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A Side-by-Side Comparison of the Russian and Ukrainian Militaries

Wed, 03/19/2014 - 17:59

The worst-case scenario in the Russia-Ukraine crisis would be a war between the two states. How do their respective forces compare?

Russia has about four times as many soldiers as Ukraine does, twice as many tanks, and more than six times as many combat aircraft. The huge imbalance in forces reflects the defense budgets of the two countries. Russia spends about $78 billion on its armed forces annually, Ukraine $1.6 billion.

However, only a part of Russia's forces is available to deploy against Ukraine. Moscow cannot afford to remove forces from its North Caucasus region, from its border with China, or from the Pacific. Mark Galeotti, a Moscow-based regional expert with the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, estimates Russia might be able to muster a force twice the size of Ukraine's for any war. That leaves open the possibility that the difference in strength might not be so overwhelming as to guarantee victory.

What about the two sides' operational capabilities? Since the 2008 Georgia war, Moscow has stepped up its military spending by 30 percent, reflecting the importance it gives to modernizing its forces and using its military as an arm of its foreign policy.

By contrast, Kiev has a history of delivering less money to its armed forces than budgeted. Its most elite units have deployed alongside NATO in international peacekeeping operations but the rest are underfunded and underequipped. Most of Ukraine's equipment was inherited when it declared independence from the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.

Christopher Langton of Independent Conflict Research and Analysis in Britain says the Ukrainian military has also been shaken by reforms that were intended to make it a more professional force but remain incomplete. "They have undergone major upheavals in recent years, major reforms, [but with] very inadequate financing of equipment programs and personnel reform programs," Langton says. "And they tried to end conscription but this was never achieved, so there is still an element of conscription in the Ukrainian armed forces and this, of course, weakens the deployability of the army."

Over the past five years, the size of Ukraine's military force has shrunk from 245,000 to 184,000. But it still includes about 60 percent conscripts.


Would Ukraine's army split in the face of an invasion? Ukraine's population includes both native Ukrainian speakers and native Russian speakers, and many in the latter group, particularly in the east of the country, have close ties to Russia. That could create a regional pull on the loyalty of Ukraine's soldiers and officers.

There are less obvious factors to consider, too. Ukraine's senior military leaders served much of their careers in the Soviet Army with their Russian counterparts. The possibility of defections was highlighted when Ukraine's newly appointed navy chief declared allegiance to the pro-Russian Crimea region on March 2 as Russian troops took control of the peninsula.

Still, the Ukrainian Army has two glues to keep it together. One is the heightened sense of national identity an invasion by any foreign force helps create. The other is the strong sense of identity of the Ukrainian army itself. "The Ukrainian military has evolved really quite a long way from its Soviet roots," Galeotti notes. "It has got quite a strong esprit de corps, quite a strong culture of service to the state."

What form might combat take? Moscow could attempt a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, along the lines of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Or it could try to replicate its successful tactics in Crimea of encouraging so-called "self-defense forces" to take over a region while mixing its own unidentified troops among them.

Langton says that a full-scale invasion would almost certainly precipitate a conventional state-to-state war that could prove too costly for Moscow to pursue. "Although on paper these two forces are imbalanced in terms of capabilities, if it came to a full-scale Russian military operation in Ukraine, this would be on the territory of Ukrainians and they would fight," the British analyst explains. "There would probably be a fairly bloody struggle which would not be acceptable to the Russians, and this would be followed by, maybe, a period of partisan or guerrilla-type warfare which, of course, the defending forces would be able to conduct on their own territory."

The cost of such a direct showdown might lead Moscow to prefer the stealthier strategy of wresting control of individual regions, particularly in heavily Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, under the guise of interceding in supposedly local conflicts. That strategy caught Kiev flat-footed in Crimea and places Ukraine in the weak position of having to retake seized land.

In either case, Ukraine is not immediately well-prepared to cope with an attack by Russia. Thanks to the legacy of the Soviet Union, its infrastructure of military bases remains configured to support a ground war against a western invader, not an eastern one.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


Categories: News Analysis

A Map of God's Countries

Tue, 03/18/2014 - 21:42

Last week, the Pew Research Center released the findings of a survey that asked a single question: Is it necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person? 

Between 2011 and 2013, more than 40,000 people in 40 countries were asked to answer this question. Here's what the world looks like, according to what people think about the connection between faith and ethics:

Is it necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values?

Pew Research Center

Some of the results aren't surprising: Almost everyone surveyed in Pakistan, Ghana, and Indonesia said that belief in God is necessary to be a moral person, which matches the high levels of religious affiliation in those countries. Meanwhile, less than a fifth of people in France, Spain, and Great Britain agreed.

But some trends stick out. In China, only 14 percent of people agreed that faith is essential for good values. Greece was more fervent than the rest of Europe, with almost half of respondents agreeing that God is necessary for morality. And the United States continued its tradition of defying religious patterns in the rest of the West and developed world: Compared to people in other countries with a similar per-capita GDP, U.S. respondents were much more likely to say that belief in God is necessary to be a good person.

In fact, when Pew mapped these views on morality again national wealth, it found that people in rich countries are less likely to equate faith with ethics than people in poorer countries, with two exceptions: America and China.

Pew Research Center

The data also reveals subtle cultural divides among countries that are often lumped together. Take the variation among Middle Eastern nations, for example. Pew found similar results in Egypt and Jordan, where roughly 95 percent of people agreed that belief is a necessary element of morality. But the response in Lebanon, which is roughly 150 miles north of Egypt and 50 miles northwest of Jordan, was wildly different: 30 percent of people said God doesn't have to be part of morality. This contrast would be masked in a straightforward comparison of religious affiliation among these countries. Although Lebanon has a significantly larger population of Christians than either Egypt or Jordan does, all three have roughly the same percentage of non-religious people: less than 1 percent. The graph below shows religious affiliation in these three countries; the big chunks of baby blue represents Islam, red refers to Christianity, and dark blue captures those who are unaffiliated.

Population by Religion: Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon


Pew Research Center

That's why the question of belief is such a fascinating frame for understanding worldwide religious trends: It offers insight into how people think about morality—not just whether they go to church. 


Categories: News Analysis

Red Herring: Why the Legality of Russia's Expansion Is Beside the Point

Tue, 03/18/2014 - 19:23

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled off a rigged referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Crimean voters chose union with the Russian Federation. But his victory is far from complete. The West retains a powerful card to play: mobilizing international opposition to deny Russia the international legitimacy it seeks for this naked power play. U.S. and European leaders have roundly condemned the referendum, citing international law. It would be wiser, however, for the West to shift the terms of the debate away from the legal merits of Russian conduct, and to focus instead on the illegitimacy of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s clear aspirations to expand its territory.

To date, the global debate over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has been framed primarily in legal terms, but this is devolving into an exchange of accusations and messy interpretations of historical precedents. Indignant Western governments condemn Russian’s conduct and Crimea’s secession as a blatant “violation of international law.” Moscow, meanwhile, claims that it is affording the inhabitants of Crimea their inherent right to national self-determination “in full compliance with international law.” Russia has also accused the West of hypocrisy, invoking the precedent of Kosovo—which unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, to the fury of Belgrade and Moscow but the vigorous applause of the United States and many European countries. Moscow notes that the International Court of Justice in July 2010 subsequently judged that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal.

The West has returned fire, noting that Crimea already enjoyed considerable autonomy in Ukraine, like several regions in Russia, but that Moscow had brutally repressed independence movements within its own territories, including in Chechnya and Ingushetia. Moreover, the West counters, the Kosovo referendum occurred in the context of a UN peace operation, eight years after a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing at the hands of Serbia. In the case of Ukraine, it is occurring in the presence of Russian military troops occupying Crimea, and with no evidence of any Ukrainian campaign of oppression against Crimea’s Russians.

This argument over the legality of Crimean secession has clearly proved a fruitless distraction. International law is flexible on the question of whether self-determination includes the right to secede. It is not a recognized “right,” but nor is it seen as necessarily “illegal.” Given the vulnerability of many states to secessionist movements, the general international preference has been to offer increased autonomy to ethnic minority enclaves, rather than independence. Secession, when it occurs, is expected to be a peaceful outcome of protracted negotiations both with the national government and the international community. In Crimea, of course, neither condition was satisfied. Farcically, the referendum was announced only 10 days before it was to occur, and neither of the two options on the ballot included the status quo.


And though the vote patently violated Ukraine’s own constitution (Article 73 of which requires a referendum of the entire country before its territory is altered), secessionists have rarely bothered to consult with the mother country before acting—further undercutting legal arguments. This is true both for successful secessions (e.g., the United States against Great Britain after 1776) and unsuccessful ones (e.g., the Biafran campaign against the state of Nigeria). The “velvet divorce” allowing the secession of Slovakia from Czechoslovakia in 1993 is the exception rather than the rule here.

Whatever the legality, Russia will find it even more difficult to sell the Crimean secession as legitimate. Despite attempts to liken it to Kosovo, (which 106 countries have recognized), the Crimean situation is more reminiscent of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, whose declaration of independence in 1983 has been recognized by only one nation: Turkey itself.

As I noted in a previous post, Crimea’s secession sets a terrible precedent. Hundreds of minority populations around the world might in principle insist on secession, throwing existing borders into chaos. Not for nothing did Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing bemoan that the principle of national self-determination advanced by his president was “loaded with dynamite.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a rally in Moscow supporting Russia's annexation of Crimea. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Moreover, Russia’s aspirations are not limited to Crimea, and its successful annexation could clear a path for the Kremlin to seek to regain de-facto sovereignty over territories in the former Soviet Union with large Russian minority populations, under the pretext of protecting “oppressed” compatriots. We have seen this movie before, most obviously in Georgia. In 2008, the Russian military intervened to assist two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the aftermath of that intervention, Moscow pledged to remove its troops. They remain there today. Or consider Moldova, where Moscow has for more than two decades supported the statelet of Transdniester, allowing it to become a veritable Walmart of arms trafficking.

But in this case, the scale of Russian audacity is even more alarming. Dismembering portions of tiny Georgia (population 4.5 million) and Moldova (3.5 million) was outrageous but of limited geopolitical significance. Doing the same to Ukraine—population 46 million—is another thing. It suggests that Putin is determined to expand Moscow’s effective control, formal or informal, over as much of the Russian-speaking “near abroad” as he can. That this impulse may be driven less by overconfidence than desperation is of little comfort. Historically, the world has had as much to fear from anxious powers in decline than rising ones eager to sow their oats. Consider the role that miscalculations by Putin’s Romanov predecessors, along with the aging Hapsburg dynasty, played in the outbreak of the Great War 100 years ago this coming August.

