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The Coal Problem

GAO: Black Lung Proposal Supported by Science

April 13th 2014

Black lung

A longstanding federal proposal to lower coal miners’ exposure to the dust that can cause black lung disease is supported by substantial scientific evidence.

That’s the conclusion government auditors reached in 2012, answering demands for a study by members of Congress concerned about the rule. And it’s the conclusion the auditors reached again — after another congressional request for a study — in a report released this week.

The rule, proposed by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2010, remains under review at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget — with both the industry and miners’ advocates watching closely.

As industry leaders warn of dire economic consequences should the new standard take effect, miners’ advocates observe the delay with exasperation. “It’s taking a really long time, and no one’s given us any reason for that,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America.

At the heart of the rule are provisions cutting in half the amount of dust that is allowed in a mine’s air and requiring the use of monitors that provide continuous information about dust levels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a government research agency known as NIOSH, recommended the lower dust level in 1995, but attempts to implement this change have faltered.

The National Mining Association, a trade group, and many of the nation’s biggest coal companies have attacked the scientific basis of the proposed rule and argued that meeting the strict new limit isn’t feasible technologically or economically. These groups also have taken their case to the White House’s budget office, meeting with government officials last fall on two occasions. The union also met with these officials last November. The mining association did not respond to a request for comment about the study released this week.  Read more ..

The EMP Threat

Vulnerability of US Society to Geomagnetic Storms, Electromagnetic Pulse and Non-Nuclear EMP Events

April 10th 2014

Minneapolis skyline

Recent analysis carried out for the U.S. FERC, the Congressional EMP Commission, FEMA (under auspices of U.S. Presidential Executive Order 13407) and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has determined severe geomagnetic storms (i.e., space weather caused by solar activity) and EMP events (from a high altitude nuclear device detonation) have the potential to cause crippling and long-duration damage to the North American electric power grid.  

Unlike the more familiar natural hazards or terror threats, both geomagnetic storms and EMP can have a large geographic footprint which can readily encompass major portions of the US electric power grid.  This wide spread and simultaneous disruption can cause correlated multi-point failures across the electric power grid resulting in not only the possibility of a large scale blackout of the electric grid, but also the risk of permanent damage to key apparatus constituting the backbone of the electric grid infrastructure.  Read more ..

America on Edge

Public Anger over New Mexico Police Brutality Continues

April 9th 2014

Click to select Image
Video still of Albuquerque police confrontation with James Boyd

It’s unlikely there has ever been an Albuquerque City Council meeting like the one of Monday, April 7, 2014. With the council chambers jammed to the brim, strictly-by-the-book fire marshals forced people into an “overflow room” on the 9th floor of City Hall, where live video of the action below was transmitted. Outside, meanwhile, dozens of other citizens sat on the edge of Civic Plaza watching the gripping events on large screens.

The big draw? Public anger with not only the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), but local and state elected officials accused of covering up police violence and misdeeds as well. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

White House Deflects Criticism over Gender Pay-Gap

April 8th 2014

The White House on Monday looked to deflect criticism over its own pay policies ahead of an event Tuesday on lessening wage discrimination.

White House press secretary Jay Carney was peppered by questions from reporters about an American Enterprise Institute study that found the salary for the median female White House staffer was 12 percent lower than for a male staffer.

Carney said that men and women in the same jobs at the White House earn the same salaries.

"We have two deputy chiefs of staff, one man and one woman, and they make the same salary," Carney said. "We have 16 department heads. Over half of them are women, all of whom make the same salary as their male counterparts." Read more ..

China on Edge

China Corruption Case Against Zhou Yongkang Exposes Scale of Graft

April 7th 2014

$1B US Currency

In a case that could have wide-ranging implications for the future of China’s leadership the administration of Chinese President Xi Jingping continues to tighten its corruption investigation around former Chinese domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang and his inner circle.

Beijing’s latest move is the seizure of some $14.5 billion in assets from Zhou’s family members and close associates, along with the arrest or questioning of more than 300 of them. The staggering sum seized is said to larger than any other corruption related action yet taken by Beijing.

