Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Obama, Nukes, and the World

Posted in Barack Obama, Citizen Radio, politics by allisonkilkenny on April 6, 2009

nagasaki_nuclear_bombPresident Obama has seized upon North Korea’s missile launch to talk about a new approach to nuclear disarmament. Most people agree with the swell commonplaces associated with Obama’s vague rhetoric. Sure, we shouldn’t blow up the planet. Yes, nuclear weapons are extremely dangerous.

But beyond that, the rules for nuclear armament are very hazy. Who can pursue nuclear weapons changes depending on time, place, and what the United States can gain from allowing (or forbidding) nuclear ambitions.

Certainly, reducing armaments is the pathway to abolishing nuclear weapons. However, the United States has placed itself in the position of favoring/allowing some countries’ nuclear pursuits (United States, United Kingdom, France, Israel, India, China, Russia) ahead of other countries’ sometimes-identical quests (Iran, North Korea, Syria). There was some good in Obama’s Prague speech, but there were also bad pockets. Let’s explore the minefield, shall we?

Good: reducing nukes

Few people adopt qualms for statements like this. It would be nice to live in a safer world where we’re not consumed with the fear that some general somewhere has gone bat shit crazy and sold the nuclear armament codes to Al-Qaeda.

Bad: The complete lack of universality

The United States picks and chooses which countries can, and cannot, pursue nuclear technology. Whilst holding Kim Jong-Il’s missiles just out of his reach, America gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons in an extremely volatile region of the world.

Soon after North Korea’s missile launch, President Obama gave a speech in Prague during which he declared, “Rules must be binding…Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” True, but what words? What are these rules, and why do sacred rules only apply to certain people?

Who can have missiles? Who can pursue nuclear technology, and why are 1,000-2,000 nukes on the U.S. and Russian sides any less dangerous than 5,000(PDF)?

Furthermore, “nuclear” describes a range of pursuits from missiles and bombs to energy. Iran claims it wants nuclear energy to power its state, while Israel and the United States claim their true interests lie in nuking Israel off the map. Such a move would be pretty dumb, considering Tehran would be obliterated instantly during the retaliation, but there it is – the strange double standard, combined with vague guidelines: Israel may have nukes, but Iran may not pursue nuclear power because we clairvoyantly believe Iran’s true intentions are to nuke Israel. And yes, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch document all kinds of human rights violations on the part of Israel that should lead us to believe it too is a reactionary government incapable of living humanely with its neighbors, and therefore shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons, but nevermind. Step aside: confusing standards to uphold here.

North Korea’s pursuit of a missile is another illustration of such a variance in priorities. While certainly crazy, Kim Jong-Il is hardly a looming threat to the west. His sputtering rocket is the equivalent of a five-year-old’s tantrum. He got the attention he’s been craving, but he’s unlikely to blast Alaska to smithereens. Call this the flexing-for-attention strategy. Sarah Palin needn’t stakeout the coastline with Todd, and her armed children, just yet.

Bad: Fear-mongering for the sake of geopolitical conquest

I recently interviewed activist and author of several books, Tariq Ali, about the volatility at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Obama’s rationale behind expanding the covert drone operation within Pakistan is that we can’t let the Taliban get a nuclear weapon. (Pakistan is one of those “nuclear no-no” countries that we curse having the bomb). Mr. Ali very patiently explained to me how absurd this notion is:

I think this is one of the stupidest, fear mongering things. It is true Pakistan is a nuclear state. It is also true that the Pakistani military is half a million strong, that these nuclear facilities are amongst the most heavily guarded facilities in the country, just like they are in the United States, in Israel, in India, in China, in Russia now. So the notion that any armed group of extremists could even get near these facilities is a joke.

But let’s suppose they do. All the nuclear weapons require codes to be fired. These codes are now imbedded in all these weapons. There’s a handful of top military people who know what these codes are. There are also rumors, by the way, that the United States defense intelligence agency has its own personnel in there. This has been denied, but it wouldn’t totally surprise me if it were true.

So there is no problem on that front unless the Pakistani military splits. Were it to split, then all bets are off. And the only reason it would split is if the United States expanded the war into Pakistan, making it extremely difficult for lots of nationalist-minded military officers to go along with this. Because there is that current and they say, “Well, it is our country. Why is the United States using our military bases to bomb our own people?”

What I am saying to you is now news to the administration. There are intelligent people behind Obama, who know all this. And that is why its puzzling as to why they trying to destabilize the country.

Someone explain to Mr. Ali that the United State’s policies don’t have to make sense. The U.S. has nukes, so it gets to make the rules. You don’t have to make sense when you can kill the world with your arsenal of deadly, deadly weapons. Of course, if the U.S. disarms, it may have to shield itself with logic and justice instead of contradictory ideologies, gross favoritism, and the ability to vaporize the world a hundred times over.

If Part 1 of Obama’s Al-Qaeda-with-nukes fear-mongering is Al-Qaeda’s ability to steal a nuke, part 2 is Al-Qaeda’s ability to build a nuclear weapon, a claim impressively more absurd than the one made in part 1.

Building a nuclear weapon isn’t like cooking up some meth in the back of a Chevy Chevette. It takes decades to enrich uranium (ask Iran). With a halfway competent intelligence community (something I would never accuse the U.S. of having, but rather something they should aspire to have,) we’d spot something suspicious in no time. Namely, dodgy, bearded dudes crouching in caves, their faces aglow in an eerie green light from their tubes of uranium.

While Obama’s pursuit (meaning, something beyond pretty words) of nuclear disarmament would be noble, there are other problems with the U.S.’s nuclear philosophy that needs his attention. Double standards, favoritism, and fear-mongering are cancerous elements that rob the U.S. of respect and leverage in the nuclear debate.

Cross-posted from allisonkilkenny.com. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.

Ukraine On The Brink

Posted in Capitalism, Economy by allisonkilkenny on March 2, 2009

NYT

Dozens waited outside the Rodovid Bank in Kiev on Friday to take money out of their accounts. The bank is close to failing. (Joseph Sywenkyj, NYT)

Dozens waited outside the Rodovid Bank in Kiev on Friday to take money out of their accounts. The bank is close to failing. (Joseph Sywenkyj, NYT)

KIEV, Ukraine — Steel and chemical factories, once the muscle of Ukraine’s economy, are dismissing thousands of workers. Cities have had days without heat or water because they cannot pay their bills, and Kiev’s subway service is being threatened. Lines are sprouting at banks, the currency is wilting and even a government default seems possible.

Ukraine, once considered a worldwide symbol of an emerging, free-market democracy that had cast off authoritarianism, is teetering. And its predicament poses a real threat for other European economies and former Soviet republics.

The sudden, violent protests that have erupted elsewhere in Eastern Europe seem imminent here now, too. Across Kiev last week, people spoke of rising anger about the crisis and resentment toward a government that they said was more preoccupied with squabbling than with rallying the country.

The sign held by Vasily Kirilyuk, an unemployed plumber camped out with other antigovernment demonstrators here in the past week, summed up the pervasive frustration: “Get rid of them all,” it said.

Mr. Kirilyuk did not hesitate to take that further. “There will be a revolt,” he said. “And people will come because they are just fed up.”

Mr. Kirilyuk, 29, was standing in the same central square where throngs in 2004 carried out the Orange Revolution, a seminal event that brought to power a pro-Western government in Ukraine. He said he was a fervent supporter then of the protesters, but now he and a few dozen others who have set up tents here are demanding that the heroes of that revolution step down.

It is not hard to understand why world leaders are increasingly worried about the discontent and the financial crisis in Ukraine, which has 46 million people and a highly strategic location. A small country like Latvia or Iceland is one thing, but a collapse in Ukraine could wreck what little investor confidence is left in Eastern Europe, whose formerly robust economies are being badly strained.

It could also cause neighboring Russia, which has close ethnic and linguistic ties to eastern and southern Ukraine, to try to inject itself into the country’s affairs. What is more, the Kremlin would be able to hold up Ukraine as an example of what happens when former Soviet republics follow a Western model of free-market democracy.

Ukraine is a linchpin for stability in Europe,” said Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at Kiev Mohyla University. “It is a key player between the expanding European Union and Russia. To use an alarmist scenario, you could imagine a situation in Ukraine that Russia tried to exploit in order to dominate Ukraine. That would make for a very explosive situation on the border of the European Union.”

That Ukraine can cause problems for Europe was highlighted in January when Ukraine engaged in a dispute with Russia over how much it would pay Russia for natural gas, as well as over gas transport to the rest of Europe. The Kremlin shut off the gas for several days, and some European countries went without heat. The Kremlin also shut off gas to Ukraine in 2006 in a pricing dispute.

While Ukraine’s economy is dependent on exports of steel and chemicals, which have plummeted, the crisis has cut deeply because people are disillusioned with the government.

President Viktor A. Yushchenko, a leader of the Orange Revolution, who garnered attention around the world in 2004 when his face was scarred in a poisoning episode, is so widely scorned that a recent poll found that 57 percent of people wanted him to resign.

His rivals have also lost popularity, as the public has become exasperated by years of political bickering. In February, the International Monetary Fund refused to release the next installment of a $16.4 billion rescue loan to Ukraine because the government would not adhere to an earlier agreement to pare its budget.

Around the same time, Ukraine’s finance minister resigned, saying that the job had been “hostage to politics.”

On Friday, the monetary fund projected that Ukraine’s economy would shrink by 6 percent this year, and said that it was continuing to work with the government to find a way to disburse the rest of the rescue loan.

A presidential election is coming, probably to be held next January, and this prospect is making politicians, especially Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, reluctant to adopt an austerity program that might alienate voters.

Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko were pro-Western allies during the Orange Revolution, but have bitterly feuded since then, and he fired her once. A third rival, Viktor F. Yanukovich, a former prime minister who heads an opposition party that favors closer ties with Russia, also wants to be president.

On Friday, Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko held a public meeting in an effort to demonstrate that they were working together. Mr. Yushchenko said he wanted “to show the readiness of all sides to take political responsibility for decisions which today are not easy.”

Even so, the two did not announce further anticrisis measures.

All over Kiev have been signs that tensions are building.

On the city’s outskirts, more than 200 tractor-trailer rigs were parked Thursday, their drivers threatening to block roads if the government did not help them with their debts, which they said were caused in part by the drop in the value of Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia.

The truckers dispersed Friday, only after the government said it would try to address their demands, but they said they would be back soon if they were ignored.

“The government is to blame for all this,” said a trucker, Viktor V. Zarichnyuk, 26, who had been at the protest for 12 days. “We want the government and the national bank to agree that the money allocated by the International Monetary Fund, at least part of it, should go to regular people.”

At a branch of the Rodovid Bank across town, a tense crowd gathered Friday morning. The bank, close to failing, was allowing withdrawals of only $35 a day. And so people, some of them pensioners fearful for their life savings, have been trooping each day, ever more aggravated, to try to get what they can.

“Every day we come here — it’s insulting — in the cold and line up,” said Alevtina A. Antonyuk, 58, an engineer. “They are nothing at this bank but a bunch of thieves.”

Who is to blame, she was asked. Before she could answer, Dmitri I. Havrilkiv, 78, a retired crane operator, interrupted.

“The government has to be replaced,” he shouted. “They just can’t handle it!”

Leading Russian Rights Lawyer and Journalist Shot to Death in Moscow

Posted in politics by allisonkilkenny on January 20, 2009

New York Times

Investigators standing over the body of the lawyer Stanislav Markelov in Moscow on Monday. He and Anastasia Baburova, a freelance journalist, were killed after he held a news conference. (Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters)

Investigators standing over the body of the lawyer Stanislav Markelov in Moscow on Monday. He and Anastasia Baburova, a freelance journalist, were killed after he held a news conference. (Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters)

MOSCOW — A prominent Russian lawyer who spent the better part of a decade pursuing contentious human rights and social justice cases was killed on Monday in a brazen daylight assassination in central Moscow, officials said.

The lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, had just left a news conference where he announced that he would continue to fight against the early release from jail of Yuri D. Budanov, a former Russian tank commander imprisoned for murdering a young Chechen woman.

Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old journalist who was with Mr. Markelov, was also killed, according to a spokeswoman for a newspaper where she worked as a freelancer, Novaya Gazeta, which is highly critical of the government. The two were shot.

Officials said they believed that Mr. Markelov, 34, was the primary target, having brought cases against the Russian military, Chechen warlords and murderous neo-fascists. With a laundry list of his potential enemies, authorities refrained from naming any suspects.

