Libya -- the downfall of the dictator -- is to be achieved this time with the aid of money for weapons and guidance alone.

The roles are clearly divided. America says it's about defending democracy and human rights. US diplomats are negotiating abroad with opposition leaders, while others are providing resources to the rebels. The Qataris are giving money, while the Saudi secret service is coordinating the resistance to the Assad regime on Syrian soil.

Saudis have provided military advice, and to a large extent also bundles of cash for weapons. And when doing so, the Gulf states don't show preference to beginners as their partners in the struggle, but rather experienced jihadists. They are fearless, militarily effective and ideologically close. The fact that extremists are prone to act with particularly brutal violence, as in the case of the Yarmouk brigades, which execute unarmed government soldiers and has even taken UN peacekeeping troops hostage, appears to be mostly irrelevant.

Turkey, too, serves as a hub for weapons and fighters, and routinely welcomes rebels to its field hospitals for medical treatment, regardless of whether they belong to the more moderate Free Syrian Army or if they wear the banners of Salafist organizations like the al-Nusra Front, the Ansar Brigade or the Abdullah Azzam Shaheed Brigade on their foreheads. A revolution for freedom and democracy fought side-by-side with allies of al-Qaida is disconcerting to say the least.

Officially, the United States has excluded the Al-Nusra Front from the groups it recognizes as potential government representatives for a post-Assad Syria, and the influence of Islamist fighters is still limited. But it's not just the brutality that is growing every day the civil war drags on. The roles of sectarianism and Islamism are growing as well.

Analysts in Ankara and Washington are underestimating the tenacity of the Syrian government. They're also overlooking the fact that many of the Assad loyalists and nearly 3 million Alawites, of which President Bashar Assad is one, have no choice but to fight to the last round. If they're defeated, they'll have to face the worst. "If the rebels come to this city, they'll eat us alive," said one wealthy businessman in Damascus. Thousands of others share his fear. The opposition is already kidnapping Alawites, Christians, secular Sunnis and simply the affluent, in addition to staging targeted killings of representatives of the government.

Through the one-sided demonization of the Assad government and the precondition set by the US that nothing can proceed until the despot steps down, the West has essentially blocked any solution through negotiations. It has also destroyed hope for an armistice, a possible orderly division of the country or the establishment of safe zones for refugees.   

The conflict in Syria is no longer about democratization. it is a civil war. Syria is also not just a humanitarian disaster like in Rwanda-genocide. The situation in Syria is more comparable to the Balkans wars in the 1990's. In the Balkans, ultimately the United States took note and forced the Europeans and NATO to become engaged, stating that this is more than a humanitarian issue.   

Syria's civil war is not about Assad anymore. If Assad leaves tomorrow, there is no reason to think that the civil war will stop. France and Great Britain are now playing the role that United States played in the Balkans'war. French President F. Hollande has been pushing very hard to get NATO involved, with or without ''UNSC's resolution'' and it seems that he is getting his wish granted, after all.

NATO is actually making contingency plans for military action in Syria, the top US commander in Europe told senators in Washington yesterday. Pressure is growing for intervention, with Great Britain and France leading calls to lift sanctions and arm the rebels. France has been pushing discussions within NATO countries to impose ''no fly zone'' and providing lethat support to opposition and arms embargo.

The war just goes on, also because Iran cannot allow the Syrian government to be replaced by Sunnis with close ties to Riyadh and Washington. And Russia is also not about to give up its influence in the region without a fight. All this translates to the destruction of an entire country, the home to 21 million people and a unique cultural heritage. Syria could soon fall into anarchy, fractured into war zones and Islamist enclaves.

The country has a way to go before the atrocities of its civil war reach their peak. That's true not just for Assad, but also for the various revolutionary groups, of which not a small number have already been radicalized or overtaken by radical Islamists. And the West has so far mostly sympathized with them without criticism.

Syria'civil war is indeed :Allies's war. Syrian's armed opposition allies reject the prospect of the continuation of Assad'regime at all costs, regardless the human rights, casualties, even the possibility that Syria's war could spillover the region. Assad's allies also refuse to envision Syria without Assad. They are ready to fight to the last drop of their bloods. Both sides of ''Allies'' are motivated only in one thing: their interests.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP: B. al Assad & V. Putin

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

MIDDLE-EAST: Obama's Israel visit: Too Little, Too Late diplomacy

The US President Barack Obama finally visits, for the first time in his presidency, Israel.