Zhou is the highest ranking former Chinese official caught up in President Xi’s anti-corruption crackdown. He has been under house arrest since late 2013, and multiple reports indicate that formal charges against him may be brought up in coming weeks. One of the most recent officials allied with Zhou caught up in this probe is Ji Wenlin, just removed as vice governor of Hainan province. Read more ..

The Ukraine on Edge

Ukraine’s Special Police Part of Soviet Legacy

April 6th 2014

Protest in Ukraine

The special police units blamed for the deadly shootings in Kyiv in February are, in part, a legacy of the country’s Soviet past.

Ukraine has several special police forces, including the Security Service and the Berkut riot police, both of which have been implicated in the Kyiv shootings.

Senior Fellow Igor Sutyagin at London’s Royal United Services Institute says he is not surprised that such forces have been mentioned and that several Berkut officers have been arrested. But he says early indications that most of the shooters were from Berkut are probably not accurate.

“I have some doubts whether it was exclusively Berkut, and whether it was mainly Berkut, because the radio communications intercepts show that there were Security Services snipers participating in that," he said. "Well, they were not alone, so there were probably, there might be Berkut snipers as well.” Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

Carter Center Marks Progress in Fight Against Guinea Worm, River Blindness

April 5th 2014

Jimmy Carter

Guinea worm disease and river blindness are among 17 tropical diseases the World Health Organization considers neglected. Thanks to the efforts of the Atlanta-based Carter Center -- founded by former president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn -- focused treatment and prevention are leading to the elimination of one, and the extinction of another.

When Carter and the Carter Center staff started working to eradicate Guinea Worm disease in 1986, it was found in 21 countries in Africa and Asia.

“We had three-and-a-half million cases of guinea worm, and village by village we have done away with it. Last year, we only had 146 cases in the whole world,” he said.

Most of the remaining infections by the parasitic worm are found in South Sudan, where Carter said, despite the recent unrest, the Carter Center continues working to prevent transmission of the disease by monitoring and filtering water sources.

“At this moment we have about 212 people on our payroll, almost all of whom have been trained locally, and about 8,000 women who volunteer their services,” he said.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Carter Center has shifted its focus from controlling river blindness - another parasitic infection - to eliminating it.

While river blindness can’t be eradicated like Guinea worm, the Carter Center discovered that by modifying the dosage of the antibiotic ivermectin, the disease could be eliminated in the human body.

“If we gave two to four pills a year, then the adult worms that created the microfilaria would be eliminated. We found that out in Latin America, in six countries, we could completely do away with river blindness permanently. Now we've tried that in Africa and found it to be successful again,” said Carter. Read more ..

Financing the Flames

Protests Build Against New Israel Fund Participating in NY Israel Day Parade on BDS Financing

April 4th 2014

Rabbi Elie Abadie

A leading Manhattan rabbi, representing some of the largest Sephardic communities in New York City, on Wednesday threatened to pull his support from the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, on June 1, unless the parade organizers bar “anti-Israel” groups from participating this year.

In a letter seen by The Algemeiner,  Rabbi Elie Abadie, M.D., spiritual leader of four Manhattan Sephardic institutions, the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, the Moise Safra  Community Center, the Magen David Congregation of Manhattan and the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan, addressed his concerns to the leaders of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, the JCRC, which organizes the parade and has insisted in letters that its “open tent” policy is to encourage all Jewish groups to be involved.

In the letter, Rabbi Abadie said he raised the same concerns in an email to the JCRC two years ago about including in the parade any Jewish group that promotes any type of boycott, divestment or sanctions, BDS, of Israel:

“That email regarded the inclusion of BDS supporters in the Celebrate Israel Parade,” the rabbi wrote on Wednesday. “We had our meetings and I understood the difficulty of excluding them then. As things have progressed, the situation has worsened regarding these Jewish groups that support BDS.” Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Stakes High As Afghans Prepare To Cast Presidential Ballots

April 4th 2014

Taliban soldiers

Afghans head to the polls on April 5 to elect a new president in what many are hoping will be the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s turbulent history.

