Daily Archives: February 23, 2009

Post-Soviet NATO, or the Rebirth of the Warsaw Pact?

Balkanalysis.com | Feb 21, 2009

By Anahit Shirinyan*

csto_logoOn February 4, 2009, the presidents of the seven member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, signed an agreement in Moscow during a session of the Collective Security Council to set up a rapid response force.

In the past the CSTO had such a rapid deployment force consisting of 3,000 troops however, as noted by Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedyev, all this merely existed on paper. The new agreement envisages increasing the number of troops to 10,000. Each of the member states will allocate one battalion to the rapid reaction force. Each nation’s battalion will be stationed on its own soil and under its command.

Will Armenian forces fight against the Taliban?

The signing of the agreement has lead analysts to conclude that Moscow wishes to bring the Warsaw Pact back to life and that the new agreement is nothing less than a challenge to Washington and its NATO allies. In particular it was Russian President Medvedyev who gave rise to such conclusions when he declared that the force to be created would be combat ready, armed with the latest military technology and on a par with NATO forces in terms of overall military resources.

Medvedyev also noted that the CSTO and EurAsEC (Eurasian Economic Community) summits signal new qualitative Russian relations with the member states of these organizations both on a multilateral and bilateral level. According to official information,  The officials at various levels enumerated possible missions such as: deterring and repelling aggression by conventional military forces; defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the organization’s member countries; conducting “special operations”; and dealing with asymmetrical threats and challenges, including international terrorism, radical Islam, and other forms of “violent extremism,” trans-border organized crime and drug trafficking, and even natural or technological disasters.

These challenges, by the way, are mostly hanging over the head of the central Asian republics and their source is to be found in neighboring Afghanistan. As expressed by Sergei Prikhodko, the Russian President’s Foreign Policy Advisor, Afghanistan is the primary threat to the organization in terms of security.  “The CSTO summit and its decisions are the joint response to those threats arising from its southern borders – the activities of the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan and, to a large degree, in Palestine,” he stated.

Collective disagreement

The signing of the agreement, however, wasn’t unanimously accepted by all member states of the organization. Ukraine signed on with certain reservations, agreeing to the deployment of its forces to individual missions rather than on a permanent basis. The agreement led to widespread displeasure in Belarus. The political opposition there charged Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka with violating the country’s constitution because it prohibits the deployment of Belarus armed forces outside its state borders.

In addition, the Belarus Constitution notes that the Belarus strives to be a neutral nation. Nevertheless, a spokesperson for the country’s ministry of foreign affairs publicly declared that the Belarus army cannot be stationed in post-Soviet hot spots, in conflict zones, given that the country’s constitution doesn’t allow it.

Perhaps what is noteworthy is that the CSTO member states are either not buoyed by the prospect of the application of collective forces in general or either each of them regards that new mechanisms are more beneficial. In addition, some of the CSTO member states are on friendly terms with one another.

In the estimation of analysts, the new agreement is most beneficial for Russia. As noted by Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky, the CSTO is of prime significance to Russia “in opposition to Georgia, a vengeful aggressor state that seeks to revise borders”. Experts are of the opinion that the most important program in the back of Moscow’s mind is to employ CSTO forces as a peacekeeping detachment across the post-Soviet expanse.

Aleksei Maleshenko, a resident scholar at the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, views the new agreement as the latest step by Moscow to strengthen its influence in former Soviet countries. Nevertheless, Mr. Maleshenko doesn’t think that the CSTO will begin to play an active role in regional security issues. “I cannot picture the CSTO taking any real action. For example, it will not fight against NATO in Abkhazia or within the borders of Georgia. In the same manner, it will not come to the rescue of any of the presidents in the case of an Islamic-inspired uprising,” notes Mr. Maleshenko.