Hundreds of American and Israeli flags have been raised on roadsides, and posters with the visit’s “unbreakable alliance” logo have been posted at the entrance to Jerusalem. An Obama ice sculpture is in the works, and the prime minister’s office has a smartphone application allowing users to track the motorcade’s every move and the expected highlight is a speech Thursday to an audience mostly of university students.
 
Little is likely to change as a result of US President Barack Obama's visit to Isarel. Israel and the US have grown accustomed to the status quo, even as the threat increases that the Israelis may push ahead with settlement building that could eliminate the possibility of a two-state solution.

The president himself has dampened expectations. He is reported to have said that the US can't want peace more than the conflict parties themselves. The Palestinians were told that they shouldn't get their hopes up, and that the president's goal in visiting Ramallah is "mainly to listen." In response, a Palestinian official grumbled: "There isn't anything he doesn't already know."

Obama's trip comes at a moment when Palestinians are disillusioned and Palestinian leaders who support a two-state solution are weak. And Israel is not in a mood for cutting deals.

The peace process has been at a standstill for years. Israelis and Palestinians are stuck and on the issue of settlements — there are now more than 300,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, and the Palestinians have refused to reopen negotiations unless Israel agrees to a settlement freeze.

America's inaction suits Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister is pleased by the fact that the talks with Obama will be focused on the threat to Israel from Iran and Syria, and will only secondarily address "the need to find a responsible way to advance the peace with the Palestinians," as Netanyahu said in his video address to the annual meeting of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.

In Israel, the conflict with the Palestinians is no longer a central issue. The peace process was not a topic in the election campaign or during the six-week marathon negotiation to form a coalition government. Politicians and citizens were concerned with different issues in recent weeks and months, like reducing the number of cabinet ministers, social justice and the demand that the ultra-religious also make their contribution to the country's defense.

Despite new coalition partners, the government is sticking to many existing policies. The defense minister, a Likud hardliner and declared opponent of compromise, openly says he sees "no chance of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians in the near future."

The settlement issue is an easy one compared with the difficult problems down the road, such as how to draw the borders of the two proposed states, what to do about Palestinian refugees who have been living in camps outside the country for more than 60 years, and how to share water resources.

The president's very first conversations about the Middle East, in the form of the Cairo speech in 2009, were focused on the Arab-Israeli peace process. It is not too late to revive it. But Obama has missed a great opportunity, and now the circumstances have changed. In 2009, President Obama thought that the most important issue in the region was the Arab-Israeli issue. It now has to compete with some other very important crises there. The question is whether this trip will be focused on that issue ( not according to Bibi) or whether Iran, Syria, Egypt, the Arab Spring will dominate the conversation.

It would be one thing if Obama intended to work aggressively to revive the peace talks, expending some of his political capital to bring both sides to the table. But his advisors acknowledge that that's not the point of the trip.

These days, some wonder whether the U.S. will lose interest in the region now that deep reserves of oil and gas have been found in North America, potentially reducing American dependence on Middle East oil. Others wonder aloud whether the time for a two-state solution has come and gone.

 Obama's fundamental mistake was to create expectation without intention to follow through. The Arabs came to think that the US would really push on the settlement issue and push Israel toward compromises that they thought were necessary. On the other hand, the Israelis thought that Washington was pushing too hard, and therefore, both sides ended up disappointed.

Under Obama, it has been difficult for professional diplomats to make the case for engagement and diplomacy, whether it is on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, or on Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The larger problem is that the administration has come to view disengagement from the Middle East and a minimalist foreign policy as a good foreign policy. We can justify this in the context of economic problems at home or a pivot to Asia, but the reality is that just when the Middle East is changing, America is adopting a minimalist foreign policy that basically equates doing less with effectiveness.