Putin’s actions are unlikely to trigger another great power war. The United States and the European Union are already treating the annexation of the Crimea—a territory of only 2.3 million and a strategically and historically important part of Russia—as a fait accompli, But unless the West can make Putin feel the pain of his audacity, his irredentist ambitions are likely to grow. The most obvious target is the large Russian-majority population in eastern Ukraine, including the cities of Luhansk and Kharkiv. The resulting dismemberment of Ukraine, if allowed to proceed, would enter the history books alongside the partition of Poland as a naked exercise in power politics.

But Ukraine is not the only country of concern. Commentators have expressed worries about the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, given their sizable Russian minorities. In 2007, the mere act of dismantling a Soviet-era statue of Lenin in the center of Tallin led to a massive cyberattack on Estonian government ministries, apparently orchestrated from Russia. At the same time, Moscow is likely to avoid any direct military confrontation with the Baltic states—each of which is a NATO member—to avoid triggering a third world war.

More realistic targets for incorporation into an expanded Russian Federation, beyond Ukraine, are Belarus and, potentially, portions of Kazakhstan. The former is already Moscow’s most reliable client state, suggesting there is no hurry to absorb it officially. The latter could become a target, depending on whether the government of Nursultan Nazarbayev toes a Russian line within Moscow’s Eurasian Union or adopts a more independent course, including overtures to China.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea—which holds only 4 percent of Ukraine’s population—will not by itself significantly alter the balance of power in Eurasia. But it does establish a worrisome precedent that other powers—great and not-so-great—may seek to emulate. Beyond depriving Putin of recognition of his spoils, the West needs to send a powerful message about the wages of “sin”—in this case, unilaterally challenging the sanctity of borders. Targeting a few senior Russian officials for sanction should be only the beginning. And the Obama administration and international allies should stop citing international law and instead adopt more aggressive rhetoric noting that Russian expansionist aspirations are illegitimate and threaten peace on the continent.

This post appears courtesy of, an Atlantic partner site.


Categories: News Analysis

The View From Kiev: Coping With Ukraine's Unfinished Revolution

Tue, 03/18/2014 - 18:49

KIEV—In front of the scorched husk of the city's Trade Union building, three young men in grubby fatigues sit outside a tent pitched on Independence Square, their faces rattled and vacant. One stares up at the clear blue sky, spinning idly on an office chair.

The tent is a rehabilitation hub, part of efforts by 'Euromaidan' supporters to provide counseling and relief to thousands of protesters struggling to cope with a mix of defiance, grief, and fear as the demonstration's hard-won triumphs have suddenly given way to the threat of war over Crimea, whose residents recently voted for reunification with Russia in a referendum.

The Kiev square is quieter and emptier than it was during the height of the Maidan protests. Some of the people who remain attempt to busy themselves with errands, chopping wood for fires or delivering food. Others simply sit, staring into the distance, contemplating Ukraine's uncertain future even as they recover from violent clashes that claimed more than 80 lives at the protest's peak last month.

Ordinary residents still make a regular pilgrimage to the square, where mounds of flowers and makeshift memorials continue to honor the victims, who have come to be known as the "heavenly hundred." Svitlana, a 52-year-old housewife, says that after months of unrelenting political turmoil, the Russia-backed military buildup in Crimea and on Ukraine's eastern borders have left her stunned.

"It's just the latest shock," she said. "But it's a big shock. We never thought that there could be threats from [Russia]. Of course we want unity and peace. They don't need to divide us. Their actions aren't logical. We expected help and assistance. God forbid there will be military action. I dread it. It's going to make things even worse."

For some Maidan demonstrators, the possibility of war with Russia has provided a new sense of purpose. Outside a cafe on the city's main Khreshchatyk street, men line up at a desk to register for the National Guard. But on the square, any sense of common purpose has given way to a cacophony of moods and political views. A large portrait of nationalist icon Stepan Bandera hangs next to the stage. A portrait of Jesus Christ hangs nearby, amid a muddle of anarchist art and spray-painted anti-authority slogans like "ACAB"—shorthand for "All cops are bastards."

Dozens of missing-people notices flap in the wind. Militia members, armed with bats and wearing a variety of insignia, patrol the streets unchallenged. Police are rarely seen anywhere near the square. At night, a ballad booms from the Maidan stage, praising the historical friendship between Ukrainian Cossacks and Moscow, but warning of bad endings for the Moskali if they attack.

A speaker interrupts the song to announce that the parliament has promised ousted President Viktor Yanukovych a fair trial if he returns to Kiev. The speaker, in turn, is cut short when revelers in fatigues call for a tear-jerking video immortalizing the dead to be played on the big screen overhead.

Mourners in Kiev's maidan hold portraits of people killed in Ukraine's unrest. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Halina Tsyhanenko, a psychologist, says that Maidan demonstrators—many of whom have remained on the square since protests began in late November—are suffering from a range of problems. Some simply have been undone by the prolonged absence from their families or worries about how to reintegrate back into whatever emerges as "normal" life in Ukraine. Others are grieving personal losses—the deaths of friends or comrades in the violence encircling Maidan.

Tsyhanenko, who has coordinated the efforts of 500 volunteer psychological counselors for Maidan protesters, adds that many demonstrators have turned to alcohol or drugs rather than seeking help for their problems. "A person who has come face to face with death has undergone a big experience for the psyche," she says. "Living in proximity to death really has a big impact on the mind of a person, and it's very important to relive what has happened and accept it. Here many people cannot do that, because they have no experience of this."

Tsyhanenko's organization, which has been in operation since December 2, has a mobile group that sets up tents on the square, as well as psychologists stationed in several nearby buildings. Despite the apparent victory of late February—when Maidan activists forced Yanukovych's ouster and the creation of a new, opposition-led government—Tsyhanenko says many demonstrators are still reeling from the monumental uncertainties that lie ahead for Ukraine.

"There is no victory," she says. "It remains only a potential victory. There are a lot of questions. It's not straightforward when there is a certain way of making [government] decisions and then suddenly there is a new way. Not every politician in power will be interested in real change. This worries people, because they don't know if these politicians are going to fight for the interests of protesters, instead of their own interests."

Then there is the Russian incursion into Crimea, which has not only pulled the rug out from under Maidan's hope for the future but raised the tangible threat of returning to a past that many Ukrainians had thought long behind them.

Leonid Markevych, 26, lays flowers at a Maidan memorial after traveling from outside Kiev. He says it's next to impossible to describe the range of emotions "churning" inside him. "I walk around and I'm amazed," he says. "It's awful. It's so awful it brings me to tears. It's difficult to think what's in store for us now."

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


Categories: News Analysis

America Is Too Broke to Rescue Ukraine

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 22:47

If only America were fighting more wars, Russia would never have taken Crimea. That’s basically the argument John McCain made last Friday in The New York Times. “For five years,” he complained, “Americans have been told that ‘the tide of war is receding’.… In Afghanistan and Iraq, military decisions have appeared driven more by a desire to withdraw than to succeed.” As a result, “Obama has made America look weak,” which emboldened Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine.

I have no earthly idea what McCain means by ‘succeeding’ in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we can be pretty sure that in addition to claiming more American lives, it would require a lot more American money. Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a 2013 report by Linda Bilmes, a public policy lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, are the most expensive wars in U.S. history, costing the U.S. between $4 and $6 trillion when you factor in medical care. For Ukraine’s sake, McCain believes, that number needs to go up.

There’s an irony here. If America and Europe have failed to adequately defend Ukraine, it’s not for lack of guns. It’s for lack of money. Over the last year, the real contest between Russia and the West hasn’t been a military one (after all, even McCain knows that risking war over Ukraine is insane). It’s been economic. In part because of two wars that have drained America’s coffers, and in part because of a financial crisis that has weakened the West economically, the United States and Europe have been dramatically outbid.

The current Ukrainian crisis has its roots in Vladimir Putin’s desire to build a “Eurasian Union”—an economic zone comprising as many former Soviet republics as possible—that re-establishes Russian regional dominance. Putin badly wants Ukraine to join the bloc. But that desire has collided with the European Union’s bid to get Ukraine to sign a free-trade agreement linking it to the West. (EU rules, perhaps unwisely, made doing both impossible). 

Last March, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pledged to work toward an EU agreement. Then, in mid-November, he abruptly stopped doing so, sparking the pro-European protests that eventually toppled him. For Yanukovych, the EU deal—although popular with the Ukrainian public—carried serious risks. For starters, it would have infuriated Putin. Secondly, it would have required him to release his jailed political foe, Yulia Tymoshenko. Thirdly, bringing Ukraine into compliance with EU regulations would have proved costly. As part of the negotiation, Yanukovych asked for €20 billion in aid. But the EU, struggling with its own severe economic woes, offered less than one-thirtieth that amount: a mere €610 million. The United States, which now speaks gravely about defending Ukraine from Russian aggression, at the time gave Kiev barely any foreign assistance at all.

Then, in mid-December, Russia made its own offer. It pledged to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian debt and to discount the price of Russian gas sold to Ukraine by one-third, which amounted to another $7 billion in savings. This money, Putin added, would not entail any “increase, decrease, or freezing of any social standards, pensions, subsidies, or salaries”—a swipe at the IMF-imposed austerity measures that would likely have accompanied an EU deal.

While this gap between Russia’s massive offer and the West’s meager one helped keep Yanukovych in Moscow’s orbit, it didn’t keep him in power. In late February, he lost control of Kiev to a surging protest movement and fled the country—giving America and Europe yet another chance to devise economic incentives that could point Ukraine in a pro-Western direction.

But yet again, the West’s response has been underwhelming. After Russia seized Crimea last month, the EU belatedly raised its offer to $11 billion in a bid to stabilize Ukraine’s weak, post-Yanukovych government. But the package will release only $1.6 billion in the first year, and even that money depends on an IMF deal that would likely require Kiev’s new leaders to take wildly unpopular steps like raising home-heating bills. For its part, Washington has pledged loan guarantees worth $1 billion. But that assistance is now stalled in the Senate, where Democrats are linking it to IMF reforms and Republicans, if you believe Harry Reid, are using it to stop new IRS rules that would limit the political activities of nonprofits like those funded by the Koch brothers. The West may no longer be in a bidding war with Putin, who is more interested in destabilizing Ukraine’s new government than wooing it. But countering Putin’s efforts requires helping Ukraine secure itself economically. And so far, the West’s attempts don’t nearly accomplish that.

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. The U.S. and its European allies have been getting outbid a lot lately. Last fall, for instance, as the Obama administration considered withholding America’s annual $1.5-billion aid package to Egypt to protest its recent military coup, several oil-rich Persian Gulf states—thrilled to see an Islamist regime ousted from power—offered Egypt’s generals a cool $12 billion.

