Sunday, 30 June 2013

U.S.-E.U.: Bugging EU

Initially, the European Commission bowed to US lobbying in early 2012 and scrapped a data protection measure that would have significantly reduced the NSA's ability to spy on Europeans. By weakening the "anti-FISA clause'', a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the measure that was specifically designed to ward off US efforts to eavesdrop on international phone calls and emails, following intense US lobbying, the European Union allowed the US to spy on European Citizens. But the US intelligence service National Security Agency ( NSA) went too far in spying senior European Union representatives in Washington, New York and Brussels.

America's NSA intelligence service allegedly targeted the European Union with its spying activities. According to new information, the US placed bugs in the EU representation in Washington and infiltrated its computer network. Cyber attacks were also perpetrated against Brussels in New York and Washington.

New information shows that America's National Security Agency (NSA) not only conducted online surveillance of European citizens, but also appears to have specifically targeted buildings housing European Union institutions. The information appears in secret documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden. A "top secret" 2010 document describes how the secret service attacked the EU's diplomatic representation in Washington.

The document suggests that in addition to installing bugs in the building in downtown Washington, DC, the European Union representation's computer network was also infiltrated. In this way, the Americans were able to access discussions in EU rooms as well as emails and internal documents on computers.

The attacks on EU institutions show yet another level in the broad scope of the NSA's spying activities. For weeks now, new details about Prism and other surveillance programs have been emerging from what had been compiled by whistleblower Snowden. It has also been revealed that the British intelligence service GCHQ operates a similar program under the name Tempora with which global telephone and Internet connections are monitored.

The documents indicate that the EU representation to the United Nations was attacked in a manner similar to the way surveillance was conducted against its offices in Washington. An NSA document dated September 2010 explicitly names the Europeans as a "location target".

The documents also indicate the US intelligence service was responsible for an electronic eavesdropping operation in Brussels. A little over five years ago, EU security experts noticed several telephone calls that were apparently targeting the remote maintenance system in the Justus Lipsius Building, where the EU Council of Ministers and the European Council are located. The calls were made to numbers that were very similar to the one used for the remote administration of the building's telephone system.

Security officials managed to track the calls to NATO headquarters in the Brussels suburb of Evere. A precise analysis showed that the attacks on the telecommunications system had originated from a building complex separated from the rest of the NATO headquarters that is used by NSA experts.

Now senior European Union officials are outraged by revelations that the US spied on EU representations in Washington and New York. Some have called for a suspension of talks on the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement.

"We need more precise information," said European Parliament President Martin Schulz. "But if it is true, it is a huge scandal. That would mean a huge burden for relations between the EU and the US. We now demand comprehensive information."

''If these revelations are true, then it is abhorrent," said Luxembourgian Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. "It would seem that the secret services have gotten out of control. The US should monitor their own secret services rather than their allies." Asselborn characterized the operation as a breach of trust. "The US justifies everything as being part of the fight against terrorism. But the EU and its diplomats are not terrorists. We need a guarantee from the very highest level that it stops immediately."

Elmar Brok, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in European Parliament added his opprobrium. "The spying has reached dimensions that I didn't think were possible for a democratic country. Such behavior among allies is intolerable." The US, he added, once the land of the free, "is suffering from a security syndrome," added Brok, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats. "They have completely lost all balance. George Orwell is nothing by comparison."

Washington has some explaining to do, it is for its best interests. If these revelations are true European Union might be tempted to open proceedings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The EU might also be temped to suspend negotiations with the US over a free trade agreement. European Union would not like to negotiate over a big trans-Atlantic market if there is the slightest doubt that its partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of its negotiators. The American authorities should eliminate such doubt swiftly.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Friday, 28 June 2013

ECUADOR-U.S.: Diplomatic fall-out

In the latest tit for tat in the controversy over Edward Snowden's asylum application, Ecuador has terminated a trade agreement with Washington. President Rafael Correa will score points for standing up to the US, but some worry sanctions could follow.

Tensions continue to simmer between Washington and Quito over the Edward Snowden affair. After the United States threatened to eliminate special trade benefits with Ecuador, the South American country unilaterally moved on Thursday to terminate a trade benefits deal with the country. A short time later, the US said it would also review trade advantages given to Ecuador.

For Washington, the latest developments are a further setback in the diplomatic nightmare surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been on the run since leaking documents about collossal American and British Internet spying programs to Britain's Guardian newspaper. Washington's threatening gestures come at an opportune time for politicians in Quito.

In Ecuador, few believe that a trade deal in place with the US since 1991 will be extended. Numerous conflicts already existed between the two countries even before the Snowden affair.

In 2009, for example, President Rafael Correa ordered the closure of an American military base on the Ecuadorean coast. It's a move the president made despite the fact that the trade benefits had been quid pro quo for Ecuador working together with the United States to fight drug smuggling.

In 2012, Correa duped Washington yet again by offering Julien Assange political asylum in Ecuador. The WikiLeaks founder then took refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London and has been living there ever since.

Recently, Washington returned the favor with its harsh criticism of Ecuador's suppressive new media law. When American Ambassador Adam Namm visited a protest event against the law in May, Correa grumbled that Namm was a troublemaker who shouldn't be interfering in the affairs of others.

It been clear to the Ecuadorian government for a while that the trade agreement would not be extended. In recent days, politicians have said on the television that if the deal is suspended, the shortfall in revenues could be made up through government subsidies for the export industry. In light of this, it's not surprising that Ecuador reacted so quickly to threats from Washington.

The development does in fact offer some advantages for Quito. It will enable Correa and his supporters to even more assertively present themselves as champions of freedom of opinion. At the press conference Thursday in which Ecuador terminated the trade benefits, Correa's spokesman thumbed its nose even further at Washington by offering the US $23 million a year in aid -- approximately the volume of the savings accrued through the trade benefits -- in order to improve the humanitarian situation in the United States. The funding, spokesman Fernando Alvarado said, could be used to help "avoid violations of privacy, torture and other actions that are denigrating to humanity."

Correa would love nothing better than to position Ecuador as fearless while disparaging the more powerful US.  It has always been very important for Correa to show that he isn't obedient to the US;
And even if he didn't want to, given the current escalation, Correa likely has no other choice politically than to offer Snowden asylum. He would lose face if he decided to reject the application. And even if there had been the possibility of some kind of trade deal between the US and Ecuador, Washington's latest menacing gestures appear to have nixed that opportunity once and for all.

But while Ecuador's leaders may be showing demonstrative strength against Washington, many Ecuadoreans view their actions with concern. They fear that positive economic developments in Ecuador could be imperiled if the US moves to impose sanctions on the country.
 
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

EUROPE: D. Cameron & EU Subsidies

The European Union summit on Thursday night was supposed to be a demonstration of European harmony -- until British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived. He insisted that the UK budget rebate go untouched, launching hours of pointless debate.
 
The British are nothing if not predictable. On Thursday evening, European leaders gathered in Brussels for an EU summit that was supposed to be dedicated to combating the economic crisis that has gripped the Continent. Appallingly high youth unemployment was on the agenda as was help for mid-sized companies in Europe, which have recently experienced difficulty in securing financing.

Controversial issues were nowhere to be found on the list of talking points. Europe wanted to go into the summer break on a harmonious note.

But even before the meeting got started, British Prime Minister David Cameron managed to find conflict where none was wanted. As he arrived in Brussels, he said he was going to focus on defending the so-called UK rebate -- the sum of money Britain gets back from its EU budget contributions due to the limited benefits it receives from European agricultural subsidies.

Other summit participants were less than impressed. Cameron is "never happy" when it comes to the EU budget, complained European Parliament President.