“In a more tangible sense than other CSTO countries, Armenia regards this arrangement as beneficial to itself. Yerevan welcomes the February 4 decision to create a rapid response force in Yerevan’s own frame of reference,” writes the Eurasia Daily Monitor, alluding to the Karabakh conflict. “Armenia views the CSTO primarily as a conventional military actor as well as a framework for Russian protection of Armenian territorial gains against Azerbaijan. This traditional view contrasts with that of Central Asian governments, which expect the CSTO to deal with asymmetrical threats and challenges, such as those associated with terrorism, from non-state sources”.

The prime targets of the CSTO, terrorism, Islamic extremism, narco-trafficking, etc, are truly the most vexing problems confronting Central Asia. However, these countries however aren’t all that disposed to deploying there forces in other locations. In addition, conflicts amongst these countries on a host of issues (water resources, ethnic problems) continue till today and securing cooperation amongst them is a complex task indeed.

What is most important, however, is that for Russia the central Asian countries aren’t the most reliable of partners. It was only after Russia agreed to give Kyrgyzstan a financial package   of $300 million in cash (in addition to $1.7 billion investment and $180 million in debt relief) to close the American military base at Manas.

In the words of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev the reason for the move is because the rent being paid by the United States wasn’t sufficient as well as the fact that a negative backlash had taken hold in Kyrgyz society regarding the activities of the American forces.

The Manas military base, established in 2001, plays an important role in the U.S.-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan. The possibility that the Kyrgyz authorities will back down from their ultimatum to close the base if the U.S. agrees to a rent increase, cannot be ruled out.

At the same time, Tajikistan announced on February 6 that it was ready to allow its airspace to be used by non-military NATO aircraft for the transfer of materials to Afghanistan. According to other news in circulation, Uzbekistan still holds out hope of mending fences with the West, particularly the United States. One of the rumors is that Uzbekistan might soon possibly pull out of the CSTO all together as it did once before in 1999.

Due to their natural resources and military strategic position, the nations of Central Asia have found themselves at the center of conflicting interest amongst global geo-political forces. For this reason they are attempting to reap benefits by cooperating with all parties. This factor makes them unreliable partners for Russia.

A scarecrow for NATO

In the opinion of political scientist Sergei Kiselyov, the attempt by the Russian authorities to erect a scarecrow for NATO is perhaps doomed to failure. In Mr. Kiselyov’s view what awaits Russia is the fate of the useless CIS and the never realized Russia-Belarus union state.

In such conditions, when the CSTO has practically no possibility of becoming a political-military alliance on an equal footing with NATO, representing the common interest of the member states, the question arises as to why the need for the “improved” alliance in the first place.

Perhaps, the Russian program to transform the CSTO into a competing military-political alliance vis-à-vis NATO seeks to create an illusion, rather than a reality. Russia will not be capable of ensuring cooperation amongst the “allies” in emergency situations. Instead, Russia will be able to create conditions where the West will pay it more importance and will more frequently enter into cooperation with it regarding pressing international and regional problems.

It is by no means coincidental that the CSTO confirmed Afghanistan as the prime target for joint action. Medvedyev declared that the CSTO is ready to cooperate with the United States in the war against terrorism in Central Asia. And all this comes at a time when NATO intends to intensify its anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.

………………

*Anahit Shirinyan is an investigative journalist with Hetq Online, based in Yerevan, Armenia. She holds a master’s degree in international relations from Yerevan State University. Her articles mainly focus on Caucasian regional issues, Post-Soviet developments and Armenian-Turkish relations. She has published several articles in the South Caucasus Regional Analytical Journal of the Caucasus Journalists Network.

Advertisements

Order of the Garter slips out of Tony Blair’s grasp

garter-starAs the country comes to terms with his grim legacy of a busted economy and the Iraq war, Tony Blair’s hopes of being admitted into the ancient Order of the Garter look increasingly forlorn. “I wouldn’t put money on him getting it,” says Kenneth Rose, the respected royal historian who has close links to Buckingham Palace. “Former prime ministers are normally admitted, but they should not take it for granted. The Queen is always mindful of the public mood.”

Telegraph | Feb 21, 2009

By Tim Walker

The Garter, the first and most prestigious British order of chivalry, is in the gift of Her Majesty alone, and is, accordingly, the one honour that has not been tarnished in recent years. There are no more than 24 Knights and Ladies Companion. Baroness Thatcher was admitted in 1995 and Sir John Major, somewhat belatedly, in 2005.