Whenever the United States debates using its money to buttress democracy and Western influence in a strategically important part of the world, commentators offer comparisons with the Marshall Plan that America offered Europe after World War II. But in today’s dollars, according to one estimate, the Marshall Plan would total roughly $740 billion. That kind of money would certainly enable far-reaching economic reforms in Ukraine, and likely anchor the country in the West for years to come. But, of course, the suggestion is absurd. Today’s Senate can barely pass an aid package 740 times as small.

We’re long past the era when America and its allies can spend vast sums to promote Western ideals and interests around the world. Except, of course, in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. is on pace to spend the equivalent of eight or nine Marshall Plans. Too bad we haven’t spent more on those wars. According to John McCain, the extra money just might have saved Ukraine.


Categories: News Analysis

U.K. to Russia: Crimea Isn't Scotland

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 20:58

On Sunday, Crimeans voted in a hastily organized referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, pending Moscow's approval. And while international observers have widely dismissed the vote as illegal, Russian officials have taken issue with that claim, drawing comparisons between Crimea's independence bid and similar Western ones.

RT, a Kremlin-funded news organization, helpfully compiled a list of "5 referendums that the West has not taken issue with," including those in Kosovo, Catalonia, and Scotland. And Russian authorities have also cited these precedents. "The decision [by Crimea's parliament] is fully in line with international practice. It is enough to look at Scotland and you can find other examples," claimed Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. "No one says the Scotland referendum is illegal."

The British government isn't exactly thrilled about the comparison. In recent days, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office has been posting an infographic on social media comparing Scotland's upcoming independence referendum with Crimea's secessionist bid, which London views as illegal and illegitimate:

A Foreign & Commonwealth Office graphic contrasting the Scottish and Crimean referendums.

Scottish commentators aren't buying the Crimea comparison, either. "Matviyenko is just one of several Russian politicians and commentators to talk up 'international rights of self-determination' all week as they try to equate Crimea with Scotland," wrote David Leask, a Herald Scotland reporter. "She may sniff hypocrisy. But she also—in my view—reeks of it. Her Federation Council late last year passed a new law banning 'separatist propaganda'. Its penalty? Prison."

The Scotsman, one of Scotland's largest daily newspapers, stated that Sunday's referendum lacked "credibility" while remaining sympathetic to Crimean nationhood. "[We] should support the holding of a referendum in Crimea and agree to welcome its outcome, whatever that may be," the editorial board declared. "But we should only do so if that vote is open, honest, and fair—and carried out without Russian soldiers prowling the streets."

Secessionist movements have been gaining strength throughout the West in recent years. Venetians are voting this week on a non-binding independence referendum, just shy of 217 years after Napoleon conquered the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Quebec, whose bid to separate from Canada in 1995 failed at the polls, could make another attempt if the Parti Québécois wins a snap election next month. Spain's government is categorically resisting calls for a referendum in Catalonia, which could grow even louder if Scotland's closely watched referendum succeeds on September 18.

The Scottish government, by political custom, does not comment on foreign affairs. When contacted last week, a spokesman for Yes Scotland, the official pro-independence campaign, refused to comment on Crimea's independence referendum. "We are fully focused on trying to win our own referendum which is now less than six months away," he told me in a brief statement.


Categories: News Analysis

A Tougher Hillary Clinton Distances Herself From Obama

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 19:33

In recent weeks, as the standoff over Ukraine escalated, Hillary Clinton did something that she never did as secretary of state: She put considerable distance between herself and the president she served loyally for four years. While Barack Obama cautiously warned Vladimir Putin to back off his claims on Ukraine, Clinton rolled out a rhetorical cannon, comparing the Russian president's moves to the seizure of territory by Adolf Hitler that set off World War II. Her comments were so harsh and controversial that she was forced to walk them back a bit, saying, "I'm not making a comparison, certainly, but I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before."

Clinton's remarks appeared to be an indication of two things. One, she's concerned enough about shoring up her reputation for toughness that she may indeed be thinking about running for president in 2016. Clinton offered up, in other words, a rare and enticing hint about the question that everyone in the politics game is asking these days. Undoubtedly she knows that the effort she led as secretary of state in 2009, an attempted "reset" of relations with Russia that included a new arms treaty, now looks naive in the face of Putin's repudiation of Obama over Ukraine and his lack of cooperation on other issues, such as resolution of the Syrian civil war. Two, Clinton could be worried that by the time the next presidential season rolls around, what was once seen as one of Obama's stronger points—foreign policy—could easily become a liability to whomever is seeking the Democratic nomination.

That was not the case in 2012, when even some Republican foreign policy professionals, many of whom had worked for George W. Bush, agreed that Obama's foreign policy had been impressive in ways that went well beyond his signature achievement: the 2011 takedown of Osama bin Laden. The president also orchestrated a new set of allied sanctions against Iran and the first fundamental reorientation of U.S. strategic and military focus—from the Middle East to East Asia—in more than a decade. The worst blot on his first-term record, the embarrassing Benghazi scandal involving the killing of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, didn't happen until the final months of the campaign, limiting the damage. It was no surprise that Mitt Romney's repeated efforts to paint Obama as weak on foreign policy came to naught.

But little has gone right so far in the second term, especially in recent months, with the possible exception of the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. Putin's continued recalcitrance, and Obama's hesitancy over how to react to the biggest foreign policy test of his presidency, is only the capstone to a series of apparent failures and abortive efforts to avert war in Syria, resolve the situation in Afghanistan, and tamp down the resurgence of al-Qaeda. If, as is likely, Russian forces are still occupying Crimea come 2016—or worse, advancing westward—if chaos and bloodshed still reign in Syria, and if Afghanistan begins to look as chaotic as Iraq has in the aftermath of the planned U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of this year, the narrative will be very different in the next presidential campaign.

Republican attacks on Obama in recent months are an early indication of what's to come. Senator John McCain, Obama's 2008 opponent, has been almost beside himself with fury in condemning the president as weak on Ukraine, Syria, China, and Iran. With negotiations failing over Syria, Egypt becoming a military-run state, and Putin indicating he intends to stay where he is in Crimea, the killing of bin Laden will be but a distant memory in 2016. Even some prominent Democrats, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, have turned into persistent critics of Obama's policies abroad. "Our policies toward Russia require urgent reexamination," Menendez wrote in The Washington Post this week.

To be fair, Clinton has often been the Democrat staking out rhetorically tough positions on foreign policy, even appearing to act as Obama's bad cop during her term as secretary of State. Back then, the president depended on her to hammer Iran (which was becoming a "military dictatorship," she declared), criticize the Chinese over Internet censorship, and harangue Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his defiance of U.S. demands for a settlement freeze.

In addition, as National Journal reported last week, the likely contenders in the Republican field are largely lacking in foreign policy expertise, while Clinton and another possible Democratic candidate for 2016, Vice President Joe Biden, have plenty of it. "I lose no sleep over this," says Democratic strategist and former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg. "Hillary is strong and will have a strong team. There will be a sense of change in direction [in 2016]. And Republicans will waste their time on Benghazi and extreme over-the-top partisan reactions to events. I do not think there will be any appetite for their return to power to manage the affairs of state."

But another Democratic pollster, Jay Campbell of Hart Research, says that to achieve that "change in direction," Clinton may need to, in effect, separate herself from her own legacy. She could succeed at that simply by emphasizing how much time has lapsed since she left the State Department, a process she may already be starting. "It's absolutely true that things are tough for the president all around right now, whereas before, his foreign policy and relations with the world were one of the high points for a long time," Campbell says. "She can credibly create the separation for herself. It's going to be a lot tougher for Vice President Biden."


Categories: News Analysis

Finnish Education Chief: 'We Created a School System Based on Equality'

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 17:09

Finnish education often seems paradoxical to outside observers because it appears to break a lot of the rules we take for granted. Finnish children don’t begin school until age 7. They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation. There are no gifted programs, almost no private schools, and no high-stakes national standardized tests.

Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world. Finland’s school children didn’t always excel. Finland built its excellent, efficient, and equitable educational system in a few decades from scratch, and the concept guiding almost every educational reform has been equity.  The Finnish paradox is that by focusing on the bigger picture for all, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of most every child.

I recently accompanied Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education and science, when she visited the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston, and asked her what Finland is doing that we could learn from.

I visited four Finnish schools while researching my book Parenting Without Borders. While there, I frequently heard a saying: “We can’t afford to waste a brain.” It was clear that children were regarded as one of Finland’s most precious resources. You invest significantly in providing the basic resources so that all children may prosper. How do these notions undergird your educational system?

We used to have a system which was really unequal. My parents never had a real possibility to study and have a higher education. We decided in the 1960s that we would provide a free quality education to all. Even universities are free of charge. Equal means that we support everyone and we’re not going to waste anyone’s skills. We don’t know what our kids will turn out like—we can’t know if one first-grader will become a famous composer, or another a famous scientist. Regardless of a person’s gender, background, or social welfare status, everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their skills.  It’s important because we are raising the potential of the entire human capital in Finland.  Even if we don’t have oil or minerals or any other natural resources, well, we think human capital is also a valuable resource.

How well do you think Finland’s educational system, one based more squarely on equity rather than high achievement, is working?

We created a school system based on equality to make sure we can develop everyone’s potential. Now we can see how well it’s been working.  Last year the OECD tested adults from 24 countries measuring the skill levels of adults aged 16-65, on a survey called the PIAAC (Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies), which tests skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. Finland scored at or near the top on all measures. But there were differences between age groups.  The test showed that all younger Finns who had had a chance to go to compulsory basic school after the reforms had extremely high knowledge; those who were older, and who were educated before the reforms, had average know-how. So, our educational system is creating people who have extremely good skills and strong know-how—a know-how which is created by investing into education. We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help. This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential.

I remember being struck by how many vocational or hands-on classes (home economics, art, technology, and so forth) were available to students at every Finnish school I visited.  At one secondary school I visited, kids were cooking breakfast; at another, I saw that all the kids had learned how to sew their own bathing suits.  More than one teacher remarked, “It’s important for students to have different activities to do during the day.” And there seems to be no stigma about vocational education. Is this attitude true of all schools in Finland?

Yes, we definitely believe that for young people handcrafts, cooking, creative pursuits, and sports, are all important. We believe these help young people benefit more from the skills they’re learning in school.  

Do you think that this takes time away from academics?

Academics isn’t all kids need. Kids need so much more. School should be where we teach the meaning of life; where kids learn they are needed; where they can learn community skills. We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings … and understanding it matters to take care of others. We definitely want to incorporate all those things in education.

