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April 2010 Country Archive


Sleepwalking into disaster

A world still hurting from the financial shocks that seemed to come from nowhere, could quite conceivably have woken up on March 27th to find that a nuclear war had suddenly broken out, and this a war with every possibility of spreading beyond its flash point. It would have been equivalent to that 4am White House awakening moment that featured as a key test in the US presidential campaign. “In rhetoric extravagant even by Pyongyang’s usual standards (we quote from our April Report on NORTH KOREA), “the KPA General Staff had threatened:- ‘unprecedented nuclear strikes of [our] invincible army against the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet warmongers,’ if they sought to bring down the DPRK”.

A few hours after that apparently unprovoked outburst of bile, came high drama:-
A 1,200 tonnes South Korean naval vessel, up at the maritime borders of the two Koreas sank within minutes, following a mysterious explosion which tore a great hole below the waterline.” Any rush to judgement would likely have concluded: torpedo, or mine. Fortunately there was no rush to judgement. The South Koreans went into an emergency cabinet meeting and after considering several possibilities as to the cause of the explosion issued a diplomatic statement “that given the investigations… so far, they judged it was not caused by North Korea, although the reason has not yet been determined.”

Had this been indubitably a North Korean attack…not to respond would have been read in both halves of Korea as weakness, yet a hasty or excessive riposte ..might escalate into a second Korean war”.
‘But that’s all a long way away’, might be a western readers response, not realising that the North Korean Army is a million strong, they do have nuclear weapons and are in a permanent state of war psychosis. The border itself is almost within artillery range of the South’s capital Seoul, with a civilian population of over ten million. The US have some 35,000 troops on the ground there, which they would be bound to reinforce, initially in all probability by air strikes, and if the Chinese took against such a response near their own borders against some species of a ‘client state’, the conditions would exist for a major conflagration. The full nasty story is at NORTH KOREA.

With that example of how far we are from outgrowing war as a means of settling disputes, and how quickly disaster can strike, we turn to NATO, the west’s most important military alliance which is facing it’s own moment of truth.

NATO and Europe’s disarray
US geopols are quite reasonably pointing to Europe’s disarray, in the context of defining a new NATO doctrine – a project planned for this year. Four years ago newnations published a special report, “What is Nato for?” With a new doctrine up for discussion we inevitably return to that question. It is many years since the forces of international communism loomed across Europe (the USSR ceased to exist from December 1991). This is reflected both by the wide re-dispersal of US forces around the globe and the substantial run-down of the forces of the former USSR, now famously divided between fifteen independent republics, the Russian Federation being the most powerful. RUSSIA fetched up with all the USSR’s nuclear armoury, which must safeguard them against any invasion, as well as having a doomsday offensive capability. The current good news is that the two presidents of Russia and the USA, have just agreed a near 30% reduction in warheads. But in terms of conventional foreign wars, whilst during this time the US has engaged in two such wars, Russia, apart from a weekend’s unpleasantness in GEORGIA which seems to have been a predictable response to Georgian adventurism, has not fought outside its formal frontiers, (although it sustained two bloody wars against its unwilling colony of Chechenya which had the evil luck to have been a republic within the extant Russian Federation, rather than the dissolved Soviet Union).

So what is NATO for? The questions we posed in 2006 and the answers, are still relevant.
We quoted the president of the parliamentary assembly, “Frankness compels me to say that considerable vagueness appears to reign over the concepts and even the raison d’etre of our organisation” …and that was then! Now the Secretary General of NATO is warning the Europeans that of all NATO countries, it is the citizens of the US that are the most lukewarm to NATO, so it cannot be assumed that the US will be want to be there for ever!

Our conclusion after reviewing its exploits, was that perhaps NATO’s most valuable role is just to exist! To be there ready to develop, as circumstances themselves develop over the next decades. As to in what circumstances to be deployed, some may fit – others not! Inevitably there will always be armed situations short of war, peacekeeping for example, too robust for civilian police alone. The recent Balkans clashes fully illustrate this.

Who makes the decisions?
Apart from its Council drawn from all the 28 member states and civilian administrators, NATO is largely run as an adjunct to the US military, with the US Defence Secretary appointing a 5 star American general to be its supreme commander. It was not involved in the invasion of IRAQ. ‘The alliance of the willing’ nations there, were seeking to display their loyalty to the US, since a great deal of US ambassadorial pressure was exerted upon many small nations, to maximise the national flags on display. AFGHANISTAN however is a NATO theatre of operations, with NATO forces fighting alongside US and Afghan soldiers. That involvement again started out in support of the US ally, on whose behalf NATO for the first and only time in history, invoked (the day after 9/11), Article Five of its treaty, which says that ‘an attack on any member, is an attack on all’. Viewed through one unconvincing prism, the Afghan involvement is an international mission to assist a third world country in a civil war, whose enemy is also the enemy of the west. Far more importantly, and a more credible objective, is to render this state harmless in future to the international community, from its former role as a remote base for international terrorists - who haven’t gone away and whose presence and attempted outrages are currently felt more frequently in Europe than in the US.