The Cameron offensive was particularly surprising given that the European Council and Parliament on Thursday morning had finally reached an important agreement on the bloc's budget. Following months of at times acrimonious debate among EU member states, a deal was reached on the budget for the years from 2014 to 2020. And it largely reflected the demands made by Britain, namely that it would be capped at €980 billion ($1.28 trillion). Demands for improvements made by the Parliament were largely rejected. All that was left for EU leaders on Thursday night was to give the deal their thumbs up.

But Cameron was able to find something that he didn't approve of. In addition to the budget, the EU also recently reached agreement on a reform to the bloc's agricultural budget and subsidies, a deal which changed the system of calculation used to determine the British rebate, negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984. If the agricultural budget shrinks, so too does the rebate received by London -- and Cameron could easily imagine how that would be received in the euro-skeptic press back home. He insisted that the size of the rebate remain unchanged, as per the deal made at the European budget summit in February.

That, though, was something that French President François Hollande could not accept; the rebate, after all, is essentially financed by Britain's EU partners.

The sums involved in the conflict were relatively miniscule given the amounts often at stake in EU agreements. But both sides in the debate were more concerned with questions of principle and the summit devolved, as so many of them do, into a marathon of cooking the numbers.

In the end, a "satisfactory solution" was found. But many participants were left with the impression that the hours of discussion devoted to the question were little more than a waste of time.

Aside from that debate, however, not much happened in Brussels on Thursday evening. The euro crisis has been quiet for some time. Still, the 27 EU leaders have done the best they could to send a positive message. The €6 billion earmarked for the fight against youth unemployment, for example, is now to be spent by the end of 2015 rather than by 2020 as originally planned. The hope is that a stronger effect will be the result. To further demonstrate that they were taking the issue seriously, leaders also invited labor union and employer representatives.

But European Parliament President Schulz said the measure was "but a drop in the ocean." And he wasn't alone. Both Italy and Spain demanded on Thursday night that more money be made available for the fight against unemployment, but Merkel rejected the request. We can't just keep focusing on "new funds," she said, adding that the money already committed "cannot be disregarded." Together with Hollande, Merkel is to lead a meeting of EU labor ministers and employment agency heads to discuss the best practices in dealing with soft labor markets.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP-British Prime Minister: David Cameron

U.S.: Voting discrimination still exists!!

The United States Supreme Court has spoken. The country's highest court has essentially ruled that racism is a thing of the past in America. Gone are the times when black people were hunted down and lynched, times when Congress had to provide African-Americans with legislative protection, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the greatest achievement of the US civil rights movement.

"Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically," the court wrote in its decision on Tuesday, overturning the key provision of the historical Voting Rights Act, which had been passed in 1965 to help ensure that African-Americans were given equal voting rights in states in the South. They reasoned that "blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare," that "minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels," and that the line separating the racist South from the open-minded North had disappeared. "Our nation has made great strides," Chief Justice John Roberts, born in Buffalo, New York, wrote in the majority decision.
 
But has it? Certainly. The situation today is nowhere near as bad as it was during the bloody 1950s and '60s. And that's been true for a long time. Of course, this became even more evident with Barack Obama's election as president in 2008, a development many heralded as the dawning of a "post-racial" era.

I clearly remember that day. I was there, in the crowd, when Obama stepped onto the stage in Chicago to celebrate his electoral victory. In Boston, bus drivers parked their vehicles in the middle of the streets, partially to join the fun and partially because the nightly crowds had made regular traffic impossible. Obama took his oath of office, and generations of Americans celebrated and wept on the National Mall in DC.

Of course the image of a nationwide sigh of relief is misleading: Like most bipartisan elections, the 2008 campaign wasn’t exactly a landslide (53% to 46% of the popular vote). But it certainly felt like a historic event. To many Americans, 2008 seemed to promise a new, better, more hopeful and more tolerant America. And those who disagreed with Obama’s campaign slogans recognized the symbolic significance of his triumph. 53 years and one month after Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus, the first African-American president moved into the White House. What an achievement for a country whose history cannot be separated from the history of slavery and racial segregation!

For centuries, America’s ideal that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” carried a footnote that limited its promise. No more, it seemed. For America’s psychological constitution, 2008 was an important year.

The truth, however, is that the United States is still grappling with the problem of racism, with discrimination and with the long-term consequences of past slavery in the country. Racism may be less "blatant," as the Supreme Court posits, but it remains latent -- and that's what makes laws like the Voting Rights Act so important.
 
Here are just a few examples of the kind of everyday racism experienced in America -- and there have been quite a few lately:

In Florida, the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, has just begun. His justification in the slaying: Martin had looked suspicious to him when he entered into his gated community. What that actually meant, though, is that a black person didn't belong there -- he couldn't have been up to anything but trouble. "These assholes, they always get away," Zimmerman reportedly told police.
 
And celebrity chef Paula Deen of Georgia, known for her heavy Southern cooking, recently outed herself as a subconscious racist. She admitted that the "n-word" had been part of her casual vernacular and is accused of having suggested plans for a "Gone with the Wind"-style wedding that would have included "a bunch of little niggers" as servers. "Deen has the kind of mind that can look back on America's Holocaust and see nothing but cotillions and hoop skirts," the online magazine Slate writes in an editorial.
 
Meanwhile, in New York, America's most progressive and diverse metropolis, a major dispute has erupted over racial profiling by police. The controversial "stop-and-frisk" program, which allows police to conduct pat downs on the street, is often a discriminatory practice. During the last 10 years, 88 percent of those who were stopped and frisked by police were black or Latino.

Should these examples be considered exceptions or simple anecdotes? By no means. Discrimination still remains deeply and systemically ingrained in US society. And that fact is revealed in the data.

The US is one of the world’s most prosperous nations, and also one of the most unequal. No other Western democracy has to shoulder as much economic inequality as the US, which is wedged between Venezuela and Uruguay in global inequality rankings. And despite countless statistical and anecdotal indicators, most Americans refuse to talk about the elephant in the room.

African-Americans and Latinos comprise a disproportionate share of those in prison -- and on death row. Africans have a 1 in 15 chance of landing behind bars, whereas the chance of Caucasians going to jail are 1 in 106. Prison sentences for blacks are also usually harsher than those for whites -- even when similar crimes are committed, particularly when it comes to drug convictions.

African-Americans are also at an economic disadvantage, earning on average less than white people. Some 27 percent of African-Americans live under the poverty line, compared to just 10 percent of Caucasians.

Progress has come slowly, but the Voting Rights Act was a monumental leap forward. Nevertheless, it still didn't stop local politicians from using every trick in the book to curb the voting rights of African-Americans. They have been purged from registered voter lists, opening hours have been shortened at polling stations, the number of places where one could vote were sharply reduced in some voting districts, and there were mandatory voter ID requirements.

"Voting discrimination still exists," a "deeply disappointed" Obama warned on Tuesday. The Supreme Court's ruling could now give leeway for this type of chicanery. Republicans in Texas have already announced they will try to quickly push through a draconian mandatory ID law that would disproportionately impact the poor and minorities.

Protective laws remain indispensable in the United States, even if the principle of Affirmative Action is slowly starting to appear passé. Even in modern America, it will be some time before racism truly becomes a thing of the past.

Nevertheless the ruling by the Supreme Court in Washington that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which aimed to combat the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, is no longer valid, is indeed a big step forward against voting discrimination.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo Credit: AFP: The U.S. Supreme Court Judges

Thursday, 27 June 2013

RUSSIA-U.S.: Looking for Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden has reportedly been inside the transit terminal of a Moscow airport for days now, but there is no evidence to prove it. As his absence sparks new conspiracy theories, the Kremlin is capitalizing on the case.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has goaded reporters once again. Yes, Edward Snowden is in Moscow, he told them on Tuesday night during a state visit to Finland. And yes, the fugitive whistleblower from the United States remains in the transit area of the Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.