I also believe that breaking up the school day with different school subjects is very important. We offer a variety of subjects during the school day. We’re also testing out what it’s like to have breaks in the middle of the school day for elementary school students. At a few elementary schools recently we’ve been offering sports, handcrafts, or school clubs during the middle of the school day, rather than just in the morning or after school as we already do. This is to help kids to think of something else, and do something different and more creative during the day.  

An American librarian I spoke with, who was a visiting scholar in Finland, was struck by things like the fact that there was no concept of Internet filtering or censorship there. She was struck by how much autonomy was given to children as well as to teachers. At the same time, she noticed how much support teachers in Finland get. She visited one first-grade classroom that was taught by a relatively new teacher,  and seven adults were standing in the back of the room watching the teacher: the master teacher, a specialty subject teacher from her teaching university, her advisor from university, and a couple of other student teachers. Right after the class, they got together and talked about how the lesson went. This sort of observation/debriefing seemed to be quite common. Finland is also well known for investing heavily in continuous professional development. Can you tell me more about this combination of independence and support?

Teachers have a lot of autonomy. They are highly educated--they all have master’s degrees and becoming a teacher is highly competitive. We believe we have to have highly educated teachers, because then we can trust our teachers and know they are doing good work. They do have to follow the national curriculum, although we do have local curriculums as well. But we think that we’ve been able to create good results due to our national, universal curriculum.

We don’t test our teachers or ask them to prove their knowledge. But it’s true that we do invest in a lot of additional teacher training even after they become teachers.

We also trust in our pupils. Of course we give them exams and tests so that we know how they are progressing but we don’t test them at the national level. We believe in our schools because we consider all schools equal. We don’t school shop in Finland and we don’t have to think about which area to live in to go to a good school.  

In Finland we are starting to have some issues … in some suburban schools with more immigrants or higher unemployment, but we support those schools by investing more in them, in the struggling schools. 

But you know, money doesn’t make for a better education necessarily. We don’t believe that spending on a particular school will make any one of them better so much as focusing on the content of what we do and giving children individual support. 


Categories: News Analysis

India's 'High' Holiday

Mon, 03/17/2014 - 15:34

HYDERABAD, India—To get to Bandosingh Hazaari’s bhang shop you have to follow the gods.

In the maze of nameless alleys in Dhoolpet, a working-class neighborhood in the southeastern Indian city of Hyderabad, enormous fiberglass figures of Hindu gods and goddesses peek out of temple doors and between buildings. It’s a part of the city that’s known for creating and selling these 30-foot avatars, which are used in festivals and parades.

It’s also known for selling bhang—cannabis leaves that are crushed, mixed into drinks and sweets, and often served during Hindu holidays like Holi, the celebration of color and spring. During the festival, which falls on March 17 this year, crowds gather in Indian cities to throw colored powder and water on friends and strangers, leaving the streets tie-dyed and the air hazy with ribbons of rainbow dust. In a country where possessing and selling cannabis is generally prohibited, and where levels of cannabis use are low relative to other countries, it’s one day of the year when consuming marijuana is socially acceptable. There are even Bollywood songs extolling bhang’s virtues:

While the observance of Holi varies by community and region, serving bhang is part of the celebration in many Indian homes. The intoxicant takes many forms—from simple pills, or golis, created by mixing the leaves with water, to sweet bhang lassis, where the cannabis is ground up and added to heavy milk with almonds, sugar, and other flavors. It can also be packed into Indian mithai, or sweets made with nuts and condensed milk, and decorated with silver and gold edible foil. In its diluted form, bhang offers a mild buzz or high. Consuming it in larger quantities is akin to smoking weed, and vendors like Hazaari claim that the substance can put you to sleep for three days straight.

On a warm spring afternoon, just a few days before Holi, the 50-year-old Hyderabad native sat on a dusty plastic chair in his dark warehouse, surrounded by divinities. Hazaari said thousands make their way to Dhoolpet during the festival to find bhang, which he sells in the form of small, cake-like sweets for 50 rupees (less than one dollar) each. He instructs customers to share each piece among six people for a mild high, or among four people for a stronger effect.

Bhang is sometimes mixed into desserts for Holi.
(Ankita Rao)

“This is our culture, something passed down from our saints,” he told me, smiling beneath his white beard and weathered skin. It is not, he added, a drug, but rather an integral part of the Holi celebration—just like the practice of people washing colors (and, symbolically, their sins) off their body.

In Hinduism, bhang is associated with Lord Shiva, a popular deity who is often regarded as the religion’s supreme god. Some passages in ancient Hindu scriptures describe a plant with spiritual properties that Shiva discovered and brought down from the heavens for humans to consume. Shiva is often depicted with a chillum, or smoking pipe.

According to Travis Smith, an expert on Hinduism at the University of Florida, cannabis is an element of the faith’s yogi or sadhu (ascetic) culture, and “part of the yogi’s toolbox.” In places like the Indian city of Varanasi, a holy spot for Hindus along the Ganges river, many sadhus smoke marijuana from chillums. The drug's psychoactive properties make people sensitive to the energies in their body, Smith explained, and facilitate meditation. He added that bhang is not particularly dangerous or habit-forming, and that its use during Holi is similar to the tradition of drinking eggnog during Christmas. “It is still considered a vice, but because of this sacred association with Shiva, it is respectable,” he said.

A vendor sells fruit in the Dhoolpet neighborhood of Hyderabad, near a statue of Ganesha. (Ankita Rao)

Not all Hindus share Smith’s view. Kamala, a 45-year-old woman selling clothes in the Dhoolpet marketplace, told me that her family doesn’t approve of the tradition, which they view as a form of drug use. The Dhoolpet neighborhood where she grew up and still lives is “painted top to bottom” during the Holi festival. But it is only during the latter part of the day—when people re-emerge from their homes wearing fresh white clothes and greeting each other—that she and her children start to celebrate. “It’s different for everybody, but this is our way of doing Holi,” she said.

When India signed a UN drug treaty in 1961, the terms gave the country 25 years to rein in cannabis use while mandating crackdowns on harder drugs like opium in the meantime. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi prohibited marijuana in 1985, though officials made an exception for bhang—“as it is not made from cannabis resin or from flowering tops.” Indian state governments now regulate the production and distribution of the substance, authorizing certain vendors, most famously the Bhang Shop in Jaisalmer, to sell their products on a small scale. But it isn’t difficult to find unauthorized bhang vendors in many cities and villages, especially around Holi and Maha Shivaratri, a festival dedicated to Lord Shiva.

A tourist reads the Bhang Shop's menu in Jaisalmer, in northwestern India. (Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski)

Smith said that despite the widespread use of bhang, it remains part of a counterculture and is not always accepted in upper-caste families. But on a day like Holi, when the “upturning of general social norms” is encouraged, the substance is imbued with a more spiritual meaning. As one Times of India article noted in the run-up to Holi this year:

The explosion of colours is a ventilator of suppressed group or personal drives that allow temporary reversal of the rules of social engagement. Men are chased and harassed by women in villages of [Uttar Pradesh] while Brahmin elders and village heads are hounded and ridiculed, but they don’t complain.

For such liberated social behaviour, intoxicants act as catalysts and enrich the expression and experience of role reversal. In the haze of a hashish smoke or headiness of bhang-laced thandai [a cold drink], and the consequent preoccupation with a higher universe, the mundane doesn’t matter so much.

As Hazaari, the bhang merchant, sees it, the intoxicant is something to be carefully enjoyed and generously shared. Each year during Holi, he gives out plates of free bhang-laced desserts at a nearby temple. “Each color on Holi has a meaning: red means happiness, white means peace,” he said. “And this bhang is God’s prasad”—a holy blessing.


Categories: News Analysis

This Map Outlines the Last Known Position of the Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight

Sat, 03/15/2014 - 18:23

Malaysian officials announced Saturday what many people already suspected: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was hijacked or somehow deliberately steered off course after the plane's communication systems were disabled. 

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday that the plane bound for China was still flying at 8:11 AM, about seven hours after it took off from Kuala Lumpur and about half an hour after it was expected to land in Beijing. This last data point, from a satellite trying to communicate with the plane, indicates that the 777 was still in the air when it might have been running dangerously low on fuel, raising the possibility that a possible hijacking might have ended with a crash. 

The precise location of the flight at 8:11 AM is still a mystery. But officials provided a map (above) that shows the plane's possible location along one of two red semi-circles, based on a "ping" from a satellite orbiting 35,800 kilometers above the Indian Ocean. As you can see, this final data point indicates two possible flight paths: one northwest stretching toward Kazakhstan and another southwest into the Indian Ocean.

The northern flight path is above land, which would raise the odds that officials find the plane or its remnants. But The New York Times points out that it's unlikely that air-defense networks in India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan failed to pick up on a rogue 777. This makes the southern path more likely. Bloomberg's analysis of the last satellite "ping" tracked the plane's last known location to about 1,000 miles west of Perth, Australia.

Today the search-and-rescue mission became a criminal investigation into the backgrounds of the crew and passengers. Malaysian officials reportedly left the house of one of the pilots carrying small bags.

To review the basics of what we've known so far according to civilian and military radar: The flight took off from Kuala Lumpur, climbed to 45,000 feet around the South China Sea (above the regular altitude limit for a 777), sharply descended around the time its communications systems were turned off, and was last recorded heading west, in the opposite direction from its Beijing destination. This New York Times graph is a good summary. 



Categories: News Analysis

The (Fake) Conspiracy to Overthrow the World's Autocrats

Sat, 03/15/2014 - 01:05

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro agree: There is a vast international conspiracy underway to destabilize their governments and eventually oust them from power.

They are convinced that the protesters storming the streets of Istanbul and Caracas are nothing more than mercenaries serving foreign powers or “useful idiots” unwittingly aiding the shadowy interests working to overthrow their governments. Vladimir Putin shares this view. He has said that the revolts in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, which forced his ally, former President Viktor Yanukovych, to flee to Russia, were also instigated by foreigners. And who, according to these autocrats, is behind this dark global conspiracy?

Western Democracies, of course.

Putin, Erdoğan, Maduro, and other leaders who share their fears (Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe, etc.) assume that foreign intelligence services and other secret agencies are the main instigators, organizers, and funders of the protests against their governments. Their fears are not entirely unfounded. After all, the CIA does have a history of helping overthrow leaders that the U.S. government didn’t like at the time: Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973. But today’s dictators and their semi-authoritarian colleagues seem to feel equally threatened by private philanthropic organizations that operate openly in support of democracy and human rights.

