Friday, December 31, 2010

Deciphering Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan, a country that we, in the West, hardly identify on the map, is not only a mystery, but a place – as many in the world – where you could read the Cold War, the latest impact of globalization and the geopolitical reassessments. More than Belarus, it is a benchmark in the regional configuration, given its potential and the crossings of various interests.

Since December 2001, it was opened here a base – Manas Air Base, currently the Transit Center at Manas - to support U.S. military operations in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. As in the case of other countries from the former Soviet empire, as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the US and international presence in general, was considered an important assets in getting more money and recognition – despite the poor record in the area of corruption, democracy and human rights. But, for small countries, it is almost impossible to play alone. Russia and China have been pushing often for the closure of the base and the local Parliament voted in December 2009 in favor of such a move. The base will continue to be hosted until 2014.

When it is not in the cards of the big power-brokers, Kyrgyzstan is trying, not always successful to build its own path. And we will hear again in the news about the country when there are violent coups – as it was this April, when the former president Kumanbek Bakiyev was removed from power and fled to Belarus. The country is facing economic problems, but also an ethnic conflict in the South, with the Uzbeks, where during the last summer there were registered several clashes, leading to the death of hundreds and displacement of thousands. But in a country where you don’t have free media and full democracy, it is difficult to estimate the situation.

In the last years, people went out in the street fighting for reform – as it was the case in 2006, where the current prime-minister Almazbek Atambayev participated to the protests of the movement За Реформы (For Reform). But it is hard to understand from the first sight why the reform couldn’t be accomplished. The latest parliamentary elections leaded to the creation of a coalition of opposition parties, who could play a big role in promoting democracy, given the increased powers of the Parliament since this summer.

As in the case of other ex Soviet members – as Moldova – the first trip overseas of the new prime minister was in Moscow, for meeting Vladimir Putin and got back the promise of more investments and loans. On the other hand, the West is trying to do its best, with fewer financial resources in comparison with the beginning of 1990s, for helping the country, but after more than 20 years of experience in the transitional processes in the former communist countries, not too many wonders to be expected.

The tensed relations with the neighbors – Belarus is hosting the former president, Uzbekistan just raised the natural-gas price, despite the Kyrgyz promise for a nomination of the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, for the Nobel Peace Prize - are increasing the level of dependency of the country of Russia. But what it is the advantage for Russia to keep all those “satellites”, apart the illusion of the glorious “old good times” of the Soviet Union?

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Belarus, the rogue state

President of Belarus Alexander LukashenkoImage via Wikipedia//Lukashenko is looking East

Belarus – or White Russia – where it is on the map? What can you, my reader, tell me about this state? A couple of months ago, maybe the last year, I’ve read an interesting article in the Monocle review about the business environment and the expat life there. I doubt it was a promotional one, but anyway, it was interesting to discover that it is something going on in this corner of the world – is this part of Europe?, you might ask.
What I know for sure, without reading daily reports about Belarus is that there is a president called Aleksandr Lukashenko, a former director of a state-owned agricultural farm, who is in power since 1994. And who is organizing puppet elections for enjoying the wonderful pleasure of being reelected – with a vast majority, if possible, this time with a successful rate of almost 97%.
As in many puppet states, there are opposition parties whose candidates are allowed to compete, but if unhappy with the results, they are in danger to be put in prison and convicted for years in prison. And this is available for anybody daring to protest, as it happened on the streets of Minsk, December 19th: journalists, civic activists, or even foreign citizens of the former Empire.

The US and EU condemned the post-election crackdown and said the ballot itself had been flawed and international media extensively reported about the daily violences and the international reactions.

Is Russia – with whom Belarus had a long dispute in 2006 over the gas supplies in 2006 – a supporter of Lukashenko? This is hard to think that without Russia’s support, few of the countries with open communications channels with Minsk – Lukashenko will resist. Apparently, as in other situations, the discussions over gas is a completely separate business of the political dialogue. In comparison with other years, Moscow, and mainly prime-minister Vladimir Putin, is decided to avoid any new gas rows and by thus, giving a green light to Minsk to continue unhampered its repressive policies. A free Belarus will think about joining EU and NATO and will be a lost card from the poker full of the old Empire. A dangerous game for the future.

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A Hungarian wind of change?

Among the members of the Eastern Bloc, Hungary was always the terrible child, the object of the envy of many of the comrades from the other side of the Iron Curtain. The events from 1956, the slow but firm opening of the economy to the market, the contribution to the fall of communism, by removal of the 150 miles border fence with Austria, in May 1989, and allowing East German tourists on holiday to escape to the West…There are only a couple of the main facts contributing to the European profile of Hungary. To this, it may be added the strong national identity and the persistence in supporting the country’s interests all over the world, through a well-organized and efficient lobby. After the end of the Cold War, Hungary succeeded in becoming a prosperous NATO (1999) and EU (2004) member.