“Investigators are looking into various theories, including that the murder was linked to the victim’s professional activities,” Vladimir I. Markin, a spokesman for the investigative wing of the Prosecutor General’s Office, said of Mr. Markelov.

The murder bore the characteristics of a contract killing, a not-uncommon phenomenon in Russia. Even so, the audacity of Mr. Markelov’s murder surprised some commentators.

“Even when organized crime in the 1990s was rampant, such a killing would have been considered bold and horrific,” said a correspondent from Vesti television.

Mr. Markelov, who was the director of the Rule of Law Institute, a civil liberties group, gained prominence recently representing the family of Elza Kungayeva. She was an 18-year-old Chechen whom Mr. Budanov, the former tank commander, admitted strangling in his quarters in March 2000, just as the second post-Soviet war in Chechnya was beginning to rage.

Mr. Budanov was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was given early parole for good behavior.

Mr. Markelov, at the news conference just before his death, told reporters that he might file an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against the early release of Mr. Budanov, who was a decorated colonel of the Russian Army before he was stripped of his rank. In an interview last week with The New York Times, Mr. Markelov said he might also file a lawsuit against the administration of the prison that released Mr. Budanov last Thursday.

The decision to free Mr. Budanov set off street protests and outraged some human rights groups and Chechen officials. It reignited long-simmering tensions years after a decade of intermittent war in Chechnya, a southern Russian republic, was replaced by tenuous stability.

But Mr. Budanov was also revered by nationalists as a valiant fighter who helped wage a bloody but necessary war against separatist rebels in Chechnya. Some now see Mr. Markelov’s murder as revenge for his efforts against a Russian hero.

“The murder of Markelov, I consider a bold open warning by the ‘party of war’ to democratic Russia,” Nudri S. Nukhazhiev, Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, said in a statement. “Today, there are no facts or evidence of the direct participation of Budanov in this crime, but I am more than certain that it was committed by his supporters with his consent.”

Mr. Markelov phoned the father of Ms. Kungayeva, the slain teenager, a few days ago to complain that he had received death threats, the father told the Interfax news agency.

Lela Khamzayeva, another lawyer for Ms. Kungayeva’s family, was adamant, however, that the killing of Mr. Markelov could not be linked to his connection with Mr. Budanov, because his role during the actual proceedings against the former colonel was, as she put it, “insignificant.”

“If someone is trying to link this murder with Markelov’s participation in the Budanov case, well, that’s just ridiculous,” she said.

Given Mr. Markelov’s propensity for challenging the Russian authorities and others known to settle scores violently, the list of potential suspects is lengthy.

He worked closely with Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist with Novaya Gazeta and strong critic of Russia’s Chechnya policies, who was murdered in Moscow in 2006.

He often defended the interests of those, like Ms. Kungayeva, who became ensnared in the violent and often arbitrary military justice of the Chechen conflict or the tyrannical rule of Chechnya’s violence-prone leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, in the war’s aftermath.

“He handled almost every case opened as a result of the work of Anna Politkovskaya,” said Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokeswoman for Novaya Gazeta.

While he was not involved in the current trial of three men accused in the murder of Ms. Politkovskaya, Mr. Markelov did work on the case of another murdered Novaya Gazeta journalist, Igor Domnikov, who died in 2000 from wounds caused by a hammer blow to the head.

Mr. Markelov has also represented victims of neo-fascist and xenophobic violence, a phenomenon that has been expanding annually both in frequency and intensity, according to experts.

At least 10 people were killed and 9 others injured in racist attacks in Russia in the first two weeks of 2009, said Aleksandr Brod, the head of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, Interfax reported.

Ms. Baburova, the freelancer who was killed Monday, began working for Novaya Gazeta last October. She cited Mr. Markelov in her most recent article about fascist groups, published on Saturday.

In it, the lawyer criticized the authorities for their handling of a case against the leader of a violent nationalist group, who was sentenced to three years in prison for arranging the murder of a man from Tajikistan and putting video of the killing on the Internet.

With Ms. Baburova’s death, Novaya Gazeta has lost four reporters to murder or other mysterious circumstances since 2000.

Michael Schwirtz reported from Moscow, and Graham Bowley from New York.