Snowden is a "free man," said Putin, sparking yet another frenzy among journalists in Moscow, who have been scrambling to find Snowden since Sunday. The reporters combed over the bars and fast-food restaurants in the transit zone again, not to mention the benches that stranded passengers stretch out on to rest. They also searched the terminal's "capsule hotel," called V-Express, where Snowden had allegedly checked in.

But there isn't a trace of him -- except, of course, for the steady stream of quotations that the Russian news agency Interfax gets from a mysterious source supposedly "close" to Snowden. The former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), who leaked information about America's massive Prism surveillance program, can't buy a plane ticket because Washington revoked his passport.

Some 48 hours have passed since Snowden's Aeroflot flight from Hong Kong landed in Moscow on Sunday. Journalists say that not a single passenger on that flight can remember seeing him. There are no photos of Snowden in Russia. There are also no known images of him taken at the airport by surveillance cameras -- and there are a lot of cameras there. The information vacuum is being filled by conspiracy theories.

Putin's statements haven't ended speculation, either. If Snowden really is free, why would he stay in the airport terminal so long? Putin also claimed that Russian intelligence officials have had no contact with Snowden. But many observers refuse to believe Moscow is capable of such selfless restraint -- particularly given the fact that Ilya Kostunov, a member of Russia's parliament, said the country's intelligence apparatus must review "whether Snowden has documents that offer insights into cyber-espionage."

And wouldn't snagging Snowden be a feat for Russian intelligence, which just this May detained and expelled an American diplomat on accusations of spying? Snowden's presence in Moscow is like a "king salmon jumping into the lap of a grizzly bear," according to website of the US magazine Time.
The only thing that seems clear is that Snowden traveled to Russia. But, even if that is the case, the transit zone of the Moscow airport is a strange choice of refuge. The length of his stay could mean that his fate -- and his travel route -- are no longer under his control.

Of course, like much surrounding Snowden's case, this is only speculation. Despite the dearth of facts, there are a few possible scenarios. For example, it's likely that Snowden is having problems with his invalidated passport, which makes traveling the world virtually impossible. He could be forced to seek asylum in Russia, an option the Kremlin already floated days ago. But, in return for asylum, Snowden would probably have to share some of his secrets.

This would surely be an unprecedented propaganda coup for Putin, particularly after he scolded Washington and America's powerful intelligence agencies and portrayed himself as the potential protector of a dissident. Snowden's reputation among the Western public would suffer serious damage if he provided valuable information to the Kremlin, whose intelligence services are known for cracking down on both the opposition and human rights activists.

Perhaps Snowden has not flown out of Russia yet because the authorities there have arrested him in the hopes of finding out more details about his treasure trove of secret data.

And there's also a chance that Snowden has not flown out of Russia because Moscow is hesitant to enter into open conflict with Washington. On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry used a markedly less aggressive tone toward Moscow, saying that there was no need to "raise the level of confrontation." The United States, he added, is "simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody." His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had reacted angrily earlier, calling threats from America "absolutely baseless and unacceptable."

Despite the often ostentatious display of diplomatic feuding between Russia and America, the fact is that both countries cooperate on many issues, ranging from the fight against terrorism to Afghanistan. Granted, President Putin has excluded the possibility of handing Snowden over, citing the lack of a legal foundation because the countries do not have an extradition treaty. However, the State Department views the matter differently, noting that recent years have seen the US transfer a number of wanted criminals to Russian authorities.

And, lastly, Moscow might also want offer to hand Snowden over in return for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year sentence in the US.

 No matter what has happened or what its motives have been, the Kremlin has already capitalized from the affair more than one could have anticipated when the disclosures were first made. The pro-government media in Russia, which usually display little affection for dissidents, are suddenly bursting with praise for this 30-year-old American fugitive.

Indeed, the Kremlin's strategy in the Snowden case is clear: to make Russia's own sins pale in comparison to America's misconduct.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

EUROPE: The ''Bail-In'' deal

In the future, European banks, their owners and their creditors will be held accountable should financial institutions collapse -- and not just taxpayers.

European finance ministers on Thursday agreed to a deal that would require owners, creditors and depositors -- in that order -- to cover the expenses of bailing out or winding down failed banks. The reform marks another step towards a euro-zone banking union.

Under the so-called "bail-in" deal, states would only intervene to rescue banks after all other actors, including depositors with more than €100,000 in their accounts, had participated to an extent representing at least 8 percent of total liabilities.

The deal also would require member states to set up "ex-ante resolution funds," that would hold a sum equal to 1.3 percent of a nation's insured bank deposits. The banks themselves would be required to pay into these funds, but payouts in interventions would be cappped at 5 percent of a bank's total liabilities and would require approval from the EU in Brussels.

The ''bail-in'' deal is a major milestone in the European Union to break the vicious link between banks and sovereigns. With the new rules, the 27 EU member-states want to prevent taxpayers from getting stuck with the tab when financial institutions fail, as frequently happened during the recent global financial crisis. The rules aim to lead to more responsible behavior on the part of banks.

The member states will now have to negotiate the new rules with the European Parliament, a process that could take until the end of the year. The deal also provides member states with wide-reaching powers of intervention when financial institutions founder. For example, it would permit smaller banks to be closed in the future under standardized European regulations. The rules on bail-ins would only be applied to larger, systemically relevant banks that are in need of restructuring and are closely interlinked with other banks.

Out of fear of a devastating chain reaction, the EU member states bailed out faltering major banks in 2008 to the tune of hundreds of billions of euros. The first instance in which investors and creditors were forced to make a major contribution was this spring in the bailout of Cyprus. The new EU rules would mark a major shift in policy.
The Brussels meeting was the second after negotiators broke off talks on Saturday after more than 20 hours without a deal. Member-states had pledged to agree to the most important building blocks for a euro-zone banking union by the end of June. They had already agreed on a centralized European banking supervisory authority for the euro zone under the jurisdiction of the European Central bank. With the deal on bank resolution, a further pillar has been erected. But at least one important element -- deposit insurance -- remains to be negotiated.

At the EU summit on Thursday and Friday, European leaders are expected to push for further steps. Next week, the European Commission is to present a draft proposal for a single resolution system for the euro zone that would better integrate national resolution funds financed by the banks. The issue has already been a source of conflict between member states.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

EUROPE: Britain's spying on Germany

Revelations that Britain has been expansively spying on German and European data has deepened a public debate over mass privacy violations. Europeans leaders argue that London and Washington have some explaining to do.
 
Last Friday, London's Guardian newspaper published the contents of leaked documents confirming that Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the American National Security Agency (NSA) have been tapping directly into fiber-optic cables to collect vast stores of information that they can then access as needed. Among these cables was the TAT-14, which carries a large share of data communication in and out of Germany, according to the documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

According to media reports, neither the German government nor the country's foreign intelligence service, the BND, was apparently aware of the British surveillance operation, dubbed "Tempora," which was reportedly made possible with the cooperation of two telecommunications companies: Vodafone and British telecoms giant BT. Vodafone released a statement saying it abides by the laws of the countries in which it operates, but it declined to give further information, citing "national security." BT has refused to comment.

The ongoing surveillance controversy, which began last month following the disclosure of the NSA's Prism program, has been a heated topic in Germany, where the massive state surveillance of Communist East Germany is still present in the memories of many citizens.

The disclosures have spurred public debate about data protection, terrorism and changing notions of privacy in the Internet era. Concerns over the revelations about the NSA's activities threatened to overshadow US President Obama's visit to Berlin last week. And Snowden, the former NSA contractor who is now wanted by the American government on charges of espionage, is viewed almost uniformly here as a hero.

The ''Tempora'' revelation has divided Europe. While some acknowledged the need for a degree of secrecy and surveillance, most insisted that the American and British intelligence agencies had overstepped their boundaries and were infringing on the civil liberties of German and European  citizens.