This approach seems to work for Obama. He was re-elected partly because his foreign policy is perceived as successful. But only because America associated successful foreign policy with doing less, winding down wars and not starting new ones. If you are not doing anything, you have fewer headaches and fewer failures as well. But in reality, that does not speak to America's global leadership, nor does it really protect America's vital interests down the road.

US President Barack Obama's visit to Israel today will certainly not make an immediate impact on many issues that threaten the Middle East, or more specifically Israeli-Palestinians, but at least the opportunity has presented itself for Barack Obama to set his record straight, possibly win the minds and hearts of many Israelis. And Palestinians can only be optimistic out of principle, not because there are any reasons for it.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

CYPRUS: ''Rescue Postponed'': The one-time levy: rejected by the Parliament

Parliament in Cyprus voted on Tuesday night to reject a new law that would have applied a mandatory one-time levy to holders of bank accounts in the country. The levy, which was intended to raise around €5.8 billion ($7.5 billion) billion, had been a precondition for the crisis-ridden country to receive a bailout from the European Union. It would have been levied against not only Russian oligarchs and wealthy Britons, but also normal, middle-class savers.

But on Tuesday, not a single member of the Cypriot parliament voted in favor of the legislation. Some 36 members rejected the measure, with 19 abstaining. The vote led protesters outside the parliament to cheer. One member of parliament with the country's Green Party had warned of a "new, foreign rule on the horizon." The parliamentarian conceded that the country's massively bloated financial sector had to be shrunk, "but not with a gun at its chest" and "not on the basis of plans that would destroy Cyprus' economy and turn us into slaves."

It remained unclear whether the "no" vote would cause the bailout package to collapse. Cypriot media outlets reported that President Nikos Anastasiades planned to meet with leading politicians in the country in order to discuss the path forward.

Under the deal reached in Brussels over the weekend on the long disputed bailout for Cyprus, all those who have deposited money in Cypriot banks would have been forced to pay a one-time levy -- regardless whether they are Cypriots, Greeks, Britons, Russians or other nationals, and regardless whether they have €1,000 in their account or €10 million. It would even include pensioners who had put their savings in a Cypriot bank, a move many believe violates the core principles of Europe's cradle-to-grave social welfare system.

The plans also envisioned the richest customers at Cypriot banks paying a significantly higher contribution, a provision that was expected to hit Russian oligarchs who have parked their money -- or, laundered it, as critics allege -- in Cyprus.

Up until now, all the bailouts of euro-zone countries have been partially financed by taxpayer money. Governments put up cash to save the crisis-ridden countries, making them vulnerable to risks or losses. In the case of Greece's second loan program in 2011, private investors were called on to take part for the first time.

Contrarily to Greece's bailout, Cyprus' bailout deal also had a moral component: Cyprus has long been viewed as a tax haven for the wealthy elite from Russia and elsewhere in Europe, and policymakers felt they should be made to pay for the bailout as well. Furthermore, the argument goes, Cyprus's banks would also be threatened if no bailout were approved, putting savers' money in danger anyway.

Even worse would have been the so-called contagion effect on other crisis states. In recent years, countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy have already struggled to prevent depositors from moving their money overseas. This was reflected in the high level of imbalances in Europe's so-called Target2 settlement system, in which euro-zone central banks and the European Central Banks transfer money across the common currency union. The situation had calmed down since last fall, when ECB President Mario Draghi promised to help the highly indebted countries with  unlimited bond purchases in the event of a financial emergency. Confidence in banks slowly returned, but this recovery process has now been suddenly disturbed.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Monday, 18 March 2013

DRC:'' M23's split & Joseph Kabila'': When corruption creates/halts rebellion

In the latest turn of events in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the M23 rebels who swept through the region and seized several towns last year has split in two. While several African leaders were signing a DRC peace accord on 24 February, divisions within the rebel group were deepening.  The disputes have even seen blood shed between the feuding factions.

But The M23's split is the result of ''money for peace'' approach initiated by Joseph Kabila's government. For many years now, Joseph Kabila ( DRC's President) has moved  heaven and earth to protect his ''protégé'', Bosco Ntangada, the dormant leader of M23, despite Joseph Kabila's government claim that Bosco Ntangada has taken refuge in Rwanda. Rwanda has denied it.