The stakes are high, as the new leader will guide the country as foreign combat troops prepare to pull out by the end of the year, leaving Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban. Billions of dollars in foreign aid are tied to the government's holding a free and fair election, the first independent vote organized by Afghanistan without direct foreign assistance.

Three contenders are expected to dominate the eight-man race to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled for 12 years and is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. The front-runners are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and two former foreign ministers, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rasul.

Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, says that with no clear favorite among the three leading candidates, the election is expected to be the most open and unpredictable since the first democratic election was held in the country in 2004. Read more ..

The Lessons of History

US Seeking Lessons of 1994 Rwanda Genocide

April 3rd 2014

Africa Genocide

Two decades have passed since hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the Rwanda genocide, and Western powers were accused of standing by and allowing it to happen. Experts say there are lessons to be learned on how to prevent such tragedies in the future.

The world was shocked when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were massacred in about 100 days, starting April 7, 1994.

Members of the ethnic Hutu majority killed about 70 percent of the minority Tutsis living in Rwanda, and many moderate Hutus.

U.S. President Bill Clinton was criticized at home and abroad for doing nothing to stop the slaughter.  Four years later, he visited Rwanda and apologized for his inaction.

"We did not act quickly enough after the killing began.  All over the world, there were people like me sitting in offices day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror," he said.

Despite the vow of "never again," the catastrophe in Rwanda did not bring the end of widespread violence against civilians.

Genocide in Sudan's Darfur region and sectarian violence in the Central African Republic are among the acts of mass brutality since then that have left millions dead or homeless. In the Syrian civil war, at least 150,000 people are believed to have been killed, and President Barack Obama has been accused of inaction. Read more ..

The Ukraine on Edge

'We Need To Cure Ukraine:' Maidan Doctor Aims For Presidency

April 2nd 2014

Ukraine protest

Prominent Ukrainian doctor Olha Bohomolets says her country is "gravely sick."And she's determined to nurse it back to health.

Bohomolets, who spent months treating injured antigovernment protesters in Kyiv, is running for president in Ukraine's May 25 election with pledges to root out corruption and boost government transparency.

"Today, we have a very powerful external enemy," she said. "But we also have an internal enemy that is just as powerful. Its name is 'corruption.' We need to resuscitate and cure Ukraine." Bohomolets, 48, says the government born out of the Euromaidan protests is not living up to the expectations of ordinary Ukrainians who helped oust Viktor Yanukovych from power. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

Congressional Democrat Accuses Obama Administration of Dishonesty

March 31st 2014

A Democratic lawmaker is accusing the Obama administration of being "dishonest" in the handling of two controversial judicial nominations.

Georgia Rep. David Scott (D) ratcheted up his rare attack on the White House for striking a deal with the Peach State's two GOP senators. The agreement is aimed at moving a slate of six judicial nominees out of the Senate.

Asked if the administration had been honest in its handling of the process, Scott told The Hill, "I think they've been very dishonest in how they've been handling this. I represent Georgia and we have been disrespected in this." Read more ..

The Ukraine on Edge

In Ukraine, Diplomatic Assurances Do Little To Calm Fears Of Russian Military Incursion

March 31st 2014

Russian Tanks Invade Georgia

With fears of war filling the streets above, officials in the Ukrainian capital headed underground, winding through bleak, dirty-green corridors to inspect the city's aging bomb shelters.

Kyiv Mayor Volodymyr Bondarenko said nearly all of the city's 526 shelters were in need of repairs. In the absence of budget funds, he has turned to local workers and vendors to volunteer their time and supplies. If all goes well, he said the city would be ready to provide underground shelter to all of its 2.8 million residents by October 1.