From January 1st 2011, Hungary will take over the rotating presidency of the EU facing a difficult regional agenda, with the debt crisis on the very top of the priorities. But, in the same time, the conservative government run by Viktor Orbán is the subject of home and external criticism for various political initiatives: from the recent nationalizations to the intrusion of the state in the affairs of the media.

According to the law voted this week by the FIDESZ dominated parliament and waiting the signature of the president – who is having strong ties with the ruling party - , the new National Media and Communications Authority (NMHH), dominated by people loyal to the ruling FIDESZ party, will oversee all public news production and its powers will include levying big fines - up to 730,000 euros ($950,000) - or shut down news outlets which flout rules. The media is under threat in other former communist countries, but also in Italy, where the prime-minister Silvio Berlusconi is controlling the press directly or through its trustworthy representatives.

Despite international criticism from Luxembourg and Germany, and the mobilization of the Hungarian journalists (mostly on social media as Facebook or Twitter, but also through the local Hungarian 2.0 networks), the FIDESZ’s leaders announced that they will not give up. But, taking into account Italy’s precedent, many EU diplomats are already skeptic that those provisions will affect Hungary’s relations within the Union and, by thus, the freedom of movement as president of the 27-member bloc. Despite the protests of the OSCE  and of the European Parliament, the local authorities are denying any attempts to crack down on media. "It's very regrettable that the latest international opinions don't include any facts, only fears and threats," Peter Szijjarto, the Prime Minister's spokesman said in a release Thursday.

Hungary escaped financial meltdown in 2008 thanks to a bailout of the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The government's unconventional fiscal measures -- which include taxes levied on banks and mostly foreign firms and an effective nationalization of private pension fund assets -- have prompted ratings downgrades and elevated Hungary's risk premia as investors worry that the deficit could swell after 2012. Another controversial measure took by Orban's FIDESZ was the intrusion in the justice and the politicisation of the institution, after people loyal to the party were placed at the top of public institutions in a consolidation of power that is expected to continue. A phenomenon very familiar in many Eastern European countries.

Among the main tasks that Hungary will have to manage are: the talks on the 2014-2020 EU’s budget, the integration of Roma minority and the discussions whether Romania and Bulgaria are ready enough for joining the Schengen free-travel zone.

On the other hand, the powers of the six-month presidency were limited after the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty which created the positions of EU high representative and of EU permanent president, who will oversee the whole activity. Hungarian officials will preside over monthly meetings of ministers of agriculture, energy, environment, employment and, most crucially, of finances.

Viktor Orbán and many of its top party members used to be on the forefront of changes in Hungary, educated in the West, protesting against communism and supporting an economic liberal agenda. Little by little they turned the page to a conservative side and alienated most part of the media and the public intellectuals. The failure of the previous socialist party, rotten by corruption promoted their comeback in force, this April together with the resurgence of far-right parties. The further internal evolutions and the international behaviors will be decisive in the months to come for outlining the Hungarian profile in the 21st century, with a regional impact hard to estimate for the moment. And there are already too many question marks about this future.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

The list of the next 25 posts - at least - is ready and hope to be able to finish them as soon as possible, including in the next two days. The priority lists of books and articles and topics I would like to write about is under evaluation. My objectives for the next 12 months?
Not too many, but pretty ambitious:
- To finish my wonderful book about Diplomacy 2.0
- To finish my e-book project dedicated to the most important events of the last year. The deadline was end of December, but various reasons pushed me to delay for the first half of January
- To continue to offer to my readers interesting articles and analysis on the top issues of foreign affairs, by regular posts and freelance articles
- To expand the area of expertise and knowledge and to get in touch with other people interested in the same topics
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Monday, December 27, 2010

“Khodorkovsky is the name of the next Russian president”