At the heart of M23’s discord are two faction leaders: Sultani Makenga (head of M23’s military wing) and Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga (head of the political wing). The split followed an announcement by Makenga that the M23 High Command (its highest military decision-making body) had sacked Runiga, accusing him of receiving $50million from Joseph Kabila's government.

Makenga also accused Runiga of promoting ethnic hatred and attempting to facilitate the return of General Bosco Ntaganda. Also known as ‘the Terminator’, the former head of M23’s military wing is currently wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.

The divisions within M23 have a lengthy and complex history. The movement itself was born out of a mutiny of former members of the rebel group National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). These fighters had been integrated into the Congolese army (FARDC) as part of a peace deal with the government, but broke away in 2012 accusing the Congolese government of reneging on other parts of the March 23, 2009, agreement.

To an extent, the current fragmentation within M23 mirrors divisions within its CNDP precursor. The leader of CNDP had been General Laurent Nkunda. In 2009, Nkunda fell out with military chief Ntaganda when the latter agreed to join the Kinshasa government as part of the 2009 peace deal.

After refusing to sign the agreement with Kinshasa, Nkunda was arrested by Rwandan forces. However, some reports suggest Rwanda had a secret agreement with Joseph Kabila’s government to arrest Nkunda in return for them being permitted to pursue a Rwandan rebel group (the FDLR) across the border into eastern DRC.

Arguably, the current rift between Runiga and Makenga stems from the rivalry between Ntaganda and Nkunda. Runiga and Ntaganda are allies, while Makenga is allied with the incarcerated Nkunda.

But with M23 divided between these splinter groups, it is not clear which faction will continue with the negotiations in stricking the deal with DRC government. While the M23 seemed better organised that the Congolese army in managing to win battles and seize several towns, the rift could change that. And the Congolese government is trying to take advantage of the split.  That's exactly what Joseph Kabila's government has been doing, according to UN's unpublished report.

A very prominent member of the Drc's senate has revealed that Joseph kabila has been trying to play the factions against each other. In early March, Joseph Kabila's government officials secretly met with Bishop Runiga and Bosco Ntangada in Rwanda. And It is believed that both Bishop Runiga and Bosco Ntangada agreed to temporarily end their rebellion, however the only handicap in this plan is ''Sultani Makenga'' who was not included in that ''secret talk''.

Therefore, Sultani Makenga is angered that the political wing of M23 secretly cut the deal with Joseph Kabila's government, sometimes around March 04th, without being included. Now he wants his ''piece of the cake''. The M23 split is not ideological, it is rather a matter of ''money''.  In DRC corruption has become part of the culture to the extent that it is used to create and halt rebellion.

Joseph Kabila's government ''money for peace'' approach is a dangerous one.The Runiga/Ntaganda faction has already raised concerns that signing a deal with Kabila may not yield results, fearing a similar failure to the one that followed the March 2009 agreement.

The truth is that the M23's split is the latest chapter in a long story involving competing mafia-like political and military alliances controlled by leaders in the capitals of Dr-Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, all of whom justify their actions in terms of national security concerns to mask economic and political interests.

Sometimes these competing elites fight each other and sometimes they cooperate for control of lucrative resources such as land, livestock, minerals, and timber.

The opportunity that presents the UN's peace accord, signed in Ethiopia's capital, should not be squandered by leaving the resolution of the conflict solely to these three governments (Rwanda-Uganda and DRC) while ignoring the root causes.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP: DRC's President: Joseph Kabila

ITALY: '' Ida Boccassini'':Berlusconi's under Fearless Prosecutor's radar

For two decades, prosecutor Ilda Boccassini and Silvio Berlusconi have been pitted against one another in Italian courts. Fearless and immune to his attempts to sully her name, she's preparing for a spring showdown with Il Cavaliere.

Many prosecutors have taken on former Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi in court, but none of them have been as persistent or tough as Milan state prosecutor Ilda Boccassini, a 63-year-old mother of two.

The TV stations he owns, along with his newspaper Il Giornale, have devoted themselves to investigative pieces on Boccassini, secretly filming her at the supermarket or revealing her "extravagant" clothing purchases, such as a silk scarf for €300 ($392), or stockings for €21.