Some Ukrainians, however, may feel they can't wait that long. With Russia's continuing military buildup along Ukraine's eastern border, officials and residents alike are looking at the possibility of war with Russia as potentially days, not months, away. Moscow's pledges to avoid conflict -- most recently by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said on March 29 Russia had "no intention" of crossing the border -- has done little to allay concerns. Read more ..

Russia and Ukraine

Russia's Armed Forces Depend On Ukraine's Military Industry

March 30th 2014

Russian M17 Helos

It is an ironic fact that much of the equipment used by the Russian troops in Crimea, and those maneuvering on Ukraine's border, is produced by Kyiv's military industry. 

The equipment includes the motors that keep all of Russia's combat helicopters flying and many of the engines that power Russian naval ships. It also includes about half of the air-to-air missiles carried by Russian fighter planes.

But the sight of Ukrainian-produced hardware now pointed belligerently at Kyiv is not simply incongruous. It also underlines how much Russia's military risks shooting itself in the foot if rising tensions cause the two countries to break ties. Conversely, it could also lead Russia to seek to control Ukraine regardless of the costs.

In a recent article, RFE/RL Russian Service's military correspondent Vladimir Voronov argues that severing ties with Ukraine would have a far more dramatic impact on Russia's defense program than any Western sanctions restricting sales of Western military hardware. Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

US Essential for Global Health

March 29th 2014

West Africa Domestic Violence

A new report says while big budget battles in Washington may be over for now, adequate funding to fight HIV, TB, malaria and other diseases may still be at risk. The Global Health Technologies Coalition has released its annual report, which focuses on U.S. leadership in research and development.

Coalition Director Kaitlin Christenson praises the improved atmosphere between Democrats and Republicans. She called the ceasefire in budget debates on Capitol Hill “good news.”

“We’re pleased to see that for the first time in several years Congress is able to move forward with a budget that went through the relatively normal process. And we’re pleased to see that in many areas numbers for global health specifically were held strong,” she said.

The federal budget had gone though – what’s called – sequestration.  It required mandatory across-the-board cuts for all agencies if Congress failed to make its own spending cuts. In recent years, the legislative body could not reach agreement, so all agencies took a big hit in spending. Christenson said while the climate has improved, there are no guarantees of agreement for the next fiscal year beginning in October.

“Going into negotiations for FY-15 we do have some concerns and are hoping that Congress will – as it takes the president’s budget request – bring numbers back up for agencies like the NIH [National Institutes of Health], like global health programs at the State Department and at USAID.” Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Russian Economy Weaker after Crimea

March 28th 2014

Russian orphans

Western leaders increased pressure on Russia Monday, suspending the country's membership at the G8 in response to Moscow's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats also canceled an upcoming June summit in Sochi, relocating the G7 meeting to Brussels. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the diplomatic restriction was not a big deal and another senior Kremlin advisor voiced similarly dismissive views over newly enacted economic sanctions.

Despite the tone from Russian officials, anecdotal evidence indicates the restrictions are impacting the behavior of Russian elites. Oil tycoon, Gennady Timchenko, had to sell his 43% ownership in Gunvor Group, a Geneva energy trading firm, hours after Washington decided to blacklist him from engaging in dollar transactions. Additionally, the German defense firm Rheinmetall, has suspended a $140 million dollar contract to build a training camp for Russian military forces.  Read more ..

Ukraine on Edge

Ukrainian Troops In Crimea Face 'Stay Or Go' Dilemma

March 27th 2014


Olha's husband was a Ukrainian military specialist at the Belbek base near Sevastopol, Ukraine's main air base in Crimea, until it was stormed by Russian troops on March 22. Now Crimea's crisis is forcing the couple to choose the least bad option for their future.

They, like the families of thousands of other Ukrainian military personnel who've lived their entire lives in Crimea, are trapped in a no-man's land.

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchnyov on March 24 ordered Kyiv's Defense Ministry to withdraw all Ukrainian troops from Crimea.

But many soldiers and their families have no place to go on the mainland unless Kyiv provides support. But if they stay, they face pressure to swear loyalty to Moscow and, according to new legislation, will automatically be made Russian nationals unless they declare their desire to retain Ukrainian citizenship -- which they fear could lead to reprisals.