So is NATO’s future role to be that of international policeman? If so, why not invite Russia and China into membership and contribute their substantial armed manpower to the many hotspots and conflicts around the globe? That’s not going to happen, as we all know. Apart from the fundamental fact that they are neither of them trusted (any more than they trust the west), neither of them is about to accept permanent supreme US military command, without which the US would surely decline to participate. Looked at in these terms, the role of international policeman rightly, and more sensibly belongs to the UN, which has the authority as well as the experience for inclusive multi-national force deployment, on an ad hoc basis.

So what future then for NATO which is a permanent and experienced military institution? That would depend to a great extent on who was in the White House. If it were a George W Bush kind of lamebrain – who, apart from probably the UK, would now follow in that direction? Historically Bush Snr; Clinton; Obama could attract a following, but after George.W.Bush the precedent has been established. The US system it has been demonstrated, allows such inadequates to get the top job and hold it, even for a full eight year term, whilst doing immense damage. This renders supporting the US leadership unconditionally in perpetuity, as during the cold war, quite impossible. NATO members cannot just be uncritical permanent US allies, when the US has got ‘form’ for getting into useless and plain wrong foreign wars, like IRAQ, and Vietnam before that.

Ideally a solution would be to combine the forces of the two ‘mature’ political systems, those of the US and of Europe to handle this situation, except that Europe does not speak with one voice but within NATO, twenty six out of the twenty eight members. European NATO members individually have mostly mature political systems, yet geographical Europe itself in its structures is still not collectively mature, either politically or militarily. EU and NATO memberships are anyway not fully contiguous.

Despite the theoretical ‘telephone number for Europe’, requested by Kissinger long ago, the larger individual European states primarily see their armed forces in the traditional role of defence, alternatively an instrument of their nation’s foreign policy, which historically was largely imperialist but now looks for advantage, even if that is only membership of an important club. Lacking now a common enemy, there is little cohesion of purpose outside of the current strife in Afghanistan. Whilst happily there is no common threat of a powerful military kind, on the downside this was the glue that bound the allies together - the lack of it is a fundamental problem in achieving any common European purpose.

Of Europe’s big boys, Germany and France seem to be the most capable of working together as leaders in Europe. Spain, Italy even Poland can usually be brought along, if the others agree, but the semi-detached UK is really the fly in the ointment. The UK is also one of the big boys of Europe, but is plagued by domestic politics. They are there torn between an influential minority who favour integration with the EU and European institutions, who are faced with a vociferous and continuous barrage of anti-European bile, orchestrated over many years by the Murdoch media and other right wing tabloids. They noisily want as little as possible to do with Europe (except for their vacations), on the basis of an illusory independence and find much support amongst the sentimental nationalists and those who blame immigration for economic decline.

As a result, in European terms, the UK has become a populist nay-sayer, not the leader it could and should have been, on initiatives that would push Europe towards achieving its political and economic potential.
Other European nations of course all have their own nationalists and these minorities are greatly encouraged by British negativity.

So any moves to enable the Europeans in NATO to speak with one voice, necessarily involves a degree of cohesion and delegation of powers from the European members as Europeans and the British populists would fight that every inch of the way.
History we believe, will point to the lost opportunities of the times we live in, which militate in favour of ‘joining’ and ‘healing.’ It is due to a false prospectus that small (in world terms) nation states, can coast along on their history, despite the actual irrelevance of that, and the sad reliance on a hollow patriotism, which has nowhere to go beyond international sport.

What might be militarily possible is that the professional command structure of NATO could be delegated by its member nations to become the core command structure for UN ad hoc deployments, in world policing. The troops themselves all belong to national armies whose own governments would decide in which, if any UN deployments they would serve. More, newnations would argue in favour of taking the opportunity to get the politics right, and replace the veto-wielding Security Council of the UN with the far more representative G20.

Crossing the Freedom Line
Maintaining democracy, even in the bastion of the USA displays a narrow margin between the balance of human rights and politically motivated assaults on traditional freedoms. That includes that fundamental one that the accused - any accused, is entitled to a court hearing and a defence. There is an organisation named ‘Keep America Safe,’ in which (couldn’t you guess), Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney is a leader. It has produced a ‘hit list’ of defence lawyers who have been prepared to represent defendants accused of terrorism, which they have dubbed (the targeted lawyers) ‘the al Qaeda seven’. The logic of the attack is that to defend someone accused of an offence against the state, is to indicate that the defending lawyer is really ‘one of them’. That inexorably leads to the proposition that the accused shouldn’t have a defence. What else can they be trying to achieve?