They even unearthed a "scandal" from way back in 1982, when the young lawyer was allegedly discovered "exchanging affections" with a youthful journalist in front of the Milan Palace of Justice. Because the journalist wrote for Lotta Continua, a far-left newspaper whose name translates loosely to "the fight goes on," there was an official investigation into the incident. The conclusion was that the incident had nothing to do with Boccassini's job. Still, years later, the account of the woman known as Ilda La Rossa, or "Ilda the Red," was ample fodder to titillate Berlusconi-supporting readers of Il Giornale.

The Naples native, who has had the nickname since her youth because of her red hair, remains unfazed by the campaigns against her. Boccassini knows "no fear," her friends say. She simply ignores much of the abuse, but she has been known to sue in cases of concrete slander.

The latest example was that of her purported mission to "turn the country upside down" and pursue Berlusconi for "political and ideological reasons," accusations for which Il Giornale was found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay Boccassini €100,000 in damages.

Boccassini's idol was Mafia hunter Giovanni Falcone. After the magistrate was killed by a Mafia bomb in 1992, she asked to be transferred to Sicily so she could help to track the killers down. She was there when "boss of the bosses" Toto Riina was convicted. Then came the big Mafia trials, followed by the Mani Pulite, or "clean hands" legal campaign back in Milan, which took on Italy's corrupt political elite.

It was in this way that she eventually stumbled onto a defendant named Berlusconi, who she would come to encounter many times thereafter. Now, she and a colleague are slated to present the prosecutors' case against Berlusconi and plea for a jail sentence for the former Italian leader on charges of abuse of office and soliciting sex from an underage prostitute.

According to the prosecutors, the billionaire regularly held "evening events for the purposes of prostitution." Dinner would be served with "erotic bunga-bunga dances," and for dessert there was sex between male guests (including Berlusconi) and young women who were either paid or provided with lavish gifts. Berlusconi maintains that the case is nonsense, and he has denied ever having slept with Karima el-Marough, who went by the stagename "Ruby the Heartbreaker," and is at the center of the case.

The first verdict in the case is expected within the month, which is poor timing for Berlusconi, given the possibility that Italy's next election campaign could be underway again soon after last month's election left the country in a political deadlock.

But the 76-year-old's political advisors have revealed that he is gaining in polls, which is apparently buoying Berlusconi's hopes politically. Reports are even circulating that Berlusconi would like to see Italians vote again in June. Of course, a conviction on charges surrouding sex with a minor wouldn't exactly help his campaign.

Berlusconi is also expecting to face legal proceedings in other cases. He will likely appeal a march 7 jail sentence issued against him for illegally publishing a wiretapped conversation, an offense most Italians are unlikely to take very seriously. But a corruption investigation underway in Naples could prove more problematic. A former senator there alleges that Berlusconi bribed him with €3 million ($3.9 million) in 2006 to become a member of his People of Freedom (PdL) party, a move that caused the center-left coalition of then-Prime Minister Romano Prodi to collapse.

Worse yet for Berlusconi could be an appeals decision in a trial relating to television rights for his media company Mediaset. In that case, the former prime minister was sentenced to four years in jail in the first instance. A second ruling, which is expected to confirm the first verdict, is likely to be handed down this month. If a third and final appeal in the case were to be rejected before the statute of limitations is up in 2014, it would be catastrophic for Berlusconi's political career. He would be banned from political office for five years.

Prosecutors believe Berlusconi is currently using every procedural trick and ruse he can find to delay the problematic Ruby and Mediaset trials. That isn't surprising given what is at stake. First, he demanded that his court dates be postponed because he was too busy with his political pursuits. When that didn't work, he fell ill. His personal physician told the court last week that an eye infection had rendered him unfit for trial, and he would need a week to recover.

Along with the prosecutors in the Mediaset trial, Ilda Boccassini immediately requested that a court-appointed doctor be allowed to examine Berlusconi. He declared the politician was healthy enough to stand trial, a diagnosis that triggered an absurd protest from Berlusconi's camp.

March had looked like it would be a month of political revitalization for former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Instead, it is turning out to be a month of trials -- and at least one conviction.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist