Monthly Archives: March 2013

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on February 26, 2013 (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)Allegations of election rigging are nothing new in Russia. But a new study of ballot box fraud has provoked strident denunciations from Kremlin circles – because it has emerged from a corner of the regime least expected.

The study was prepared by a little-known thinktank called the Centre for Analysis of Problems and Public Governance, which concludes that accounting for electoral fraud, the opposition Communist Party should have won the 2011 Duma elections with 30 per cent of the vote, rather than the Kremlin-backed United Russia. UR officially took 49 per cent, but the study says it should have got 22 per cent, according to versions of the report leaked to the press.

The study also concluded that Vladimir Putin would have still won the presidential poll in March, but with 52 per cent rather than 65 percent of the vote.

These conclusions, questioning the legitimacy of the ruling party, and the mandate of Mr Putin, would probably have been stomached had they been raised by an opposition group.

But it turns out the Centre is connected to the solid core of the Kremlin. It’s a right-wing thinktank associated with a branch of Putin’s circle known as the “Orthodox Chekisti” for their links to the Orthodox church and their professional backgrounds in the Soviet era security services (“Chekist” in Russian is slang for spy). The Centre’s scientific director is Vladimir Yakunin, chief of Russia’s state railway monopoly, who owns a country house in the same compound as Putin on Lake Komsomolskoe near St Petersburg. Read more

Peng Liyuan performs in 2007 (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty)

Peng Liyuan performs in 2007 (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty)

The talking point of the Chinese leadership transition has so far centred on the President-elect and his austerity drive on gift-giving. But today his celebrity folk singer wife – Peng Liyuan – swept to centre stage, following the revelation that she will not only be accompanying him on his first foreign tour, but also giving a speech.

The move is a departure from the treatment afforded to the wife of the outgoing President, Hu Jintao. It would seem that, rather than the silent companion of yore, Xi Jinping is keen for his wife to play a key ambassadorial role.

A cursory look at pictures of her performing across China show an array of brightly coloured outfits – her repertoire of different looks could rival those of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of the former French President. Another link between the two women is that both were independently famous as singers before marrying their politician-husbands. Read more

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The 115 cardinals tasked with choosing the next Pope have begun their ‘conclave’ in Rome – but the black smoke that emerged from their burnt ballot papers tonight means no result yet.

It’s a good time to revisit this FT interactive on the global reach of the Roman Catholic church (click on the image to go there): Read more

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By Gideon Rachman

“Our intercontinental ballistic missiles are on standby … If we push the button, they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil … into a sea of fire.”

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Rand Paul during the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (Getty)

Rand Paul (Getty Images)

Rand Paul’s marathon filibuster last week – aimed at holding up the confirmation of John Brennan as head of the CIA – was much more than a parliamentary stunt. It has opened up interesting new debates and divisions on the future direction of US foreign policy.

Senator Paul’s highlighting of the Obama administration’s use of drones for “targeted killings” of terrorist suspects, has established an unlikely alliance between the libertarian right and the liberal left. Until Paul took up the drones issue, it was mainly the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union, who were making the running in criticising the drone strikes. But, as Paul illustrated, there is a good libertarian case for suspicion of the over-mighty covert state. Even more interestingly, Paul’s stand placed him directly at odds with the neoconservative wing of his own Republican Party.

The Wall Street Journal has denounced Paul for appealing to “impressionable libertarian kids” – a condemnation quoted with approval by John McCain, one of the party’s leading foreign-policy hawks.

Conveniently for President Obama, this argument between the two wings of the Republican Party places the president somewhere in the middle. He will never be as hawkish as the Republican neocons, many of whom are pressing for intervention in Syria, an assault on Iran and denouncing cuts in the Pentagon budget. On the other hand, the president’s expansion of the drone war and his unwillingness to rein in the burgeoning national-security apparatus makes him very far from being a “libertarian kid”. Read more

Kenyan police officers outside a polling station in Nairobi (Getty)

Foreign election observers have yet to pronounce on the overall credibility of Kenya’s tense elections. But there are already strong indications that they will go along with almost any outcome if it means preserving the Kenyan peace.

“Monday was a great day for Kenyan democracy. They undertook a lot of things to ensure things went in a smooth way,” Alojz Peterle, head of the European Union observer team, said on Friday.

His stance was in marked contrast to his predecessor’s proclamations on fraud at Kenya’s last elections in 2007, which reinforced Raila Odinga’s claims to have been robbed of the presidency.  Read more

  • The daughter of Uzbekistan’s autocratic president, Gulnara Karimova, has for some time been the western-friendly face of the regime. She has released a duet with Gérard Depardieu, launched a fashion line and even has her own perfume. However, attention is turning to her other persona: “that of the ruthless businesswoman, ready to use her family position to crush business rivals.”
  • Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s equivalent of US chat show host Jon Stewart, has been the target of death threats and law suits, but he shrugs them off: “It is a guarantee that freedom of speech will not be oppressed if we continue to speak.”
  • Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the Egyptian opposition’s feckless approach to politics underscores the need to replace wedge issues and anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment with real policies.
  • Why the White House shmooze-fest? The “president’s only route to a so-called grand bargain for deficit reduction is to go around the leaders to build a bipartisan consensus.”
  • As it is International Women’s Day, we thought we’d share with you this cheering article on the media’s double standards for women at the top.

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Japan’s Abenomics and the world economy

Japan is still the world’s third-largest economy, but has also been stagnating and idling for twenty years. Now a new government led by Shinzo Abe has come to power pledging to take dramatic steps to turn the situation around. The potential rewards of this policy are high, but so are the risks – and not just for Japan but the whole world economy. Martin Wolf, the FT’s chief economics commentator and Jonathan Soble, Tokyo correspondent, join Gideon Rachman to discuss the consequences of Abenomics.

In recent years, it was Hugo Chávez – far more than Fidel Castro – who was the international face of Latin American radicalism: the spiritual heir to Che, Perón and Castro himself. Now that Chávez is dead, will we see his like again?

I suspect that the answer is probably not. Chávez himself will be hard to imitate. But there will certainly be people in Venezuela, and elsewhere, who will adopt his style. The bigger problem is that the whole Chávez model no longer looks so attractive in Latin America. Read more

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Benedict XVI greets the world as pope (Getty)

By Giulia Segreti in Rome

Since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down on February 28, saying he was now “simply a pilgrim who is starting the last stretch of his pilgrimage on this earth”, the Catholic Church has been in a state of sede vacante, literally “vacant seat”. The cardinals are gathering in Rome to elect a new pope; here is how they will do it.

When will the next pope be elected? A date for the beginning of the conclave of cardinals, when the election process begins, has not been chosen by the college of cardinals. However, one of Benedict’s last decrees means they can bring the election forward and break the usual rule of having a minimum of 15 days after a pope dies or leaves office provided all the cardinals who can vote have gathered. So they could start any day now.

Who gets to choose? Only cardinals, or “princes of the church”, and not all of them. There are at present 210 members of the college of cardinals but only those under the age of 80 on the first day of the sede vacante can pick a pope, which whittles it down to 115. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic and only elector, opted to not join the conclave following allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour and his decision to resign as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Because of old age and an inability to reach Rome, Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, from Indonesia, will not be entering the conclave, either. Read more

Lets just say that the idea of a post-Chávez rapprochement between the US and Venezuela did not get off to a great start.

Even before the death of Hugo Chávez had been formally announced on Tuesday, two US military officials were expelled for “planning to destabilize the country”.

Vice-president and heir apparent Nicolás Maduro then promised an investigation into the prospect that Venezuela’s “historical enemies” had induced Mr Chávez’ terminal cancer. There had been “too many historical cases” of such under-hand assassinations, he warned. Read more

It is a common error in politics to underestimate your adversary. Ever since Hugo Chávez fell ill from cancer two years ago, many imagined that his rule and his oil-fuelled socialist revolution would also end with his death, undermined by its own prodigious inefficiency and corruption. But now that the Venezuelan president has actually died, it no longer quite looks that way.

Chávez is now bound for mythology. In the imagination of his mourning supporters, he may come to occupy a space similar to Che Guevara’s – another martyr of the revolutionary left, albeit one without as large a cheque book. Indeed, Chávez’s early death is likely to prolong “chavismo” for a few more years rather than bring it to an abrupt end. Read more

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Residents of Stalin's home town of Gori, Georgia, parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the former dictator's death

Mikhail Kalik remembers March 5 1953, as “a day that was like a second birth for me”. It is a private holiday he has not missed for the last 60 years, a day when he and his fellow former prisoners in Soviet gulags phone each other with congratulations or meet at restaurants to drink toasts.

Exactly six decades ago, he and the other prisoners at Ozerlag, a prison camp in eastern Siberia, were called to the frozen parade ground and told by the camp commandant that the vozhd, or leader, had died.

“He literally wept and told everyone to take off their hats,” Mr Kalik said. “But we could hardly contain our joy. Many of us were silently cheering.”

In other prison camps, the news broke stealthily. Georgy Von Zigern Korn, a prisoner in Karaganda, a mining camp in Kazakhstan, described in his memoirs waking up on March 6 and finding that the camp commandant was nowhere to be seen. The camp guards, reminisced Von Korn, “looked subdued, lost, and suddenly were polite and gentle as willow tree buds”. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

Some months ago, I was discussing the euro crisis with a high-ranking US diplomat. “It’s back to the 1930s, isn’t it?” said my companion with a mixture of gloom and relish. “The extremists are on the rise.”