Meanwhile, defense officials in Kyiv are still wrestling with how to transport other loyal Ukrainian soldiers -- like Olha's husband -- out of a territory annexed by Russia and overrun with Russian troops. Kyiv wants them to travel in their military vehicles. But there is no agreement with Russia allowing the overland withdrawal of Ukrainian military convoys. Read more ..

France on Edge

How Toxic is Paris? European Project Tackles the Issue

March 25th 2014

Eiffel Tower Paris France

Greyish photos of Paris under a thick blanket of contaminated air, the Eiffel tower barely visible in the skyline, gave us a spectacular demonstration of bad environmental practices contrasting very much with the French capital’s ideal touristic representations that normally circulate on the web.

Around mid-March, the foggy atmosphere was reported to contain over 180 micrograms of PM10 particles per cubic metre (particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter such as soot emitted by vehicles, heating systems and heavy industry).

Of course, these particles are only the visible part of the chemical soup that city dwellers have to endure and the list of exhaust gases, solvents and other hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) known to have adverse effects on our health or recognized as plain carcinogens spans hundreds of molecules.

Now, indoor air quality (IAQ) is reportedly worse than that of external air due to the concentration of organic VOCs often emanating from the buildings’ construction materials and office furniture, all confined into tight spaces. This is aggravated by inadequate ventilation and the fact that most people spend 90 percent of their time indoor, leading to the so called Sick Building Syndrome (the occupants experiencing discomfort, irritations or generic illness). Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Battle for the Airwaves

March 23rd 2014

Smart phone

The setting was ornate, the subject esoteric, but the implications huge.

The crowd that filed last month into the wood-paneled room 226 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building included lawmakers, lobbyists, company executives, and a few mystery guests — a roster that reflected the enormity of the issue at hand: nothing less than control of the growing wireless market and the hundreds of billions of dollars that go with it.

Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile USA Inc. were out in force, as were some of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C.  Along with those household names was the little-known but  quietly influential Jonathan Spalter.

The chairman of Mobile Future, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, sat at the witness table along with the big wireless carriers and well-known consumer advocates to tell senators how the government should auction valuable airwaves that the telecommunications companies say they need to keep up with the exploding use of smartphones and tablet computers.


Ukraine on Edge

Russia's Crimea Take-Over Re-Animates Tatars' Fears of Ethnic Cleansing

March 22nd 2014

Click to select Image

Khatidzhe, an elderly Tatar woman living in a small, shabby house in the suburbs of the Crimean capital, admits she suffers from the occasional memory lapse in her old age.

But there are some things she'll never forget. The German soldiers who locked her family in a room and used their house as lodging during World War II. The chilly suspicion of locals when she and fellow Tatars were later deported to Uzbekistan by Soviet authorities as purported Nazi collaborators. And her anguish when she returned to Crimea in 1991 only to realize her childhood home in the coastal town of Alushta had been seized and long since given away to Russian occupants. Read more ..

The Ukraine on Edge

Dictator's Handbook: Six Regrettable Lessons To Take Away From Crimea Crisis

March 20th 2014


The speed and ease with which Russia reclaimed its hold on the Crimean Peninsula have left much of the world reeling. But the factors that went into it were years in the making. Here are six life lessons for acquisitive future dictators and countries trying to break free of them.

1. Don't Give Up Your Nukes
Twenty years ago, Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear power in the world, with 1,900 long-range and 2,400 short-range strategic warheads that had once been part of the U.S.S.R.'s Cold War arsenal. But Kyiv voluntarily handed them back to Russia in 1994, when it signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance, trading in its nuclear weapons in exchange for sovereignty and the promise that Russia would "refrain from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine."

It seemed like a good deal at the time. But many Ukrainian lawmakers are now lamenting the decision, admitting something that Pakistan and India have known for decades -- that missiles beat memoranda when it comes to keeping interlopers off your land. Or, as Verkhovna Rada lawmaker Pavlo Ryzanenko told "USA Today," "If you have nuclear weapons, people don't invade you." Fellow Budapest signatories Belarus and Kazakhstan may suddenly be ruing the day they gave up their nukes. Iran and North Korea, meanwhile, are less likely than ever to respond to global pressure to give up theirs. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

14 Ways to Avoid the Obamacare Tax

March 19th 2014


There are 14 ways, in all, to avoid paying the Obamacare tax penalty — the new fine for not carrying health insurance that conforms to the government regulations.

You can take advantage of these off ramps all the way till 2016, at the very least. And one of them (#14) is so broad that it could capture just about any reason you can think of for not wanting to pay the tax.

Here are the 14 “circumstances” that make you eligible for skirting the tax, and the documentation you’ll need to prove that you qualify for the waivers.

1. You were homeless. Documentation Required: None

2. You were evicted in the past 6 months or were facing eviction or foreclosure. Documentation Required: Copy of eviction or foreclosure notice

3. You received a shut-off notice from a utility company. Documentation Required: Copy of shut-off notice from a utility company Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Shapeshifting Shelters for Refugees in Hot and Cold Climates

March 18th 2014


With roughly 600 Syrian refugees crossing into Jordan every day, it’s no surprise that local architects are designing various housing solutions for the devastating influx. Abeer Seikaly’s collapsible woven shelter is lightweight and mobile, while Yahya Ibraheem’s shapeshifting shelters can be customized to fit a suite of climate conditions.

Ibraheem wrote her Master’s thesis for the University of Salford, Manchester about the many ways in which parametric modeling can enhance architectural design solutions of temporary shelters in disaster areas.

Using Grasshopper, Ibraheem takes the ancient method of constructing teepee-like temporary shelters out of branches or trees, cuts off the empty pyramid point, and then models a shelter with diagonal lines that are proven to be the most resilient in rough winds. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

The End of the “Wrong Side of History”

March 17th 2014


President Barack Obama, in criticizing Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s conquest of the Crimean Peninsula, described Putin as standing on the “wrong side of history.”  This curious and arresting phrase has become a common usage among western liberals.

It is testimony to their self-confidence, and to their belief that they have accurately read the deeper currents and inevitable direction of human affairs.  These, in the view of the president and his supporters, point inexorably toward greater cooperation between peoples, a decline in attachment to particularist ethnic, national or religious histories, and a decline in the use of force to settle disputes between states.

The unspoken assumption behind all this, of course, is that being on the right side of history also means accepting the unmatched dominance of the US in global affairs, and in turn the unchallengeable domination of the US by people supporting the particular progressive world view of the president and his supporters. That is, Obama and his supporters use the word “history” to refer to themselves. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Russia Blocks Websites Critical Of Kremlin

March 16th 2014

Starbucks Wireless

"Dear users! We apologize, but access to the requested site is restricted."

This is the message some readers were dismayed to find on the evening of March 13 when they tried to access Grani.ru, a popular opposition news portal.

Grani.ru is one of three websites banned by Russian authorities under a new law that critics say aims to silence independent media and particularly the Internet, one of the last platforms for free speech in Russia.

In addition to blocking Grani.ru, the government communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, has ordered Russian providers to block access to ej.ru, the site of the online magazine "Yezhednevny zhurnal,"  and Kasparov.ru, a website run by opposition figure and former chess champion Garry Kasparov.

All three sites carried scathing criticism of the Kremlin's policies, including the occupation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula by Russian troops. The blog of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was also briefly blocked -- on the grounds that he had violated his house arrest -- but later unblocked. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Rebels Release Abducted Nuns

March 15th 2014

Rebel fighters

Syrian rebels released about a dozen Orthodox nuns from captivity on Sunday. The nuns were transferred into the Lebanese town of Arsal and expected to return to Damascus soon after. Their freedom concludes a three-month ordeal that included being moved from their home village of Maaloula, north of Damascus, to the rebel stronghold of Yabroud.