Mikhail KhodorkovskyImage via Wikipedia//Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Will the Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner, Platon Lebedev spend another 14 years in prison? They have been accused, according to a verdict announced today, of stealing some $25bn (£16bn) worth of oil - or practically all the oil that their company, Yukos, produced between 1998-2000, and all the oil it exported between 2000-03, and then laundering the proceeds. Both of them already spent seven years behind bars.
The independent observers are considering the sentence as a protection took by the current duo from Kremlin Medvedev and Putin, for keeping their power for another mandate. The next presidential elections are expected in 2012.
Khodorkovsky’s lawyers announced that he will appeal the verdict.
The decision was not a surprise, and Vladimir Putin spoke in a recent interview in support of a lengthy prison sentence. He reaffirmed that Khodorkovsky is a proven criminal and "should sit in jail", a statement denounced by critics as interference in the trial. In a country as Russia, where justice and judges are so fragile, such statements were translated as a hint for the decision expected in the court. And, of course, Putin is not alone in his “good wishes” for the oil tycoon.
"I am ready to die in jail," Khodorkovsjy said in his last word to the court in November, while strongly reiterating his innocence. “No one believes an innocent verdict in the Yukos case is possible in a Moscow court,” he said on another occasion.
Today, during the lecture of his verdict, he was reading a book.
How will affect this decision the public opinion ? Only 13% of those polled in September by Levada Center said they believed the charges, down from 29% in February. (Roughly twice as many, 24%, said they did not believe the charges.) There were protests today, held against the decision, but the probability to turn this case into an Achilles’ heel for the current power is not likely to occur.
But, once free, Khodorkovsky might represent a powerful brand for a fragile and incoherent sometimes opposition and Russian voices on Twitter indicated him as the possible next president. With the condition to let him free! In May 2010, former primer minister and current opposition leader Kasyanov said the new charges against Khodorkovsky were ludicrous and politically motivated. He said that Putin, while president, had been angered by Khodorkovsky's financial support for the Communist Party, liberal Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces.
From prison, he is having a very active intellectual life and continue to be present for the Russian public opinion. The political transformation of Khodorkovsky is cited in many of his writings from prison. On Oct. 26, 2009, published a response to Dmitri Medvedev's "Forward, Russia!" article in Vedomosti, arguing that "authoritarianism in its current Russian form does not meet many key humanitarian requirements customary for any country that wishes to consider itself modern and European."
On 28 January 2010, Khodorkovsky authored an opinion article in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune, which argued that "Russia must make a historic choice. Either we turn back from the dead end toward which we have been heading in recent years — and we do it soon — or else we continue in this direction and Russia in its current form simply ceases to exist."
On 3 March 2010, he wrote an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta about the "conveyor belt" of Russian justice. In this article, he warns that "siloviki conveyor belt, which has undermined justice is truly the gravedigger of modern Russian statehood. Because it turns many thousands of the country's most active, sensible and independent citizens against this statehood - with enviable regularity."

Who is the most wanted man?

Khodorkovsky, born in 1963 with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, grew up in an ordinary Soviet family in a two-room apartment in Moscow. He became deputy head of Komsomol (the Communist Youth League) at his university, the Mendeleev Moscow Institute of Chemistry and Technology, where he graduated in chemical engineering in 1986, getting into the ranks of communist apparatchiks.
After perestroika started, Khodorkovsky used his connections within the communist structures to gain a foothold in the developing free market. He used the help of some powerful people to start his business activities under the cover of Komsomol. Friendship with another Komsomol leader Alexey Golubovich helped him greatly in his further success, since Golubovich's parents held top positions in the State Bank of the USSR.
With partners from Komsomol, and technically operating under its authority, Khodorkovsky opened his first business in 1986, a private café. In 1987 they opened a "Center for Scientific and Technical Creativity of the Youth" (which eventually allowed him to found the bank Menatep). In addition to importing and reselling computers, the "scientific" center was involved in trading a wide range of other products; French brandy, Swiss vodka. It is alleged that these goods were mostly counterfeit: "Swiss" vodka was produced in Poland, and the brandy was not French.
By 1988, he had built an import-export business with a turnover of 80 million rubles a year (about $10 million USD). Armed with cash from his business operations, Khodorkovsky and his partners used their international connections to obtain a banking licence to create Bank Menatep in 1989. As one of Russia's first privately owned banks, Menatep expanded quickly, by using most of the deposits raised to finance Khodorkovsky's successful import-export operations.
Bank Menatep
Khodorkovsky also became a philanthropist, whose efforts include the provision of internet-training centres for teachers, a forum for the discussion by journalists of reform and democracy, and the establishment of foundations which finance archaeological digs, cultural exchanges, summer camps for children and a boarding school for orphans.  .
In April 2003, he announced that Yukos would merge with Sibneft, creating an oil company with reserves equal to those of Western petroleum multinationals. Khodorkovsky has been reported to be negotiating with ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco about them taking a large stake in Yukos. Sibneft was created in 1995, at the suggestion of Boris Berezovsky, comprising some of the most valuable assets of a state-owned oil company. In a controversial auction process, Berezovsky acquired 50% of the company at what most agree was a very low price.
When Berezovsky had a confrontation with Putin, and felt compelled to leave Russia for London (where he was granted asylum) he assigned his shares in Sibneft to Roman Abramovich. Abramovich subsequently agreed to the merger.
With 19.5 billion barrels (3 km³) of oil and gas, the merged entity would have owned the second-largest oil and gas reserves in the world after ExxonMobil and would have been the fourth largest in the world in terms of production, pumping 2.3 million barrels (370,000 m³) of crude a day. However, the merger had been recalled by the shareholders of Sibneft after the arrest of Khodorkovsky.