If they were successful in this approach then the US justice system would be on all fours with the court systems in the former Soviet Union, or PRC China. In the latter, the most heavily populated country on earth, there were until recently perhaps two or three lawyers in the whole vast country prepared to represent a defendant charged by the state. It was really all quite simple. If the police or other organs of the state brought charges against a defendant, then they must be guilty. QED! There would be nothing else to say. All a lawyer could be allowed to do was to plead in mitigation. The irony is that ‘Keep America Safe’ probably don’t even realise that only the communists of evil memory, ran their law courts this way, hardly a role model if you want to “Keep America Safe”.

Britain’s Press –v-British Politicals
There continue to be two big political scandals in the UK, one long-running story, trickled out over three weeks by a heavyweight paper “The Telegraph,” using a glossed-over data theft to obtain details of lawmaker’s expense accounts. Unsurprisingly, this caused a continuing storm, and a crisis in public confidence. The outfall has been that some individual legislators have been charged with criminal offences, which of course are attracting a lot of media coverage. The second scandal, because it is too ‘close to home’ is scarcely mentioned in a wide swathe of the media and it is reasonable to assume that many whose only source of political information is the tabloids, don’t even know about it. It ostensibly involves only the Murdoch group of newspapers, but probably includes other tabloids. This scandal exposed by “The Guardian,” is about Murdoch journo’s using professional hackers (describing themselves as private detectives), pirating e-mails and bugging phone calls of celebs and newsworthy people.

It started some years back with preying on the Royals, for which one journo and one hacker went to jail. The recent two big instances so far, are not going to court, but have been ‘settled’ by compensation paid by the Murdoch group, reported as being over a million pounds in each case. This could be cheap at the price, since it avoids cross-examination revealing the extent of the offences widening the known hit-list, possibly sparking off a series of new claims.

The suggestion that other tabloids have similarly ‘been at it,’ since the tabloids are highly competitive and a lot of journos knew about it, is strengthened by the fact that all the tabloids (not just the Murdoch ones), failed to follow-up or even carry the story of “The Guardian” report in their editions. Yet these tabloids over numerous editions have been in the forefront of the ‘pressfest’ that followed “The Telegraph” story about the politicals. This bugging ‘celebs’ scandal of course is familiar enough to tabloid editors and journo’s. There seems to be a consensus to rapidly move on, not least by concentrating attention on the issue of the wicked lawmakers and their phoney expenses.

One further troubling aspect is that the British police, apart from the hacking of the royals which was treated as a criminal case, seem to have been “hands off “- notably reluctant to investigate and pursue wrongdoing by the powerful press. Maybe one day we will get an expose of that! The ‘settled out of court’ cases were civil claims for damages. This obviously does not look good for the integrity of this section of the British police. But in this trial of strength between the nation’s lawmakers and its tabloid journalists, there seems to be no contest.

All the Kings Horses…
Given all the available fire power and a cause in the interest of all maritime powers, insurance companies and international trade generally, it seems astonishing that Somali pirates still are operational, and indeed ever more far-reaching in their depredations. Several maritime nations currently have naval vessels stationed in the wide expanse of ocean off East Africa. It now seems to be a case of ‘win some lose some’ for these navies, but the menace continues.

It is a proud part of their history that early in the 19th century, the US Marines invaded “the shores of Tripoli,” the Barbary coast, precisely because of the continuing acts of the Barbary pirates inflicted on their merchant ships, in the Mediterranean. After the experience of the “Black Hawk Down” intervention onshore in Somalia, there isn’t likely to be any re-run of that disaster for the modern US military. As is well known, various attempts to see some sort of government in Mogadishu have continued to fail, which removes the obvious solution, because the Somalis themselves should deal with this menace. Interestingly, that part of historical Somalia called Puntland, now quasi-independent, has been prepared to take responsibility for captured pirates, delivered to them by various navies. That small unrecognised state has so far jailed 154 for involvement in piracy, and 72 are awaiting trial. But the question still remains, since several modern navies have ships deployed, how can it be, if they are using aerial reconnaissance, modern radar, and if merchant shipping is induced to stick to sea-lanes, that they cannot intercept any and all attempts at piracy? Maybe the pirate boats are too small for conventional radar, but many a time there have been successful searches for similar-sized solitary lifeboats in remote waters.

Why didn’t the watchdogs bark?
It took a disaster to sink the mammoth Enron back in 2002 How could it have happened? The key question for many was the role played by the auditors Arthur Andersen, who were disgraced and destroyed by the revelations. The submergence of Lehman Bros Bank in 2008 once again points towards the key role of the auditors, this time Ernst and Young. This has emerged as a result of a government investigation now published and draws attention to an accounting device known as Repo105, used between internationally separated regulatory regimes. At a time when Lehmans, under pressure from short-sellers were seeking to reassure the public about their finances being fine, they were in fact massively distorted via this accounting gimmick, by as much as $50 billion! In both these cases of questionable (or worse) accounting, these ‘grotesqueries’ only came to light because of the ultimate failure of each company.

So how about all the other Wall St Banks and indeed major corporations still happily in business under ‘famous name’ audit supervision? The question now is a crisis for national regulators and the auditing industry, let alone investors. What is really going on with other financial giants, that have not so far failed? At a time when many banks and major corporations are larger than the economies of most nation states, it is no longer reassuring to see a ‘famous name auditor’ signing off accounts. Now the suspicion is growing that the contemptuous Lords of the Universe, en masse, are playing smart games with the market, governments, and the rest of us. Why should we in future suspend disbelief at the published results for many corporations – and more seriously banks, or trust the ratings doled out by big name credit agencies.

“Iran Tough” but not too tough
There is a feeling in the air that maybe…just maybe, significant things are starting to happen about IRAN’s apparent determination to acquire a military nuclear capability. Since the respected IAEA gave a thumbs-down in terms of their earlier ‘not-proven’ stance, saying that they now believed IRAN had deceived them by non-disclosure, there has been a hardening of positions internationally, excepting only China. This months IRAN report tells of the effect that existing sanctions –on importing petroleum – are having, and the lining up of measures to interrupt Iran’s oil exports. It seems, for example, that Lloyds will no longer insure oil cargoes from Iran.

There is a psychological war already starting. The US has moved a supply of ‘bunker-buster’ bombs to its island base at Diego Garcia. The fact that we are allowed to know that, qualifies it under this heading. Iran for their part announced that the Revolutionary Guard has promoted a new General Commander, who is a specialist in asymmetric warfare, joining their ground force commander who has the same speciality.

Meanwhile supply and demand don’t go away. China looks to have taken up the slack in customer demand for Iranian oil. These imports are now valued at an annual $31 billion. Tehran seems also to have pressed on the accelerator in reviving the gas-supply pipeline project to PAKISTAN and INDIA.

Iraq: Counting and Horse trading
It really was an election that no one could call, but we now analyse the results which clearly show winners and losers. There is talk of recounts and of coalitions in IRAQ. One undoubted winner is President Obama who now can feel justified in pulling the bulk of his troops out on timetable. But whilst certain pols did very well, Allawi and al-Sadr in particular, how that will play in terms of control, it is too soon to say. The two possible prime ministers are Maliki, if he can get a majority, and Allawi, whom we believe may have an edge. He did particularly well as a secular Shi-ite, in gaining impressive support from the Sunni voters, who in the first election abstained, but now have re-entered the political fray. He has a small overall lead and has immediately offered to cooperate with other parties. Surprisingly, the Kurdish vote was not as monolithic as previously, partly because the Sunni did turn out and vote this time, and in mixed Kurdish /Sunni seats they made their presence felt. Yet the Kurdish alliance could still be kingmakers. Indeed before the election that looked very likely, but now it is by no means the only possible outcome. Our Update reviews the performance of the several groups and speculates about who will join whom, about which more of course in our reports to follow.

Pakistan’s problems don’t go away
As we noted above in IRAN, efforts have increased to get the gas pipeline through to PAKISTAN from neighbouring Iran, since PAKISTAN’s electricity supply falls well short of demand. Of course they are aware of the hostility of the US to any deal that helps the economy of IRAN, but the gas pipeline would also continue to India. It is unlikely that the US could be too strenuous about this, partly because it already has a strained relationship with Islamabad, and wouldn’t want that to extend to New Delhi. The other point is that energy transfer is politically in a class of its own. Japan for example has for many years taken much of its oil from Iran and it is not feasible for the world to stop buying oil from that country, on the say-so of countries who get their supplies elsewhere. It is probable then that the gas pipeline IRAN-PAKISTAN-INDIA will go through as planned. This is quite distinct from the TAPI project where gas from TURKMENISTAN could traverse AFGHANISTAN and PAKISTAN to INDIA (more about which is at TURKMENISTAN).

The strain between the US and Pakistan has much to do with money. The US offered a billion dollars in aid and as we explain, it is coming up $400 million short. This is due to the absence of proof of expenditure, and over-billing. Auditing of US expenditure in military aid seems to have tightened up since the wild and wonderful early days in Iraq, when dollar bills were coming in, not in the proverbial ‘shiploads,’ but certainly in plane loads. The Pakistani bureaucracy and military are not immune to corruption, and are not used to being frustrated in its pursuit.

Our April issue reviews the latest tribulations of PAKISTAN’s President Zardari (who knows a thing or two about corruption), and in his general retreat the process of passing on to parliament hitherto presidential powers of appointments at top level, ie provincial governors, heads of armed services etc. The army, the courts, the parliament, all of these power-holders could bring him down, as he is well aware.

Afghanistan treads warily
In almost every direction President Karzai has to step very warily. His foreign sponsors have certainly got his measure. The US would have liked to replace him but there was no better prospect on any horizon. He is under great international pressure to clamp down on corruption, but he has made his main internal policy plank to allow his family, his numerous cronies, the warlords, the tribal leaders, all those in fact that make his low quality administration operate at all, the opportunity for getting their share of what is available. We give an insight into the present scale of corruption, starting with an estimate of $10 million flying out of Kabul airport daily.

Karzai’s policy of achieving peace via a deal with the Taliban, understandably has many backers, not least in the west, but the ISI’s arrest of Mullah Baradur in Pakistan has put a stop to that, for the time being. What we don’t know, now that the spooks have got hold of him, is whether he is being subjected to ‘harsh interrogation’ for what he knows as operational chief of the Taliban, or being set up to negotiate peace with his fellow Taliban leaders; or whether the Pakistani ISI have devious plans of their own, not for the first time, of perhaps bringing back the Taliban under their control.

This issue looks at crony capitalism; also the renewed prospects for TAPI – the long proposed gas pipeline to run TURKMENISTAN- AFGHANISTAN - PAKISTAN - INDIA, also a small upsurge in foreign trade; as well as our considered current views on the politics of this country.

Libya: not at any price
Libya’s leader is renowned for his ‘excesses,’ but now with a growing family around him, they are more and more causing the headlines. The Qadaffi sons are not quite on a par with the Saddam Hussein boys – but they have the potential! The world is not so jaded that it cannot have noticed that Colonel Qadaffi has called down a jihad on unsuspecting Switzerland. It is true that this small, rich central European state whose name is synonymous with peacemaking and healing (aka The Red Cross), also big-time private banking, did pass a change in zoning laws prohibiting minarets on new buildings. But the real reason and cause of antagonism from North African LIBYA is explained in our March, and this April report on that country. We also note that whilst LIBYA is an important nation in the oil and gas world, it is not as vital as it was once thought to be -we seek to justify that comment.

Russia –US: The Elephant in the Room
Our RUSSIA report looks at the state of negotiations that have now resulted in replacing the START treaty which have just been concluded. President Obama quite rightly wants to put US Russian relations on a better basis than before, by concluding the deal for both to substantially cut their nuclear stockpiles –by up to 30%. A US administration spokesman suggested that the Russians kept on introducing ‘trivia’ just as it seemed that the negotiations were concluded. It seems that he had the chutzpah to refer to the January announcement of the US Missile defence system, to be based on US ships on the Romanian Black Sea coast as ’trivia.’ It was in fact ‘the elephant in the room’. In our last issue we referred to this as comparable to the Cuban missiles project with the roles reversed. We can expect to hear more about this development. It now seems that the reduction of nuclear warheads deal leading to the new START treaty will proceed and for the time being, the US Missile Defence System will remain on the table. There will be separate discussions, indeed the Russians have said that if ‘missile defence’ becomes more clearly designed against them, they will insist that the whole missiles reduction agreement comes back for further negotiations, but we cannot see the Russians shrugging this off as unimportant.

The origins of the horrific Moscow Metro bombing are suggested currently as being in the Northern Caucasus, where apart from Chechnya, other neighbouring republics within the Russian Federation  have their share of Islamic militants with the same resentment of Russian overlordship. RUSSIA is the world’s last imperial power, in a post-colonial age. The hatred that has built up in the repression of national movements manifested itself in this evil strike against innocent civilians in Moscow, just as innocent civilians from those outlying republics were rolled over by the military machine. Moscow will now certainly concentrate on the symptoms not the causes, for that would mean the break-up of empire, but future leaderships will have to address the problem of unwilling colonies.

Particularly horrifying perhaps because they were female suicide bombers, the big question for Russians now is will there be more such indiscriminate mass murder, and how will life change as a result?

In this issue we also look at RUSSIA-China relations following a top level meeting between Vice- President Xi Jinping and Prime-minister Putin, who clearly seek to provide a counterbalance to the international weight of the USA. They already have the Shanghai co-operation agreement not specifically aimed at anybody, but ….

Al Qaida re-enters the Saudi frame
Just as things were quietening down in Yemen – the small war on Saudi’s frontier with a Yemeni tribe, is easing off, the threat of Al Qaida in SAUDI ARABIA itself is resurrected, with the arrest of up to a one hundred strong Al Qaida cell, it is suggested. We examine that news and its various implications. We also note that SAUDI ARABIA is addressing the US directly on the question of Israeli intransigence in the peace process, asking: “why is Israel allowed to disregard the international community’s will by insisting on its continuing settlement program?” Saudi earlier saw its own very reasonable peace plan snubbed by Israel, and now, like many another, sees the actual, (as opposed to the hypocritical) Netanyahu stance, on a two-state solution to the Israel Palestine problem, as a serious factor in influencing the course of Islamic terrorism. Their argument is that this depends on young, idealistic, impressionable Islamic volunteers, undoubtedly moved by the plight of the Palestinians. Saudi is also concerned about the unresolved elections in its northern neighbour IRAQ. Their fear is that a predominantly Shi-ite regime in Iraq would de facto be in alliance with Iran. That these two together with their combined clout in oil supplies could knock Saudi off its pro-western stance, in terms or more or less determining oil pricing through OPEC.

Syria from pariah to ally?
We note that in the five years since the unresolved murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri that the stock of President al Assad (junior) has risen, so that SYRIA is once again regarded as a useful intermediary on the outstanding question of settling the Israel-Palestine problem. Indeed, we suspect that Netanyahu will play for time and not get down to serious negotiations with the Palestinians, expecting the powerful Israeli lobby in the US to exert maximum leverage on his behalf, the closer it comes to the presidential and congressional elections. In such circumstances, President Obama, if faced with unchanging Israeli intransigence, may need to find another route to set up the new state of Palestine, in which SYRIA would be vital. Apart from that, SYRIA remains on good terms with IRAN and has a potential role there as an intermediary, if the nuclear impasse continues to deteriorate.

Syria also may become internationally more significant, because it is one of the few secular Arab states (Iraq used to be). The possibility remains that particularly after the US forces move out of Iraq, a Shi-ite dominated government there, if that is what emerges, will find themselves in de facto alliance with the Shi-ite government in Iran on many issues. Syria from its secular position can at least be rational about future decisions. Of course, given its geographical position, cheek-by-jowl with Israel, it can reasonably expect the international community to help by persuading Israel to negotiate honestly with regard to restoring that part of Syria occupied by Israel, since the wars of the 1960’s.

Taiwan: the enduring power of democracy
Taiwan did not have democracy thrust upon them like nearby Japan, but achieved it the hard way. They first had to endure a long military regime as a result of the defeated KuoMinTang armies retreating to the large island, following the military triumph of the PLA on the mainland of China. It truly evolved in Taiwan into being quite an admirable system, as well as achieving great economic success, with two major parties contending for power. The revived KMT which is now very supportive of their former enemies in Beijing, are currently in power. Our previous reports have chronicled how they railroaded the former president into jail through a kangaroo court, with a deeply unconvincing trial, and have acted in other ways as a surrogate of China. Our report this month tells how the citizens of TAIWAN have, by using the democratic means at their disposal, reacted powerfully against these policies of the regime, sending a clear message to the present President Ma, that he is quite unlikely to be re-elected. It is so far a heart-warming story for democrats everywhere.

India at the cutting edge
On the topic of democracy, India (as the world’s largest) has led the way on women’s representation. They have approved a bill to reserve a third of all legislative seats at national and state levels. The nation has produced great women political leaders, Mrs Indira Gandhi and more recently her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi. At present, women make up just 10% of the Lok Sabha and significantly fewer in state assemblies.

A new and unforeseen green weapon has emerged that has been found fit for use, after trials in Indian defence laboratories. It is ‘the Chili Grenade’ whose powerful acrid flavour is from the world’s hottest chilli, the ‘bhut jolokia’ and has shown the capability of immobilizing suspects. It may be true that Mexico is working on a rival version. Where it’s use stands under the Geneva convention, has not been clarified.

Ukraine: Out with the old
Following the defeat of the former ‘Orangeists’, losing both the presidency and the prime-ministership to the Russia-inclined new President Yanukovich, without delay the personnel changes at the top have taken place and the new team have got down to business. Obtaining a voting majority in the UKRAINE parliament has given birth to a constitutional row which the outgoing prime-minister Yulia Timoshenko will be sure to exploit. It could even, depending on the constitutional court decision, lead to a new election. Meanwhile, the new majority in parliament let it be known that they would be passing a law to prevent Ukraine joining foreign-inspired military alliances, thus putting paid to the previous regime’s hopes of joining NATO, and indeed NATO’s hopes of including this large Slavic nation. Whether this means equally that UKRAINE will reject joining the Russia-backed military Alliance CSTO, made up of seven other FSU republics, remains to be seen, but it really seems, given the wording of the resolution - that they would not join any military alliance at this time. Since the former administration’s ambitions to join the EU were not mentioned, it seems that this will not be pursued. Unsurprisingly, the change of regime has tilted UKRAINE away from a western leaning stance, back towards Moscow, but in a parliamentary democracy as this now is, the opposition will be campaigning and indeed have chances of success in the longer term.

Philippines readying for elections
Elections here are known to be lethal. Our report looks at the preparations including no less than 117 private armies, formed by politicians to protect their turf on election day. Newspapers are suggesting that this could be the most violent election on record. Already 90 people have been killed in pre-election violence, including 57 murdered in Mindanao last December. The 2004 poll, saw 148 deaths, but violence and politics and crime and corruption are brothers in the Philippines.