Many argue that those in power -- not just for moral and ethical reasons, but also for reasons of efficiency -- must step in and do that which they find most difficult: They must exercise moderation and self-discipline. Since Sept. 11, 2001, standards have vanished in the US even as they have been strengthened elsewhere. Such standards have to be reintroduced first and foremost via strict laws that are strong enough to win back trust, but also through parliamentary and public control and a reasonable analysis of costs and benefits.

The hero in this drama is undoubtedly Edward Snowden, this eloquent 30-year-old who is obviously equipped with a fine moral compass, as he has risked his entire future to uncover the activities of these intelligence agencies. The scale of the revelation is to some extent still unclear. First, there is the shocking invasion into the private spheres of billions of people and the abuse of the civil rights of large swaths of the global population. But the question remains under what rules a world is functioning, if every communication can be quite legally monitored on the basis of stricter terrorism laws.

There are three lessons that can be drawn from the Snowden case. America, but also some of its allies, are keeping too much under surveillance, keeping too much secret and they haven't found an appropriate means for dealing with those who expose such excesses. There is something deeply wrong when a whistleblower has to rely on the goodwill of China or Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to find safe haven.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo Credit : AFP-Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)

RUSSIA-U.S.: Edward Snowden's case

Prism informant Edward Snowden isn't planning on staying for long in Russia, but his presence there has been fodder for Moscow's anti-American rhetoric. Snowden is still stranded in transit zone of a Moscow Airport. Snowden now provides Moscow an opportunity to turn the tables. Moscow can present itself as the protector of a whistleblower who challenged America's powerful secret service and won fans around the globe by doing so.

Snowden's presence in Russia as a political refugee, however brief it is likely to be, is like manna from heaven for Moscow's anti-American rhetoric. The Kremlin, while insisting on Monday that it was unaware of any contact between Snowden and Russian authorities, is tired of constantly being lectured by the West on press freedoms and human rights. Finally, on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin clarified the matters regarding the ''whereabouts'' of the Prism informant, Edward Snowden.

“It is true that Snowden has arrived to Moscow, and it really came as a surprise for us. He arrived as a transit passenger, and didn't need a [Russian] visa, or any other documents. As a transit passenger he is entitled to buy a ticket and fly to wherever he wants,” Vladimir Putin said as he spoke to journalists in Finland.

The President also pointed out that there is no extradition treaty between Russia and the US, which makes it impossible to extradite people like Snowden. Washington again requested that Moscow expel Snowden on Tuesday, urging Russia to build upon its bilateral law enforcement cooperation with the US. Putin's refusal to hand back Snowden risked deepening a rift with the United States that has also drawn in China and threatens relations between countries that may be essential in settling global conflicts including the Syrian war.

There are a lot discrepancies in US-Russia accounts. First of all: How Edward Snowden could be staying more than 24 hours on transit zone of a Moscow Airport when Russian law requires travellers who spend more than 24 hours in the airport's transit area - as Snowden has done - to get a transit visa. This begs the question: Is he still there?

Secondly: The Geneva Convention, the body of legislations that regulates the right to seek asylum to foreign lands, for the reasons of fear of persecution on political grounds, stipulates that the asylum seeker must make an asylum claim as soon as he/she arrives to another country, signatory of the Geneva Convention. It is quite ambiguous that Edward Snowden would make a political asylum claim to Ecuador while in a Moscow transit zone. For instance, in the case of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, he fled to Ecuador's embassy in London and made his political asylum claim, within the meaning of the Geneva Convention. This justifies speculation that Snowden is longer at transit zone, he must be at Ecuador's embassy to make a political asylum or he is staying put in Russia.

Thirdly: Washington cannot pressure up Russia to extradite Edward Snowden because there is not an extradition treaty between the two. But also Russia has the right, under the Geneva Convention (Article 1A) to protect the Edward Snowden, for his fear of persecution, torture at the hands of US in any event that he is to be extradited to the US, only if he made an asylum claim in Russia.

Edward Snowden's saga becomes ''a political mambo-jumbo'' that seems to confirm the widespread perception that Russia hopes to profit from Snowden's short/long stay. Russia-American relations are in complicated phase. And when ties are in such phase, when one country undertakes hostile against another, why should the United States expect restraint and understanding from Russia?

China wanted to rid itself of Snowden, who had been staying in Hong Kong prior to flying to Russia, while Moscow has welcomed him comes as no surprise. The Snowden case shows the difference between Chinese and Russian approaches to the US. Beijing shies away from conflict while Moscow welcomes it. This became obvious in 2012 when Russia's state-funded English-language television network Russia Today gave Wikileaks-founder Assange his own talkshow even as Washington had issued a warrant for his arrest.

Moscow's enthusiasm for dissidents and whistleblowers is, however, strictly reserved for critics attacking Western-U.S. governments and their agencies. Journalist and environmentalist Grigory Pasko, who uncovered the fact that Russia's Pacific Fleet was dumping nuclear waste into the ocean, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2001 on charges of treason and espionage.

As a result, the number of whistleblowers in the country is limited. In 2011, narcotics officer Alexey Dymovsky was sent to prison for 42 days after revealing corruption within the Russian police force via YouTube. In early 2011, court clerk Natalia Vasilyeva revealed that the judge in the second trial against oligarch and Putin-critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky had not written the verdict himself, but had merely followed orders from above.

The situation for whistleblowers has not improved since then. At the end of 2012, the Duma strengthened laws for treason. According to the new law, Russians who work together with an international organization face up to four years in prison should that organization be seen as being engaged in "activities contrary to Russian security.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP: Edward Snowden speaking at Hong Kong

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

AFRICA: Obama's second trip

Starting Wednesday, US President Barack Obama will visit Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania on what will be his second trip to the continent as president. The White House says that trade and investment and the economic opportunities on the continent are going to be an important part of the agenda; also democracy and democratic institution-building. According to aides, Obama will also put significant emphasis on supporting growing democracies in each of the three countries.

In addition to bilateral meetings with political leaders in the three countries, Obama will participate in events with private sector leaders. Development issues will play a key role, particularly regarding food security.

Obama has been criticised for paying relatively little attention to Africa during his presidency. His first and only trip to the continent lasted less than 24 hours.

Early in his first administration, Obama visited Ghana in July 2009. The speech he gave in Accra has few specific pledges other than a promise to cut down on funding American consultants and administrators. Instead, President Obama's Ghana trip was mostly about symbolism, offering an effective backdrop for a sharp critique of corruption and repression on the continent, and advocating home-grown governance and stronger institutions and remedies. Ghana was chosen to illustrate an African country that enjoys political pluralism and a growing economy.

However, there were highlights during Obama's first term: Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State made Africa diplomatic priority, visiting 23 African states out of 54; the 2011 referendum and then the independence of South Sudan; the changing fortunes of Somalia and discreet mediation efforts by key officials in Malawi, Guinea, Senegal, are all examples of what US good offices can achieve.

The $ 3.5 billion African food security initiative of the Obama's administration had impact and the African Growth and Opportunity Act, enacted under the Clinton administration, has increased US trade with Africa. It is due for renewal by 2015 but early action on this would be a positive statement of America's desire to deepen trade partnerships with Africa.

There were also disappointments: slowness of appointments to key Africa jobs, such as no permanent assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development for Africa until 2012 and a US strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa was not released till June 2012; hardly the signal that Africa was an Obama administration priority.

Hopefully for Obama's second trip, African expectations are more realistic. Symbolism plays a role again: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania are important democratic US partners. Obama will not be visiting the continent most unstable countries: Somalia, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo. Some observers argue that the instability in these parts of Africa is due in part to U.S. support of authoritarian regimes. Kenya and Nigeria are also omitted in Obama's second trip in the continent. In the case of Kenya, it would be a ''political faux pas'' for a U.S. President to visit an African President under the radar of the International Criminal Court. But it is not sure why Nigeria is left out.