Anthony Howard, the distinguished political commentator and author, said that Her Majesty had “a useful precedent” for putting the matter on the back-burner – indefinitely, if she wanted. “She did not invite Ted Heath to join the Garter until almost two decades after his premiership had ended,” he says. “That was actually because he remained an active MP, but she still has that to point to if Blair begins to grumble.” Howard said that if the Queen does not care to admit Blair to the Order she could simply bequeath the decision to the Prince of Wales.

Hugo Vickers, the author of Royal Orders and a Lay Steward at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, says Her Majesty could strike a compromise by offering him the Order of the Thistle. “Her Majesty likes to offer the Thistle when she is aware of a strong Scottish link and Mr Blair has that,” he says. “Unlike the Garter, there is at present a vacancy for this Order. I have often felt Mr Blair is more in the class of, say, Robert Menzies and David Steel, who both received the Thistle, rather than, say, Churchill and Thatcher. who got the Garter.”

Prince Harry is on the waiting list for the Garter, but I am told that he is likely to have to wait longer to be admitted than his brother, Prince William. The second in line to the throne joined the Order somewhat earlier than usual last year when he became the 1,000th to be admitted – Her Majesty did not, it is said, wish to see a commoner accorded that distinction.

Afghan president and vice-president accuse each other of being US stooges

karzai_massoud

File Photo taken on 26th July 2004 shows President Karzai (middle) in a press briefing along with two Vice-Presidents, First Vice-President Ahmad Zia Massoud (left) and Second Vice-President Mohammad Karim Khalili.

Afghanistan’s president and vice-president accused each other of being US stooges during a recent cabinet meeting which degenerated into a furious row, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.

Telegraph | Feb 21, 2009

Karzai is US stooge says Afghan deputy president

By Ben Farmer in Kabul and Dean Nelson

In a clash which showed how fragile the Western-backed government has become, President Hamid Karzai was labelled a corrupt incompetent by his own understudy, Ahmad Zia Massoud. He responded in kind, saying Mr Massoud was part of an American conspiracy to oust him.

The ferocity of the infighting reflects a collapse in support for the Afghan president – both within the Afghan coalitions who have supported him since his election in 2004, and among his backers in Britain, the United States, the European Union and NATO. During a visit to Kabul last week, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that British financial and military support for the Afghanistan would only continue if Mr Karzai’s government raised its game.

Tensions erupted after Mr Massoud made a speech blaming greed and corruption in the Karzai administration for the hunger and poverty in the country. He also said that Mr Karzai’s plan to delay the May election until August 20 and extend his term until then was unconstitutional.

The row lasted for ten minutes and had to be broken up by cabinet colleagues, who eventually moved the men onto the meeting’s business agenda.

In launching such a public attack, Mr Massoud has joined a growing chorus of senior Afghan politicians questioning the legitimacy of President Karzai’s intention to remain in power after his term formally ends in May. As the leader of the most powerful family in northern Afghanistan, and the brother of Ahmed Shah Massoud, a legendary Mujahideen general, Mr Massoud’s comments are not to be lightly dismissed.

The Afghan constitution states elections should be held by late April, with the president’s term finishing on May 21. However, the Karzai-appointed independent election commission has said preparations cannot be finalised in time for April and the poll must wait three months for US troop reinforcements to bring security.

Opposition MPs fear that if President Karzai remains in power during the three month delay, he will use the state apparatus to bolster his campaign. Instead they are calling for a caretaker government led by someone not running for president.

President Karzai has said he does not know whether his duty ends on May 21, or in December, five years after he was sworn in.

“I’m consulting on this issue and I will appear and announce my decision,” he declared recently.

His opponents blame the international community for preparing to prop up an unconstitutional government. The National Front, the main opposition alliance, is expected to bring its supporters onto the streets in protest when the snows melt.

Senior Western diplomats confess they have been surprised by the strength of feeling in parliament and fear political upheaval could destabilise the country during the pending Taliban summer offensive. One official said the coming months will bring the “toughest test yet” of the country’s Parliament and constitution.

“The biggest fear is what would be the legitimacy of this government after its term has finished,” said Sayed Mahmoud Hussamudin Al-Gailani, a national assembly member from Ghazni province.

He said an illegitimate government would lend weight to Taliban propaganda and that the row with Mr Massoud was damaging to both the president and Afghanistan.

Mr Massoud made his comments during a speech to commemorate the Russian withdraw from Afghanistan. This week he also criticised the president for keeping a stranglehold on decision making and said the vice presidents were largely symbolic.

“Only the decisions and recommendations which are according to the president’s desire are put into practice, otherwise, they are kept on hold,” he said.

However Karzai supporters say removing the president prematurely would lead to a dangerous power vacuum that insurgents could exploit.

“In my opinion three months does not make a huge difference,” said Safia Siddiqi, an MP for Nangahar province. “It’s against the constitution, but the constitution is not the Holy Koran.”

Welcome to the new Abu Ghraib – complete with children’s playground

abu_ghraib

Welcome back – Abu Ghraib’s bad old days are over, claim jailers.  Photo: Reuters

Its name has long been associated with torture, first under the regime of the late Saddam Hussein, and then under the rule of the Americans who toppled him.

After a fresh lick of paint and extensive refurbishing, it officially opened its doors again, purporting to offer conditions more familiar to inmates of a prison in Scandinavia.

Telegraph | Feb 22, 2009

By Colin Freeman

Now, nearly five years after its role in one of the world’s biggest human rights abuse scandals, Iraq’s Abu Ghraib jail has re-opened with a promise of decent conditions for inmates – including a gym, computer chatroom and hair salon.

The prison, which earned global notoriety in 2004 after US jailers filmed themselves tormenting and sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners, was shut down two years ago when America handed control of it to the new Iraqi government. Iraqi and US officials, who believed its closure would end what had become a symbolic rallying point for the anti-US insurgency, moved its inmates to another facility on the Kuwait border.

But yesterday, after a fresh lick of paint and extensive refurbishing, it officially opened its doors again, purporting to offer conditions more familiar to inmates of a prison in Scandinavia. As well as modern medical and dental facilities, there is a courtyard for visiting families that contains a children’s playground and water fountain. Inmates also have a mosque, and will be able to sew their own clothes in a small sewing factory. Mindful of its fearsome reputation, Iraqi officials in charge of the makeover have even changed its name from Abu Ghraib to Baghdad Central Prison.

“The prison is officially open and we have received inmates. Hundreds are present,” said prison director general Alsharif al-Murtadha Abdul al-Mutalib, who yesterday invited reporters to tour the jail, which is set behind watchtower-guarded walls in one of Baghdad’s western suburbs. It will eventually be home to around 14,000 prisoners.

In all, 11 US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws and five others were disciplined over the torture allegations in Abu Ghraib. American authorities implemented a series of reforms in the aftermath, although they still faced complaints about prolonged detentions without charges.

Conditions were far harsher there during Saddam’s time, however, when the double gallows in the jail’s execution chamber was in regular use, and cells were so over-crowded that inmates used to have to take turns to sleep. Just ahead of the US invasion in 2003, Saddam granted an amnesty to some 60,000 inmates that it was then holding, adding greatly to the law and order problems that beset Baghdad when his government finally fell.

Under a bilateral security agreement that calls for a full US withdrawal by the end of 2011, American commanders have to hand over around 14,000 Iraqis that they are still detaining as suspected insurgents or militia members.

Most of those detainees are expected to be freed without charge, but some will face trials under Iraqi law. Despite the promises made by Iraqi officials during yesterday’s re-opening ceremony, human rights groups say prisoners in Iraqi custody are frequently beaten, abused and denied due process.

Last year, the Iraqi government said it would turn a section of the 280-acre prison into a museum documenting Saddam’s crimes, but not the abuses committed by US guards.

European MPs fleecing taxpayers for up to £1 million each in illicit profits per term

european-parliamen_1342097c

In his report, Mr Galvin found that overpayments of parliamentary allowances were common Photo: GEOFF PUGH

Members of the European Parliament are earning up to £1 million in profit in just one five-year term in office through expenses and allowances, a leaked report has revealed.

Telegraph | Feb 22, 2009

By Andrew Porter, Political Editor

The report sparked calls for a police investigation into the systematic abuse of taxpayers’ money.

The internal report into the system of allowances – conducted by Robert Galvin, a European Union internal audit official – was kept secret when it was carried out last year.

But a leaked copy of the 92-page document details the full extent of “corruption, dodgy dealing and poor financial controls” in the European Parliament, according to the Taxpayers’ Alliance. It revealed that some MEPs claimed money for assistants that were neither accredited nor registered with the parliament.

Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: “Having acquired the report, we felt it was right to publish it so taxpayers across the EU could see the widespread evidence of corruption, dodgy dealing and poor financial controls in the European Parliament.

“It should never have been kept secret, and there must now be a proper investigation by the police.

“Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent, and if anyone is stealing from them. The EU Parliament must publish the full details of all MEPs’ expenses and allowances, and name the people this report found to be ripping taxpayers off.”

Mr Elliott said each MEP could save more than £1 million from their expenses and pension benefits over a five-year term at the European Parliament.

Over five years, each MEP can claim this includes a subsistence allowance of 117,000 Euros, staff allowance of 489,840 Euros, office expenses of 243,120 Euros, travel expenses of 60,000 Euros and an accrued pension of £350,000.

This does not include the MEP salary of £63,291, which is set to increase to £73,584 after the European Parliament elections in June 2009.

There was also widespread failure to comply with tax, company and social security laws. Nearly 80 per cent of transactions that should have been subject to VAT displayed no evidence of either VAT payment or exemption.

In his report, Mr Galvin found that overpayments of parliamentary allowances were common.

The investigation discovered a culture of huge “bonuses” being paid to staff members or handling firms at the end of the financial year, ranging from three times to 19 and a half times the employees’ monthly salaries.

It was also possible to pay large “layoff” payments to the staff of MEPs without any justification being provided.

Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat MEP who last year exposed some of the report’s findings, last night said the “overwhelming majority” of MEPs used their staff budget honestly to pay their staff.

He said: “It is not true that expenses are being abused by everyone, but voters should ask questions of their representatives.

“Honesty doesn’t pay in this system and the temptations are great. No-one knows who is cheating and who is not, and it is a disgrace that the Parliament has voted to keep auditors’ reports secret.”

Hillary Clinton China visit blamed for the detention of activists

clinton-doll_

Controversial figure: A dough model of Hillary Clinton made in honour of her three-day visit to Beijing Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Hillary Clinton has come under fire for her attitude to China’s human rights record after it emerged that a dozen dissidents were placed under house arrest during her trip.

Hillary Clinton – Chinese human rights concerns secondary to economic survival

Telegraph | Feb 22, 2009

By David Eimer in Beijing

Before travelling to the People’s Republic on Friday for a two day visit, the new American Secretary of State, said she would not let the issue “interfere” with efforts to resolve the global economic crisis and combating climate change.

Human rights groups claimed her comments lifted the pressure on Beijing to address the issue, making it easier for the Chinese to justify fresh restrictions on dissidents.

Related

Activists ’shocked’ at Clinton stance on China rights
Hillary Clinton: Human rights not a priority for US

“I am under house arrest because Hilary Clinton came,” said Zeng Jinyan, the wife of China’s most prominent activist Hu Jia, via an email message.

Mrs Zeng said she had been told by the police who monitor her that she and her baby daughter would not be allowed outside. Her husband is serving a three-and-half-year prison sentence.

Mrs Clinton’s failure to press Beijing on human rights appears to contradict the desire of President Obama to restore America’s reputation, after the Bush administration was criticised for flouting international law by torturing terrorist suspects and detaining them indefinitely.

Last month, President Obama was hailed for his decision to close the controversial Guantanemo Bay detention facility in Cuba, where some prisoners have been held without trial for more than seven years.

The Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a group comprising some of China’s most determined activists, said the authorities had told dissidents that they would not be allowed to move freely during Mrs Clinton’s visit.

They were either placed under increased surveillance or locked in their homes and barred from receiving visitors.

Some activists were reported to have been detained by police at guesthouses outside Beijing.

Many of those who have been targeted by the Chinese authorities signed the Charter 08 petition in December. The petition, which was issued on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called for political reform, freedom of expression and democracy in China.

It was signed by 303 intellectuals and activists, including Yu Jie, a blacklisted writer who was visited by plainclothes police on Friday.

“They said I was to receive heightened monitoring throughout Clinton’s visit, but it would end once she left,” said Mr Yu.

Although China always steps up the harassment of dissidents during visits by foreign leaders, 2009 is also a particularly sensitive year for Beijing.

The 50th anniversary of the failed uprising in Tibet, which resulted in the Dalai Lama fleeing into exile, falls in March, while June 4 marks the 20th anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.

It also represents a dramatic volte-face by Mrs Clinton.

Last year she called for then President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics as a protest against China’s crackdown in Tibet last March and its failure to do more to end the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

In 1995, while in Beijing for a UN conference, Mrs Clinton described China’s one-child policy as a “violation of human rights”.

Cancers caused by obesity ‘as big a threat as climate change’

Cancers caused by obesity now pose a threat to mankind akin to that of climate change and must be tackled immediately, a scientist has warned.

He dismissed suggestions that encouraging people to eat healthily was the act of a nanny state.

Telegraph | Feb 22, 2009

By Aislinn Simpson

The number of people worldwide dying each year from cancer will rise from around seven million now to 10 million by 2020, and the overall toll will double within 40 years, said Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London.

“It’s enormous, it’s catastrophic,” he said. “The numbers are just frightening on a global scale. After cardiovascular disease, it’s the next highest cause of death in this country. With the same sense of urgency that at long last we’re now starting to address the climate change agenda, let’s address the cancer agenda because we think a large proportion of those cancer deaths are preventable or could be delayed. It’s urgent to be taking action now.”

Sir Michael spoke out after chairing a panel of 23 experts from around the world to make recommendations for the World Cancer Research Fund’s Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention report. Last year, the panel reported that a third of cancers are caused by diet and lack of exercise.

On Thursday, it will call on people to take responsibility for themselves and their children’s’ diet and lifestyles while also stressing a need for concerted action from governments, multinationals, industry, workplaces, schools, the media and health professionals.

There will be little mention of smoking because the harm it does is well-known, but will call for more warnings about the dangers of obesity, which contributes to around 13,000 cancer cases in the UK every year.

Sir Michael, who is also chair of the World Health Organisation’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, said: “When we look at what’s happened to obesity levels in this country, it’s growing at an alarming rate. Anybody looking at the evidence would say there must be social and economic causes of that. It can’t be that 20 million people individually said, ‘I’ll think I’ll get fat.'”

He said the recession would pose an extra challenge, as people turn to cheaper fast food for sustenance.

“It is going to be difficult, but in a way it’s even more urgent to ask what needs to be done, because if you do nothing and the recession forces people into cheaper, unhealthier options, that only highlights that the unhealthy options tend to be the cheaper ones.”

He dismissed suggestions that encouraging people to eat healthily was the act of a nanny state.

He pointed out that public health campaigns had helped to eradicate smallpox and waterborne diseases.

“We didn’t say at the time, ‘Oh, this is the nanny state providing clean water for people – people should decide for themselves whether they want to drink water with cholera in.’ Nobody would say that today. Diet is a bit more complicated but we want the availability of a nutritious supply of food,” he said.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Obesity is the biggest health challenge we face and many people simply don’t know that being overweight can lead to major health problems, including cancer. The UK is leading the world when it comes to facing up to the problem and tackling obesity.”