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Join A Terrorist Group, Lose Your Citizenship

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Governments around the world seeking to strengthen their defenses against terrorism are threatening to revoke the citizenship of those joining the Islamic State or other militant groups training in the Middle East for global jihad.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday became the latest leader to call for stripping those defecting to extremism of their passports. He joins French President Francois Hollande and leaders in Belgium, Norway, Australia, Britain and Canada in proposing sweeping changes to constitutional protections to prevent those radicalized from returning to wage attacks in their Western home states.

The calls for depriving militants of citizenship have multiplied after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris and the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula — both actions claimed by the Islamic State in retaliation for the multinational air campaign directed at the militants’ proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

But those and other moves being proposed in reaction to the increasingly deadly strikes by the Islamic State and its affiliates are also stirring protest among civil rights advocates who see a danger to citizens’ constitutional rights and liberties as authorities bestow new powers on law enforcement to monitor, search and arrest those suspected of terrorist sympathies.

Netanyahu announced at a Sunday Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that he had asked the Israeli attorney general to take steps to allow the government to rescind citizenship of those who join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and Daash.

“Whoever joins ISIS will not be an Israeli citizen. And if he leaves the borders of the state, he will not return,” Netanyahu said. “I think this lesson is becoming increasingly clear throughout the international arena.”

His appeal coincided with release of the latest survey results by a prominent academic suggesting that at least 17 percent of Israeli Arabs sympathize with the aims and tactics of the Islamic State and other radical groups. University of Haifa professor Sammy Smooha, who has been tracking Israeli Arabs’ opinions since 1976, told the Jerusalem Post that he attributes the rising support for Islamist violence to the militants’ image as a powerful force that can stand up to Israeli authorities on their behalf and to the “negative assessment of their conditions in Israel.”

About one-fifth of Israeli Arabs espouse extreme views against Arab-Jewish coexistence in the country, Smooha said, adding that “there is a parallel minority of Jews that rejects coexistence and supports the state’s encouragement of Arabs to leave the country.”

While the Israeli government’s action is pre-emptive, as there have been no attacks on the country that are known to have been commissioned by the Islamic State, European states are already dealing with the reality of radicalized citizens returning from Syria and other jihadist venues.

The threat to deprive expatriate militants of citizenship is aimed at preventing those who have gone to Syria or other conflict areas and become radicalized from returning to their home countries to sow terrorism. In a graphic published Monday by Germany’s Deutsche Welle network, data contributed by the national security agencies of Germany, Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands show that of the 2,731 citizens of those countries known to have traveled abroad for terrorist training, at least 1,012 have returned to their European home states afterward.

Hollande joined the growing outcry to deprive defecting French militants of their citizenship three days after the suicide bombings and random assassinations claimed by Islamic State in the French capital that left at least 130 dead. He called during a rare joint session of Parliament for a constitutional amendment to allow the government to revoke the citizenship of “a person convicted for threatening the nations’ interest or for terrorist acts.”

The constitution currently allows revocation only of citizenship conferred through naturalization, not of French-born citizens. Several of the Paris attackers were French natives.

In Russia, where at least 2,000 citizens of the predominantly Muslim Caucasus area are believed to have gone to Syria to aid in the fight for Islamic State’s caliphate, the head of the upper house of parliament’s international affairs committee called Friday for legislation that would strip “Russian citizens joining terrorists” of their passports.

Australia’s Parliament is also poised to adopt tough new anti-terrorism laws. Under the pending legislation, a dual national automatically renounces citizenship by engaging in “terrorist conduct.” The same penalty applies to those suspected of traveling overseas to train or participate in terrorism or anyone convicted in Australia of terrorist crimes.

Canada had adopted controversial new counterterrorism laws under what is known as Bill C-51. It stops short of revoking citizenship for those accused of committing terrorism or joining violent groups, but critics say the new laws intrude on Canadians’ rights of free speech and assembly. Among those critics is University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach, who has been lobbying against the attempts in other world capitals to protect their own nations by revoking passports.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the Jewish Federations of North America 2015 General Assembly in Washington November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria 

Here’s What You Need To Know About The European Migrant Crisis

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The architects of the European Union set out decades ago to create an alliance free of national obstacles to the movement of people and the products of their labor.

No customs checks or passport control would be necessary when crossing the internal borders. The absence of tariffs on goods or barriers to employment was supposed to foster competition, efficiency and innovation.

The economic powerhouse that was supposed to arise was expected to share the wealth with the less fortunate, viewing the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers as its moral obligation to alleviate.

But the blueprint for a borderless Europe emerged 30 years ago, before mass-scale terrorism became an ever-present danger and civil wars in Africa and the Middle East spurred migration of historic proportions.

On a continent now guided more by security concerns than altruism, the viability of open borders is being questioned by leaders and citizens alike. And the disparate attitudes toward migrants among the 28 states in the EU is inflicting social discord and shaking faith in some of its fundamental commitments.

Here is a look at the causes of Europe’s migration crisis, the patchwork of rules and practices for granting asylum and the alliance frictions resulting from this summer’s historic tide of desperation:

Q: Why has the volume of refugees risen so dramatically in the past few years?
A: The number fleeing war and persecution hasn’t been greater since World War II, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees reported at the end of 2014. More than 60 million people have been displaced by conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine and elsewhere, and the violence is expected to drive hundreds of thousands more to seek asylum this year and next.

Refugees from the civil war in Syria, in its fifth year, constitute the largest share of the displaced, and together with Afghans and Somalis, both still in the throes of sectarian conflict, they comprise more than half of the new refugees counted last year.

Q: Where do most of those fleeing conflict seek refuge?
A: Neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan were the main recipients of the Syrian exodus until this spring, when warm temperatures and calm waters lured thousands each day to take to the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded boats headed for the promise of stability and a better life in Europe. More than 500,000 have reached EU territory this year, mostly through southern countries that are reeling under the burden to care for them.

The U.N. says more than 2,600 migrants have died this spring and summer attempting the perilous journey — many of them drowning when unseaworthy vessels capsized or suffocating in packed holds of ships and cargo containers.

Q: What happens to the migrants when they reach Europe?
A: Most EU countries are part of the Schengen Area, the virtually borderless land mass that is home to 400 million and was created by a 1985 treaty named for the village in Luxembourg where it was signed. The free-movement zone includes 22 EU states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The Schengen treaty was supplemented in 1990 with the Dublin Rules, which require those seeking asylum to register in the country where they first cross into Schengen territory and are then free to travel within it.

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However, the countries of the alliance have never agreed on what foreign conflicts qualify fleeing citizens for EU asylum. Nor has there been a common policy developed on what conditions should be created for those appealing for refuge. That has led to the migration free-for-all currently afflicting Europe. Many of the migrants arriving in Greece and Italy decline to make their asylum requests in countries that herd the arrivals in squalid camps and offer little prospect of being permitted to settle and find work. Instead, they try to make their way to Germany, Austria or Scandinavia, where the vast majority of war refugees receive good care.

Q: Which countries are most responsive to the migrants’ plight?
A: Germany, Europe’s largest and wealthiest state, has taken the lead in welcoming migrants leaving Syria and other dangerous venues. Nearly 550,000 have flooded its reception centers this year, and 800,000 are expected by year’s end.

Less hospitable EU members, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, have criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for spurring the refugee crisis inundating the continent by offering benefits few other states can afford to provide. She threw the reproach back at her critics Tuesday, saying Germany’s open door should come as “no surprise given the situation in Syria” and should be emulated by all EU countries.

While Germany has taken in the most migrants, Sweden has welcomed far more as a percentage of its size, with 230,000 arrivals adding more than 2 percent to its population.

Q: How is the influx of refugees affecting European Union cohesion?
A: Founding principles of the alliance define asylum as a fundamental right of those facing the dangers of armed conflict or oppression. But EU states struggling with high unemployment and recession are loath to add to their burdens by taking in impoverished refugees.

Hungary has built a razor-wire fence to keep them out. Authorities in bankrupt Greece have looked the other way as migrants slip out of detention camps and head north for better prospects. Non-EU countries such as Serbia and Macedonia have been shuttling arrivals to the Hungarian border, where they can enter the Schengen zone and get on with their journeys.