Conspiracies and Paranoia in Turkey
This issue’s Update of TURKEY describes a nation unique in many ways, but with a population split between holding deep suspicions of quite different conspiracies, having in common only that their proponents aim to control the state.
TURKEY is uniquely a Moslem (but not Arab) democracy. Many, perhaps most of the Arab states were at one time a part of the Turkish empire that ended only after WWI. But unlike its former vassals, TURKEY under its enlightened leader, Mustafa Kemal threw off the shackles of formal religion (the last Ottoman Sultan was also the last Caliph).
Nevertheless there is a ‘soft’ Islamic government which is quite effective, and there lies the rub. The secular ‘old guard’ known as ‘the Deep State’ following in the tradition of Kemal, is convinced that the AKP party of government has a secret agenda to return the nation to its Islamic thralldom. They have the dread example of next door IRAN, with its government of mullahs. We describe the contravening conspiracy stories in some detail, together with recent events. Matters are probably going to calm down, TURKEY after all wishes to join the EU, but their candidature is far from certain.

Central Asia: Competing for Ascendency
Relations between KAZAKHSTAN and UZBEKISTAN, the two largest countries in Central Asia, have never been genuinely warm, as they compete for ascendancy in the region. However, a recent meeting in Tashkent between the two countries was reported as cordial. Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev secured Uzbek support for his aim of hosting an OSCE summit later this year. [Kazakhstan-OSCE mid-month report]. In return, he offered unqualified backing for Uzbekistan’s stance on hydropower development in Central Asia. That is that no hydropower facilities should be built in upstream countries, until international feasibility studies are completed. [WATER WARS special report] Securing Tashkent’s support is seen as a sign of diplomatic reconciliation between the two countries. During his visit, Nazarbayev was at pains to deny any rivalry between the two countries, insisting that any such reports are "invented." He called instead for regional unity. "It is important as never before not to allow fragmentation and diffusion in our region. I am convinced that without serious dynamics in our personal and interstate relations, the region will not be able to join forces for development and prosperity." How long this warmth will last, remains to be seen.

UZBEKISTAN lacks the abundant natural resources of KAZAKHSTAN. However its long border with Afghanistan gives it a special geopolitical significance. Our update reports the continuing crackdown inside Uzbekistan by the repressive Karimov regime. Some of the wealthiest people in UZBEKISTAN have reportedly been arrested or detained recently, or are being hunted down by the Uzbek authorities. They include the president of one of Tashkent's premier football clubs, the owner of the country's largest wholesale market, construction magnates and bankers, according to media reports. Others with ties to big business have reportedly fled the country. Uzbek officials are portraying this campaign as an anti-corruption drive. One official confirmed reports that some leading business people are being investigated and some have been arrested. The official denied that business elites in general are being targeted, insisting it was just criminals. Media outlets that cover Uzbekistan, abound with theories on the reasons behind the crackdown. One theory is that the state needs money and that the authorities are forced to find new means of generating revenue. By taking over an established and successful business or threatening legal action, the rich are ’persuaded’ to put huge amounts of money into state coffers.

Turkmenistan: new possibilities for TAPI
This Caspian nation has been reported by us since we first commenced offering the newnations service and there was a momentous change of regime in TURKMENISTAN two years ago, significant because the Turkmenbashi (“Father of the Turkmen”) was his official title, suddenly disappeared off the scene. He was renowned for the tightness of his police state and for the massive gas and oil wealth which appeared to accrue to his personal benefit. He died, the world was told, of natural causes, and his successor, referred to variously as his nephew, his son and his dentist, who rejoices in the longest name in world politics (see the report), made a remarkably smooth transition to become the new ‘boss’. He must now be one of the richest men in the world.

There is undoubtedly a tale yet to be told about this succession, and its aftermath. Suffice it to say that the chief of Turkmenbashi’s palace guard, the Turkmen KGB, was a key player in the handover drama, but six months or so later, he and apparently all of those aides close to the late Turkmenbashi, found themselves in jail with long sentences. The story one day to emerge, will hopefully determine who was behind this (and was it a) coup? However, Turkmenistan remains a police state with some 20,000 political prisoners. Watchdog groups perennially rank Turkmenistan as one of the world’s foremost human rights abusers. But the closed nature of the Turkmen political system hampers outsiders from getting a full picture of the country’s authoritarian system.

This thinly populated former soviet republic is an important supplier of natural gas to Russia, China and others, and in this month’s issue, our Turkmenistan report reconsiders the revived project of a gas pipeline - the TAPI project, to transit through Afghanistan, Pakistan, (it is also an item in these countries current reports) and India. A strategically critical pipeline, if it can be achieved - but it’s a big ‘if,’ since the original project was already being planned by a forward-looking US oil company, before 9/11 and the arrival of US forces to fight a war in Afghanistan. That shut down the prospects, until recently. However, gas-rich TURKMENISTAN will be making efforts to revive the project convening India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to join them in a meeting in April. Experts from the four countries are about to meet in Turkmenistan's capital to discuss the $4 billion pipeline's route and the volume of gas that Turkmenistan can contract to supply to India and Pakistan.

The Caucasus
In the Caucasus there was a bizarre event. Georgian television viewers were treated to the news headline: "Russia invades Georgia, Saakashvili dead". The government-controlled Imedi TV channel aired a 30-minute “news report” showing Russian troops invading GEORGIA. However, most viewers missed the initial short warning that the report was an example of possible events that could only occur “if Georgian society is not brought together against Russia’s plans.” Thousands rushed out onto the streets. President Saakashvili claimed that such “staging” of a war situation might be useful to protect Georgia from a new war with Russia.

Russia's leadership is furious, as are many Georgians, and has let its anger be known via Brussels. Russian NATO ambassador Dmitry Rogozin stated that the fake news report may have the intention to create an atmosphere of paranoia in order to sway public opinion in favour of another war in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He added: “They’re trying to create an image of Russia as a permanent enemy of Georgia, and create a tense situation on its borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This report is just part of the information war Mikhail Saakashvili has been waging. It’s part of state propaganda to promote a new war. Of course, Saakashvili knew about preparations for this report. The Imedi channel is controlled by the Georgian government, so this couldn’t have been done without his blessing. It’s a well-planned act aimed at scheming new armed conflicts in the Caucasus region.”

The Georgian invasion hoax has been causing concern in neighbouring AZERBAIJAN. If the Russians ever were to occupy GEORGIA, they would be neighbours of the Azeris. The Azeri leadership is therefore concerned about the reaction of their own people to the ‘invasion’. President Ilham Aliyev and his ministers regard it as the height of irresponsibility for Georgian President Saakashvili to have licensed this folly. The Azeris are very aware of Russia’s support of Armenia in occupying Nagorno-Karabakh, and 20% of Azeri territory. Latest reports are not good on any prospects of a peaceful resolution of that conflict, which is what makes the TV hoax the more deplorable. ARMENIA cannot get over their astonishment at what has happened in Georgia. They regard the Russians as their dearest allies and have no desire to foment enmity with them. Russia was their great ally against Azerbaijan in the 1988-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave there. On this, progress on the Madrid proposals of the OSCE is stalled, with the Armenians being intransigent. It would be political suicide for any Armenian leader to relinquish Nagorno-Karabakh, or even the Lachin corridor between themselves and their enclave in Azerbaijan, which taken alone might offer a solution. It is increasingly looking like one of those long lasting, insoluble geopolitical conflicts.

The Balkans
We learn that the intractable problems of BOSNIA, the Balkans and the world beyond may have a religious dimension. For almost 30 years, the Virgin Mary has been said to appear daily in Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, dressed sometimes in a grey dress and veil and sometimes in gold, crowned with stars and floating on a cloud. Speaking in Croatian it is claimed that she has been heard to say: "I've come because there are many true believers here. I wish to be with you to convert and reconcile the whole world." Pending that eventuality, Bosnia continues to be haunted by the horrors of the 1992-5 war. One of them is the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 in which 7/8,000 Bosnian Muslim youths and men were slaughtered by Bosnian Serbs. Investigations into the Srebrenica massacre have found the massacre occurred partly because the UN troops, an isolated Dutch battalion’s duty to protect the enclave, was fatally hampered by a lack of numbers, no heavy weapons and the United Nations’ failure to give it either adequate terms of engagement, or the air support that it urgently requested.

Our updates on SERBIA and CROATIA reveal that a recent Balkans summit in Slovenia meant to revive regional cooperation, in fact revealed the deep divisions between Balkan states. The conference on March 20-21, organized by Slovenia and Croatia, hoped to boost cooperation and rekindle enthusiasm for the EU. SERBIA refused to attend unless its former province of Kosovo was represented only as ‘a UN-run protectorate’, which Pristina refused. SERBIA has vowed never to recognize Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. CROATIA hopes to join the EU in 2012 while others have a long way to go. All of them have to implement political and economic reforms, while Serbia also has to cooperate with the UN war crimes tribunal and show a more constructive stance on Kosovo. Serbia is the largest former Yugoslav republic and the slowest to embrace the EU, because of the isolation into which it was plunged after the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Serbia however won visa-free travel for its citizens to the EU and started a free-trade agreement in 2009.

The Balkan states have expressed serious concerns about the political and economic impact on them of the ongoing financial crisis in Greece. BULGARIA a member of the EU, and ALBANIA are particularly vulnerable. Greece is a major investor in the Balkans and is also host to several hundred thousand economic migrants from the region. Remittances from Greece to the Balkans have amounted to many millions of dollars annually, providing livelihoods for many families. The main beneficiaries have been ALBANIA and BULGARIA. Greek food processing, small food retailers and clothing and textile companies have moved to Bulgaria, FYR-Macedonia and Albania. Major investments in the construction, telecommunication and energy sectors of these neighbouring countries have followed. Greek banking capital has been the forerunner in this process. During the last 15 years, Greek banks have penetrated deeply into the banking system of the Balkan countries.

Clive Lindley

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