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The Balkans on Edge

The Balkans Watch Ukraine, But See Themselves

March 11th 2014

Protest in Ukraine

International news rarely makes an impact in the Balkans, which has spent the past two decades immersed in its own roiling headlines of war, recovery, poverty, and resentment.

But that has changed with the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, whose complicated struggle for multiethnic balance and postimperial autonomy from Russia strikes all too close to home.

In every corner of the Balkans, from newly independent Kosovo to politically torpid Bosnia-Herzegovina, people are watching events in Ukraine from their personal vantage point as survivors, or victims, of the Yugoslav collapse. Some applaud Euromaidan for taking down a corrupt regime, others lament the potential economic fallout. But no one's opinion seems indivisible from their own experience. Read more ..

The Battle for the Ukraine

As Crimea Tensions Escalates, Ukrainian Women, Too, Ready To Take Up Arms

March 10th 2014

Ukraine protest

As millions of women across the world looked forward to celebrating International Women's Day on March 8, Tetiana Turchina was in no mood for flowers, chocolate, and festivities.

The young Ukrainian woman watched with dismay as Russian troops took control of Crimea, the picturesque and strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine, one week ago. With her country now facing the prospect of war, Turchina is raring for battle.

"Given what's going on in our country, I cannot just stand aside," she tells RFE/RL in her home city of Lviv, in western Ukraine. "Am I ready to defend my country and my people? Yes, I'm ready to shoot at the enemy." Read more ..

The Battle for the Ukraine

Turkey Torn Over 'Brothers' In Crimea, Good Ties With Russia

March 9th 2014

Taksim Gezi Park protests

Serkan Sava's ancestors left Crimea in a mass exodus some 150 years ago, after the Ottoman Empire staved off Russian pressure in the Crimean War but could not reverse the slow tumble that would lead to its dissolution after World War I.

A century later, the 35-year-old IT consultant's grandparents, by then rooted in the post-Ottoman Turkish Republic, would hear of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's deportation of hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia, in 1944, that cost the lives of more than 100,000 people.

This week, Sava stood under a steady rain at a protest of about 250 people -- mostly Turkish Crimean Tatars -- outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul. Noting that Crimean Tatars "have bad memories" of life under Moscow's thumb, Sava argued that Turkey should use its influence to ensure that the Black Sea peninsula remains a part of Ukraine and is not annexed by Russia. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

In Istanbul, Derision And Defiance At Erdogan's Threat To Ban Facebook, YouTube

March 8th 2014


On Istiklal Street, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare in central Istanbul, it's common for people to walk with their heads down as they tap away at their smartphones.

So strong is the social media addiction that at Crab Pub one night here in early March, a local musician continued tweeting during breaks in the vocals as he performed his set.

So it's not surprising that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's admission that he will consider banning Facebook and YouTube following March 30 municipal elections has been met with dismay from young Istanbul residents.

"I'm not happy, but there's nothing we can do about it," says Adam, a 21-year-old university student who asked not to provide his last name. "The young people are going to say it's wrong, we're going to take it back, but everything will be the same." Read more ..

Russia and History

Russia's Actions In Crimea Stir Bad Memories In Former East Bloc

March 7th 2014

Russian Tanks Invade Georgia

ussia's intervention in Crimea has brought back bad memories among its former satellites.

In much of the former Soviet Union, and among Moscow's former Warsaw Pact allies in Eastern Europe, there are renewed concerns about Russia flexing its military might on Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- all former Soviet republics -- have been among the most vocal European Union and NATO member states criticizing Russia.

They, together with Poland, a former Warsaw Pact country, have invoked Article 4 of the NATO treaty -- which allows any member state to convene emergency consultations "whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened." Read more ..

Russia and the Ukraine

Russia Wags The Dog With Ukraine Disinformation Campaign

March 6th 2014


Getting the real story of what is going on in Ukraine is hard enough. And the Russian media seems intent on making it even harder.

With Russian forces controlling Crimea and with Moscow contemplating further military action in Ukraine, Russian media and leading political figures have been shrill in their denunciations of "fascists" in Kyiv and their claims of anti-Semitic incidents, of attacks on ethnic Russians in the eastern reaches of Ukraine, and of floods of beleaguered refugees streaming across the border into Russia.

But much of this information is demonstrably false, emerging from unsourced media reports, then making its way into the statements of Russian politicians, and even into Western media reports. Events are echoing the 1997 U.S. film "Wag the Dog," in which spin-doctors use the media to whip up support for a nonexistent war.

"This is how wars get started. As they say, 'truth is the first casualty of war' and we are really seeing that with the way Russia is handling this," says Catherine Fitzpatrick, a writer and translator who has been live-blogging events in Ukraine for Interpretermag.com. "I think they are really irresponsible. They are inciting a lot of hatred and whipping up a lot of panic. People in places like Kharkiv are watching Russian TV. They may be watching also local TV, but they are dependent on Russian TV and a lot it is not checking out."

Fitzpatrick adds that everything from reasons cited by Russian lawmakers in authorizing President Vladimir Putin to use force to the justifications for it offered to the United Nations Security Council this week by UN envoy Vitaly Churkin, have been based on falsehoods. Read more ..

Russia And the Ukraine

Russian Forces In Crimea: Who Are They And Where Did They Come From?

March 5th 2014

Ukraine protest

There has been much speculation about Russian forces deployed in Crimea since February 28. The West says they're Russian combat troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin says they're just local defense folks. So just who are they?

How many Russian troops are now thought to be in Crimea?
Ukrainian authorities have said there are about 16,000 Russian troops in the Crimean Peninsula – with more pouring into the country every day by air and by naval ships. Independent military analysts agree that there are at least this many troops in Crimea.

Tim Ripley, from "Jane’s Defence Weekly," says most reports suggest about 6,000 to 7,000 Russian troops have freshly deployed to Crimea since February 28 when the intervention began. Ripley says the normal Russian troop level at Black Sea Fleet facilities in Crimea historically has been about 11,000. But most are seamen or support personnel -- not the kind of ground combat forces that have fanned out on the Crimean Peninsula.  Read more ..

Israel on Edge

Full Transcript: Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Speech at AIPAC Policy Conference, 2014

March 4th 2014


Below is the full transcript of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks at the March 4th, 2014, AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C.

    Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

    I — I bring you greetings from Jerusalem — (cheers, applause) — the eternal, undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people. (Cheers, applause.)

    I want to thank all of you for working so tirelessly to strengthen the alliance between Israel and America. American — American support for Israel and for that alliance is at an all-time high. And I can tell you that there is no country on earth that is more pro-American than Israel. (Applause.) Read more ..

Gaza on Edge

Egyptian Court Bans Hamas Activities in the Country

March 4th 2014

Hamas demo

After putting members of the Muslim Brotherhood on trial, an Egyptian court ruled to ban the activities of the Palestinian organization in the country. The ruling constitutes another harsh blow to the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, whose economy is based largely on the goods passed through the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.

Egypt has banned Hamas activities in the country: the court in Cairo ruled that all Hamas activities in Egypt are officially illegal. Communications media in Egypt report that the decision was made as part of efforts to control the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s sister movement and greatest supporter, whose activities in the country were also banned, with Former President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was ousted last year, currently facing trial. Read more ..

The Ukraine on Edge

Ukraine Bristles at Lingering Presence of Black Sea Fleet

March 3rd 2014

Black Sea fleet

Russia's Black Sea Fleet was founded in 1783, and almost immediately proved its strategic importance, defeating Ottoman naval forces and cementing Russia's hold over the Crimean peninsula.

More than two centuries later, many see the fleet as playing the same role, defending its right to a territory that others -- this time Ukrainians -- claim as their own.

Many Ukrainians are angry, noting that under the terms of a post-Soviet accord, the fleet was due to withdraw from Crimea by 2017, removing Russia's toehold in the region once and for all. But that agreement was controversially extended by Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian leader ousted from power last week amid mounting Euromaidan protests. Read more ..

The IRS on Edge

Next Up: 'Citizens United v. IRS'?

March 2nd 2014

IRS building

Four years ago, the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision remade the rules for how political campaigns are waged. Could a Citizens United v. Internal Revenue Service case be next?