The crisis has stirred debate about the wisdom of unregulated movement across European countries at a time when extremists are targeting Western civilization.

But the internal EU frictions emanate more from the economic inequities of the member countries. Spain, for example, where one in four adults is unemployed, in principle has rejected proposals for mandatory refugee quotas and in practice has taken in the smallest number relative to its population — 45 per 100,000 citizens compared with Sweden’s 2,359 per 100,000.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Migrants arrive to the main railway station in Munich, Germany, September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Lukas Barth. Graphic: Tribune Content Agency.

Analysis: The Biggest Danger Of A Greek Default Could Be Political Instability

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

When recession exposed the glorified pyramid scheme that was Greek government budgeting in 2009, fear of a global economic meltdown on a par with the collapse on Wall Street a year earlier rippled through international markets.

The budget crisis was eased, but not before a short-lived panic in the financial markets. Now, as Greece once again peers over the precipice of expulsion from the Eurozone common currency club, millions worldwide are wondering what consequences lie ahead for other countries and investors if, as now appears likely, Athens defaults on its bailout debts on Tuesday.

Economists and financial strategists seem confident that the world will weather the latest crisis with minimal long-term disruption. Thanks to intervention plans crafted by the European Central Bank over the last three years, there are cash reserves on hand for emergency lending to other heavily indebted Eurozone countries and a $1.2 billion bond-buying fund to protect the most vulnerable in the event that a Greek default sends interest rates from private lenders skyrocketing.

This time around, the greater peril for Greece’s neighbors and allies is the political fallout that could follow a failure of Athens’ revolving-door leaderships to alleviate the pain from creditor-demanded austerity measures that have shriveled the economy and boosted unemployment to 26 percent.

The leftist firebrands of the Syriza party took power from the conservatives in January after campaigning on the promise that Greeks could demand debt relief but still retain the euro as their currency. They have instead led the country into a high-stakes standoff with the other 18 Eurozone nations, which have cut emergency cash infusions to Greek banks, prompting their temporary closure and a suspension of stock trading.

What lies ahead for a country that has already run the ideological gamut of political leaders in recent years, with none able to ease the crisis, may be a return to the more profound instability and tumult that afflicted Greece for decades before and after World War II — civil war, military coups, and dictatorship.

“Will democracy survive in Greece? If things get too bad, they’ve tried every political party already and they all screwed up,” said Jim Angel, a finance professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He points to Venezuela’s late leftist strongman, Hugo Chavez, as an example of a military autocrat coming to power and “systematically dismantling democracy.”

Greece is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The rise there of an authoritarian regime, especially if Athens drifts further into alliance with Russia, would present major challenges to the unity and function of the Western security pact and add insecurity to Europe’s economic woes.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has engaged his country in a perilous game of chicken with its major creditors, defying Tuesday’s deadline for payment of $1.8 billion to the International Monetary Fund as well as the “troika” of lenders’ conditions for extension of a repayment plan on Greece’s $270 billion in bailout loans. The current bailout program expires Tuesday, which will cut off Athens from further borrowing to pay its international obligations as well as salaries for government workers and pensioners due on this last day of the month.

Monday was the first trading day since Tsipras signaled an end to negotiations with creditors on Saturday by announcing that the government was leaving it to Greek voters to decide whether to accept the additional burdens of government spending cuts in exchange for a new bailout deal. Tsipras called a referendum for Sunday _ five days after the deadlines for averting default and exclusion from new credit.

Markets dropped worldwide, with major European bourses losing 3 percent of their value and Asian and U.S. traders seeing shares plunge by 2 percent. Even so, trading volume was moderate, a sign that the latest Greek brush with disaster was foreseen and unlikely to unleash widespread panic.

The other Eurozone nations continue to call for an 11th-hour agreement for Greece to accept the extension terms laid out during months of haggling with the major creditors, which include the European Central Bank and the European Commission as well as the IMF. Leaders of the lending institutions have said a “yes” vote by Greeks on Sunday to take on the additional belt-tightening could spur new negotiations on a deal to keep Greece in the Eurozone, which a majority of Greeks tell pollsters they want.

Tsipras and much of his government, however, are urging Greeks to vote “no” on the new bailout terms, deepening the social divide between those willing to suffer through more austerity to keep the euro and those who think defaulting on their obligations will somehow force the creditors to ease the terms for repayment.

Whether the majority votes for or against the creditors’ proposals, gross dissatisfaction with the current government can be expected. A “yes” vote would demonstrate rejection of the Tsipras strategy in this sixth year of crisis, which may prompt his resignation, or spur another military or political faction to take over by force.

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Unrest has spread in recent days, with rival pro- and anti-Europe rallies flaring in Athens, the capital that is home to 40 percent of Greece’s 11 million people. That concentration of the dispute provides a political cauldron for the opposing camps that could become increasingly violent as people struggle with an economic twilight zone or submit to creditors’ demands for deeper cuts in pensions and public services. And social disorder could chase away tourism, which had lately been on the rise and accounts for at least 17 percent of the nation’s income.

Even if Greece exits the Eurozone in a relatively peaceful and democratic manner, the first dropout from the ambitious experiment to create a continental nation-state would deal a blow to the European Union founders’ vision of a vibrant United States of Europe in which the rising tide of growth lifts all national boats.

Failure of the unity experiment, even if now limited only to Greece among the European Union’s 28 states, raises the prospect of other countries bailing.

“If Greece exits the euro, then the idea of the irreversibility of euro membership vanishes,” Raj Badiani, senior economist at the IHS research firm, wrote in an investors’ note on Monday. Worries over depletion of the union and retreat from its goals of common political, economic and security policies would undermine confidence in Eurozone members’ commitment to reform. That would lead investors to increasingly scrutinize pledges to fight corruption and bureaucracy and harmonize regulations.

During the last major Greek debt crisis, soaring interest rates demanded of other indebted Eurozone members, in particular Spain, Italy, and Portugal, raised the prospect of contagion that could tank their economies with unpayable levels of debt servicing. That is a risk that has been successfully averted this time, many analysts say, because of the emergency rescue programs adopted by the European Central Bank.

Southern members of the Eurozone also have healthier economies this time around, because their more stable governments adhered to the lenders’ formulas for balancing their budgets and stimulating growth.

“Nobody would expect Portugal and all of the others to leave any time soon; there doesn’t seem to be enough public support for that,” said Douglas Elliott, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “But it makes it possible to consider that in five or 10 or 15 years, maybe circumstances would be different. So as a rational investor, you’d have to factor that in” in deciding to invest or lend to other struggling Eurozone countries.

The European integration project will only succeed if all nations are willing to compromise, because “no one can get 100 percent,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday, describing the creditors’ last offer to Greece as generous and unjustly spurned. She blamed Athens for the collapse of negotiations.

(Special correspondents Lauren Frayer in Madrid and Tom Kington in Rome, and Times staff writers Dean Starkman, Hugo Martin, Samantha Masunaga, and Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: xamogelo via Flickr

Putin Manages To Stabilize Ruble, But Russian Economy Still Staggers

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

MOSCOW – Russia’s ruble has been on a roller-coaster ride, posting the second-biggest drop in value of world currencies in 2014, then bouncing back this year with the highest rise against the dollar, euro, pound and yen.

The ruble’s dizzying comeback, though, is due neither to an economic boom nor to sustainable intervention by the Russian Central Bank. And it came at a steep price.

Steadying the ruble at about 50 to the dollar has drained the country’s hard-currency trove of $150 billion, more than a quarter of the reserves on hand at the end of 2013. Those cash infusions have done little to cheer Russian consumers or businesses: Inflation remains at more than 16 percent and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development predicts that the overall economy will shrink by 4.5 percent this year.

And stabilizing the ruble was achieved only after President Vladimir Putin shook down Russia’s oligarchs for what he considered their fair share toward arresting the currency’s tumble, a tactic unavailable to the stewards of a free-market democracy.

“There is no strategy and no vision. It’s all ‘live for today,'” said economist Sergei Guriev, a former rector of Moscow’s New Economic School living in self-imposed exile in Paris.
Russia’s disappearing middle class and the working poor are paying the price for the Kremlin’s economic fiddling, Guriev said. He points to an average 10 percent drop in real income last year, a jump in mortgage defaults and rising food and utility prices.

A $500 billion, decadelong military modernization program augurs even grimmer years to come.

Car sales in Russia dropped 42 percent in April from the same month last year, the Assn. of European Businesses reported last month. The share of Russians who can afford no more than the absolute necessities has soared to 20 percent, the highest since polling on the subject began a decade ago, the Nielsen research firm reported last month.

Even during the 2009 recession, the report noted, only 7 percent of respondents said they could afford nothing more than food and shelter.

“But people know not to blame Putin. They know it is all the fault of Obama and the Ukrainian fascists that they have to suffer economically to confront these evil people,” Guriev said, mocking the prevailing public attitude molded by a lavishly funded propaganda campaign on state-run television.

“In Russia we say that there’s the television and there’s the fridge,” said the economist, who until last year was part of the Kremlin’s financial inner circle. “People believe what they see on television, but when they don’t see anything in the fridge they stop believing. If the government doesn’t have the cash it needs and sees that its propaganda is no longer convincing, it may embark on a new military adventure to make people believe again.”

The economy was ticking along with healthy growth in most recent years until Russian troops seized Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Moscow for its violation of international law and its neighbor’s sovereignty.

Those measures, which cut off international lending and blacklisted dozens of Kremlin kingpins, have coincided with the decline of world oil prices to half their value of a year ago. And in spite of repeated pledges by Putin to diversify the economy since he first took office in 2000, Russia remained dependent on oil and gas sales for more than half of its income when the latest financial crisis hit.

The government in April revised its 2016 budget to take into consideration the decline in expected energy revenue, which originally had been calculated at $100 a barrel for oil. The deficit spending now envisioned for next year will eat up an additional $200 billion from the hard-currency reserves, and more if the military modernization project continues to be exempt from the budget cuts forced on almost every other economic sector.

Putin has micromanaged the financial crisis in much the same away as he has guided the country’s geopolitical strategy. He summoned his nation’s captains of industry to the Kremlin for an emergency session Dec. 16, when the ruble was trading at 80 to the dollar. According to the RBK business journal, he told them that the ruble’s collapse threatened their welfare as well as that of the country and that they had an obligation to repatriate the money they had stashed in foreign banks.

There was no official edict issued, and the journal observed that the Kremlin has limited means of controlling how oligarchs or ordinary citizens handle their finances.

Putin did declare a “capital amnesty” after the December meeting, and the State Duma, the lower house of the parliament, has been struggling since then to draft legislation aimed at assuring offshore depositors that repatriating their capital won’t lead to investigations of whether they came by it legally. A history of nationalizations, corruption and asset seizures has undermined faith in the security of Russia-based wealth, explaining the flight of more than $150 billion in capital last year alone.

But lost on none of the oligarchs was the unspoken threat of reprisals if they failed to do their part to halt the ruble’s free fall. Memories were still fresh of the September house arrest of oil magnate Vladimir Yevtushenkov and seizure of his assets, not to mention the 10 years that former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent in prison for challenging Putin’s political domination.

The billionaire owners of Lukoil, Severstal, Norilsk Nickel and three dozen other major enterprises had converted enough of their hard-currency holdings by late February to boost the ruble’s value to about 60 to the dollar. Igor Sechin, head of the oil monopoly Rosneft, told the Tass news agency that he had sold $93 billion for rubles in 2014.

The winter run on the ruble was triggered by the converging effects of sanctions and the nadir in oil prices that flirted with $45 a barrel in December. Oil has lately traded for about $60 a barrel.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov

Russia And The West Rattle Sabers And Renew Sanctions

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Though Russian and Western officials repeatedly claim they don’t want a return to Cold War-era hostility, both sides have renewed sanctions and toughened their military posture in recent days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday extended for an additional year his country’s ban on most food imports from the European Union, two days after the 28-nation Western bloc announced that its sanctions on Russia will be prolonged to the end of January 2016.

The tit-for-tat embargoes — which hurt the countries imposing them as well as those targeted — show the intractability of the conflict in Ukraine that prompted the measures last year.

The EU and the United States cut off Russian access to international financial institutions nearly a year ago and have blacklisted dozens of Kremlin officials and business kingpins seen as fomenting the violence in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 6,400 people.

The European and U.S. sanctions on Russia have been renewed as the Western allies try to pressure Putin to refrain from supporting separatist rebels in the neighboring country that, like Russia, was part of the Soviet Union before its 1991 breakup.

Putin claims the pro-Russia separatists are independently waging war against the Kiev government but Western satellite imagery and the confessions of captured Russian soldiers bolster Ukrainian leaders’ accusations that Moscow is orchestrating the rebellion.

“Russia is actively and massively fueling this conflict,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Tuesday, according to excerpts of his briefing released Wednesday. Disputing Putin’s claim that any Russians in the Ukraine battle are there at their own volition, Hodges said “these are not volunteers or mercenaries; they are trained, equipped and uniformed active-duty Russian soldiers.”

Hodges’ briefing to the Vienna-based European security agency coincided with a meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in Paris in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to rescue the Feb. 12 peace plan hammered out in the Belarus capital of Minsk but repeatedly violated in recent weeks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that the four top diplomats committed their countries to ensuring that the Minsk accord doesn’t completely collapse. But he alluded to “powers who would like to destroy this process,” an apparent reference to the United States, which is not party to the informal negotiating forum known as the Normandy Four.

Urban combat and artillery exchanges ebbed after the Minsk agreement was signed four months ago by Ukraine’s warring factions and endorsed by Putin, who pledged to use his influence with the separatists to end the bloodshed. But the lull in heavy fighting was mostly due to harsh winter weather and the seas of mud that followed in early spring, as artillery exchanges escalated after the mud dried last month and tanks and armored vehicles could maneuver again.

European leaders endorsed their sanctions extension on Monday after concluding that Putin hadn’t done enough to fulfill his pledge to work for peace in Ukraine.
The Russian government sent a request to Putin on Tuesday to prolong Moscow’s ban on food imports from European Union countries, going the Western bloc one better by extending the retaliatory ban through June 24, 2016.

Russia and the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization have also stepped up arms production and deployment in moves each side claims were prompted by the other’s aggressive actions. Putin announced last week that at least 40 new nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles will be added to Russia’s defenses by the end of this year, and NATO plans to position new forces and weaponry in Eastern European allies’ territory to guard against any threat of Russian hostility.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, on a tour of NATO’s Eastern European flank this week, has said that tanks, armored vehicles and other military hardware would be deployed to member countries made nervous by Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. Carter said the equipment would be moved to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria — all former Soviet republics or satellites that Moscow still considers part of its “sphere of influence.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AFP Photo/Alexei Nikolsky

Putin Makes Appearance After Ten-Day Absence

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin put to rest wild speculation about his health and his hold on the Kremlin leadership Monday with his first public appearance in ten days to receive the visiting Kyrgyzstan leader in St. Petersburg.

State-run Rossiya-24 television showed Putin greeting Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev in his home city and the imperial capital, a keenly watched public encounter after his unusually long absence from the public eye.

Putin looked relatively fit as the international press corps gathered for his first sighting since March 5, a clatter of motor-driven camera shutters nearly drowning out his remarks about the emerging Eurasian Economic Union that he is building to coordinate trade with other former Soviet republics.

The Sputnik news agency reported that he joked when asked about the rampant speculation over his health and whereabouts: “It would be boring without gossip,” Putin replied.

Sputnik, formerly the RIA Novosti news agency, also carried a story about the “five most ridiculous theories” of Putin’s whereabouts. They included that he died, was gravely ill, attending the birth of his love child with a former gymnast, that he’d been overthrown and that he was binge-watching “House of Cards.”

Kremlin efforts to quash rumors about his absence backfired when pictures released last week were determined by hawk-eyed analysts to have been taken days earlier than suggested by their presentation.

Putin’s last appearance before foreign journalists was a March 5 meet-and-greet with visiting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Moscow. When a week went by without the 62-year-old president being seen at a public event, Kremlin media managers released brief film clips of Putin meeting with the Russian high court president on Friday and with the regional governor of Karelia two days earlier – both shots reportedly recorded before the Renzi visit.

Putin appeared Sunday in a two-and-a-half-hour film titled Crimea: Path to the Motherland, a combination documentary and dramatic re-enactment of the seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula a year ago. Although the film’s interview with Putin was obviously recorded earlier, the Kremlin leader’s ardent defense of the action that has plunged Russian-Western relations to a post-Cold War low served to present him as hale and defiant.

Russian officials have fostered an air of intensified security with the approach of Wednesday’s anniversary of the Crimea annexation. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on Rossiya-24 television at noon Monday that Putin had ordered full-scale readiness exercises for 40,000 troops and sailors of the Northern Fleet and airborne forces.

A threat of violence has also remained palpable since the Feb. 27 assassination of one of Putin’s harshest critics, Boris Y. Nemtsov. The former first deputy prime minister and opposition leader was gunned down gangland-style as he walked home from a late dinner across a bridge in the shadow of the Kremlin, spurring accusations that Putin was at least complicit in creating an atmosphere of impunity for political murders.

Five men of Chechen origin from the restive Caucasus region of southern Russia have been arrested in the case, two of them charged with killing Nemtsov. One of the accused, Zaur Dadayev, is a former Chechnya police commander and a close ally of Putin’s appointed Chechnya overlord Ramzan Kadyrov, which has spurred rumors of a breach or power struggle between the Kremlin leader and his Chechen lieutenant.

Photo: theglobalpanorama via Flickr

‘It’s What I Do’ A War-Zone Photographer’s Harrowing Memoir

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, by Lynsey Addario; Penguin Press (368 pages, $29.95)
___

It would be easy for “normal” people to conclude that journalists chronicling war and disaster are anything but.

Why would anyone in his or her right mind leave the comfort of middle-class America or Europe to document the savagery inflicted by Islamic terrorists on any Western hostage they can get their hands on? Or to witness the sadistic mutilation of rival factions’ women in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Only someone a little crazy does that, the uninitiated might conclude. Or bent on basking in the glory of capturing an iconic image with wanton disregard for one’s own mortality. But such assumptions are a superficial and unfair reading of a journalist’s motivation to bring the reality of suffering, instability and injustice to the consciousness of those who might be moved to try to right the world’s wrongs.

In Lynsey Addario’s memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, precociously undertaken before she turned 40, she endeavors to explain the “why?”

She takes the reader through a decade of violence in Afghanistan and Iraq after Sept. 11, 2001, then on to the Arab Spring. As if to set the record straight on the death-wish allegation, Addario opens her story with a harrowing account of being trapped between the rebels and Moammar Kadafi’s gunmen in the chaotic months before the Libyan leader was captured and executed.

“I hadn’t covered Tunisia and Egypt, because I was on assignment in Afghanistan, and it had pained me to miss such important moments in history. I wasn’t going to miss Libya,” Addario writes of one of the most powerful drivers that compel journalists to downgrade potential danger.

She and three other veteran conflict journalists were taken captive by Kadafi’s gunmen, who bound and blindfolded them for the hourslong ride in the back of a pickup during which the men were punched and rifle-butted and Addario was fondled. The Libyan experience conveys effectively the judgment lapses and regrets that consume journalists when they ignore the ever-present subconscious hazard detector.

Failure to heed those warnings is an occupational hazard, especially for female journalists traveling with male colleagues. Addario expresses throughout the memoir her aversion to being seen as “the girl,” more easily scared and inclined to leave the scene.

“The fact is that trauma and risk taking hadn’t become scarier over the years; it had become more normal,” she writes of her oscillating regret and resignation during the detention at a Kadafi prison and guesthouse.

Like Addario, I have a husband who is a journalist and understands the compulsion to cover the consequences of U.S. foreign-policy decisions. “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” my husband would say to me as I was leaving. And I’d try not to dwell too much on broken promises as I clung to a Haitian motorbike driver taking me on a slalom ride through burning tire barricades.

Addario seldom waxes remorseful in her richly illustrated memoir except when acknowledging the emotional trauma imposed on those who care about her. She recalls the year her mother fell into a coma after a car accident: “My family chose not to tell me, because I was far away and there was nothing I could do.”

Then there are the professional disappointments that inevitably afflict writers and photographers seeking to present a truthful image that military public affairs officers feel duty-bound to suppress. Addario’s devastating moment came after a grueling two-month embed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. A disturbing image she had taken of a young boy injured in a U.S. bombing raid was left out of the published photo essay for the New York Times Magazine because “the editor trusted the U.S. military public affairs officer — whose main responsibility was to polish the image of the U.S. military to the greater public — over us,” Addario recalls with a bitterness lingering seven years later.

She also recounts the deaths of colleagues that have saddened and shocked her, including the New York Times‘ Anthony Shadid, who had been among the trio with which she was taken hostage in Libya. He died in February 2012 from an acute asthma attack while making his way out of Syria.

Addario’s memoir is replete with the downsides of witnessing war and chronicling its myriad tragedies, all of which leaves the reader struggling with “why?”

Her answers are vague, as reflected in the memoir’s title. There is little historical context in the memoir, and Addario herself seems mystified by what she sees at times.

The book, though, doesn’t aspire to make sense of our violence-wracked world. It is narrowly focused on explaining photojournalism and the psychic rewards of influencing policymakers. She conveys well her unstated mission to stir the emotions of people like herself, born into relative security and prosperity, nudging them out of their comfort zones with visual evidence of horrors they might do something about. It is a diary of an empathetic young woman who makes understanding the wider world around her a professional calling.

By the end of her memoir, Addario slows ever so briefly to have a child with the man she marries after a minutely detailed decade of relationship misfires. Still, she returns to the scenes of chaos and violence, burdened anew with the fears that her young son will grow up motherless.

“As a war correspondent and a mother, I’ve learned to live in two different realities … but it’s my choice,” she concludes. “I choose to live in peace and witness war — to experience the worst in people but to remember the beauty.”

It’s what she does.
___

Williams has been a foreign correspondent since 1984, covering the Eastern Europe revolutions as well as the violent rebellions and wars in the former Yugoslav republics, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine.

Photo: Harumi Ueda via Flickr

What’s At Stake In The Latest Greek Bailout Crisis?

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

As Greece’s new leftist leaders engage in an economic battle of chicken with their European creditors, the outcome of crisis talks portends dramatic consequences for the perennially indebted Mediterranean country as well as for its European lenders and global economic stability.

Here is what is at stake in the decision on whether to extend Greece’s bailout terms:

Greek Credibility As A Borrower

Athens was forced to seek loans from its European Union allies after its economy imploded in 2009 because it could no longer borrow on international markets. Should the country default on its obligations to European lending institutions or abandon the austerity measures imposed in exchange for those loans, the country would lose credibility as a borrower. The national coffers would run empty, reportedly within weeks, leaving the government unable to pay salaries and pensions — unless it reverts to the drachma, the domestic currency it abandoned 14 years ago when it entered the eurozone, and prints its own money again, setting off a new spiral of inflation.

Greek Political Stability

An anti-austerity campaign theme brought leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party to power last month as Greeks voted against the fiscal sacrifice that has caused their economy to contract by 25 percent over the past five years. Tsipras encouraged voters to believe they could force European creditors to accept an easing of repayment terms and reforms to boost tax collection, gambling that keeping Greece in the eurozone was so essential to European and global economic stability that its creditors would capitulate.

Eurozone finance ministers were persuaded last week that Greece would not take unilateral action to scuttle its bailout commitments or tap the national treasury to a degree that would deprive it of the funds to pay its debts. But leaked details of the planned rollbacks on campaign promises have angered Syriza hard-liners, and the measures may still not be enough to satisfy the bailout oversight “troika” — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The new government faces the possibility of being damned if it does secure a bailout extension at the cost of continued austerity, and damned if it doesn’t and the country drops out of the eurozone and into a perilous new era of economic freefall.

Eurozone Integrity

While economists in some of the eurozone’s 19 member states have signaled that a Greek departure from the common currency would cut alliance losses, it would nonetheless represent a failure of the euro experiment that is a fundamental part of the European Union vision of the continent as a unified economic powerhouse. It would also leave the remaining euro users holding worthless paper on the 246-billion-euro ($280 billion) bailout of Greece five years ago.

A Greek exit from the eurozone would enhance skepticism about the shared currency among the major economies in the region that have yet to adopt it — Britain, Poland and Sweden, among others — making it unlikely that they would sign on to a potentially tanking project in the near future.

The European Union

Failure of the euro experiment to fulfill its goal of relying on the union’s stronger economies to lift neighbors out of financial trouble would undermine the grand mission of the 28-member alliance. It would also empower those lobbying in Britain to pull out of the union, which has been a drag on the fortunes of the more prosperous members. Aside from the European Union’s economic goals, the alliance pursues political and social unity with regulations and policies that have caused friction between the central authorities in Brussels and constituent capitals, including Britain’s fierce objections to a homogenized immigration policy and labor mobility among member states.

The Global Economy

World stock markets rallied to new highs Friday after eurozone finance ministers announced that they had reached a tentative agreement with Greece that would keep the country on track with its bailout commitments for four months beyond the current accord’s Feb. 28 expiration.

Investors had gone into panic after the Syriza leadership took office in late January and embarked on a tour of European capitals to drum up support for its demand of more autonomy in deciding how to manage its own budget and stimulate employment in a country where nearly 26 percent are jobless. Failure of the troika to secure a genuine commitment from Athens to abide by the bailout terms could plunge markets around the world into profound uncertainty about the future of the European Union, which by most calculations is collectively the world’s biggest economy with an $18 trillion gross domestic product.

AFP Photo/Louisa Gouliamaki

Obama Renews Attempt To Close Guantanamo Prison

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

President Barack Obama has recharged his campaign for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison with a strategy legal experts say holds out new hope of achieving that objective of his presidency.

After years of being thwarted by Congress from transferring detainees cleared of terrorism suspicions from the remote prison at the U.S. naval base in southern Cuba, the administration has in less than three months resettled 27 of the long-held foreign men in countries as far-flung as Estonia, Oman and Uruguay.

Dozens more are ready to be moved out as soon as other countries agree to take them, a diplomatic task that received an unexpected boost last month with an appeal by Pope Francis for predominantly Catholic nations to help empty the prison.

Obama has also spotlighted the costs of maintaining the offshore detention operation — more than $3 million a year per detainee, by the Pentagon’s calculation — in his effort to counter Republican opposition to closing Guantanamo. And he has pointed out the failure of the U.S. military tribunal there to bring any of its most notorious terrorism suspects to justice.

Reducing Guantanamo’s population from its current 122 — fewer than half the 245 detainees Obama inherited from the Bush administration — is a key element of the president’s new push to deliver on the promise he made as a candidate to close Guantanamo within a year of taking office, lawyers and human rights advocates say.

A second crucial step needed to close the prison, they say, is moving the seven “high-value detainees” charged in major terrorism cases out of the dysfunctional military commissions and into U.S. courts.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed Sept. 11 mastermind, has been in U.S. custody for 12 years and at Guantanamo since 2006.

“It’s shocking that there is not more public pressure to try these people,” said Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney on the Guantanamo project at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based public interest law firm.

He was referring to the five men whose prosecution has been mired in pretrial challenges to the war court that rights advocates see as an end run around U.S. law. “If they had been brought to United States in 2009, those trials would be long over,” he said.

Obama has for years opposed indefinite detention at Guantanamo for the moral stain it has left on America’s reputation, but the money issue may offer better prospects for wearing down those opposed to closing the prison.

“It makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit,” the president said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. “It is not who we are. It is time to close Gitmo.”

In the 13 years since President George W. Bush created the prison and military tribunal, only eight militant foot soldiers from among the 780 men taken to Guantanamo have been tried and convicted, and only three of those remain at the prison to serve their terms.

Hundreds swept up in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were years later deemed by military authorities to pose no threat to U.S. or allied security. But the releases slowed after reports emerged of some freed detainees joining al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

The recidivism rate remains a topic of heated disagreement, with Republican lawmakers contending that 20 percent of former captives are believed to have taken up with militant groups, and the administration saying the percentage is half that at most.

Obama’s first executive order after inauguration in January 2009 called for a six-agency task force review of all detainees and for decisions on whether they were to be prosecuted, deemed eligible for transfer or release, or categorized as “indefinite detainees” because of lingering suspicion but too little evidence to prove criminal acts.

Fifty-four prisoners still at Guantanamo were cleared for release by the task force in January 2010. Congress, in the meantime, had imposed a ban on detainee movements or relocation of terrorist trials to U.S. soil.

A slight easing of those restrictions took effect in late 2013, and State Department diplomats are negotiating repatriation or resettlement, lawyers for some of the captives said.

But finding countries that will take in the detainees is a struggle, legal analysts say, pointing to the Bush-era condemnation of the prison’s residents as “the worst of the worst” militants on the planet.

An additional 35 prisoners remain at Guantanamo after being designated for indefinite detention, to be reconsidered annually by a multiagency Periodic Review Board. That figure is down by at least two now after a Saudi and a Kuwaiti were lifted from the “forever prisoners” list and repatriated in November.

That contingent is the most problematic for Obama, as both Congress and rights groups that support closing Guantanamo object to administration proposals to bring them to some underused U.S. prison. The groups criticize the idea as simply transferring an illegal detention practice from Guantanamo to another venue.

Rights advocates, detainees’ lawyers and other critics of Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo have accused him of sacrificing that cause for other priorities, namely health care reform and economic crisis intervention during the first years of his administration. But even five years after the missed closure deadline, those critics say they are encouraged by the president’s resumed focus on ridding the nation — and his legacy — of the prison and war crimes tribunal.

“Privately, the level of commitment has been even more intense, as he is telling other officials that this is his top goal now and raising it with foreign leaders,” said Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, who has monitored the legal battle over Guantanamo for a decade.

Closing Guantanamo will require Obama to spend political capital on the issue during his last two years in office, Anders said. Congress has tabled a bill that would impose new restrictions on Guantanamo releases.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), sponsor of the bill and one of Obama’s fiercest critics on the detention issue, recently said the administration “is more interested in emptying Guantanamo so that it can close it … than protecting the national security interests of the United States.”

Most of the 75 Yemenis at Guantanamo have been cleared, but U.S. authorities have been reluctant to send them home to a country engulfed in political chaos and increasingly under the sway of Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Among the 27 prisoners released since early November have been 12 Yemenis, all sent to other countries in apparent recognition that their homeland won’t be stable any time soon.

The quest for new havens for the releasable detainees got a lift last month when Francis appealed to diplomats at the Vatican to open their doors to those marooned at the prison because of turmoil in their homelands.

Cori Crider, an attorney with the British human rights group Reprieve and defense lawyer for several Guantanamo prisoners, accompanied six detainees in December on their journey to freedom in Uruguay, the first Latin American country to heed the pope’s moral intervention.

“That signal from the Vatican can only help. Other new states that hadn’t previously taken detainees have come forward,” Crider said.

“Hope springs eternal, even when it has been so disappointing previously,” she said of Obama’s recent revving up of the stalled closure effort.

“I don’t see closing Guantanamo as a light switch,” she said of an expected incremental process. “But every detainee that goes is a move away from this dark chapter.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Iran’s Supreme Leader Tweets Support For ‘Oppressed’ Americans

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has turned to Twitter to lambast U.S. authorities for their treatment of minorities, spotlighting Monday’s anniversary of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee and tweeting #BlackLivesMatter in solidarity with protesters in New York and Missouri.

In a tweet posted Sunday, Khamenei referred to racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., asserting: “#Jesus endured sufferings to oppose tyrants who had put humans in hell in this world & the hereafter while he backed the oppressed. #Ferguson.”

He was referring to the fatal shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 9, which set off months of rioting against authorities in Ferguson and a national debate on law enforcement’s relations with minorities.

Later in the day, the ayatollah added his voice to the campaign against racial profiling by police that accelerated with the Dec. 4 death of 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York. Garner had been put in a chokehold by officers who stopped him for selling bootleg cigarettes on the street.

“It’s expected that followers of #Jesus follow him in his fight against arrogants and in his support for the oppressed. #BlackLivesMatter,” Khamenei wrote, including the hashtag that has become a rallying cry since the Brown and Garner deaths.

Khamenei had also tweeted a similar message of support on Christmas Eve, likening U.S. minorities’ plight with that of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. “If #Jesus were among us today he wouldn’t spare a second to fight the arrogants & support the oppressed. #Ferguson. #Gaza.”