In fact, their most public and strident denunciations have often been against non-governmental organizations and democracy activists rather than foreign spy agencies. For example, during a recent press conference, Putin explained that “our Western partners” had interfered in Ukrainian affairs before. “I sometimes get the feeling that somewhere across that huge puddle, in America, people sit in a lab and conduct experiments, as if with rats, without actually understanding the consequences of what they are doing,” he said. This isn’t the first time that the Russian president has denounced meddling by, to use Julia Ioffe’s paraphrase, “American political technologists.”  He also saw their hand in the large anti-government demonstrations that spilled into Moscow’s streets in December 2011 and May 2012.

So who are these American political technologists? Activists and employees of foundations who are promoting democracy, documenting and reporting human-rights violations, calling for media freedom, observing elections, and denouncing torture.

According to leaders who undermine democracy, imprison opponents, persecute journalists, and rig elections, the noble goals of these organizations are just hypocritical fronts for their true mission: to undercut their rule. And thus, the world’s full-fledged dictatorships and authoritarian-leaning governments do what they can to make life hard, if not impossible, for such groups. These regimes are bent on avoiding a repeat of the color revolutions that brought political change in the Balkans and several former Soviet countries during the early 2000s, or an eruption like the Arab Spring uprisings.

Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors of two of these international organizations—the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Open Society Foundation (OSF)—and I receive no financial compensation for my involvement with them. The goals of both are to support organizations that strive to improve democracy and human rights in nearly every corner of the world. I don’t work for any government and have never received instruction or pressure from a government regarding initiatives to support or regimes to oppose. During board discussions for the NED and OSF, I have never seen evidence that a government is determining our agenda or decisions. Needless to say, I don’t expect the believers in the “great conspiracy” to believe me.

What I have routinely witnessed are the constant efforts of many governments to silence, repress, or neutralize those who are openly and transparently promoting democracy in countries where it is imperfect or doesn’t exist. Their methods of obstruction are many and varied, and the most efficient are those that rely on the head of state’s control over the legislative and judicial branches of government. Laws that make it illegal or extremely difficult for NGOs to receive funds from abroad are common. According to Darin Christensen and Jeremy Weinstein, the external financing of NGOs is currently prohibited in 12 countries and restricted in 39. The irony is that in these same countries, it isn’t rare for politicians and government officials to fill their personal bank accounts with generous gifts from oligarchs, organized-crime bosses, and other shady characters. The disparity of the numbers is appalling: the annual budget for many NGOs is easily equivalent to the cost of one of the lavish parties regularly thrown by an oligarch or cartel leader in honor of a favorite politician, a compliant provincial governor, or a friendly general. And while international organizations like NED and OSF make all information about their financing and operations public, the details about who finances pro-government politicians in countries like Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela are opaque, when not altogether secret.

Then there is the use of the courts to undermine or simply shut down civil-society organizations and media outlets that threaten the government. Last year, an Egyptian court sentenced 43 NGO workers to between one and five years in jail. The three-judge panel also closed the local branches of their employers: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. In Ecuador, the Supreme Court smacked a $40-million fine on the newspaper El Universo following a libel suit brought by President Rafael Correa.

Another common ploy is to simply block the entrance of foreign NGO workers into countries where they’ve been tasked with monitoring elections, documenting torture, or investigating corruption of high-level officials. In many countries, these NGOs are obligated to officially register as “foreign agents.”

In the most comprehensive study about these abuses to date, Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher of the Carnegie Endowment come to two conclusions. First, and not surprisingly, the impact of government obstructionism on NGOs promoting democracy has been huge and detrimental. The second conclusion, however, is more surprising. Despite everything that authoritarian governments do to stifle the efforts of democracy-promotion organizations, in more than half of the 100 countries the authors analyzed, it is still possible to help those fighting for freedom from the outside. “While it would be impossible to calculate with any precision either the overall amount or the percentage of democracy and rights assistance that has been blocked by governmental measures, it remains a minority share in gross terms,” the authors write.

And that, at the very least, is good news.


Categories: News Analysis

How China (and the Rest of the Emerging Markets) Spend Today

Sat, 03/15/2014 - 00:01

Emerging market consumers—they're becoming just like us!

They're earning more. They're spending more. And they're spending more on the same things we do. The same gear, the same gadgets, and, particularly in China, the same luxury goods.

It's the best news our beleaguered global economy has gotten in a while. For too long, the world has relied on Americans to be the consumers of last resort, to keep buying no matter how much debt it took. That worked until it didn't in 2008. But a world where hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian families are entering the global middle class—and spending like it—is one where growth could theoretically be more stable. A new report from Credit Suisse shows us just how this world is emerging, and what it means for all of us. Here are the big takeaways.

1. It's easy to be seduced by an acronym. Especially when a Goldman Sachs economist comes up with one that seems to explain the world. But the term BRICs—short for Brazil, Russia, India, and China—doesn't tell us too much about the rise of emerging market consumers. Sure, rich Brazilians are buying up Miami real estate, Russian oligarchs are doing the same in London, and Indian billionaires have turned Mumbai into their personal playground. But when it comes to broader-based prosperity, there's China, and then there's every other emerging market.

As you can see in the chart below, China has about as many people earning $1,000 or more, adjusted for local prices, as Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey combined. It's not just that China has more people. It's that it started catching up first, and has been catching up faster. So when we talk about "emerging market consumers" we're really talking about Chinese consumers. BRICs is about three letters too long.

2. China's hypergrowth has flipped its society upside down. The new generation has had more education, and more opportunities to work outside the factories. So, unlike in the U.S. where 40-and-50-year-olds make the most, it's the youngest people in China who have the highest incomes. And not only do they have more money, but they're more willing to spend it, too. They've only known a China with rapidly rising standards of living, and they want to live like young people do everywhere else.

3. In other words, they want to buy smartphones! That, more than anything else, is what people across all the emerging markets plan to buy in the next year, with richer countries like Saudi Arabia more likely to do so. Not to go all Tom Friedman on you, but it really is remarkable how much of a quiet revolution that is. It took desktop computers decades to move from the developed to the developing world. It's taking pocket computers a few years.

4. But across all the emerging markets, you can see last year's slowdown, well, slowing down big-ticket purchases. Things like cars, TVs, and property are less popular than they were in 2012. And smaller, lifestyle things like clothes, shoes, and accessories are more so. This should only continue now that China, the economic engine for everybody else, is looking wobbly again.

5. Chinese consumers, though, still don't consume all that much. They save an incredible amount. As you can see below, their household savings rate—about 32 percent—dwarfs anything else in the developing (or, for that matter, developed) world. And it's not clear why. One theory is its massive gender imbalance, the result of decades of sex selective abortions, has made families with boys save as much as they can to attract the best wives for their sons. Another is that its meager safety net means families have to save more for retirement. And part of that is historical memory: older generations remember what it was like when things like meat were a once-a-year luxury, and nothing can get them to stop squirreling away as much money as they can, just in case. This over-50 crowd doesn't make as much as the under-30s, but one-child means that there are more of them—so their super-saving predominates.


Categories: News Analysis

5 Things We've Learned About Russia Since the Crimean Crisis

Fri, 03/14/2014 - 22:52

Every time Vladimir Putin opens his mouth, the goalposts seem to move. After speaking with the Kremlin leader by telephone this week, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev said Putin told him that Ukraine's 1991 independence referendum—and therefore the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union—was "not really legal."

The Russian president's comment, which spread like wildfire on social media, could not be independently confirmed. But given that Putin has called the Soviet breakup the "greatest tragedy of the 20th century," it certainly seemed plausible. And it served as the latest reminder that with the Crimean crisis, we have entered a new phase of the post-Soviet and post-Cold War period.

"Russia resorted to military force because it wanted to signal a game change," Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies wrote in Foreign Affairs. The most immediate manifestation of this is in Russia's relations with the West and with its former-Soviet neighbors. But Putin has also initiated a clear game-change at home, which is visible in how he makes decisions, the constituencies he appeals to, how he views the Russian economy, and how the Kremlin deals with dissent. 

1. The Kremlin's technocrats are no more.

It has gone by different names, from "the collective Putin" to "Putin's Politburo." But Kremlin-watchers have long argued that Russia is governed by an informal clique, a collective leadership of about a dozen key figures—with Putin as the front man and decider-in-chief.

Veterans of the security services have always had the strongest voice in this inner sanctum, but they did not monopolize it. They were countered by a group of technocrats seeking to integrate Russia into the global economy—until now, that is. The way the decision to intervene in Crimea was made seems to suggests that the "collective Putin" is getting smaller and smaller—and is entirely made up of of KGB veterans. Putin, it appears, has made his choice. The battle between the siloviki and the technocrats is over—and the siloviki have won.

"The decision to invade Crimea, the officials and analysts said, was made not by the national security council but in secret among a smaller and shrinking circle of Mr. Putin’s closest and most trusted aides," according to a recent report in The New York Times. "The group excluded senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the cadre of comparatively liberal advisers who might have foreseen the economic impact and potential consequences of American and European sanctions."

According to the report, the group included Kremlin chief-of-staff Sergei Ivanov, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov—all of whom served with Putin in the KGB in the 1970s and 1980s. Other reports suggested that Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a close Putin confidant widely rumored to have KGB ties, was also present.

2. Putin and his allies insulated themselves from sanctions.

In all likelihood, Putin has been preparing for something like the Crimea intervention for some time. Less than a year after he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, he initiated a campaign to force officials who hold assets abroad to repatriate them. The campaign to "nationalize" the elite was presented as an effort to make Russia less vulnerable to Western pressure. 

The respected political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said at the time that Putin was seeking to make sure officials were "completely independent of foreign countries and fully accountable to the president." And with the threat of economic sanctions now looming, those that didn't heed Putin's warnings are probably having regrets.

In a recent post on Facebook, Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, said based on conversations he's had with insiders, the handful of officials with Putin when he made the decision to intervene in Crimea don't hold foreign assets.

3. Economic integration with the West is now in doubt.

Taken together, all of this suggests that Putin is on the verge of sacrificing the economic gains of the past decade on the altar of imperial expansion. The sidelining of the technocrats and the fact that the Kremlin felt it necessary to compel the political elite to repatriate its assets suggests that Russia is retrenching on its longstanding policy of integrating into the global economy.

Citing unidentified officials, Bloomberg reports that Moscow is "bracing for sanctions resembling those applied to Iran after what they see as the inevitable annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region." One official said a sanctions war with the West "could wipe out 10 years of achievements in financial and monetary policy." Another said it "could erase as much as a third of the ruble’s value." Bloomberg also cited Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying Putin met senior officials in Sochi on March 12 to discuss Russia's options in a "difficult global environment."

Russia's main stock market, the MICEX, has had its worst week since 2011 and on March 13 closed 24 percent below its January 2013 high. Likewise, the ruble has lost nearly 10 percent of its value this year. Putin, Krastev wrote in Foreign Affairs, is apparently "ready to abandon all thoughts of Russia being a European nation in good standing—far better for it to be a civilization of its own—and has proved willing to sacrifice his country’s economic interests to achieve his goals."

Flags at a rally in Moscow. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)4. Things are about to get worse for Russian dissidents.

And as Russia stops to even pretend that it cares what the West thinks—or does—it appears that the opposition is in for a rough ride. From the closure of independent websites like,, and Yezhednevny Zhurnal to the firing of Galina Timchenko as editor of, it is clear that the crackdown that began when Putin returned to the Kremlin is intensifying. And it is intensifying concomitant with the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.

"As Vladimir Putin sends troops into Crimea and hints at following up on this cruel gambit with further moves into eastern Ukraine, he is, step by step, turning back the clock on information," David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker. "It is a move of self-protection."

This week's rollback of independent media was preceded by a series of moves earlier in the year that now appear part of clear pattern. On January 24, the popular social networking site VKontakte came under Kremlin control when Pavel Durov, its founder and CEO, was pressured into selling his remaining shares to Ivan Tavrin, a partner of the pro-Putin oligarch Alisher Usmanov. 

In late January, the opposition-leaning television station Dozhd TV came under fire for posting a controversial poll about the Leningrad blockade during World War II. In early February, Dozhd's main satellite and cable providers announced—one after another—that they would stop carrying the channel, effectively barring it from the airwaves. And on February 28, a Moscow court placed opposition leader Alexei Navalny under house arrest, barring him from speaking to the media and using the Internet.

5. Putin has won over Russian nationalists.

Suddenly, the nationalists love Putin again. When the Kremlin leader lost the support of Russia's urban middle class in 2011-12, he began appealing to the working and urban classes with populist appeals. There was just one problem with this strategy. The country's nationalist electorate, a key part of this demographic, had turned against him.

Indeed, angered by an influx of migrant workers, many had become enamored of Putin's nemesis, Navalny. In addition to the predictable chants of "Russia for Russians," "Stop Feeding the Caucasus," and various anti-migrant diatribes at this year's Russian March, there were plenty of calls for the end of Putin's "Chekist regime." But with Putin flexing Russia's imperial muscles with his incursion into Crimea, all seems to be forgiven.

"The most radical members of the nationalist subculture are rushing before our eyes to become ardent 'Putinists' and are eager to swear allegiance to the current government, which only recently they opposed because of the 'import of Tajiks,'" commentator Aleksei Roshchin wrote in This week, for example,  Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor in chief of the nationalist newspaper Zaftra, penned a commentary singing Putin's praises in the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia.

"Western pressure on Russia will be enormous," Prokhanov wrote. "But the response will be society's spiritual mobilization and consolidation around their leader—Putin. He has qualities unsurpassed in world politics. In the image of a spiritual leader, Putin has said 'Russia—this is your fate.' And now we see how the fates of Russia and its president have merged."

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


Categories: News Analysis

The Intellectual Snobbery of Conspicuous Atheism

Fri, 03/14/2014 - 14:45

Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run several stories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to two new books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:

What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.

This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.

The problem is, the “culture war” is a false construct created by politicians and public intellectuals, left and right. The state of faith in the world is much grayer, much humbler, and much less divided than atheist academics and preaching politicians claim. Especially in the U.S., social conservatives are often called out in the media for reifying and inflaming this cultural divide: The rhetoric of once and future White House hopefuls like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Bobby Jindal reinforces an “us” and “them” distinction between those with faith and those without. Knowing God helps them live and legislate in the “right” way, they say.

But vocal atheists reinforce this binary of Godly vs. godless, too—the argument is just not as obvious. Theirs is a subtle assertion: Believers aren’t educated or thoughtful enough to debunk God, and if they only knew more, rational evidence would surely offset faith.


To see what this attitude looks like in practice, it’s helpful to check out a new book, The Age of Atheists, by the British historian Peter Watson. The book interprets Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous 1882 declaration “God is dead” as a turning point in intellectual history: These words were a call to action for all the artists, writers, philosophers, and poets who tried to understand the world thereafter. Over the course of 626 pages, readers are taken on a whirlwind tour through the last 13 decades of European and American thought, touching on figures from Martha Graham and Piet Mondrian to William James and Jürgen Habermas. Watson’s version of Western intellectual history isn’t framed around economics or politics or the dialectics of power, which is a pretty radical move in a field filled with Marxists and Foucaultians and closeted Hegelians. Instead, he narrates history to answer one of the most basic questions of human existence: What’s out there, besides us? Is there such a thing as “God”?

And this yields fascinating results. To his credit, Watson includes all kinds of artists on his tour through godless thought. We learn that Isadora Duncan, a mother of modern dance, confessed that “the seduction of Nietzsche’s philosophy ravished my being.” There are tales of W.B. Yeats attending a séance where “he lost control of himself and beat his head on the table,” and Salman Rushdie almost dying in a car accident. The novels of Henry James are deconstructed to reveal religious themes, and the jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker is credited with the Beat-era advice to “quit thinking!”

These anecdotes are artfully woven into a broader narrative about how secular thought has evolved over time. Atheism hasn’t necessarily meant one thing throughout history, Watson argues. But in listing the many ways people have dealt with the “death of God,” he also seems to imply that atheism has covered all intellectual bases. There’s no longer any reason to believe in God or spirits or black magic, Watson appears to say—nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectuals have got it covered.

There’s no reason to believe in God anymore—19th- and 20th-century intellectuals have got it covered.

It’s difficult to summarize Watson’s story of atheism; after all, it took him hundreds of pages and dozens of thinkers to tell it. But, roughly, it goes something like this. Nietzsche wrote about the death of God at a time when many thinkers were starting to recognize a shift in the way Western culture related to Christianity, and throughout the West, his ideas gained traction. In Civil War-era America, this meant the rise of “pragmatist” thinkers: People like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Dewey all realized that “‘ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools—like knives and forks and microchips—that people devise to cope with the world,’” Watson writes, quoting the Israeli academic Steven Aschheim. This idea was echoed by a group of Europeans that included Charles Baudelaire, Paul Cézenne, and Edmund Husserl. The latter’s brand of philosophy, called phenomenology, emphasized that a full experience of life is “not to be achieved suddenly through some ‘transcendent’ episode of a religious or therapeutic kind, but is more akin to hard work or education,” Watson says.

And then the world knew war. World War I “had certain Nietzschean overtones, in that war was seen as the ultimate test of one’s heroic qualities,” Watson writes—in other words, armed battle was a test of man’s strength and power in a God-free world. The recklessness of flappers and Gatsby and the Jazz Age followed in a whirl of materialistic nihilism, and in philosophy, thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein called for the “verifiability” of all facts and language (God being non-verifiable, of course).

In Germany, Nazism drew on Nietzsche and contemporary writers like Martin Heidegger for its philosophical heft. Amidst the chaos in Europe, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus developed existentialism, which Sartre described as such:

Man is free; but his freedom does not look like the glorious liberty of the Enlightenment; it is no longer the gift of God. Once again, man stands alone in the universe, responsible for his condition, likely to remain in a lowly state, but free to reach above the stars.

In post-war America, Watson says, pop psychology and self-help started providing people with frameworks for how to live. This had been foreshadowed half a century earlier in the writings of Freud, who was responsible, Watson says, for “the dominant shift in thought in modern times, which has seen a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one.” He points to Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and popular writers like Benjamin Spock as psychologists who gave their craft new purpose: It became a way to help people find value and meaning, presumably in the absence of traditional faith. The Beatniks, for their part, abandoned the search for meaning altogether; they looked to desire and spontaneity and improvisation to inspire their art. And then there were the hippies who dropped acid and traded in free love, all in the spirit of humanism, not godliness.

Modern times have seen "a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one," Watson says.

The story of the last few decades is a little hazier. Watson writes of “therapy culture” and the rejection thereof, along with the search for meaning in poetry (Hans-Georg Gadamer) and community (Richard Rorty and Ronald Dworkin). People like E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins have popularized today’s most recognizable brand of atheism, which relies on the argument that evolution and biology disprove the existence of God.

All of this leads to Watson’s conclusion: Religious belief is simply insufficient to explain the complexity of the modern world. It has led to violence and intolerance, yes, but more fundamentally, the idea of God—a unifying, singular lens for understanding everyday life—has been debunked, six ways to Sunday. Or, to mix metaphors: Modern people can pick their poison for killing God. But die He must.


The problem with Watson’s argument is not that it lacks evidence—there’s a lot of history crammed into his book. Rather, it’s that Watson assembles anecdotes into a scatterplot that undeniably points toward the impossibility of God in the modern world, or so he claims. And this is where the intellectual snobbery comes in: Watson assumes that because a group of smart, respected, insightful people thought and felt their way out of believing in God, everyone else should, too. Because intellectual history trends toward non-belief, human history must, too.

This is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, it suggests that believers are inherently less thoughtful than non-believers. Watson tells stories of famous thinkers and artists who have struggled to reconcile themselves to a godless world. And these are helpful, in that they offer insight into how dynamic, creative people have tried to live. But that doesn't mean the average believer's search for meaning and understanding is any less rigorous or valuable—it just ends with a different conclusion: that God exists. Watson implies that full engagement with the project of being human in the modern world leads to atheism, and that's just not true.

We know it's not true because the vast majority of the world believes in God or some sort higher power. Worldwide, religious belief and observance vary widely by region. It’s tough to get a fully accurate global picture of faith in God or a “higher power,” but the metric of religiosity serves as a helpful proxy. Only 16 percent of the world’s population was not affiliated with a particular faith as of 2010, although many of these people believe in God or a spiritual deity, according to the Pew Research Center. More than three-fourths of the religiously unaffiliated live in the Asia-Pacific region, with a majority (62 percent) living in China. In other regions, the percentage of those who say they have no religious affiliation are much smaller: 7.7 percent in Latin America; 3.2 percent in sub-Saharan Africa; 0.6 percent in the Middle East.

If the age of atheism started in 1882, most people still haven't caught on.

Arguably, Watson wasn’t writing for the whole world—he stuck to Western thinkers and artists. But even if we focus on Europe and North America, his implicit argument isn’t supported by statistics. Eighteen percent of Europeans are religiously unaffiliated, but again, many of those people believe in God—30 percent of unaffiliated French people do, for example. And even though Christianity is growing fastest in Latin America and sub-Saharan African, as of 2010, Europe was still home to a quarter of the world’s Christians—the largest population in the world.

In America, which sociologists often describe as a uniquely religious country compared with the rest of the Western world, a vast majority of people have faith. According to Pew, 86 percent of Millennials, or people aged 18-33, say they believe in God, and 94 percent of people 34 and older say the same. It’s true that a growing group say they’re “not certain” about this belief, and it’s also true that affiliation with formal religious institutions is declining. But in terms of pure belief, self-described atheists and agnostics are a small minority, making up only six percent of the population.

The Western world in particular is probably less religious than it was 150 years ago, and the dynamics of belief and observance have certainly become more complex—the growing number of people who are unaffiliated with a specific religion is especially fascinating. But if the age of atheism started in 1882 as Watson claims, most people still haven't caught on.

The Age of Atheists will likely stay confined to certain intellectual circles: The casual philosopher, the dogmatic non-believer, the coffee-table book collector. But insofar as its argument represents a broader pathology in contemporary conversations about belief, this book matters. Most people form their beliefs and live their lives somewhere in the middle of the so-called "culture divide" that outspoken atheists and believers shout across. The more these shouters shout, the more public discourse veers away from the subtle struggle of the average person's attempt to be human.


Categories: News Analysis

Afghanistan From the Air

Fri, 03/14/2014 - 01:16

As U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, Jeffrey Stern has surveyed the country from its rooftops and from behind the wheel, capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of a massive war winding down. Now he offers his third installment in the series: A view of Afghanistan from the air.

KABUL—On a flight to Afghanistan, I sat next to a young Afghan man traveling alone and returning home for the first time in five years. A boy, really, 19 years old, wearing skinny jeans and a gelled-up faux-hawk, coming back for a wedding and to see an aging grandfather.

The boy had flown from London, where he’d been going to school, to Dubai and then caught the short flight from Dubai to Kabul, which is when he began to get nervous. He used the bathroom three times; he fidgeted constantly; he actually began talking to himself. Finally, he asked me a question in the cockney accent he’d picked up in London: “Is it dangerous?”

He was genuinely frightened to be returning to Afghanistan. His uncle was going to pick him up at the airport and drive him through some of the country’s more dangerous provinces to his family’s home, and he was worried he’d gone soft while getting his education abroad—too soft for his own country. He didn’t feel he belonged there, any more than the foreigner sitting next to him. 

It struck me that this young man was part of the equation we don’t often think about when we discuss what will happen here when we leave. The hopeful among us talk of Afghanistan’s urban generation—people who are educated or at least want to be, sophisticated about things like technology, and progressive about issues like gender relations. A decent future is achievable, so goes this line of reasoning, if this young generation—seven in ten Afghans are under the age of 25—can loosen the grip the old men with beards have on tradition and religion.

Natural rock formations along the shoreline of the lake at Kajaki in Helmand province. (AfghanistanMatters/Flickr)

I’m as impressed with this generation of Afghans as anyone. I believe they can keep this whole enterprise going in the right direction. The question the boy I met on the plane represented for me is: Do they want to?  Do they even want to be here? Two of my closest and most educated Afghan friends are now in the U.S., applying for asylum. They are both the kind of people who, if you met them, would leave you encouraged about Afghanistan’s future.

But there’s only so much you can do for Afghanistan if you can't or aren't willing to go back. And while there are plenty of inspiring young Afghans committed to working not just on Afghanistan, but in Afghanistan, many of them carry passports from Western countries and fly back and forth all the time. Meaning, they don’t always have a lot of skin in the game. They have escape plans. They’re not starting families here, buying land here, or spending money here. There are plenty of people working on improving education in Afghanistan, for example, but not enough of them are, at the same time, working to ensure educational opportunities for their own children.

I don’t fault the boy sitting next to me on the plane for planning to pay his respects in Afghanistan and then get the hell out of there. He’s a teenager who has grown up somewhere else and has learned about the violence in his native country from the front page, above the fold. He’s read fewer of the stories buried in Section C about the rapid development that’s taken place there in recent years—about the successful vaccination campaigns; the state-of-the-art burn center in Herat; the Afghans who medaled in the Olympics and beat India in a soccer tournament.

Remarkably, the flight we were taking was a brand new Emirates Airline route; we were on its second flight. There are half a dozen carriers doing the Dubai-Kabul run now, even though I have never flown into Kabul on a plane more than three-fourths full, at most. Who sees all these empty airplane seats and decides there is unmet demand for flights into Afghanistan?

After the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, Afghanistan experienced a mass repatriation. By the summer of 2002, the UN was processing 10,000 returnees a day. And by the end of the year, almost 2 million Afghans had returned home. These returnees now represent nearly a quarter of the country’s population of 30 million.

But the influx peaked in the middle of the last decade as the Taliban insurgency gained strength, and the rates have since declined. In 2012, 400,000 more people left Afghanistan than entered the country, according to the UN. The country’s net migration rate is currently -1.83 migrants per 1,000 people. “Afghanistan is losing its intelligent youth who could be the best engineers and scientists in the future,” the economic analyst Azaraksh Hafizi told Afghanistan’s Tolo News in December. There’s simply no novelty for émigrés now; it’s no longer the beginning of an era in Afghanistan.

Indeed, as foreign troops continue to leave, it’s more the end of one.

So then: Why all the new flights coming into Afghanistan? 

One day it occurred to me: because you need the planes here for all the people trying to leave.


An aerial view of Kandahar. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

The Kabul International Airport has come a long way in the last decade, thanks in large part to money from Japan, which is the second-largest aid donor to Afghanistan after the United States.

The staff deals admirably with the pressures of increased traffic and extremely tight security. A male traveler receives frisks (of varying intimacy) an average of six times from when he enters the vicinity of the airport to the time he boards his plane. Relative to a few years ago, there are fewer urchins extorting you for money in exchange for moving your luggage around in unhelpful ways, and those who remain are now responsive to “No, thank you.” The duty-free shop is stocked and open for business, and there’s even a business-class lounge. The men in the immigration booths are as mute and ill-tempered as ever—they wield their stamps like they’re angry at your documents—but show me a country where passport control is a party. And while the level of security makes it exhausting to fly out (think about how tight security is at, say, a Midwestern municipal airport, and then think about trying to prevent terrorism in the place where the 9/11 plot originated), I see the airport as one of the most encouraging signs of progress here. But it’s also a little sad: All these improvements, all the trained police and immigration staff—all to help people and money leave the country.

And that money is fleeing fast. In 2011, an estimated $4.6 billion left the country through the airport—almost as much as the Afghan government’s total annual public spending, at $4.8 billion.

The economic impact of the withdrawal is, while not yet paralyzing, ever present (the World Bank estimates that 97 percent of Afghanistan’s $15.7-billion GDP consists of international military and development aid, along with spending by foreign troops in the country). The currency is yo-yoing. The value of the dollar plummets when Afghan President Hamid Karzai lashes out at the West, and people rush to buy dollars when a Western official makes a comment that hints at improved relations. It’s too much uncertainty for conservative businessmen, who take their money and spread it around to other countries. In fact, the bursting of an economic bubble in Afghanistan is helping inflate another one in Dubai.

I interviewed one businessman who anticipated a construction boom when the Taliban fell, and quickly started shipping steel into the country from Pakistan. His stockyard in Kabul was a hub of activity for more than 10 years; builders purchasing steel from him had to wait three days for their orders to be filled.  Now, the merchant has few customers. He stayed in Afghanistan through the communist coup, the Soviet invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban regime, but now, for the first time, he is seriously thinking about leaving the country with all his money and heading to Turkey, where his son is in college.


An aerial view of Lake Band-e-Amir in Bamiyan province, about 190 miles northwest of Kabul. The lake is part of Afghanistan's first national park. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Capital flight is not necessarily an existential problem for Afghanistan. I’ve heard wise people argue that this is precisely what the country needs. David Foster, an attorney and former reservist in the U.S. Army who did a tour here working on anti-corruption efforts, was concerned from the very beginning with how international money distorted markets and diverted human capital. “There will be a hard landing as the country's resources are redeployed to meet new markets and demands,” he told me by email. “Real estate prices will crash in some areas and many businesses that sold primarily to the international coalition will have to start over from scratch. Hopefully that allows more companies to find a home in central business districts and provides the foundation for the launch of promising new businesses."

It’s what needs to happen, because “the best and brightest of an entire generation went to work for the coalition rather than entering government service, starting a business or learning a trade,” he added. “If they stay, maybe this generation becomes the engine for an entrepreneurial movement in the country.”    

I see many examples of self-sufficiency—proof that Foster’s argument may be the one that prevails after all. The house where I live in West Kabul is in a good neighborhood with terrible streets that turn to impassable bogs with every rainfall. No one bothers to pave the streets because nobody wants to spend money on something others will use for free. And why spend your own money to build something that some foreign NGO may come along and build for free, if you just wait long enough?

But now, for the first time in at least 13 years (and quite possibly for the first time ever) the road is being fixed, because a council of townspeople decided that with the foreigners leaving, they’d have to act themselves if they wanted a new road. And while there is some external support—a foreign aid organization promised to help finish the road if the people completed the sewers themselves—it is still an inspiring act of civic engagement. If the people who can leave are leaving, the people who can’t aren't rolling over.


Khost province (AfghanistanMatters/Flickr)

On the new Emirates flight from Dubai to Kabul, you can watch a live feed on your seatback-mounted monitor from cameras positioned on the plane’s nose, tail, and belly. As far as entertainment goes, the footage tends to be pretty underwhelming—a monotonous mix of clouds and occasional specks of terrain below. But when we entered Afghan airspace and dipped below the clouds, I could see the country’s craggy brown mountaintops rushing by at 500 miles per hour. It felt like fast-forwarding through history as successive empires—the Greeks under Alexander the Great, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Soviets under Leonid Brezhnev—poured into Afghanistan, only to be eventually, inevitably, pushed back. And as the landscape unfolded rapidly below, it was hard not to feel part of that parade.

Only this time around, the question isn't really whether we’re leaving Afghanistan. The question is whether Afghans will stay. 

This article was reported with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


Categories: News Analysis

Watch Bill Gates Explain Why Washington Is Irrelevant

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 19:37

On Wednesday, Bill Gates joined Atlantic Editor in Chief James Bennet for a wide-ranging conversation on the future of education, the state of the tech sector, and U.S. foreign aid. The billionaire philanthropist expressed amazement at how much Americans disapprove of their government, but he thinks innovations in public health, education, and business will keep happening—with or without the assistance of elected leaders.

"A lot of the things that will really improve the world fortunately aren't dependent on Washington doing something different," he said.

A full recording of the interview is above.