Yes, says David Bossie, the outspoken president of Citizens United — if the IRS enacts plans to restrict how certain tax-exempt nonprofit groups spend their money on politicking, as the agency says it may do.

"I can commit with certitude that Citizens United will not sit by while any government agency tries to violate our 1st Amendment rights," Bossie told the Center for Public Integrity today. "We have a proven track record of winning, and we're not afraid to take the fight to them. You'll see a Citizens United v. IRS."

Bossie added that while it's "too early" to discuss specific legal strategy, Citizens United is willing to "pull out all the stops" to fight any Obama administration effort to pinch nonprofit groups' ability to engage in politics. Read more ..

The Ukraine on Edge

Reading Ukraine In Iran

March 1st 2014

Iranian clerics

Kyiv's historic day" or "Dem-wreck-cracy!" The way Iranian media have portrayed Ukraine's turmoil depends on which side of Iran's political divide they stand.

Hard-line media have given readers the impression that the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych following months of antigovernment protests is a cause for mourning. Those skimming through the reformist press were likely to become excited about the developments in the eastern European country.

The differences highlighted the stances and world views of the two sides: on the one hand hard-liners' wariness of the West and popular protests, and on the other, a hunger for change among reformists who have been increasingly pushing for the release of Iranian opposition leaders.

In one example, the reformist daily "Etemad" carried the following headline about the February 22 freeing of Yulia Tymoshenko, a jailed leader of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution: "The release of the Orange Lady on Kyiv's historic day." And next to the story, the daily published comments by Iran's parliament speaker regarding Iranian opposition figures who are under house arrest.] Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Erdogan Clamps Down on Turkey as Corruption Scandal Widens

February 28th 2014

Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen

For months, the corruption scandal rocking Turkey has centered on people around Recep Tayyip Erdogan while stopping just short of the prime minister himself. But the release on February 24 of an alleged recording of a phone conversation between him and his adult son Bilal is now making the scandal very personal for Erdogan indeed.

In the recording, released anonymously on the Internet, Erdogan purportedly tells his son to get tens of millions of dollars out of the house because an investigation is closing in. The prime minister has called the tape a gross fabrication but the country's leading opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), says it has confirmed the recording's authenticity. Read more ..

Significant Lives

Barry Rubin: An Appreciation

February 27th 2014

Barry Rubin-Jonathan Spyer

Barry Rubin was one of the leading Middle East scholars and analysts of his generation.
He was also a patriot of two countries – Israel and the United States – a dissenter, and a moral and intellectual beacon for thousands of people in many lands.

Barry brought to his work a tremendous, searing energy, which made him famously prolific. This energy stayed with him throughout the illness which has now prematurely ended his life. He was still composing articles in the very last days, when his hands could no longer work the keyboard. He stayed with his chosen mission to the end.

What was the source of this extraordinary energy and commitment? It is vital to note that Barry’s work was characterized not only by its analytical depth, but also by a profound sense of moral urgency. This set him apart from the scholarly and academic mainstream. There was always a sense behind his words of some urgent wrong to be righted, or some piece of information which must be revealed and understood, with no time to waste. Read more ..

Nigeria on Edge

For Many Nigerians, Corruption Invincible Woe

February 26th 2014

Nigerian Pres Goodluck Jonathan

From the volatile oil-producing Niger Delta to northern forests where insurgents terrorize villagers, some Nigerians blame corruption for many of their woes, but no one knows how to stop it.

About half of all Nigerians are without electricity. Without a generator, no one, not even the richest Nigerians, has electricity all day.

At the University of Abuja, where the power is off, political scientist Abubakar Umar Kari blames corruption for the outage, along with a host of other problems.

“As far as we are concerned, corruption is the biggest industry in Nigeria," Kari said. "The Nigerian elite have perfected the act at not only perpetrating corruption but ensuring that they use the instrumentality of corruption as statecraft.” Early this month, Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi was suspended and placed under investigation after saying Nigeria’s national oil company had not accounted for $20 billion. Read more ..

Inside Politics

Tea Party Turns Five: Looks a Lot Like Conservative Base

February 25th 2014

Tea Party demonstator at Supreme Court

Tea Party supporters plan to rally at the Capitol on February 27 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of their movement. How are they faring in terms of national popularity? Is the public in tune with the Tea Party?