Nevertheless, If the U.S wants to be in step with the 21st century and centuries to come, it needs to pay attention to Africa. Obama's second trip to the continent should not be a light-hearted and easy trip. It should not be about economics and investing, because there are more serious issues that need to be addressed.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

ITALY: Berlusconi's case: Sex & Politics

The court sentenced Berlusconi to seven years in prison -- one year more than the prosecutors had asked for -- for soliciting prostitution with a minor and abuse of power, and imposed a lifetime ban on holding public office.

Of course, at this point Berlusconi won't have to worry about going to prison. In Italy, convicted criminals who are over 70 are not required to serve time. Besides, today's judgment was handed down by a trial court and is not legally binding if an appeal is filed, which Berlusconi's chief attorney promptly announced he intended to do. This means that the case would go to two other courts before a final verdict is issued. And by the time those courts have ruled, a guilty verdict will have no direct consequences.

However, the media czar and three-time prime minister is likely to be more concerned about another verdict that could be issued by this fall, by a court of last resort, in a case involving tax fraud with his company, Mediaset. In that case, Berlusconi could face a mandatory prison term, as in today's Ruby judgment, but also a fatal "secondary penalty," provided the court of cassation upholds the lower-court verdicts: exclusion from all public offices, or a de facto ban on engaging in political activity.

That is Berlusconi's worst-case scenario. The disgrace would be painful enough, spelling the humiliating end of what he sees as a glorious career. But a forced departure from the political stage would also make him powerless against, and therefore vulnerable to legal investigations by the courts, which, as he argues, are misusing the law as a "weapon of political combat."

Berlusconi's version sounds almost touching. He was having dinner with a dozen young women at his villa in Arcore, near Milan, listening to one of them tell the "painful story" of her young life. "I was moved," says "Papi" Berlusconi, as the girls call him. He claims that he gave poor little "Ruby" money so that she would no longer have to prostitute herself -- several tens of thousands of euros for a beauty salon. Was there sex involved? "No, never," Berlusconi claims, and "Ruby" confirms his story.

There are also versions of the second part of the story. When Ruby was arrested on theft charges on May 27, 2010, about three months after her debut in Arcore, the benevolent "Papi" came to her aid once again. This time it was for the good of Italy. Although he was on a state visit in France, he called the chief of staff of the Milan police chief, who was already in bed, at 11 p.m. "The prime minister told," the chief of staff later told investigators, "that we had a girl from North Africa in our custody who was Mubarak's granddaughter, and that a member of parliament, Ms. Minetti, would take care of her."

Berlusconi said that he had stepped in because he had truly believed, at the time, that Ruby was the granddaughter of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "I asked for information, because I was worried about a situation that could have led to a diplomatic affair," he claimed. But the court disagreed, saying that he had in fact had the girl taken out of police custody so that she would not reveal anything about his "Bunga Bunga" experiences to the Milan officers.

The politician accused the three Milan judges of persecuting him. "I intend to oppose this persecution, because I am absolutely innocent, and I do not intend to give up my fight to make Italy a truly free and just country."

A ban on holding public office by the court of cassation would have to be confirmed by the Senate -- the second chamber of the Italian parliament, in which Berlusconi has a seat -- in a secret vote. This would office a good opportunity for a sufficient number of leftist senators to anonymously vote "no," thereby saving Berlusconi, as the former prime minister's emissaries have intimated to the coalition partners. Otherwise Berlusconi's party would bring down the coalition government, so that new elections would be necessary.

Although many Italians may still find Berlusconi's "Bunga Bunga" parties amusing, they are more likely to find his dealings with underage prostitutes disgusting or even criminal, and some could very well turn their backs on their hero. Berlusconi's most loyal followers, women, could be especially repelled by the Ruby affair. But if Berlusconi's election prospects decline, his threat of new elections will come to nothing.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP: Sylvio Berlusconi

Friday, 21 June 2013

GREECE: The straw that broke the camel's back

The government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras lost a coalition partner on Friday after a week of late night negotiations over the future of state broadcaster ERT. Samaras is left with but a razor-thin majority in parliament, threatening his reform drive. The announcement was made by Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis. He said he was left with little choice following the government's abrupt closure last week of the state broadcaster ERT.

Last June, Antonis Samaras was sworn in as Greek prime minister, the head of a three-party coalition tasked with knitting together a divided society and repairing his country's broken economy. Now, exactly one year later, that coalition officially belongs to the past. On Friday, the Democratic Left said it was withdrawing its ministers from the cabinet and would only provide qualified support to the government from here on out.

The departure of the Democratic Left means that Samaras will now be forced to govern with an extremely narrow majority in the 300-member parliament. His conservative New Democracy party has 125 delegates who are joined by their 28 socialist coalition partners from PASOK. The government can also count on the support of some independent deputies.

As such, the catastrophic scenario of snap elections during the crucial summer tourism season -- which had seemed almost inevitable last week -- has been avoided. In a televised statement late on Thursday night, Samaras insisted his government would serve its full four-year term. "Our aim is to conclude our effort to save the country," he said.

Pressure to avoid new elections in Greece had been high, both from within and without. Indeed, that pressure played a major role in an emergency coalition meeting on Monday night which ended with the three-party coalition still intact. Kouvelis' sudden change of heart on Friday did nothing to lessen the desire to avoid snap elections.

In addition, the parties themselves had little to gain from a new vote, particularly PASOK. The leftist party has dominated Greek politics for much of the last two decades, but it is currently polling around 6 percent, having lost massive support due to its association with the Greek debt crisis.

But Athens had also received clear messages from European capitals and the International Monetary Fund that any electoral adventure now could jeopardize further funding. The IMF warned on Thursday that the regularly scheduled inspection of Greece by its creditors, which was suspended earlier this week in consideration of political developments, needs to be completed by the end of July as planned if the country is to avoid any funding disruptions.

Still, there are worries among the troika -- made up of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF -- that the nation is entering a new phase of political instability. That, they fear, could slow the pace of reform and weaken adherence to the austerity measures which Athens agreed to as a precondition for funding.

The Democratic Left held two ministerial posts in the Samaras government. One, Antonis Manitakis, had been in charge of the sensitive Interior Ministry, responsible for overseeing the layoff of a total of 4,000 public servants by the end of the year. Greece's creditors have often expressed dismay at the slow pace of the implementation of the measure by Manitakis, a law professor who publicly resisted the idea of public sector layoffs.

Samaras is expected to proceed with a cabinet reshuffle immediately. His new government will include more PASOK members, perhaps even party leader Evangelos Venizelos as deputy prime minister. Samaras has been advised to then ask for a parliamentary vote of confidence in parliament, which could reinforce the stability of his government.

The Greek government fell into disarray when Samaras unilaterally decided to shut down ERT and fire its entire staff of 2,700 to prove to his domestic and foreign audiences that his reform drive remains strong. By not consulting with his partners, however, he provoked an outcry among his allies and Greek trade unions and in European capitals. A court ruling, yet to be implemented, has ordered the government to immediately resume public broadcasting. The three coalition leaders met three times over the past week to overcome the stalemate.

Last night, Samaras and Venizelos finally agreed on a plan to hire back 2,000 ERT staffers with 3-month contracts, who will operate the broadcaster until the new, slimmed-down version is in place.
But Kouvelis of the Democratic Left rejected the plan and insisted on the immediate reopening of ERT as it was. He said the reopening of the broadcaster was "fundamentally an issue of democracy."
ERT reporters are planning on resisting the Samaras plan to hire some of them back on temporary contracts and insist that it reopen as it was before it was suddenly taken of the airwaves. Bootleg ERT programming continues over the Internet.

