Public unrest in Tbilisi earlier this month has disturbed the friends of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Since Saakashvili’s ascent to power during the peaceful Rose Revolution in November 2003, Western nations have touted his government as a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus. Indeed, over the last four years, Saakashvili’s cabinet has reined in corruption, improved tax collection and reportedly increased tax revenue six-fold. Undemocratic Actions Yet, these breakthroughs notwithstanding, Saakashvili’s popularity is on decline. Public discontent with his governing practices erupted after the Sept. 27 arrest and alleged torture of the former defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili. Saakashsvili dismissed […]

Six members of the French charitable association L’Arche de Zoé — “Zoë’s Ark” — are presently being held prisoner in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. They are charged by Chadian authorities with kidnapping. The six were arrested on Oct. 25 while preparing to “evacuate” from the country some 103 children who had allegedly been made orphans by the conflict in neighboring Darfur. As it turns out, however, the vast majority of the children were neither orphans nor from Darfur. Could a well-meaning humanitarian initiative have thus degenerated into simple crime? Rony Brauman, former president of the French NGO Médecins sans […]

MITROVICA, Kosovo — At first glance, Mitrovica looks like an unremarkable post-industrial mining town. A cloud of smoke hovers over a sprawl of dusty roads dotted with Yugoslav-era apartment blocks and an unattractive monument to local zinc miners, both Serb and Albanian, who battled against the Nazis during World War II. Today, the city is divided by a river and a bridge, symbols of the ethnic strife that exploded in violence in 1999 and again in 2004, driving Mitrovica’s Albanians to the south, and Serbs to the north, of the Ibar River. The final scheduled talks between Kosovo and Serbia […]

The German parliament recently renewed the “mandates” authorizing the German Bundeswehr to continue military operations in Afghanistan. On Oct. 12, the legislators voted to approve Germany’s continued military participation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). On Nov. 15, the Bundestag extended by one-year the authorization permitting Germany’s elite special forces unit, the Kommando Spezialkräfte, to participate in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan, which also involves German naval patrols off the Horn of Africa. The OEF deployment, which focuses on counterterrorism, has proven more controversial among Germans than supporting the ISAF, which is often […]

A new Russian epic film that tells the story of the emergence of the Romanov czarist dynasty is widely seen as the latest move in the campaign to keep President Vladimir Putin in power after his second and final allowable term ends in May 2008. “1612,” which is said to have been produced by a friend of Putin, recounts how the Russians “drafted” Mikhail Romanov to save the country during a dark period of its history, thus paving the way for imperial Russia. The film’s director is quite open about its contemporary message. “I’m convinced . . . that Russians […]

THE EU TESTS ITS LEVERAGE — Piero Fassino, the European Union’s new special envoy for Myanmar, a.k.a. Burma, is likely to have an uphill battle to persuade that country’s neighbors to go along with new EU sanctions against the Burmese regime. Last week, the European Union drew up a list of sanctions specifically targeting Burma’s ruling junta, including blocking their exports of Burmese gems — a key source of revenue for the leadership — plus a Europe-wide travel ban, and curtailment of other trade. The aim is to pressure the junta to improve on the so far modest concessions made […]

Trying to understand Russia through the prism of the British and American news media these days can be a real headache. On one hand, if you read the business pages of the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times lately, you will learn that Russia is now one of the world’s leading emerging markets, and the Russian economy has grown at an average annual rate of 7 percent since 2000. On the other hand, if you turn to the international headlines or the editorial pages, you will read that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busy crushing democracy and […]

“Is the Romanian bogeyman destined to become Italians’ new nightmare?” This was the question raised by Maria Luisa Agnese in a Nov. 1 column in the Italian daily the Corriere della Sera, suggestively titled “The Specter of the ‘Monsters’ from Europe.” Two days earlier, on Oct. 30, Giovanna Reggiani, the 47-year-old wife of a navy officer, was found half-naked and barely alive in a ditch near the Tor di Quinto train station on the outskirts of Rome. Reggiani had been robbed and savagely beaten. Taken in a coma to the Sant’Andrea hospital, she would subsequently die there of her injuries. […]

At the end of October, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan signed several controversial amendments to the country’s Law on Subsoil Use. The new legislation permits the government to unilaterally change contracts for companies involved in extracting the country’s mineral resources if Kazakh officials deem such alterations necessary to uphold their nation’s economic and security interests. On Oct. 8, President Nazarbayev had reassured visiting Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi that his government would honor the original terms of its contract with the ENI SpA-led consortium that was developing Kazakhstan’s offshore Kashagan oil field — providing its members did likewise. On Oct. […]

Part II: The RSF Rankings In light of the casualness with which media organizations and “human rights” groups regularly cite the Press Freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), one might well expect RSF’s Press Freedom Index to be accompanied by a detailed report explaining how the organization established its rankings and providing a summary analysis of the situation of press freedoms of each of the 169 countries included. This would surely not be too much to expect of an organization disposing of an annual budget of nearly four million euros: much of which, as shown in Part I of […]

SEEKING REASSURANCE — After French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Washington last week, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, at the weekend, the flow of high-level European visitors continues in early December when Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano is due to visit — followed in February by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. The White House wants to show it has friends in Europe to support its tough Iran policy, its efforts in Afghanistan, and its new missile defense deployment in Eastern Europe. Visiting European leaders, on the other hand, are seeking reassurance that Bush’s lame duck […]

MOSCOW — After 26 years of serving as a captain in the Soviet Army, Nikolai Petrovich never imagined he’d be selling mushrooms past dark on a cold Moscow street corner. Petrovich, 75, says he remains a fervent supporter of President Vladimir Putin and that his $350 monthly pension check would normally suffice, if not for price hikes that have made this capital the most expensive in the world. “The government gives me some money, but prices have gone up so much, it’s not enough,” he says. “We must make some extra on our own.” Nearby about a dozen fellow retirees, […]

After emerging victorious from a Nov. 11 runoff against Christian democrat first-round winner Alojz Peterle — prime minister when the country declared independence in 1991, and the favorite of the center-right government of Janez Jansa — left-leaning Danilo Turk will become Slovenia’s next president. Despite coming second in the first round on Oct. 21, Turk garnered two-thirds of the vote in the runoff, largely thanks to votes transferred from Central Bank governor Mitja Gaspari, a fellow left winger he narrowly beat. In the first ballot, Peterle won overall with 28.7 percent, while Turk had 24.5 percent and Gaspari 24.1 percent. […]

The recent implementation of a long-awaited U.S. homeland security program has reinvigorated debate over the international consequences of controversial cargo security legislation passed earlier this summer. The Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Freight Initiative, co-managed by the Customs and Border Protection office (CBP) and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, began testing Oct. 12 whether scanning 100 percent of sea cargo destined for the United States is feasible and effective for enhancing supply chain security. The tests are taking place at the United Kingdom’s Southampton Container Terminals, Pakistan’s Port Qasim and Honduras’ Puerto Cortez, with CBP set to […]

Part I: RSF Finances Last month, the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders released its annual “Press Freedom Index,” which ostensibly “measures the level of press freedom in 169 countries throughout the world.” (Reflecting its French origins, Reporters Without Borders is most commonly known internationally by its French initials, RSF for Reporters sans frontières, and this acronym will be used here.) The 14 countries performing best in the RSF evaluation were all European, as were 17 of the top 20, 20 of the top 25, and 25 of the top 35. The United States placed a very mediocre 48th — […]

SARKO’S HEFTY PAYRAISE — French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is on an official visit to Washington this week, wants the French to work harder and earn more. Since his election six months ago, the energetic Sarko has put his ideas into practice by working hard himself — and earning 172 percent more. That’s how much the French parliament has voted to increase the president’s salary, which will now amount to the equivalent of $337,756 a year. This brings Sarkozy’s paycheck close to that of his American host, President Bush, who is paid a comparatively modest $400,000; but not as close […]

During his Oct. 30 visit to Tehran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reaffirmed Moscow’s opposition to imposing any additional sanctions against Iran without the specific approval of the U.N. Security Council, where Russia enjoys the right of veto. Lavrov’s trip occurred as the six countries involved in negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program — China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — are debating whether to impose a third round of sanctions against Tehran. The Iranian government has resisted demands to curb its uranium enrichment program, which could provide the basis for manufacturing nuclear weapons. […]

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