Khamenei added the treatment of Native Americans in the United States to his tweeted laments, noting Monday’s 124th anniversary of the 7th Cavalry Regiment massacre of captured Lakota Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. As many as 300 Lakota men, women and children died in the attack, which became an evocative symbol of white repression and a focal point of Native American protests.

“Western culture is an aggressive one. Wherever Westerners went, they destroyed local culture, history & language. #NativeLivesMatter,” Khamenei said in a series of tweets that included gruesome photos of dead Lakota awaiting burial in a mass grave.

The Iranian religious leader’s embrace of Twitter to denigrate U.S. policy was more significant for its method than message, as Khamenei has been among the most anti-American voices in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew U.S.-allied Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Khamenei’s Twitter profile shows he has 91,600 followers and follows only three other Twitter accounts: his own Arabic and Farsi streams and the statements and messages of late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Khamenei’s recent missives deviated in tone and content from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s Christmas greetings on Twitter last week.

“May Jesus Christ, Prophet of love & peace, bless us all on this day. Wishing Merry #Christmas to those celebrating, esp Iranian Christians,” Rouhani tweeted, in a missive radically different from Tehran’s vitriolic rants of the previous 35 years.

Muslims consider Jesus a prophet, but do not accept that he was crucified or resurrected.

Rouhani spent more than two decades within the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Council but was seen during his come-from-nowhere presidential campaign in early 2013 as a political figure offering a new relationship with the West after more than three decades of animosity.

Rouhani’s perceived overtures, however, appear to have been countered by the more entrenched anti-American sentiments of the ruling clerics.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

European Leaders Warn Against Too Much Economic Pain On Russia

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The European Union’s unanimous resolve to punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine appeared to be cracking as French, German, Austrian and Italian leaders voiced concern at an alliance summit of inflicting too much pain on Moscow as its economy tumbles.

French President Francois Hollande was the first to step out of the 28-nation bloc’s collective drive for further sanctions on Russia when they were discussed at a summit in Brussels on Thursday night.

“There were no new sanctions (adopted), because there should not be,” Hollande told reporters after the session. He said the leaders had agreed to maintain the status quo in hopes of seeing the Kremlin follow through on recent hints that it is pressing pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine to honor a shaky cease-fire.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers on his recent calls for peace in embattled eastern Ukraine “then there is no need for new sanctions — on the contrary, in that case we should think about how we too could begin to de-escalate,” Hollande said, according to the Deutsche Welle news agency.

France is one of the countries whose own economies have been hit by the sanctions against Russia. Delivery of two Mistral aircraft carriers built under contract for Russia has been canceled by Paris in conformance with a European Union and U.S. ban on sales of weapons and military assets to Russia.

Hollande’s appeal for the European allies to keep sanctions relief on the table as a carrot to reward any positive changes in Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine struck a chord with others in the alliance.

The European Union’s new foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, warned that pushing Russia into a deeper economic crisis was in nobody’s interest.

“The fact that Russia is in a difficult situation from a financial point of view is not good news, not for the Russian citizens, not for Ukraine and not for Europe and the rest of the world,” she said after the Thursday night meeting.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also expressed their opposition to any further economic pressures on Russia, which has seen its currency, the ruble, battered by the sharp fall in global oil prices and withering capital flight as foreign investors scuttle their Russian operations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been heading the camp of EU leaders committed to keeping the economic pressure on the Kremlin until Putin reverses his illegal seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region and makes visible efforts to keep Russian arms and fighters out of eastern Ukraine.

But on Friday, Der Spiegel magazine published an interview with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in which he appeared to be siding with Hollande and other leaders who worry that excessive sanctions could backfire.

“It cannot be in our interests that the situation spin totally out of control,” Steinmeier said of the economic turbulence in Russia, where consumer buying power has shriveled and dollar-based loans suddenly saddle many borrowers with unbearable debts.

To those who want to force Russia to its knees with further sanctions in the misguided belief that will bolster European security, “I can only warn against it,” said Steinmeier, a veteran diplomat of the Social Democratic Party in governing partnership with Merkel’s conservatives.

Thursday’s gathering of EU leaders was the first chaired by former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who recently took up the mantle of European Council president. Poland and the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have remained steadfast in their views that the sanctions pressure should be maintained on Russia until it withdraws from Crimea.

The United States and the European Union have imposed targeted sanctions on Russia and its proxies in the separatist-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, including visa bans for scores of officials and Kremlin insiders and restrictions on energy trade, banking and military sales and cooperation.

Russian troops invaded Crimea, home of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet based on what was leased territory from Ukraine, in late February after a pro-Europe rebellion toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, a close Kremlin ally.

Putin, who opposes Ukraine’s pivot toward an EU alliance after decades of tight economic integration with Russia, has referred to the ouster of Yanukovich as a coup d’etat and routinely casts the new Ukrainian leadership as a throwback to the former Soviet republic’s collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II.

AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov

Obesity Rivals Smoking And War Among Self-Inflicted Health Risks

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Among the self-inflicted health risks plaguing the world, obesity now rivals smoking and armed conflict as a leading cause of death, a global research group reported Thursday.

The study by the McKinsey Global Institute in London found that more than 2.1 billion people, nearly 30 percent of the worldwide population, are overweight or obese. That is two times the proportion of adults and children who are undernourished.

If the current ascendant trend continues, the report warns, half the world will be too fat by 2030.

Excess weight adds $2 trillion in costs to public health services and it is responsible for at least 5 percent of deaths each year, the researchers reported.

“Obesity isn’t just a health issue, it’s a major economic and business challenge,” institute director Richard Dobbs said in an accompanying statement.

Lost productive potential from premature deaths and limited mobility consumes about 2.8 percent of global gross domestic product, Dobbs said.

Obesity now presents one of the top three social burdens generated by human beings, according to a chart compiled from the study findings. It is only narrowly less costly to humankind than smoking and the combined losses from armed violence, war and terrorism, which each deprive society of $2.1 trillion a year, the report notes.

Tackling the obesity epidemic is difficult, though, the researchers acknowledged.

“Obesity is a complex, systemic issue with no single or simple solution,” the report concludes. “The global discord surrounding how to move forward underscores the need for integrated assessments of potential solutions.”

It recounted 74 “interventions” examined across the globe — moves such as educational programs encouraging portion control, weight-loss surgery and supplements and government restrictions on the availability of high-calorie foods and beverages.

But getting the desired results is likely to require coordination and commitment by government, employers, educators, retailers, food processors and restaurants, as well as a combination of “top-down corporate and government interventions and bottom-up community-based ones,” the report says.

AFP Photo/Jean-Sebastien Evrard

Japan Plans To Resume Whaling Next Year

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Japan informed the International Whaling Commission on Tuesday that it intended to resume hunting whales for scientific research next year, a move that conservationists called a defiance of the International Court of Justice ruling that Japan’s whale kills are illegal.

Since the commission invoked a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, Japan had been claiming an exception to the ban that allows whaling for scientific purposes and had set quotas of 1,035 kills in each of the last few years.

The International Court of Justice ruled in March that Japan’s failure to publish results from its purported research demonstrated that its claim of science-related whaling was a cover for banned commercial hunting and ordered a halt.

In the revised program submitted to the commission on Tuesday, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries cut its catch quota to 333 minke whales and said it would no longer hunt the more limited pods of fin and humpback whales.

Joji Morishita, Japan’s whaling commissioner, said research findings would be published in the future to comply with the terms of the moratorium exceptions.

“All these activities, as we have been arguing, are perfectly in line with international law, a scientific basis, as well as ICJ judgment language,” he told the whaling commission, asserting that Japan’s new program to start in late 2015 will be responsive to the court order.

The challenge to Japan’s whaling program was brought in 2010 by Australia. The international court, in the Netherlands, ruled that there was no scientific basis for Japan’s quotas, nor was there sufficient published findings of its research to justify the size of the projected annual catch.

Conservationists said nothing has changed with the plan submitted by Tokyo on Tuesday.

“Japan’s new whaling proposal for the southern ocean sanctuary is neither new nor improved,” said Kitty Block, vice president of Humane Society International. “Despite the ICJ decision condemning the nation’s so-called scientific program, Japan is still trying to explain the inexplicable and defend the indefensible. The hunt is for commercial purposes — not science.”