Analysts agree that the ERT issue was simply the straw that broke the camel's back and that sooner or later the Democratic Left party would have backed out of the coalition anyway. Otherwise, it risked being destroyed by the new wave of austerity measures and unpopular reforms Greece will have to swallow in the months ahead.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

BRAZIL: Change of Brazil Protest

To the world, Brazil stands for lightness, cheerfulness, beaches and the Seleção. What the politicians have done from their lofty vantage has long played not much of a role in the lives of the people. The economic recovery of recent years has strengthened the middle class. The students from this class are no longer satisfied with fun and football. They want a political voice and to fight the corruption that is so omnipresent.

The protest began ten days ago, when the Free Pass Movement mobilized against increases in bus fares in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Natal (a northeastern coastal city), and Goiânia (in the country’s interior, near Brasília). The demonstrations began mostly peacefully, with not much more than some burning tires and impromptu roadblocks, but they took a violent turn after the São Paulo police overreacted and sprayed tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. Over the next few days, the movement expanded to more cities and became more confrontational.

Now all of Brazil is in revolt, with the country seeing its largest demonstrations in 20 years. In fact, Brazil was no stranger to protest before 2013, either. For the past three decades, the country has experienced regular cycles of street activity. Three decades ago, a million people demanded direct elections. Two decades ago, well over a million successfully marched to demand the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello for corruption. And one decade ago, protests approximately the size of the ones today spread across Brazil’s cities in response to the country’s participation in negotiations meant to create the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. In between, there were many smaller protests, strikes, and land occupations. What most of these past demonstrations had in common was that they were coordinated by the PT, which is the party now in power but today protest is about the people.

Since Brazil became democratic in 1985, its governments tended to respond with at least some concessions to specific demands. Last week The Free Pass Movement agreed to meet with both city and state officials, and all sides promised more restraint. To be sure, the government might have been wise to give in on bus fares earlier this month to head off what followed. But if that might have worked a few weeks ago, it certainly will not suffice today.

The demonstrations have only grown in size over the last couple of days, and demands have multiplied. The Free Pass Movement, for its part, has disavowed its leadership of the protests, insisting that it just wanted to call attention to high bus fares. No longer just about transportation costs, the protests now target endemic corruption, the poor quality of education and health services, excessive spending on sporting events such as the current Confederations Cup and the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, urban violence, violence against women, the removal of local politicians, police brutality, and much more.

Seeking to put the protests into context, many commentators, and many of the young protesters, have claimed that such an uprising is uncommon in Brazil. But this year, unrest has been the rule rather than the exception. When the government announced plans to privatize Brazilian ports in February, weeks of strikes and protests gained some concessions for unions, but privatization is proceeding.

Indigenous groups have been mobilized for weeks against proposed legislation that would change land demarcation. One indigenous man was killed in confrontations with security forces at the end of May. Another government proposal to reduce the investigative power of Brazil’s Public Ministry, a very active body of public prosecutors who defend collective rights, has led to a petition drive with nearly 400,000 signatures to stop it. The construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon -- which, if completed, would be the world’s third largest hydroelectric plant -- has been stopped regularly by labor unrest, indigenous opposition, and the Public Ministry. In São Paulo, university students have been sparring with the police for several years now.

The cacophony of voices is as problematic for the protesters as for the politicians. Political crisis, corruption and economical reforms cannot be achieved over night. Protesters would have, in some point, trust the government willingness to address these issues now. Politicians also must bear in mind that people of Brazil, seeing what it is going on around the world ( Arab Spring, Occupy the world movement, Gezi park protest in Turkey, Occupy Wall Street movement) will not be intimidated by more police brutality.

It would be pretentious for politicians to even think that they do understand what is going on. These are new forms of mobilization that politicians, of the generation of the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, have not known. Unless they can find a common cause and articulate it together, the energy of the protests will be hard to maintain and no government response will be adequate.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP

Thursday, 20 June 2013

JAPAN: Abenomics & Reforms

The impact on Japan of the new economic policies advocated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since his election in December 2012 has been considerable. Confidence in the economy has returned, the stock market has soared and foreign companies are keen to invest in Japan since the advent of what has become known as ‘Abenomics’.

But observers say that the only way that the Keynesian-style stimulation policies of massive monetary easing and debt-fuelled projects will benefit the country in the long run is if the government undertakes substantial structural reforms.

Mr Abe has slowly begun to work on these reforms. There is broad consensus among business executives and economists over what Japan needs to do. Key imperatives include: deregulation; free trade and investment; 21st-century style education; and active global integration;  His boldest step so far has been Japan’s participation in the free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In mid-April 2013, Mr Abe went further and outlined three areas of structural reform: cultivating an internationally competitive healthcare sector with an emphasis on regenerative medicine; neutralising the impact of bad demographics by improving labour mobility and opening doors for everyone who wants to work, especially women; and creating special deregulated zones to attract talent and capital to three key cities, Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

Japan spends about US$375 billion on healthcare each year. Medical services are almost entirely performed by domestic institutions, but cutting-edge medical devices and drugs are imported from the United States and Europe.

Japan’s trade deficit in the medical sector is about US$20 billion. Mr Abe wants to change that by helping Japanese pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers become more competitive and export-orientated. The key area is regenerative medicine based on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which can be re-engineered into other cell types. Japan is a global leader in regenerative research, but has been slow to capitalise on its advanced position.

Mr Abe has been extremely cautious about opening up the labour market. Lifetime employment for men at public institutions or major companies is a basic fabric of social life in Japan, so any change to the status quo is a thorny issue. But Mr Abe has promoted the idea of giving more opportunities to women in what has been dubbed ‘womenomics’.

Mr Abe has suggested extending maternity leave – now limited to 18 months – to three years. He has also asked business leaders to offer mothers more paid leave on a voluntary basis. The implementation of the proposed structural reforms depends mostly on two factors: the continuation of a feel-good economic environment domestically and geopolitical stability in East Asia.

The continuation of the feel-good factor in Japan depends on the belief of markets that Japan can manage its debt. If this belief diminishes and interest rates increase to the same level as in southern Europe in 2010-2011, the chances of reform are almost certainly over.

The second factor – on regional stability - is that although Japan has no control over North Korea, it can improve its relationships with regional key players such as China, South Korea and Russia.
Mr Abe’s record on foreign relations so far is mixed. He appears to be testing the water rather than executing a clear and far-sighted geopolitical strategy.

If Japan’s feel-good economic environment continues domestically and there is geopolitical stability in East Asia, Mr Abe has a chance to follow in former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s footsteps and establish a stable government with a strong economic agenda for four or more years.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AP

RUSSIA-US: Obama's disarmament initiative

 It's a nearly inconceivable scenario for the Kremlin to think of a world without nuclear weapon, even if its arsenal costs Russia billions each year. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the country has suffered a major drop in influence. Now it's doing all it can to cling to the geopolitical power it has left.
 
Months ago, the White House sent emissaries to Moscow to try to present Obama's disarmament initiative to the Kremlin. It was just back in 2010, when Obama and Russia's then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, signed the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. The agreement obliges the United States to reduce the number of its warheads to 1,550 within the next seven years, while its number of carrier systems is to be halved to a maximum of 800. Moscow currently still has about 8,500 warheads, while Washington maintains 7,700.
 
Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, was driven close to the brink by the Russians at the Munich Security Conference in February. Biden spoke with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about possibilities of further disarmament, but the subject was quickly pushed to the side. Then Obama sent Rose Gottemoeller, an assistant secretary of state responsible for arms control and international security, to Moscow to engage in talks.
 
Obama's disarmament initiative, which was celebrated during his speech in Berlin on Wednesday, has been met with little enthusiasm in political backrooms in Moscow. During the Gottemoeller talk efforts, Russian defense experts were already pointing out the "monstrous military imbalance" between the US and Russia. In other words, Russia dislikes the disarmament plans because nuclear weapons are one area in which the Kremlin still sees itself as being on a par with Washington. Russia's military is in the midst of a lengthy reform, and its conventional forces are years behind the US military and those of many other NATO countries.
 