The hunt

In early July 2003, Platon Lebedev, a Khodorkovsky partner and second largest shareholder in Yukos, was arrested on suspicion of illegally acquiring a stake in a state-owned fertiliser firm, Apatit, in 1994. The arrest was followed by investigations into taxation returns filed by Yukos, and a delay to the antitrust commission's approval for its merger with Sibneft.
Khodorkovsky was himself arrested in October 2003, charged with fraud and tax evasion. The Russian Prosecutor General's Office claims Khodorkovsky and his associates cost the state more than $1 billion in lost revenues.
Subsequent to Khodorkovsky's arrest, Leonid Nevzlin gained a controlling stake in Yukos when Khodorkovsky handed him a 60% share in the holding company that controlled the firm. Nevzlin is himself now wanted in Russia and has since fled to Israel.
On 31 March 2009, a new trial of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev began in Moscow for fresh charges on embezzlement and money laundering. The two men face up to 22 more years in prison. Both of them pleaded non guilty and denounce vague accusations. 
Initially news of Khodorkovsky's arrest had a significant effect on the share price of Yukos. The Moscow stock market was closed for the first time ever for an hour in order to assure stable trading as prices collapsed. Russia's currency, the ruble, was also hit as some foreign investors questioned the stability of the Russian market. Media reaction in Moscow was almost universally negative in blanket coverage, some of the more enthusiastic pro-business press discussed the end of capitalism, while even the government-owned press criticised the "absurd" method of Khodorkovsky's arrest.
Yukos moved quickly to replace Khodorkovsky with Russian born U.S. citizen Simon Kukes. Simon Kukes, who became the CEO of Yukos, was already an experienced oil executive.
A week after the arrest, the Prosecutor-General froze Khodorkovsky's shares in Yukos to prevent Khodorkovsky from selling his shares although he retains all his rights to vote the shares and to receive dividends. In 2003, his shares in Yukos passed to Jacob Rothschild under a deal they concluded prior to Khodorkovsky's arrest.

Foreign support

The U.S. State Department said the arrest "raised a number of concerns over the arbitrary use of the judicial system" and was likely to be very damaging to foreign investment in Russia, as it appeared there were "selective" prosecutions occurring against Yukos officials but not against others.
Khodorkovsky has received a high level of independent third party support from groups and individuals who believe the process, charges, and two trials against him are politically motivated. On Nov. 29, 2004, The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights published a report which concluded: "The Assembly considers that the circumstances of the arrest and prosecution of leading Yukos executives suggest that the interest of the State’s action in these cases goes beyond the mere pursuit of criminal justice, to include such elements as to weaken an outspoken political opponent, to intimidate other wealthy individuals and to regain control of strategic economic assets."
In June 2009, the Council of Europe published a report which criticized the Russian government's handling of the Yukos case, entitled "Allegations of Politically Motivated Abuses of the Criminal Justice System in Council of Europe Member States".
Statements of support for Khodorkovsky and criticism of the state's persecution have been passed by the Italian Parliament, the German Bundestag, and the U.S. House of Representatives, among many other official bodies. Recently, a group of intellectuals pledged for his release.
Is this any chance for a change?

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A new down for Kosovo?

Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci goes throu...Image via Wikipedia//Hashim Thaci

Kosovo elected the members of the legislative on December 12th, for the first time since the declaration of independence in 2008, but the ways in which the electoral process was organized and held is raising serious questions regarding the accuracy and reliability of the vote.
According to the resultsKosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo won more than 33 percent of the vote in a field of 29 parties. The leading opposition party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, garnered over 23 percent, while the Self-Determination Movement ran third with just over 12 percent. Prime Minister Thaci now has about 90 days to form a government. 
Independent observers were present at polling stations throughout Kosovo and called the voting process largely "effective and efficient," though there were some irregularities during the vote count in several polling locations. American Ambassador to Kosovo Christopher Dell observed 17 polling stations, including in Srbica, where he noted that the ballots in the box exceeded the number of signatures in the voters' book.  The U.S. urges the Kosovo elections commission to address the few serious irregularities that occurred. The United States also regrets the atmosphere of threats, intimidation, and violence from Serbian sources directed for weeks against Kosovo Serbs in northern Kosovo that prevented many there from exercising their democratic rights.
In 2008, the majority Muslim and ethnic Albanian territory of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.  Seventy-two countries, including the United States and most of its NATO allies, recognize Kosovo's independence.  Serbia, Rusia and Spain are among the most notable exceptions.
Shortly after the vote, the US State Department, considered the elections “a significant milestone in the development of their multi ethnic democracy”. Adding: “Kosovo now faces a test as the votes are counted. Kosovo’s institutions must demonstrate to the public that they’re prepared to defend the integrity of the vote. And we call on Kosovo’s authorities to take the required actions to address irregularities, process complaints and appeals fairly, as well as ensure that the final results of Kosovo’s elections accurately reflect the voters’ intent”.
What it is next? Beyond the political and ethnic instability, the country needs reliable and transparent institutions. A corruption widespread at all levels, including the prime-minister, accused recently of being part of a regional ring trading organs.
The lessons of Kosovo might be the lessons of any country who is first declaring its independence and after is trying to realize what to do and, most importantly, with whom. The national Romanticism is far away and we are soon at the end of the first decade of 2000.
With Serbia getting closer to the EU, many Kosovars might decide that the direct economic advantages and the freedom of working and travelling in the European Union is more advantageous instead of living in a no man's land rotted by institutional incapacity.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Writing about foreign policy

Books, books...Image via Wikipedia//Looks a bit like my library...
As I am encouraging myself every single day to progress with my two books that I am scheduled to finish until the end of 2010, I am thinking a lot (instead of writing, to be precise) about what are the keys of writing successful books in foreign affairs? Another question will be how do you define success as a writer? Reaching the right audience? A high number of copies sold? Favorable reviews? Interest fro  the media? An open door for being included in an exclusive list of experts, including for hunting a governmental position? Or, as you are presenting inside tips, a confirmation of a professional authority?
Here are a couple of the main hints I was thinking about frequently, randomly chose, but from my point of view, of equal importance:
-          The relevance of the subject – A book treating about a hot subject in the media will be more likely preferred to one treating about events that took place hundreds of years ago. In the same time, the way in which you are presenting the fact – connecting the dots for a revealing new faces of an old story, is relevant for increasing the interest for your work.
-          The style has to be very up to the point, with the basic material organized in a very smart way. For example, as you do not intent to write a history book, instead of making an enumeration of various events and data, try to offer interpretations and new angles of evaluation.  
-          Originality is a very important asset for any kind of quality writing. Without becoming a yellow journalist, try to reveal secrets behind-the-scene – family connections, interviews, unknown diplomatic games.
-          Be personal: share your own experiences, what you witnessed, and your direct involvement in the issue (unless you are not in danger to miss your security clearance).
-          The style should be journalistic, characterized by clarity, simplicity! Use quotes and documented information, checked from at least three sources.
-          The documentation need to be serious and checked over and over again. You don’t need to write novels, just say the essential even it is about writing the history of a country in 100 pages. As we already said, concision and clarity are basics qualities.
-          Don’t neglect the aesthetics. Find an interesting cover and always add pictures and maps for explanations.
-          Send the book for preview and review before the final print. Maybe you will be able to get some interesting feedback and to include it in your final revised version. Tease your Twitter followers or your Facebook fans and friends. You will never know when a good idea will jump on your way!
But the question is why a book about foreign affairs had to be really popular? Otherwise, we have the thrillers, the books with spies and other miraculous beings (one of them I am reading right now, for a possible documentation on writing a book with a similar subject, once retired).
As for me, I want to write things I am interested to and to present them in a way that I could contribute, even with 0.001% to change something. A perspective, a way of thinking, a misunderstanding.

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Europe: The New Plan | STRATFOR

Europe: The New Plan | STRATFOR

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Weekly Analysis: Bekaa Valley: The dangerous no man’s land

A small region might change the configuration of a whole region. It may fuel a conflict or change the local and regional balance. For today, we'll focus on one of the most dynamic and impredictable - in both bad and good sense - area from the Middle East: Bekaa Valley.

Beqaa (Arabic: البقاع, "valley"; Lebanese: [bʔaːʕ]; also transliterated as Bekaa, Biqâ‘ or Becaa) is a fertile valley in East Lebanon. For the Romans, it was a major agricultural source, and today it remains Lebanon’s most important farming region.
It is located about 30 km (19 miles) East of Beirut, and situated between the Mount Lebanon to the West and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains to the Wast. It forms the Northeastern most extension of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches from Syria through the Red Sea into Africa. Beqaa Valley is about 120 km (about 75 miles) in length and has an average width of about 16 km (about 10 miles). It has a Mediterranean climate of wet, often snowy winters and dry, warm summers. The region receives limited rainfall, particularly in the north, because Mount Lebanon creates a rain shadow that blocks precipitation coming from the sea.
When the region was part of the Roman Empire, the Beqaa Valley served as a source of grain for the Roman provinces of the Levant. Today the valley makes up 40 percent of Lebanon's arable land. The Northern end of the valley, with its scarce rainfall and less fertile soils, is used primarily as grazing land by pastoral nomads, mostly migrants from the Syrian Desert. Farther south, more fertile soils support crops of wheat, corn, cotton, and vegetables, with vineyards and orchards centered around Zahlé. The valley also produces hashish and cultivates opium poppies, which are exported as part of the illegal drug trade. Since 1957 the Litani hydroelectricity project—a series of canals and a dam located at Lake Qaraoun in the southern end of the valley—has improved irrigation to farms in Beqaa Valley.
The Beqaa Valley is home to Lebanon's famous vineyards and wineries. Wine making is a tradition that goes back 6000 years in Lebanon. With an average altitude of 1.000 m above sea level, the valley's climate is very suitable to vineyards. Abundant winter rain and much sunshine in the summer helps the grapes ripen easily. There are more than a dozen wineries in the Beqaa Valley, producing over six million bottles a year.

The politics, geopolitics and opium

But the economic and geographical advantages are not translated in benefits in the plan of the politics. The place remains a frequent playground for confrontation between clans and various supporters and opposants of the government. Sunni and Shi’a are very often part of an arm conflict. Very often, the clashes are mirroring the confrontations taking place in Beirut.
Drugs have a long tradition in the Bekaa Valley, from the days of the Roman Empire until today cultivators and tribal drug lords working with militias built up a thriving cannabis trade. During the Lebanese civil war, cannabis cultivation was a major source of income in the Bekaa valley, where most of the country's hashish and opium was produced, a multi-billion-dollar industry fueling the agricultural sector as well as political factions and organized crime. The trade collapsed during the worldwide crackdown on narcotics led by the United States in the early 1990s. Under pressure from the U.S. State Department, the occupying Syrian Army plowed up the Bekaa's cannabis fields and sprayed them with poison. Since the mid 1990s, the culture and production of drugs in the Bekaa valley has been in steady decline, by 2002 an estimated 2,500 hectares of cannabis were limited to the extreme north of the valley, where government presence remains minimal. Every year since 2001 the Lebanese army plows cannabis fields in an effort to destroy the crops before harvest, it is estimated that this action eliminates no more than 30% of overall crops. Although important during the civil war, opium cultivation has become marginal, dropping from an estimated 30 metric tonnes per year in 1983 to negligible amounts in 2004.
Due to increasing political unrest that weakened the central Lebanese government during 2006 Lebanon War and 2007 (Opposition boycott of the government) and due to the lack of viable alternatives (U.N. promises of irrigation projects and alternative crop subsidies that never materialised) drug cultivation and production have significantly increased, but remains a fraction of civil war era production and limited north of the Town of Baalbek, where the rule of tribal law protecting armed families is still strong.


This region is considered very important for the balance of strategic interest in the region and a test for various military and geopolitical settings. It is still considered as playing an important role in the battle against Hizbullah militias.
From the strategical point of view, the place continue play a significant role in the military and political configuration of the region. In Bekaa Valley took place during the 1982 war an important battle considered an important element in the recent history of the military warfare.
The interest and challenge are determined by the limited if any authority of the central government over this area and the risks of widespreaded instability. For a while, here used to be a PKK training camp, to which Syria contributed largely. It is a no ‘man’s land used for drug trafficking, a source of black money for various terrorist activities.
What future for the region? Both easy and difficult to predict. The hardest way is for the Lebanese people to decide that they don't want to fully use of their present and future and to support political decisions in the advantage of their independence. Nobody else can do this.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dispatch: Presidential Elections in Belarus | STRATFOR

Dispatch: Presidential Elections in Belarus | STRATFOR

Bosnia, Albania Celebrate EU Visa Lifting

Chess moves in Tehran

President Ahmadinejad at Natanz in April 2008Image via Wikipedia//Ahmadinejad at Natanz, 2008

On 13 December 2010, Ahmadinejad dismisses Manouchehr Mottaki for (yet) unknown reasons and appointed Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Agency, in an acting capacity. Mottaki has been the Foreign Minister of Iran since 24 August 2005. He is the only Minister who was not replaced in Ahmadinejad's Cabinet after Ahmadinejad's reelection. Salehi will be Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs until Ahmadinejad nominates a person to Parliament for this post. No reasons were given for the surprise move, but several Iranian newspapers on Tuesday linked it to disagreements between Ahmadinejad and Mottaki over foreign policy, as it can be a show of power from the part of the president.  
Foreign and defense policy -- particularly relating to Iran's sensitive uranium-enrichment work -- is widely seen as the province of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with the Foreign Ministry playing a secondary role.

Mottaki, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Turkey, was sacked while in Senegal on an official visit. Several conservative papers linked the sacking to a dispute between Mottaki and Ahmadinejad over "parallel diplomacy," which flared up in summer after the president named his close aides as special envoys in the region. Ahmadinejad backed down only after Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened.
"The president put an end to disagreement with the foreign minister," conservative newspaper Qods said, adding that Ahmadinejad's decision on envoys had drawn Mottaki's "harsh reaction." "Earthquake in foreign ministry" was the headline of Khabar newspaper, which is close to Ahmadinejad's rival if not enemy no.1, parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Mottaki was considered a close confidant of Larijani, whose presidential campaign in 2005 he has managed. "Ahmadinejad knows well that Salehi appeals to the West for his moderate views," Khabar said, predicting that the atomic chief will be "one of the managers to form a new circle in the government although he is not ideologically linked with the president." Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of the staunchly conservative Kayhan newspaper and a man personally appointed by Khamenei, condemned Mottaki's firing as an "open insult." Mottaki's departure removes "the last remaining traditional conservative in the cabinet", according to Ebtekar newspaper
Earlier this month, at a security meeting in neighbouring Bahrain, Mottaki hailed as a "step forward" remarks by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Iran is entitled to a peaceful nuclear energy programme but only once it has demonstrated it can carry it out in a responsible manner. His comments appeared to cut across the Islamic republic's official position, repeated almost daily, that its enrichment of uranium is non-negotiable.
There were many media reports outlining that the move might be a public message of the president regarding his support from the Supreme Leader. But it might be in the same time a message sent publicly to the Supreme Leader regarding his support among diplomats, intelligence and his Revolutionary Guards. And the diplomatic service, in every totalitarian state, is one of the most exposed to be infiltrated and used for propagandistic and political aims.

Who is Ali Akbar Salehi

He was born on 7 July 1949 in Karbala, Iraq when his family was in Iraq for a religious visit. He earned a BSc from the American University of Beirut and, in 1977, a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he earned in 1977. Salehi is Associate Professor and Chancellor of Sharif University of Technology and a member of the Academy of Sciences of Iran and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy.
He was Chancellor of Sharif University of Technology from 1982 to 1985 and once again in 1989 to 1993.
Ali Akbar Salehi was appointed as Permanent Representative of Iran to International Atomic Energy Agency by President Mohammad Khatami in 13 March 1997 and was in post until 22 August 2005 for more than eight years He was reappointed in this position by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on 16 July 2009, after a surprise resignation of Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, the father of the nation’s nuclear program. He was close to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful cleric and former president who is a bitter rival of the president. Aghazadeh was among a group of pro-Rafsanjani officials who formed a political party, Kargozaran, in the early 1990s.
There have also been hints of behind-the-scenes differences between Aghazadeh and Ahmadinejad's energy minister over the planned opening of Iran's first nuclear plan at Bushehr, whose opening has repeatedly been delayed.
On 18 December 2003, under former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, Salehi signed the Additional Protocol to the safeguard agreement, on behalf of Iran that enabled IAEA inspectors to search Iranian nuclear facilities without notice and without restriction. He was replaced by Ali Asghar Soltanieh. He was also Deputy Secretary-General of Organisation of the Islamic Conference under Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu from 2007 to 2009. He resigned in July 2009 when was appointed as Head of AEAI.
"Iran's major international policies are defined in higher levels and the foreign ministry executes these policies. We will not see any changes in our basic policies," foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said at his weekly briefing. "I don't think there will be any changes in the nuclear policy and the talks" with world powers over Iran's nuclear programme, he said.
“Considering your commitment, knowledge, and valued expertise, and in accordance with Article 135 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and based on this decree, you are appointed as acting foreign minister,” read the presidential directive appointing Salehi to the new post.

The next atomic steps

Salehi was replaced as head of Iran's Nuclear Power Plants Production and Development Company by the acting deputy of the country's Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Ahmadian. He is university professor and served in different administrative posts, including the position as the country's deputy energy minister Ahmadian was also the Managing Director of Atomic Energy Production and Development Company -- the Iranian contractor for the Bushehr Atomic Power Plant Construction agreement.
Mottaki’s sacking came just days after Iran held crunch talks in Geneva on December 6 and 7 with world powers over its controversial nuclear dossier.
Further talks are scheduled for next month in Iran's neighbour Turkey despite clear differences at the end of Geneva meeting between Iran and the group of P5+1 -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
Salehi introduced the latest progresses in terms of atomic energy in an intervention for Al Jazeera, February 2010 uttering warnings against those who will oppose Iran’s program. As usual, it is difficult to say how is the “moderate” and who is the “hawk”, as the loyalties are wavering and opened to survival repositionings.
The messages sent by know are not very clear and maybe the next weeks will bring more clarity about the current political chessboard in Iran.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book review: Longitudes and attitudes

Thomas Friedman, American journalist, columnis...Image via Wikipedia/Thomas Friedman

At the very beginning of my career in the domain of foreign affairs, reading Thomas Friedman's opinions was part of my daily introductory lessons. The same role was played by his books, From Beirut to Jerusalem or The World is Flat
Beyond the careful explanation of various global and regional contexts and their specific problems, what I was admiring at him was what I called the meaningful way of selecting ideas and the ways in which he was putting into balance various pro and con arguments. Every affirmation was offering the potential for a change of the current situation and aqt the end of his 700-word opinion, I was acquiring a different perception. 
I met again some of those short lessons reading Longitudes and Attitudes. Exploring the World before and after September 11 -  – a collection of articles dedicated to the US security, the Middle East and the American life post 9/11.
But my eyes and understanding are completely different. I continue to read his analysis with a lot of envy for the style and vocabulary, but I feel very often the desire of the journalist aiming to be considered too as a potential power-broker. And very often he, as other media stars from the US are playing this role. The question is what are the consequences of such a shift for the journalism. 
In his case, is the idea of insisting over and over again the same ideas - the main messages from the politicians' discourses - even the situations are changing as well as the actors. Plus, this is the idea of not risking to assume points of view agains the main waves of the opinion. As it is the case for the situation of the settlements in Jerusalem: this is the general trend, to accuse the Israeli governments for this. But, are we talking about the same situation from a year to another? And, in fact, what is the context? The journalism for the masses is tempted to avoid going into too much details, following the pattern familiar to the politicians.
But there are in this book a couple of ideas that deserve to be developed and discussed over and over again: as the fact that September 11 was an attack against the multicultural society of America and not a failure of intelligence but of imagination; the lack of a Manhattan project aimed to destroy terrorism; the lack of any society project from the part of terrorists as Bin Laden; the need for encouraging the discussion within Islam and to create the prospects for a deep reform of some Arab/Muslim states (mostly in the Saudi Arabia); US security dilemmas  after 11/9. In some pieces the world of foreign affairs and security is the pretext for a healthy laugh to tears - as it is the case of the idea of the Naked Air company, whose passengers would fly naked and will not give any chance to religious fundamentalists to put into practice their evil plans (pp. 96-97).
A very interesting information I forgot about was the relative support that US had in some Iranian circles shortly after 11/9 and the missed opportunity of the George W. Bush administration. 
The book it is an interesting diary of the foreign affairs world and a good reference for those aspiring for being good writers in the domain of the international relations. But, beyond your admiration, you have to continue using your brain and to be able to offer your own arguments and points of view.
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A possible explanation of the Latin American moves

from the Jerusalem Post, by Caroline Glick.
The trends were already there, our understanding of the dangers was missing.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Assange arrested in the UK

by the British Police. I deeply hope he will not be turned into a e-Che Guevara.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Latin America? What's going on?

After Brazil and Uruguay, Argentina announced today the recognition of the "Palestinian state". A "state" without institutions, elites and where the elected rulers are Hamas. 
What is the explanation? The post-WWII and post-Cold War headaches ? And, most importantly, will it be other states doing the same - Venezuela, Peru, Colombia? Is this move aimed to press an eventual discussion in the UN and, even more than that? I can understand the move, but the costs will be impressive for the whole region.
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Friday, December 3, 2010

Julian Assange - live @ The Guardian

The most wanted editor of Wikileaks answered live the questions addressed by The Guardian's readers. I am still treating the whole story with the huge benefit of doubt. But will continue the lecture of the Wikis.