It is hardly surprising that pollsters have tracked the Tea Party closely. Not only did the movement emerge spontaneously in 2009 with new affiliates springing up around the country almost overnight, but its organizational structure was also something entirely new in American politics.  Radically decentralized, with no lead organization early on, the Tea Party was rewriting the rules of political organization. The Tea Party’s activity in many 2010 election contests only increased interest. But since that time, many have argued that the Tea party has lost significant ground. The highly regarded Pew Research Center released an October 2013 poll report just after the government shutdown, entitled “Tea Party’s Image Turns More Negative.”  What’s the story? Just how strong is the movement? Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Terrorism and Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICNs): A Growing Menace

February 24th 2014

International Currency 3

The fake currency trade has been haunting Indian security establishments as well as economic intelligence agencies for quite a long time. Most recently in February 2014, the finance minster of India informed the Upper House of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) that counterfeit Indian currency notes worth INR 107.33 crores (approximately US $ 17 million) have been seized between January 2010 and June 2013.  If the intelligence agencies are to be believed, the FICNs are printed in Pakistan and brought to India through couriers via Bangkok, Kathmandu and Dhaka airports. There are also reports that the FICN cartels are pushing counterfeits through China, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

To deal with this growing menace, the government has constituted a special FICN coordination (FCORD) group within the Union Ministry of Home Affairs to share intelligence and information amongst different central and state government agencies. The Central government has asked Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) to conduct a security audit of the international firms supplying ink and paper for printing currency. Sources indicated that 'groups based in Pakistan have managed to source similar paper and security ink from some foreign countries.' Read more ..

Ukraine on Edge

As Heads Roll In Kyiv, Few Tears Shed For Divisive Education Minister

February 23rd 2014

Protest in Ukraine

As opposition lawmakers in Ukraine continue their purge of government officials, one ouster causing particular glee is that of the minister of education and science, Dmytro Tabachnyk.

Tabachnyk's sacking, announced February 23 as part of a rapid-fire government reshuffle, sparked hundreds of virtual cheers across Ukrainian social media in what could best be summarized as a collective "good riddance."

Education ministers aren't always the first to inflame political passions. But in Ukraine, where issues of language, culture, and history are never far from the surface, Tabachnyk was seen by many as a front-line enemy of Ukrainian national identity.

Since his appointment in 2010, Tabachnyk had sought to steadily erode the role of the Ukrainian language in academic curricula, removing Ukrainian proficiency requirements for university applicants and cutting back on the hours middle-school pupils spent studying Ukrainian language and history. Read more ..

Secret Web Campaigens

Tea Party Operative Likely Behind Mysterious Web Blitz

February 22nd 2014

Payday Loan Sign

An anonymous online campaign that criticizes a government crackdown on fraudulent Web-based businesses appears to have been developed by the same company that built websites for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other tea party leaders.

"Stop the Choke" is an online blitz that argues the Obama administration’s efforts to cut off fraudsters from the financial system will kill free markets and take away people’s guns. The site pictures President Barack Obama as a marauding Godzilla to punctuate its points. The Center was first to report on the group this week.

The name Stop the Choke refers to Operation Choke Point, a government initiative to sue banks that debit people’s accounts illegally on behalf of companies such as online payday lenders, firearms dealers, porn sites and pyramid-style sales schemes where fraud is common. The crackdown has drawn loud opposition from industry groups that fear legitimate companies will be punished for their peers’ misdeeds. Read more ..

Nigeria on Edge

Another Boko Haram Attack Yields Dozens of Deaths in Nigeria

February 21st 2014

A large contingent of Islamic extremist rebels from Boko Haram invaded a predominantly Christian village in northeastern Nigeria Saturday night (Feb. 15) and slaughtered at least 106 people, sources said. According to the Nigeria Correspondent for Morning Star News, the Boko Haram rebels, who seek to impose sharia (Islamic law) throughout Nigeria, and were dressed in military fatigues, reportedly shot some people and slit the throats of others while shouting "Allahu Akbar [God is greater]" in Izghe village of the Gwoza Local Government Area of Borno state. They also destroyed homes and shops.