In Moscow, reactions to the Berlin speech have been cooler. "It's necessary to bring other countries that possess nuclear weapons into the process," Putin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters in Moscow. It was a reference in particular to China, Russia's large, dynamic neighbor. Putin himself offered even clearer words, saying the balance of strategic deterrents in the world must be preserved.
 
It's still accepted wisdom within the Russian establishment that nuclear weapons are the true guarantor of peace. But behind this assumption, the interests of the Russian defense industry shine through. By 2020, Russia's missile forces are to be equipped with a new version of the Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile that is supposed to be able to overcome US systems designed to shoot such weapons down. Were they to agree on total disarmament, this system would be almost superfluous.

The Russian economy is growing, but it is still underdeveloped compared with those of the European Union, China and the US. Up until a few years ago, the Kremlin sought to substantiate its geopolitical ambitions with its massive oil and gas exports. Since then, though, Moscow has been forced to recognize that it is just as reliant on revenues from those exports as Europe is on the deliveries. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow's global influence has eroded massively. Indeed, its only remaining claims to major power status are its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and its nuclear arsenal.

It will be difficult for the White House to get the Russians on board. The concessions the Kremlin would likely demand could be so extensive that Washington simply couldn't accept them. One idea circulating would be for the US to abandon entirely the missile defense system it wants to deploy against Iran but which Russia perceives as a threat.

The Russians could also demand that Washington repeal the so-called Magnitsky Act. The legislation, which Obama signed into law last December, prohibits Russian government officials believed to be connected to human rights violations from entering the US or using its banking system.
For the proposed cooperation to go forward, it appears a miracle would be needed, or at the very least, a negotiating partner on the Russian side who would push aside power ambitions for a moment and accept a vision of a world without nuclear bombs.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP

AFGHANISTAN-US: Talking to Talibans

Tensions over the Taliban's new political office in Qatar have thrown planned talks between the Afghan anti-government group and the US into disarray.
 
The United States was racing to gather up the pieces of its always fragile relationship with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan after he broke off security talks with Washington and denounced plans for the start of peace negotiations with the Taliban.

The sudden diplomatic pushback from Kabul came a day after the White House heralded the “milestone” opening of a Taliban office in Doha as the venue for the first US-Taliban talks due to start today. The intention was for those conversations to be followed as soon as possible by the first contacts between the Taliban officials and Afghan government representatives.

Talks between the US and Taliban were in disarray last night before they could begin as Washington scrambled to placate fury from Hamid Karzai that the insurgents had been handed a propaganda coup. It appeared that the US had taken a calculated risk in the way it announced the peace process, knowing some aspects would grate with Kabul.

Mr Karzai puts an immediate chill on the talks, which have remained a key component of American strategy in trying to pull away from its commitments in Afghanistan. Kabul laid down new conditions for participating, including that they become a purely Afghan process, which implied moving the venue from Qatar to Afghanistan, and that the Taliban renounce the use of violence.

As Afghanistan’s democratically elected president, Mr Karzai might at the very least expect to be involved in any discussions relating to his country’s future. He is also within his rights to object to the Taliban naming their office in Qatar, where the negotiations supposed to take place, as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.

But Obama’s desperation to reach a deal with the Taliban before the last American combat troops return home next year, can push him to go to the most extraordinary lengths to tempt them to the negotiating table – even if it means alienating a key White House ally. Mr Obama, in his desperation to get a deal, might be prepared to make a number of painful concessions.

The meeting was expected to take place in Doha today but the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has said his government will not be attending any talks. But a spokesman for the Taliban confirmed the first conversations with American officials, at low level, would begin as envisaged today. It is still unclear whether the Taliban peace talks would go ahead as planned.

The US team had meanwhile already had informal consultations with Afghan government diplomats in Qatar. Casting an additional shadow was news of a rocket attack by Taliban militants on the Bagram airbase near Kabul that killed four American soldiers.

Expectations are low that the talks will deliver a political settlement of the sort that was hoped for when the first overtures were made to the insurgents five years ago. There were too many cooks, and not enough strategic direction. The whole process has been too secretive. The chances of a last minute political breakthrough are slim and in many ways it reminds us of the experience of the Soviet Union trying to negotiate itself out of Afghanistan.

The Russians failed and saw their appointed government toppled after their departure in a bitter civil war. The Afghan armed forces are now thought to be more durable than those left in charge in 1989, but will be exposed by exit of Nato forces that at their peak numbered 144,000.

In making significant concessions to get to the negotiating table, Washington has limited its aims to those it started out with when it entered the country in 2001 to punish the Taliban for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden.  The US is back to its basic reason for being in Afghanistan, which is stopping al-Qaeda. Winning hearts and minds has gone, counter-insurgency has gone. This is now a containment exercise.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

GERMANY-US: Obama's Soft Totalitarianism

On Tuesday, Barack Obama visited Germany.  He is the 44th president of the United States. He is the first African American to hold the office. He is an intelligent lawyer. And he is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. But the revelations brought to Germans by IT expert Edward Snowden have made certain what paranoid computer geeks and left-wing conspiracy theorists have long claimed: that we are being watched. All the time and everywhere. And it is the Americans who are doing the watching.

It was embarrassing: Barack Obama visits Berlin twice, but his second visit happens just when Germans are learning that the US president is a snoop on a colossal scale. It was evidently hard for Germans elite to ignore the damage caused by the ''Prism scandal''. German leaders have seemed eager to ensure that their concerns about the digital spying operation be taken seriously. Several have blasted both Obama and the National Security Agency.

Angela Merkel too voiced careful criticism of the program during the pair's joint press conference at the Chancellery. She made sure to emphasize that Germany had received important intelligence from the US which played a role in thwarting planned terrorist activity in Germany. But, she added: "I made clear that, despite the necessity, the issue of balance is an important one."

Obama was ready for questions about the Prism program, which has been likened in both the US and German press to George Orwell's "Big Brother," made famous in his novel "1984." Rather than trying to dodge reporters' queries, he took time to defend the program and explain its importance for US security. At the press conference, Obama also fielded difficult questions about some additional elements of US foreign and domestic policy that many in Germany and in Europe find problematic, including Washington's policy of using drones to hunt down suspected terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, and the on-going existence of the Guantanamo detention camp.

What, exactly, is the purpose of the National Security Agency? Security, as its name might suggest? No matter in what system or to what purpose: A monitored human being is not a free human being. And every state that systematically contravenes human rights, even in the alleged service of security, is acting criminally.

Those who believed that drone attacks in Pakistan or the camp at Guantanamo were merely regrettable events at the end of the world should stop to reflect. Those who still believed that the torture at Abu Ghraib or that the waterboarding in CIA prisons had nothing to do with them, are now changing their views. Those who thought that we are on the good side and that it is others who are stomping all over human rights are now opening their eyes. A regime is ruling in the United States today that acts in totalitarian ways when it comes to its claim to total control. Soft totalitarianism is still totalitarianism.

From the Chancellery, Obama moved on to the highlight of his visit, a keynote speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Here too, though, the president was dogged by history. Presidential speeches in Berlin have become known for their inspired oration, celebrations of freedom and pleas for peace. John F. Kennedy is beloved in the German capital for his 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. Ronald Reagan demanded of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 that he "tear down this wall." And Bill Clinton, in 1994, hailed East Germans, saying they had "turned your dreams of a better life into the chisels of liberty."

Obama added himself to the list in July 2008 in his speech at the Victory Column, just down the street from the Brandenburg Gate, as a presidential candidate. "This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom."