According to sources in the rebel camp, the nuns were freed in a prisoner exchange between the al-Nusra rebel group and the government of Bashar al-Asad, which agreed to release 150 female prisoners of their own. Qatar along with Lebanon helped mediate the deal, which has been one of the few international efforts to successfully ease tensions in the Syrian conflict. The Syrian army has recently launched an offensive targeting Yabroud, where the nuns were being held and Syrian state television did not mention any sort of swap. State news sources are portraying the event as a victory for Asad who has personally checked on the health of the nuns numerous times. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

New Protests Erupt in Turkey

March 14th 2014

Taksim Gezi Park protests

Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Turkish cities Wednesday, after a fourteen year old Turkish boy died Tuesday morning from injuries sustained during an anti-government rally in 2013. Berkin Elvan went to buy bread last June, but found himself in the middle of the protest where a police tear gas canister struck him in the head. His injuries left him in a coma that ultimately lasted nine months.

More than 100,000 people attended Elvan's funeral procession Wednesday morning. While the march itself was peaceful, after the ceremony protesters clashed with police as they tried to cut off traffic and reach the central square. Following these skirmishes, a new wave of protests has commenced in over 30 cities. The police responded brutally using tear gas and water cannons to control the crowds, with media reporting two deaths. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Russia Mulls Fast-Track Citizenship, Sparking Brain-Drain Concerns Elsewhere

March 13th 2014

Research and Development Chemistry

Proposed legislation that would give native Russian speakers abroad a fast track to Russian citizenship appears designed to lure highly qualified specialists and successful entrepreneurs.

The draft legislation, in the form of new amendments to its existing citizenship law, would pave the way for eligible, Russian-speaking applicants to get Russian passports within three months, skipping an otherwise lengthy and complicated procedure.

In introducing the legislation on March 6, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that it would allow Russian speakers who had lived on territories that were subject of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship without getting permanent residence permits.

Medvedev's announcement raised eyebrows, coming as a separate draft bill was being mulled by the State Duma that would make it easier for Moscow to incorporate territories in foreign states into the Russian Federation. Read more ..

The Violent Roads of Mexico

A Yellow Dragon and Harvest of Limes and Violence in Mexico

March 12th 2014

Click to select Image

The tangy lime is essential to Mexican cuisine. An ingredient of flavored water, the fruit is also squeezed into soups, dabbed on fish, sprinkled on tacos al pastor and utilized in countless other recipes. A cold Corona or Tecate, or a shot of tequila, without a dash of lime is almost like a root beer float minus its foamy head. Lime is the juicy salt of the Mexican diet.

It’s no small wonder, then, that Mexicans are gasping in disbelief at the astronomical cost of limes. In recent weeks, the retail cost of the product has gone through the roof, jumping by 800 percent or more in some regions of the country. An item that once sold for 7 or 8 pesos per kilo now fetches a record 64 pesos a kilo in the state of Tabasco and even as much as 80 pesos in parts of Mexico City. Read more ..

The Battle for the Ukraine

Russia Tries To Win Over Crimean Tatars

March 12th 2014

Koran and prayer beads

As pro-Moscow authorities consolidate their hold over Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, the region's Tatars have found themselves on the receiving end of a Kremlin-backed charm offensive to win their support. But it appears to be falling flat.

The charm offensive comes ahead of a controversial referendum scheduled for March 16 in which voters will decide whether the Black Sea peninsula should leave Ukraine and become part of Russia. Kyiv says the vote is illegal.

A series of delegations from Russia has descended on Crimea in recent weeks and pro-Moscow authorities in the region are promising Tatars expanded rights.

And most recently, a veteran leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Jemilev, was in Moscow this week at the invitation of Russian authorities for talks about the crisis in Ukraine. He was expected to meet the former president of Russia’s Tatarstan Republic, Mintimer Shaimiyev. Jemilev also said that his delegation would continue to insist that Russia respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Read more ..

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 ..

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