"We have received information about yet another attack from my friends and family members in Gwoza," Enoch Wonder, a Christian worker from Gwoza now in Jos told Morning Star News. Read more ..

Broken Economy

Transcripts Show Fed Shock at '08 Collapse

February 21st 2014

Frantic Wall Street denizen

Transcripts released Friday of Federal Reserve meetings held throughout 2008 suggest the Fed was caught off guard by the suddenness and severity of the financial crisis that year.

The financial crisis and resulting recession has widely been referred to as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but it was not immediately clear to the Fed's economic stewards just how much trouble the nation was in during the immediate aftermath of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, which kindled the collapse.

At a September meeting held one day after Lehman went bankrupt, some Fed officials speculated the economic impact could be muted, and would perhaps be restricted to New York City or the financial sector. Others argued it was a positive thing that the government did not step in to rescue Lehman, sending a message to markets that the government would not provide a safety net. Read more ..

Sudan on Edge

Bor Residents Rush to Bury Dead Amid South Sudan Fighting

February 20th 2014

South Sudan Death Row Inmates

Fighting between rebels and the government is still raging in South Sudan, where a political crisis in late December lit the fuse to an explosion of violence that first split the army, and now has turned whole communities against one another.  In some towns - which have changed hands several times - the few remaining residents are trying to bury the many dead littering the streets. 

The only sound in the streets of Bor, the capital of South Sudan's long-troubled Jonglei state, is silence. The odd scavenging child picks through the rubble of what was once the market. But even the smallest bag of flour has been taken, and the vultures sometimes caw as they circle overhead. On the other side of town, the silence is punctured by diggers, churning up the earth for mass burial sites. Read more ..

The Ukraine on Edge

Pro-Russian Separatism Rises In Crimea As Ukraine's Crisis Unfolds

February 19th 2014


From the dingy basement of a decaying apartment block on the outskirts of Simferopol, Crimean parliament deputy Sergei Shuvainikov is leading the fight to defend the ethnic Russians of this strategic Black Sea peninsula.

In an office festooned with banners showing a map of Crimea overlaid with a World War II medal featuring the communist hammer and sickle and the slogan "In union with Russia," the voluble Shuvainikov spills out a litany of alleged assaults on the Russian language and Russian culture in Ukraine.

"This is the result of a political position to deny Russians, for whom the language is the main identifier of their Russian ethnicity, of their Russian nation, Russian people," he says. "To deny them the right to remind children and young people that they are Russians. It is in fact the destruction of Russian nationality, of the concept of the Russian people of Ukraine."

The piles of megaphones and rolled up banners in the corner of Shuvainikov's self-proclaimed "bunker" attest to the stepped-up activity of the organizations he heads, the Congress of Russian Communities and the Russian Front. Since the political crisis erupted in Kyiv in November, his organizations have repeatedly held demonstrations in Simferopol and elsewhere, burning EU flags and blaming U.S. and NATO interference for Ukraine's time of troubles. Read more ..

Mexico on Edge

Medical Tourism is Becoming a Big Business in Mexico

February 18th 2014

Price. Quality. Technology.

That was the triple message Dr. Octavio Gonzalez had for attendees at the Medical Matters 2014 conference held [last] week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The veteran dentist was among dozens of exhibitors at an event catering to expatriates, snowbirds and tourists in the Mexican coastal city.

Gonzalez estimated that 95 percent of his customers hail from the United States, Canada and Europe, mostly from North America.

Under the worst scenario,” Gonzalez told FNS, the prices of his Dental Avant Garde company might reach a third of comparable costs in the U.S. and Canada. Gonzalez’s firm specializes in dental implants and full mouth functional rehabilitation.

Apart from pocketbook savings, a visit to Dental Avant Garde has other advantages over seeing a dentist north of the border, Gonzalez insisted. Read more ..

The Culture Edge

Asiana Adopts New Pilot Training After US Crash

February 17th 2014

Damaged Airplane

After a deadly crash landing last summer in San Francisco, Asiana Airlines is changing its training for pilots to encourage crews to talk more and change cockpit culture.

A U.S. investigation found that corporate culture may have been an issue in lthe crash.

"It's a reality that within our country there is a leaning toward a patriarchal culture and many pilots work and fly within the strict military order," Asiana's chief executive Kim Soo-cheon said this week at a press conference in Seoul.

Asiana Flight 214, a Boeing 777, crashed on landing on a runway in July. Three people died and 180 were injured. The following month, VOA was the first to report that the crash could be linked to a culture of "cockpit hierarchy." That's when one pilot defers to a senior officer, even if the junior pilot fears imminent danger. Read more ..

Soviet-Afghanistan War

Soviet-Era Journalist, Face Of Afghan War, Looks Back On Pullout

February 16th 2014


When the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan 25 years ago after a bloody and protracted war, Mikhail Leshchinsky was one of the last people out. Leshchinsky wasn't a soldier.

A reporter for Soviet television, he was dispatched to Afghanistan in 1985, shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, to cover the final stages of a war in which Moscow was rapidly losing faith. His last report from Afghanistan shows General Boris Gromov leading the few remaining Soviet troops out of the country on February 15, 1989.

In the now historic images, Gromov is seen strolling toward Leshchinsky across the Friendship Bridge that once separated Afghanistan from the Soviet Union before declaring the nine-year war officially over. Gromov's teenage son then leaps into his arms, clutching a bouquet of carnations. Read more ..

The Edge of Nature

Bird Watchers Gear Up For Global Count

February 14th 2014

Northern Fulmar

Mark Mallalieu has been an avid bird watcher since he was 6 years old. Now he has the opportunity to both follow his passion and do something that counts for his fine-feathered friends.

Between February 14 and 17, Mallalieu will be joining tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world participating in the 17th annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

The four-day count calls on anyone to help collect real-time data on the distribution and numbers of birds throughout the world.

In Mallalieu's case, that would be Afghanistan, where he currently is the head of the British government's Department for International Development. He says he'll be "in a diplomatic compound in Kabul where there are some trees and I put some food out for the birds, so that's where I'll be.

"A campaign like this to get people looking at their birds in the garden will generate interest in birds, wildlife, conservation, and the environment more generally," he continues. "I think that's the thing that most excites me about [the bird count]." Read more ..

The Economy on Edge

As the Wages of Men Fall, Female Wages Are Rising

February 13th 2014

Employee applications

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama again invoked the provocative statistic that women earn only 77 percent as much as men. With Hilary Clinton increasingly viewed as a prospective successor, rhetorical attacks on gender-based wage differentials will only rise.

The problem is that the 77 percent statistic-combined with the assertion that it is an "embarrassment," and "wrong," and that women "deserve equal pay for equal work"-misdiagnoses a complex issue and can only mislead policy.

The 77-percent statistic is not based on a comparison of men and women doing "equal work," but simply compares the annual earnings of women and men who are full-time, year-round workers. Because men who work "full-time" work 8 to 10 percent more hours per week than full-time women, it fails to compare men and women who spend equal time at work. Nor does it take into account any other productivity differences. Read more ..

Nature on Edge

US, World Act to Save Elephants

February 12th 2014

Rampaging Bull Elephant 500px

The Obama administration has unveiled a comprehensive strategy for combating wildlife trafficking in hopes of curbing illicit poaching that is threatening to wipe out elephants, rhinoceros and other endangered species in Africa. The document issued Tuesday places an almost complete ban on the ivory trade in the United States. Meanwhile, representatives of many African countries are meeting with world's leading conservationists in London to discuss how to stop the illegal sale of ivory.

A large pile of ivory was crushed in central London as a symbolic gesture, ahead of a major summit this week aimed at curbing illegal wildlife trade. Rowena Paxton was among citizens who gave away their ivory items to be crushed.

"I feel like a big weight has been taken off me and I'm now to say goodbye and I just say please, please save our elephants, save our rhino," said Paxton.

A 1989 ban outlawed the international trade in ivory, but cross-border smuggling continues. Conservationists estimate that more than 25,000 elephants are killed across Africa each year so their tusks can be extracted for ivory. French customs official Sebastien Tiran said France seizes at least a half-ton of ivory per year. "What we have noticed regarding trafficking of protected species is that there is a lot of change, but one thing that never changes is the interest of consumers for ivory," said Tiran. Read more ..

The Way We Are

I Smoke, But I'm Not a Smoker

February 11th 2014

cigarette in ashtray

While smoking among California adults has dramatically declined in recent decades, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine report there is a surprisingly large number of people who say they use cigarettes, but don't consider themselves to be "smokers."

Writing in the February 5 online issue of Tobacco Control, Wael K. Al-Delaimy chief of the Division of Global Health in the UC San Diego Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, and colleagues estimate that, in 2011, almost 396,000 Californians (12.3 percent of the state's population of smokers) smoked on a measurable basis, but rejected the characterization of "smoker." Almost 22 percent of these smokers consumed tobacco on a daily basis. Al-Delaimy said the phenomenon has both individual and social ramifications. For individuals, the behavior puts them at many of the same health risks as identified smokers. "There is no safe level of smoking," he said.  Read more ..

Taiwan and China

Taiwan, China to Hold First Official Talks

February 10th 2014

Industrial and Commericial Bank of China

Taiwan and China hold official talks this week, a historic first for the two governments since a civil war ended more than six decades ago. Political differences still linger and while the two administrations do not officially recognize one another, some analysts think the talks could mark a small step toward more normal, official ties - and perhaps even be a prelude to a possible meeting between China's Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou later this year.

Since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008, Taipei and Beijing have made big strides in boosting economic ties.

However, as bilateral trade has boomed, Ma's approval ratings at home have sunk, hovering in the teens and low 20s for much of last year. Only halfway through his second term, there are concerns both for Ma and China's leadership that the political tide in Taiwan could be shifting away from Taipei's ruling Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang. Read more ..

Mexico on Edge

The Deportee Chronicles: The Girl from Guajajalmiton

February 9th 2014

She moves between the tables with the grace of the dolphins that sometimes delight the bayside diners of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Greeting customers in Spanish and English, the server has the poise, the demeanor and the intellect to work with an international clientele. Born in Mexico and raised in the United States, Danae is a student of European history, a lover of Romeo and Juliet, and a fan of thrash metal music. "I love Shakespeare!" she declares.

She also likes poetry, blackjack, Jack Daniels and tatoos.

Though seemingly at ease on the Bay of Banderas, Danae confesses she would rather be somewhere else. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Survey: Tech More Important Than Sex for Americans

February 9th 2014

Walking-Cell phone

More Americans would rather go without sex than without their mobile phone, laptop or Internet access, according to new survey.

The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, a market research firm, showed that 20 percent of American adults polled said they could not do without sex. That’s compared to 28 percent who said they could not live without Internet access, 26 percent who said they could not live without their cell phone and 24 percent who said they could not live without their computer.

Rob Weiss, an expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, said it was hard to interpret the numbers without knowing the ages of the respondents.

“Most folks I know who are 40 or 45 think sex is important, but there are things that are more important like kids or careers.” he said. “You’d have a different answer from someone who’s 20 than from someone who's 50.” Read more ..

Nature on Edge

Kenya Counts Elephants From the Air

February 8th 2014

Young Republicans

Kenya is conducting an aerial census of the elephant population in a national park that has been the scene of gruesome poaching incidents in the last year. An intensive effort is underway to count and protect the threatened elephant population.

Pilots are taking to the skies above Tsavo National Park in eastern Kenya on a singular mission -- to find elephants.

The census, which takes place every three years, is organized by the Kenya Wildlife Service to map out the elephant population in the area.

Volunteers from organizations across the country have contributed their planes, including Save the Elephants and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which also donated all the fuel. The total cost of the exercise is about $200,000. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Critics Spoil Iranian Government's Food-Aid Initiative

February 7th 2014

Hassan Rowhani

A well-intended initiative to feed the needy has backfired on Iran's president.

Braving heavy snow amid a bitter cold snap, low-income Iranians across the country lined up this week outside state-owned stores to receive free food packages.

But the effort, which was launched on February 2, has drawn enough criticism to warrant a rare public apology from President Hassan Rohani.

Three people reportedly died while waiting in line in freezing temperatures, and hard-liners have alleged that the sight of citizens lining up for handouts is damaging to Iran's image abroad.

Addressing the controversy, Rohani told state television on February 6 that he, as president, "expresses regret if people have faced trouble in receiving the commodity basket." Low-income families, meaning those whose monthly income is below $170, qualify for the food basket, which contains rice, poultry, cheese, eggs, and cooking oil. Read more ..

The Edge of Sport

Despite Official Denial, Gay Life Flourishes Underground in Sochi

February 6th 2014

Gay Pride

In recent days, videos have gone viral showing Russian skinheads and others attacking gays. The videos fueled protests around the world Wednesday, calling on corporate sponsors of the Winter Olympics in Sochi to condemn restrictions on gay life in Russia.

But, often overlooked, a gay scene does exist in Russia, although invariably behind tightly closed doors.

Above ground, Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov had told news media last week that he does not believe there are any gays living in his city.

Below ground, at Mayak, one of Sochi's two gay bars, business was booming Wednesday. Andrei Tenichev owns the "Mayak" which means "Lighthouse." 

"In my opinion there is no gay community in Russia - there are just gays," he said. “Russian gays socialize with each other abroad more than in Russia, because in Russia they don't like to make their orientation known.” Read more ..

Technological Edge

'Deep Concern' Emerges over Google NameTag Facial Recognition App

February 5th 2014

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is worried about the privacy implications of a new facial recognition app.

In a letter on Wednesday, Franken expressed "deep concern" about NameTag, a facial recognition app for Google Glass devices that have been "jailbroken" to circumvent Google's ban on facial recognition tools.

Franken, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Privacy, asked NameTag to delay its launch until there are best practices for facial recognition technology, such as those that will come out of a Commerce Department initiative beginning this week.

“According to promotional materials, NameTag lets strangers get a broad range of personal information — including a person’s name, photos, and dating website profiles — simply by looking at that person’s face with the Glass camera," Franken said in his letter. Read more ..

America on Edge

U.S. Abortion Rate Hits All-Time Low

February 4th 2014

The U.S. abortion rate declined to its lowest point in 2011 since the procedure became legal across the country in the 1970s, according to research released late Sunday.

The Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that supports abortion rights, found in a census that the abortion rate dropped in 2011 to 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. This rate is the lowest since 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down in its Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in all 50 states. That year, there were 16.3 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age, Guttmacher reported.

The study also pointed out the 2011 rate is "well below" the 1981 peak of 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women. Read more ..

Nature on Edge

Red Fawn: Cold War Lives On In Minds Of Deer

February 3rd 2014

Saiga Antelope

The barbed wire, electric fences, watchtowers, and heavily-armed guards that once lined the Iron Curtain are long gone, but red deer wouldn't dare jump the border.

Behavior learned at the height of the Cold War lives on among the herds that roam land that used to straddle the former Czechoslovakia and West Germany.

The once heavily fortified borders separating East from West today traverse national parks and remote landscapes that serve as popular summertime migratory destinations for the imposing beast.

In the spirit of post-Cold War fellowship, Germany's Bavarian Forest National Park and the Czech Republic's Sumava National Park established a transboundary wilderness area where animals like the red deer could find refuge.

But as it turns out, the deer populations on either side of the former Iron Curtain roam along the border and remain reluctant to cross. Using GPS satellite collars, Czech zoologists, in cooperation with their German colleagues, monitored the migration patterns of red deer on either side of the border between 2005 and 2011. Read more ..

The Edge of Extinction

Hong Kong to Destroy 30 Tons of Ivory

February 2nd 2014

Young Republicans

More than 30 metric tons of ivory stocks are scheduled to be destroyed in Hong Kong. The African Wildlife Foundation says it welcomes the move in a region where a culture of ivory is deep seated.

The decision to destroy the ivory stocks was made by the Endangered Species Advisory Committee of Hong Kong’s Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

Because of the huge amount of ivory it will be destroyed in stages.  And it won’t be crushed as in recent events in the U.S. and China where much smaller amounts were destroyed. Instead, it will be incinerated and turned to ash to ensure no small pieces remain that could be sold.

Speaking from Nairobi, African Wildlife Foundation CEO – Dr. Patrick Bergin – said he is thrilled by Hong Kong’s decision for several reasons. “One, I think it shows growing global consensus, and two, I think it shows that this is an issue that the East and the West and Africa can work together on.” Read more ..

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