His speech on Wednesday was a clear effort to continue the tradition. Obama praised Berlin as a symbol of freedom and the fight against tyranny. Of the wall which once cut off the very place where he stood, he said "no wall can stand against the yearning for justice, the yearning for freedom, the yearning for peace that burns in the human heart." He then made the surprise policy pitch that had already leaked to the media on Wednesday morning: that of seeking to further reduce the US and Russian arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons.

Obama is a gifted orator. But it remains to be seen whether the president's impassioned words in front of Berlin's pre-eminent Cold War symbol will be enough to assuage deep German disappointment over the fact that Obama has failed to live up to expectations.

Germans say that there are two Obamas: The ''Obama-Hope'', referring to his slogan during the presidential campaign in 2008 and  the ''Obama-Drone'', referring to his policy of using ''drones attacks'' against extremists, terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a numerous civilian deaths as result. German are less impressed by the latter ''Obama'' and his visit to Berlin has not changed their minds at all. Many in Germany are left with the impression that Obama's second visit to berlin was '' another show of America Imperialism and Obama's soft Totalitarianism. Indeed Obama's second visit to Berlin was overshadowed by the ''Prism Scandal'' and his ''Drones Policy''.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP

SAUDI- ARABIA: Inside A New Saudi Arabia

The House of Saud appears stable amid the turmoil across the Middle East. But tensions still simmer below the surface. The youth are agitating for change, economic instability looms, and the kingdom will be influenced by the storms brewing around it. The royal family’s current strategy of using co-optive and repressive techniques to hold onto power will not always be enough to limit the population’s calls for change.

The agenda is increasingly being set by the youth who are actively going into the streets and organizing through social media. This is particularly evident in the Eastern Province, where youthful protests have seized the momentum from older activists, intellectuals, and clerics who led the movement in the 1990s.

The younger generation believes that its older counterparts have essentially been co-opted by the regime and argues for more incremental change, participation in the national dialogue, and working through the system. The youth question the achievements of this approach. Across the country, but in the east in particular, they are testing the bounds of what is permitted in terms of discourse and are accessing information that the state is unable to regulate. And they will be a major factor in shaping the country’s future.

The dynamic is greatly impacted by Saudis’ increased access to higher education—at home and abroad. During the 1990s and 2000s there was the massive push to send youth abroad on scholarships. They are now coming back with new ideas and new expectations but are finding a country that cannot accommodate them. The types of degrees that are being awarded in Saudi Arabia are not allowing graduates to compete in the private sector or the global economy.

The question is when the country will reach a point at which the youth can pose a real challenge to the regime. Youth activists say that it will take another five to ten years for this movement to mature.
It’s also unclear at this point what changes an organized youth movement would push for.

For its part, the regime cleverly plays the Iran card in the east, claiming young Shia protesters are beholden to Tehran and unrest is a sign of foreign meddling. But this is not the case. The youth rising up have more in common with the crowds in Egypt’s Tahrir Square or Tunis than with Iranian-backed groups. They have in many ways moved beyond religious ideology to talk about bread and butter issues.

Sectarian tensions have ebbed and flowed, depending on the regime’s policies and regional events. Currently, it is a mixed picture.

The regime has improved its efforts to curtail sectarian attacks in official media, and sectarianism is mentioned less in the media and in statements by clerics. Social media has facilitated increased contact between Shia reformists and Sunni reformists. But at the same time, sectarianism has risen to the fore because of the escalating civil war in Syria, events in Iraq, and, most importantly, the structural discrimination that is built into the Saudi state.

In a regime that sustains itself through a symbiotic relationship with Sunni Salafism, the Shia feel marginalized, complaining that they are excluded from key ministries and some of the state’s religious establishments. They frame their demands in terms of dignity; they call for Saudi Arabia to be for all people rather than a state defined in narrow religious terms in accordance with Sunni doctrine. Many Shia recognize that there are some currents of the royal family that want to resolve this issue but are hamstrung by opposition from the Salafi establishment.

The human rights situation in the country remains dire by any objective measure. But with the advent of social media, the real truth is becoming increasingly transparent to Saudis. This is particularly the case with political prisoners. Saudis are increasingly debating their government’s behavior and old limits on criticizing the royal family are being breached. They are questioning whether the religious establishment should have a stranglehold over the country’s judiciary and legal process. And some high-profile incidents are sparking debate.

The incredibly harsh—even by Saudi standards—sentencing of two prominent and outspoken human rights and political activists in March triggered a bombshell statement by the most popular cleric in the kingdom, Salman al-Odah. His explicit calls for reform directed squarely at the royal family broke taboos and electrified Saudis. Al-Odah is seen as a galvanizing figure with over 2.6 million Twitter followers. Among some Shia activists in the east, he has been regarded as a potential bridge builder since he moderated his sectarian discourse and started using terms like democracy during the Egyptian uprising.

This is worrisome to the regime, because its entire strategy has been designed to initiate calibrated, largely cosmetic reforms while keeping the opposition divided to play different factions off of one another.

On women’s rights, there is some room for guarded optimism. Women have been appointed to the Shura Council, the legislative advisory body, for the first time. But it’s a symbolic move, and King Abdullah took that step in the face of opposition from religious conservatives. Women are increasingly educated and frequently at the forefront of protests but suffer from high unemployment rates and still don’t have the right to drive, which comes along with a whole cascade of profound and severe economic ramifications.

People of course have been predicting the fall of the House of Saud for quite some time, but the regime can still effectively employ its twin strategy of co-option and repression. The question is how long this will last. The time for buying off dissent through grants and subsidies is running out.

Today, the royal family benefits from the absence of any alternative movement, the sheer geographic scope of the country, and the diversity of discontent. It has been opportunistically pushing the narrative that while there are rumblings of dissent, the possible alternatives to the existing regime are far worse—a conservative Islamist country or the fracturing of the state.

There will be a major shift in leadership with the emergence of the second generation of princes. But this is unlikely to create major destabilization. More pragmatic leaders could gain positions of influence, and it may lead to a bigger opening of the system with greater competition among factions causing them to form political alliances with reformists.

And the regime has skillfully exploited what’s going on in the region to solidify its control in Saudi Arabia. The Iraq war and its aftermath were used to depict how moving down the path toward democracy too quickly can create major problems. It is doing the same with Syria now. One Saudi activist told me that the Syrian war has effectively delayed the Arab Awakening inside Saudi Arabia for one to two years as people don’t want to go down the path of reform for fear of internal chaos.

Saudi rulers are alarmed by the turmoil in the region. This feeling is reflected in the term used to define the last few years: Arab troubles as opposed to Arab Awakening or Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia often views the uprisings through the lens of its relationship with the United States. The regime is watching Washington’s reactions and policies very carefully.

Some have argued that the Saudis are pursuing a counterrevolutionary approach, but that’s not entirely accurate. Certainly in Bahrain, Riyadh is trying to prevent the Arab Spring’s arrival on the peninsula, but the unrest in Syria is seen more as an opportunity, guided by realist, balance-of-power calculations.

The Saudi government views Syria as a zero-sum game with Iran and is providing support and arms to the opposition. The Saudis are worried about ensuring the post-Assad order is conducive to their interests and concerned that a civil war could actually allow Iran’s influence to grow. Much of their involvement is also a function of their long-standing competition with Qatar, which is providing support to the opposition.

Beyond Syria, the Saudis are concerned about an Iranian nuclear program, but they are actually more worried about a potential rapprochement with the United States that sidelines Riyadh. While this seems like a distant possibility at best, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Tehran to replace Riyadh as Washington’s principle partner in the Gulf.

There is also a real fear of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are historic rivals for Arab leadership, and an Islamist-dominated government in Egypt presents an alternate system that differs drastically from the Saudi model. The Shia menace was thought to be the big threat to the Saudis for quite a while. But now the main threat is thought to be the Brotherhood menace.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst