So what has Russian president Vladimir Putin been up to these days? Aside from his well-publicized takeover of Russian oil companies and meddling in Ukrainian elections, that is. Perhaps not surprisingly, Putin, as it turns out, also has his finger in the election pie in the separatist region of Abkhazia -- more or less autonomous since 1993 -- on the Black Sea coast.
The region, which has not been internationally recognized and thus has largely escaped the radar of the world media and international election observers, went to the polls on Wednesday to redo an Oct. 3, 2004 election that ended in a wide margin of victory for the opposition. Why the redo? The supposedly outgoing president, Vladislav Ardzinba, refused to step down, instead redoubling his efforts to install his chosen candidate, Prime Minister Raul Khadzhimba, into office. Putin, showing his usual disdain for democracy, backed their efforts.
But just like in Ukraine in December, the opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh, who beat his rival by the wide margin of 15 percentage points, managed to mobilize the opposition throughout the autumn -- and managed to get the support of the Abkhazian electoral commission, the Supreme Court, the parliament and even the military decided to remain neutral.
So how did Putin respond? In November, Russia stopped sending pensions to former Soviet workers and ceased all humanitarian aid. Later the same month, Putin shipped off a contingent of soldiers to the region. In early December, Russia imposed a sea and railroad blockade and increased its troop presence along the border. Putin threatened a full blockade if Bagapsh took power. Why? It's not clear. Bagapsh, after all, has repeatedly emphasized that he would take a pro-Russian course. Some observers say that Russia continued to back Khadzhimba just because it refused to admit that it had, once again, failed to back a winning candidate.
As it turns out, both sides are getting what they want -- sort of. In Russian brokered talks, a compromise agreement was worked out which placed Khadzhimba on the Bagapsh ticket as the vice presidential candidate. He would be in charge of law enforcement, foreign policy and 40 percent of the presidential budget. Bagapsh would be free to pursue his pet project of battling corruption. Now all that is needed is 50 percent of the voters to show up to rubber stamp the deal. With only Russian election observers on hand, that should be no problem. (6:00 p.m. CET)
Red Tape Blocking Relief
As if the situation weren't bad enough already.Now the Indonesian authorities are requiring that foreign aid workers declare all their travel plans in the tsunami-devastated region of Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. If they don't, the government welfare minister Alwi Shihab said on Wednesday, they could be expelled.
The Indonesian government is, it says, concerned about the safety of relief workers. Aceh province is the site of a decades-long, low-scale separatist struggle that has cost the lives of thousands. A cease fire was announced immediately following the tsunami, but the Indonesian military has continued to warn that rebels could rob aid convoys and use refugee camps as hideouts. No proof of the accusations has been offered up.
Clearly, however, such a bureaucratic requirement does nothing to help the aid situation in the Aceh province. Many of the coastal villages in the region were completely destroyed by the wave and a United Nations spokesman said on Wednesday that some villages in the area still have not been reached by aid workers. More red tape from the Indonesian government will clearly not help. (2 p.m. CET)
The Aid Charade Revisited
So far, development banks and international governments around the world have pledged an unprecedented $4 billion in aid to the regions affected by the Dec. 26 tsunami. But according to UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs Jan Egeland, only $717 million of that has been converted into binding commitments so far. In Geneva on Tuesday, the UN also urged donor countries to cough up all the money pledged to avoid the sort of measely sputter of aid that plagued the Bam, Iran earthquake relief one year ago. The UN, says Egeland, doesn't even have enough cash on hand at the moment to meet the most pressing needs. The British group Oxfam as also warned against nations shifting aid that had been earmarked for Africa over to Asia relief operations and has been urging countries to confirm that such fund-shifting would not take place. So far, only Germany, which pledged 500 million in tsunami relief aid, has made such a promise. (12:45 p.m. CET)
Elections amid car bombs and gunfire? No problem, said United States President George W. Bush and interim Iraqi President Ayad Allawi on Tuesday. However, in saying that presidential elections in Iraq were going to go ahead as planned on Jan. 30, Allawi did admit for the first time that, because of instability in parts of the country, not everyone will be able to vote.
"Certainly, there will be some pockets that will not be able to participate in the elections...," Allawi said. "But we think that it will not be widespread."
Not widespread? According to the Jordanian ambassador to the United States, Karim Kawar, who admittedly may not be the most reliable source for such a factoid, more than 40 percent of Iraqis will be frozen out of the vote. According to the Associated Press, the vast Anbar province, which has 1.2 million inhabitants and stretches from Baghdad to the Jordanian, Syrian and Saudi Arabian borders has been unable to prepare for an election at all because of the miserable security situation. The region includes the former rebel hotbed of Fallujah, with its 425,000 population. The northern city of Mosul, population 3.8 million, would also be excluded.
The situation, said the Jordanian ambassador, calls the legitimacy of the election into question. Indeed. How can one talk of free and fair elections when large chunks of the nation's 25.4 million people will be unable to vote and further potential voters will no doubt stay away from polling stations in the knowledge that radicals will be targeting them on election day? According to the head of Iraqi intelligence, Mohammed Shahwani, there are up to 200,000 terrorists and resistance fighters operating in Iraq. And many of them will continue to step up violent attacks in Iraq right through voting day.
And then, of course, there are the Sunnis. The Muslim group -- a minority to the Shiite majority in Iraq -- is threatening to boycott the election and the largest Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has pulled out of the race. The party cited the deteriorating security situation in announcing its decision, but it knows full well that without Sunni participation in an election, no Iraqi government will be considered legitimate.
There are many, of course, who worry that cancelling or postponing elections would represent a victory for terrorism in Iraq -- a justifiable concern. But holding the elections will produce nothing of value. There is an extreme risk to the safety of all who chose to go to the polls later this month -- and the result will likely not be recognized by all sides. In other words, the situation after the election won't be much different than the current one.
So what is to be gained? Bush needs news from Iraq that doesn't have to do with suicide bombers, torture and US soldiers losing their lives. And, without at least a quasi-legit Iraqi government, the US has no exit strategy. (11:35 a.m. CET)
Putting Lawyers Behind Bars
It sounds like a lame lawyer joke: Why did the law student go to prison? Because he hadn't learned the law yet! But for students at the University of Bochum, going to prison is no joke, it's part of the curriculum. Starting this semester, law students will be making regular visits to Bochum's prison to get to know, first hand, what the life of an inmate is like. They spend time meeting prisoners, learning their life stories and getting a feel for their daily experience. "Lawyers should get to know their future field, but from a different side -- namely, the side of those it affects," says professor Thomas Feltes, who started the program.
What have they discovered so far during their intensive experience? Did they learn about showers and soap, or how best to fashion a shiv from a chair leg? Mostly, it appears, prisoners talked about gripes like not being able to have Play Stations or pets in prison. In one part of the experience, students are asked to see if they can determine who's a criminal just by looking -- by picking criminals out of a line up that includes public prosecutors and police. Why, one might wonder, do the prisoners take part? "I come because of the cola and cookies," said Ralf H., who's serving two years for coercion. (10:20 a.m. CET)