Although Japan set catch quotas of 935 minke whales and 50 each of fin and humpbacks, its annual captures have been significantly lower in recent years due to declining demand for whale meat and increasing intervention by protesters such as the Sea Shepherd group. In 2012, Japan caught 103 minke whales and last year its catch was 251, the Japan Times reported.

Japanese whalers were ordered to suspend operations after the court order, although they plan a nonlethal hunt in spring.

Tokyo doesn’t require approval by the International Whaling Commission to resume its lethal hunt, and it was unclear whether Australia would make any legal challenge. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who was elected last year, has drawn fire for weakening his country’s environmental commitments with expanded mining and logging.

Photo via WikiCommons

Ukraine’s Europe-Leaning Leaders Prepare To Form Coalition After Vote

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Political leaders who won strong voter endorsement for their pledges of reform and closer ties with Western Europe began work Monday on forming a parliamentary coalition to deliver on those promises. Russian officials grudgingly said they would accept the results of Sunday’s elections for Ukraine’s Supreme Council that will give a trio of pro-Europe parties a majority and the power to steer their troubled nation into the West’s democratic fold.

With most of the vote counted late Monday, political movements headed by President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, and a new alliance of young activists had at least 54 percent of the vote locked up for their expected coalition.

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose Fatherland Party placed sixth with 5.7 percent, has also promised to join forces with the Europe-leaning leaders.

Even as it demonstrated Ukrainians’ commitment to fight the endemic corruption that has placed their country on par with Nigeria, the decisive pro-Europe vote also was likely to further agitate Russian President Vladimir Putin and his proxies in eastern Ukraine who have been rebelling against governance from Kiev.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the vote could help focus Ukrainian leaders on “the real problems” they face instead of “swinging to the East or West,” according to an interview carried by Russia’s LifeNews television. Russia is pleased that Ukraine now has a government “that’s not fighting itself” and can concentrate on restoring unity to the country, Lavrov said.

Lavrov’s deputy, Grigory Karasin, was less sanguine on the election outcome.

“We are waiting for the official results while there is rather contradictory data,” Karasin told the Interfax news agency. “But it is already clear that, despite the rude and dirty campaigning, the elections took place.”

Separatist gunmen backed by Russia control significant areas of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They blocked voting in their territory on Sunday, as did the new Russian government in Crimea, the military stronghold seized and annexed by Moscow this year. That has served to further diminish the voice that pro-Russia eastern politicians had in Ukraine’s political affairs before the ouster in February of Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich.

Poroshenko praised Ukrainians for their endorsement of his reform course and the country’s goal to eventually secure membership in the European Union.

“For the first time in the history of Ukraine, the ruling parties gained more than 50 percent of votes. It is impressive,” he said in a statement posted on the presidential website. “It is a vote of trust the Ukrainian people gave to the political parties to immediately begin the process of reforms.”

Poroshenko Bloc leader Yuriy Lutsenko told journalists that the faction was already in talks with the parties sharing the president’s priorities of restoring peace in the embattled eastern regions and cleaning up the country’s finances and reputation.

The tumultuous events of the last 11 months left Yanukovich’s Party of Regions in disarray. Some politicians of the former ruling party ran under a new pro-Russia alliance called the Opposition Bloc, which won about 10 percent of Sunday’s vote. But the Communist Party, their allies in the quest to retain and even strengthen economic and political collaboration with Russia, failed to get enough votes in the balloting for party slates and, for the first time in modern Ukrainian history, will not be represented in the legislature.

The Kiev government’s inability to open polling places for at least 4 million registered voters was among the failings of balloting carried out amid civil war and economic disaster, according to election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But the observers said the vote was overall fair and legitimate.

Political analysts say they recognize the risk of a unified turn westward further antagonizing the Kremlin, which has insisted on Eastern Europe remaining in Moscow’s political orbit. But they insist that the course toward Western Europe is Ukraine’s to define, not Russia’s, and that Putin will have to come to some accommodation with Kiev to provide for Russians in Crimea and Ukraine’s east.

“I don’t see how relations between our states can be worse when we are already at war,” said historian and Ukraine Voters Committee Chairman Oleksiy Koshel.

He said Moscow’s plan to build a bridge from mainland Russia to the Crimean peninsula across the tempestuous Kerch Strait to create a supply line would be expensive, time-consuming and unreliable. Pragmatism, Koshel said, will compel Putin to agree to scrap the bridge project in exchange for Ukraine supplying electricity, drinking water and heating fuel to a Crimea region at least nominally within the Ukrainian state.

That would be a face-saving way of providing for the largely Russian community in Crimea and sparing Moscow billions in investment that would only add to Russia’s economic woes amid Western sanctions and falling oil prices, Koshel said.

Russian provocations in the east have decreased since a European-brokered Sept. 5 cease-fire, but they have not ended, and a swift surge in shelling of government positions on the eastern front was noted immediately after the elections, said Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

AFP Photo/Genya Savilov

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Ukraine Denies Rights Group Report It Uses Cluster Bombs

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian armed forces have never used prohibited weapons such as cluster bombs in their fight against pro-Russia separatists, a military spokesman insisted Tuesday after a rights group reported it had documented a dozen instances when the indiscriminate weapons were used in populated areas.
The report by Human Rights Watch also said there were circumstances, “while not conclusive,” suggesting that the separatists had also used the weapons that pack dozens or hundreds of small bomblets inside a rocket that explode over a wide area and put many people at risk.
“It is shocking to see a weapon that most countries have banned used so extensively in eastern Ukraine,” Human Rights Watch senior arms researcher Mark Hiznay said of the group’s weeklong investigation into the use of cluster bombs in Donetsk, a city of 1 million residents before the conflict.
Cluster bombs leave a distinctive crater and fragmentation pattern, the rights group’s report noted, and several of the remnants examined included markings that allowed for positive identification of the source.
Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council said Ukraine appreciates the work of international monitors and human rights workers in battle-torn eastern Ukraine but cautioned that the independent observers needed to be vigilant against incidents staged by the Russian-backed rebels.
“There are provocations every day. The terrorists set up these scenes, especially for Russian television,” Lysenko said, claiming Kiev doesn’t use cluster bombs by order of President Petro Poroshenko.
The Human Rights Watch report alleging government use of the weapons — banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which neither Russia nor Ukraine has signed — as recently as last week added to the mounting indications that a Sept. 5 cease-fire is having little effect on the bloody violence that has been consuming eastern Ukraine.
Although Lysenko said no Ukrainian government troops had been killed in the previous 24 hours, he made clear that soldiers and volunteer militia had been engaged by numerous attacks around Donetsk. His claim that many enemy fighters were killed in the sporadic battles appeared to be born out by a report carried by Russia’s TASS news agency quoting the defense ministry of the proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk saying that 12 people had been killed and 27 wounded.
Five of the dead in Donetsk and 19 of the injured were gunmen while the rest were civilians, TASS reported.
“If the Ukrainian authorities talk about the truce, they lie,” the breakaway region’s so-called prime minister, Alexander Zakharchenko, was quoted by TASS as saying.
Lysenko, at his daily briefing in Kiev, was asked whether Russian troops had pulled back from the Ukrainian border, as Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered. There were 17,600 Russian soldiers along the volatile border, purportedly for military exercises, when the Kremlin chief ordered them back to their permanent bases on Sunday.
“We don’t have confirmation that they have pulled back,” Lysenko said, adding that initial indications of movement turned out to be short-lived. “The majority of the Russian forces are still there.”
The security spokesman also reported that a massive explosion in Donetsk on Monday that blew out windows for miles around a shuttered chemical plant was caused by an attempt by the rebel gunmen to restart production of explosives.
“The explosion occurred because the militants didn’t have the technical capabilities to carry out the production process,” Lysenko said, adding that he didn’t have information on casualties from the blast.
Use of heavy weapons and sophisticated munitions and technology has increased in recent weeks, in spite of the purported cease-fire, during which about 400 people have been killed. Since the fighting began in earnest in April, more than 3,700 have been killed, the United Nations’ human rights agency recently estimated.
Ukrainian authorities have lately accused the separatists of gaining more accurate targets for shelling thanks to the operation of drone aircraft from the Russian Federation to pinpoint targets. The drone sightings, especially over the front-line city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, have strengthened accusations from Ukrainian authorities and their Western allies that Russia is arming and assisting the rebels in their quest to take territory and destabilize Ukraine.
Poroshenko in late August disbanded the dysfunctional parliament that had been left behind when his pro-Russian predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich, fled the country in February in the face of protests calling for greater ties to Europe. Early elections to replace the 450-seat Supreme Council elected two years ago are set for Sunday, and Ukrainian security officials warn they are braced for further attacks on the eve of the parliamentary voting.
Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimea region after Yanukovich fled, claiming Moscow was obliged to step in and protect the largely Russian-inhabited peninsula from those who took power in Kiev. Russia annexed Crimea on March 18, inspiring the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions to seize government buildings and try to force similar territorial transfers.

AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov

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Liberians In Texas Say They’re Being Blamed For Ebola Case

By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

EULESS, Texas — Carolyn Woahloe said what was on everyone’s mind: Some Texans are blaming her and fellow Liberians for the first Ebola case to be diagnosed in the U.S.

In the days since a Liberian named Thomas Eric Duncan traveled to the Dallas area from West Africa, became ill and eventually tested positive for the deadly virus that has killed thousands in that region, she and others have heard the whispers and taunts.

“Go back to Liberia.”

On Wednesday night, Woahloe, a registered nurse, appeared with several Liberian pastors and community leaders to spread the word: Please don’t blame Liberians.

Woahloe said she got calls from at least two Liberian workers who said colleagues told them they should leave the U.S. The nurse said she told the callers to stand their ground.

“If I am Liberian, that doesn’t mean that I have Ebola,” Woahloe said at a news conference at the New Life Fellowship Church in this Dallas suburb. “This is not a Liberian problem. This is a world problem.”

A group of about ten leaders stood together as a sign of solidarity, next to a drum set featuring African bongos. Stanley Gaye, president of the Liberian Community Assn. of Dallas-Fort Worth, addressed a crowd of reporters who had pressing questions:

“Do you know the Ebola patient?”

“Where is the patient’s family?”

“Is the community concerned for its image?”

Gaye said the last thing Liberians need is to be stigmatized.

“We want to work together with the Dallas community and with the people of the Liberian community to get as much information out about this as possible,” he said.

Someone asked whether Liberia’s borders should be closed to keep other infected people from leaving — although health officials have said Duncan showed no sign of illness when he left Liberia.

One community leader jumped up and took the microphone, eager to respond.

“I think there are two sides to this story,” local Liberian Pastor Emmanuel Botchway said. “When you close the borders of a country, you don’t just restrict the movement of people. Once you stop travel, you put a stop to trade and commerce. That would be terrible for Liberia.”

Gaye said the Liberian community had met a month ago with officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Dallas area to learn what they could do for relatives suffering from Ebola back home in the impoverished nation, where healthcare is substandard and even ambulances are scarce.

But since Duncan’s diagnosis, Gaye said, the community has not heard from federal, state or local health officials. The community has tried to reach out, he said, to no avail.

Harling Moore, pastor at New Life Fellowship Church, said the Liberian community – which numbers about 10,000 throughout central Texas – has more to worry about than its public image: Their countrymen in Africa are dying.

“We’ve been in communication with loved ones back home,” he said. “We’re offering advice on how to deal with this disease, and we are sending supplies.”

In the church parking lot, officials pointed to a semi-trailer they said was loaded with medical supplies. On Friday, it is to be sent to two hospitals in Liberia.

If the borders were closed, they said, aid could not get in.

“This is more than just about words,” said Moore, 45, who fled civil war in Liberia and has lived in Dallas for 14 years. “This is a life-and-death situation. But we are trying to stay positive, encouraging one another and letting the community know that we are possible victims in this situation as well.”

Jimmy Sando, 26, a Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport worker, stood among the community leaders. “Every major disease … known to man starts somewhere, but it doesn’t stay in one place,” he said. “It spreads. Like HIV and AIDS spread.”

So please don’t point a finger at Liberia, he pleaded.

“This disease has been around since the 1970s. It … spread to countries like Nigeria and Liberia. You can’t blame Liberians, just like you can’t blame any one nation for AIDS. That’s just fear talking. Here there is one case. Back home, there are many, many cases.”

Ebola is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of infected people who have symptoms, such as bleeding or vomiting. One cannot become infected by airborne transmission.

Botchway said pastors in the nine local Liberian churches would take to their pulpits Sunday to spread the word about the disease. They will implore citizens who might have come in contact with Duncan to go to the hospital and to contact the CDC.

“We will tell them that this is not a disease of shame,” he said. “If you think you might be infected, or if you know someone else, please come forward.”

But don’t even think of returning to your homeland because of mean-spirited comments, Woahloe stressed.

One of the women who called her said she had to go home, Woahloe said. “And I told her, ‘Don’t go anywhere. Just go to work.'”

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

Norway Ranks No. 1, Afghanistan Last, In Quality Of Life For Over-60s

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

No country takes better care of its seniors than Norway, where those over 60 enjoy social security bankrolled by the nation’s oil wealth and are well represented in politics and the work place, a global study on aging reported this week.

By contrast, the 2014 Global AgeWatch Index found, the worst place in the world to grow old is Afghanistan, where per capita GDP is a mere $1,100 and life expectancy only 50 years.

The annual rankings based on income security, health care access, social benefits and community involvement reflected the generally greater affluence of Northern Hemisphere countries over those below the equator, with nine of the ten best places for the elderly found in Northern Europe, North America and Japan. The geographic outlier was New Zealand, which ranked No. 10.

The study by HelpAge International, a London-based global coalition of organizations committed to improving living standards for the world’s rapidly expanding over-60 population, examined the circumstances in which older people live in 96 countries — up from 91 included in last year’s survey.

The aim of the rankings, the authors said, was to encourage governments worldwide to take action now to ensure adequate support for those living into their seventh decade and beyond — who will account for more than 20 percent of the world population by 2050 and already constitute that share in many developed countries.

“Longer lives are a triumph of human development and are contributing to growing numbers of older people worldwide,” the study summary observed in urging governments to prepare for a future where as many as four in 10 citizens will be relying on pensions or retirement investment proceeds for their wellbeing.

Those over 60 comprise 20.1 percent of the population of the United States, which was ranked eighth in quality of life for the aging. By 2030, that share will rise to 25.6 percent of the population and to 27 percent by 2050.

Over-60s already account for at least one in five citizens of the ten top-rated countries, except for Iceland (18.3 percent) and New Zealand (19.7 percent).

Japan is experiencing the most dramatic rise in the number of elderly, with nearly 33 percent of the population over 60 now and an expected expansion by 2050 to a staggering 42.7 percent. That is largely the result of the country having the longest expected life spans on the planet, which other studies attribute to the lean and fish-intensive national diet.

Life expectancy at age 60 is one of the key measures of living standards in the HelpAge study, and Japan topped that indicator with the average 60-year-old expected to live another 26 years.

Income security factored significantly into the top-ranked places for aging, with Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands and Iceland providing pensions to 100 percent of seniors. Japan and New Zealand provide social security to 98 percent of their citizens over 60, with the figure for Canada 97 percent and the United States 92 percent.

The researchers praised governments like Mexico, which ranked 30th among the countries studied, for policy adjustments that have boosted living conditions for the elderly. Mexico rose 26 places in the rankings from last year, it was noted, as it now provides pensions for 88 percent of its citizens over 65.

Turkey, on the other hand, was ranked 77th, in spite of having greater per capita national wealth than Mexico and about the same percentage of its citizens guaranteed some sort of pension. The study, published Wednesday, observed that the income provided many of the elderly is inadequate or outpaced by the cost of living.

“For too long, older people have been excluded from international and national development planning and programs,” HelpAge International chief executive officer Toby Porter noted in the study’s foreword. “This approach is outdated and unsuited to the reality of people living longer all over the world.”

Failing to address the demands of aging populations threatens “pernicious consequences for older people,” potentially leaving them with neither a voice in public life nor the means to ensure a dignified end-of-life existence, Porter warned.

AFP Photo/Damien Meyer