Categories: News Analysis

Why It's So Hard for Obama to Be Tough on Russia

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 16:02

It is not uncommon for second-term presidents to turn more of their attention and focus to foreign policy. Domestic politics and policy become increasingly frustrating, as the president’s partisans in Congress hunker down in preparation for a lousy midterm election, the party’s ideological base becomes more belligerent, and the opposition party gets bolder. The president has had five years or more of engaging in foreign affairs and with foreign leaders. And the freedom to act without the constraints set by domestic politics and the powers of Congress, to move chess pieces on the international stage, is highly tempting.

Of course, what presidents want to do on the world stage is move those chess pieces and shape outcomes to make history through great accomplishments. That is what President Obama has in mind with the negotiations over Iran’s nukes, the attempt to forge an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and, to a lesser degree, the Syrian chemical-weapons agreement.

But the harder reality is that most of the time the president will spend on foreign policy in coming months will focus on risk mitigation—trying to avoid a catastrophe more than working to create a triumph. That is true in Afghanistan, as Hamid Karzai continues to careen out of control; in Syria, as Bashar al-Assad vies with Kim Jong Un for status as the world’s most brutal butcher; in Venezuela, as Nicolás Maduro descends from authoritarian rule into sheer thuggery; in Turkey, as a thoroughly corrupt Recep Tayyip Erdogan strips his country of its hard-fought and hard-won democratic institutions and principles; in the potential for serious conflict between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands.

Then there is Ukraine. The challenges to the president are formidable, and they start with a larger reality: Dealing with a lion’s share of the other crises above—Syria and Iran, especially—requires trying to reach agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, either to help resolve them or at least to refrain from making them much, much worse. Putin saved the president from a huge embarrassment with the intervention to resolve Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, just before the Senate would have voted down his request for authorization to use force to punish Assad for using the weapons repeatedly against Syrians. Russia is a key player in the delicate negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Moscow can make the U.S. transition out of Afghanistan more painful and disruptive, and can be a positive or negative player in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

For those who immediately began calling for the harshest sanctions we can apply against Russia after its outrageous behavior in Crimea, those considerations were nowhere evident. Of course, one can make the case—and it is a powerful one—that Putin’s Russia will act in its cold, hard self-interest no matter what we do to try to appease it or cushion any reaction. But it is also likely that the harder we push, the more Russia will respond in a hard and negative way in every other area of our interest, at least in the short run. And when it comes to Russia and Syria, the short run is absolutely crucial.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Putin believes in power and power only. If there is no tough response to his takeover of Crimea, it will signal to him that there is an open field for further aggressive moves, starting with, but not likely ending with, Eastern Ukraine.

But here comes the second major challenge for the president: Serious moves against Russia begin with tough actions against the corrupt oligarchs, Putin and his cronies, who run the show, and with severe economic sanctions against Russia’s weak economy. Those are doable—but only with the cooperation of our EU allies. And the Europeans have little stomach to do much at all. In London, where a booming real-estate market has been fueled by Russian billionaires buying houses and flats for up to a hundred million pounds (!), and where there is real fear that bursting the housing bubble will sink an already precarious economy, there is no chance that the Brits will crack down on travel by the oligarchs or hit them hard in other ways.

Throughout Europe, where trade with Russia is robust, economic sanctions would be painful—much more painful than they would be for the United States. Much of Europe also depends heavily on Russian oil and natural gas.

The third dilemma for the president has domestic implications. A declaration from Obama that the U.S. will begin significant exports of natural gas, along with ramping up natural-gas production, would be painful to Russia. To be sure, liquefying the gas and shipping it by container is no equivalent to the pipelines bringing the gas to European countries from Russia. But the combination of increased exports and increased production would hit Putin right in the wallet.

Formidable forces at home oppose more U.S. gas exports, however. Some fear a short-term increase in domestic prices, and others worry about the increase in fracking that would come with the policy change. And the latter group, especially the environmental activists already agitating against the possible approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and deeply opposed to any expansion of oil-and-gas exploration and drilling, are a serious thorn in the president’s side.

With a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing a sharp decrease in enthusiasm among Democrats heading into the crucial midterm elections, there is a price to be paid for a presidential move on this front.

Putin running rampant, headaches around the world, headaches from allies, headaches from his own base. All of these come with the territory for a second-term president. Obama and his secretary of state, the formidable John Kerry, may well navigate through this. But first they will earn many more gray hairs and endure many more sleepless nights.


Categories: News Analysis

Bill Gates: 'The Idea That Innovation Is Slowing Down Is ... Stupid'

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 04:00

Bill Gates is aware that there's a lot of gridlock in Washington. He's just not sure it matters all that much for innovation.

"There's a lot of innovation that isn't dependent on Washington doing anything," the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder said in a conversation with Atlantic Editor-in-Chief James Bennet on Wednesday evening. "It'd be great to fund basic research in energy more than we do. It'd be great to keep the [National Institutes of Health] budget going up. It would be great to have government at large doing more research into how to do education in a better way. But a lot of the things that will really improve the world fortunately aren't dependent on Washington doing something different."

"It's easy to say, 'Wow, this is different,"' he added, in reference to the fierce debates in the nation's capital over the size of government. "And I wonder if, for the first time, American democracy won't deliver the right set of decisions. Then again, it's supposed to be a self-correcting mechanism."

Speaking at an Atlantic event at the Watergate in Washington, D.C., Gates marveled at the low opinion Americans have of their elected officials.

"One of the statistics that always amazes me is the approval of the Chinese government, not elected, is over 80 percent. The approval of the U.S. government, fully elected, is 19 percent," he said. "Well, we elected these people and they didn't elect those people. Isn't it supposed to be different? Aren't we supposed to like the people that we elected? It's almost like a paradox of democracy."

"Maybe we just have better polling," Bennet responded. "No, this is honest polling!" Gates insisted.

Gates also disagreed forcefully with economists and analysts who say the pace of technological innovation is slowing, and no longer driving productivity and economic growth. "I think the idea that innovation is slowing down is one of the stupidest things anybody ever said," he said. "Innovation is moving at a scarily fast pace."

"Take the potential of how we generate energy, the potential of how we design materials, the potential of how we create medicines, the potential of how we educate people, the way we use virtual reality to make it so you don't have to travel as much or you get fun experiences," he noted. Innovation doesn't always work the way we think it might, he pointed out. For example, when innovation is happening fast enough, it sometimes shrinks GDP by disrupting industries (e.g. the damage the Internet has had on the newspaper industry) or increasing costs (e.g. the proliferation of medical technology).

"I want to meet this guy who sees a pause in innovation and ask them where have they been," he said.

And while Russia's military intervention in Ukraine has renewed claims that the U.S., in an age of austerity and war-weariness, is retreating from the world stage, Gates doesn't see it that way.

"If buying military equipment is the measure, we're really good, there's nobody even close," he said.  "We are engaged in the world. They know we're here."

Gates noted that U.S. foreign aid hit a low point at the end of the Clinton administration, when foreign assistance dropped to 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP. George W. Bush nearly doubled the foreign aid budget, with a particular focus on combating AIDS in Africa, and it has further increased, though less dramatically, under Obama. The U.S. now spends $30 billion, or just over 0.2 percent of GDP, on foreign assistance. That makes it the world's largest dispenser of aid in absolute terms, but still puts it far behind the world leaders in this category, Sweden and Norway, who spend about 1 percent of GDP on aid.

"We would have dreamed that it would have doubled again" under Obama, Gates said, but the 2008 economic crisis dashed that dream. Still, he said, "the way that money's being spent has gotten more intelligent every year" since 2000. As the practice of buying friends in foreign capitals with development aid has faded with the end of the Cold War, he argued, the impact per dollar of assistance has become easier to track. And almost 40 percent of U.S. aid, he said, now goes to the most measurable categories: health and agriculture. 

Gates also addressed the debate over the Common Core education standards that 46 states have now adopted. "We're very unusual: There's two other countries that don't have a national standard for what you should know at various levels of your education," he explained. Textbooks in Asian countries are often less than half the size of U.S. textbooks, he said, "and they're far more focused on teaching you to do a few things very well than teaching you many things every year. And look, they're just getting way, way better results with their system."

"States may choose to deviate, but they should make sure first that they have high standards and quality standards, and that they have a really good reason not to share the same analysis and tools that are being created because of the scale advantage that lets innovators come in, do a piece of work once, and have it applied to a very large number of students," he said.

He admitted that the promise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has yet to be realized, and said the critical step is making the technology scalable for millions of people, rather than simply making MOOCs available online.

"Give us another eight years, and this will have changed the balance," he predicted. "It will have brought a factor of two of efficiency to most of higher education."

You can watch a full video of the conversation here.


Categories: News Analysis

After Crimea, Sweden Flirts With Joining NATO

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 00:47

It's a good time to have friends in Eastern Europe.

Leaders in the region, who have reacted to Russia's occupation of Crimea by expressing fears that they could be next, are now taking solace in their alliances. "Thanks be to God, we are NATO members," exclaimed Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite last week. This month, Norway is hosting 16,000 NATO soldiers for previously planned cold-weather training exercises on the Russian border, much to the Russians' displeasure. Among those participating in Operation Cold Response are 1,400 Swedish troops under the Nordic nation's limited partnership with the alliance.

Non-aligned since the early 19th century, Sweden's "splendid isolation" has endured two world wars and even the five-decade superpower slugfest that dominated the late 20th century. That could change, however, in the wake of Russia's intervention in Ukraine. Last week, Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg indicated that the defense budget, to which he had recently announced cuts, would be increased as a result of the crisis. Deputy Prime Minister Jan Björklund also publicly floated the idea of Swedish membership in NATO, warning that Russia could attempt to seize Gotland, a strategically located Swedish island province in the Baltic Sea, if it chose to attack the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Sverker Göransson, the supreme commander of Sweden's military, has rejected Björklund's call for a change to the country's defense doctrine.

Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea, is roughly 56 miles off the Swedish coast and only 155 miles from Kaliningrad, a major Russian exclave in Europe with a large military base. The island's position in the south Baltic gives it immense strategic value if a conflict were to break out in the Baltic Sea. "Today's modern air missiles and anti-ship missiles can hit targets in the order of 300-400 kilometers," wrote Karlis Neretnieks, a retired Swedish major general, for the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences last week. "Anyone who can group such systems on Gotland will be able to make it very difficult for an opponent to operate on and in the Baltic Sea. From Bornholm in the south to the Åland Islands in the north, from the Swedish mainland in the west to the Baltic states to the east."

Russia briefly seized Gotland from Sweden in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars, but Swedish forces expelled them one year later and have controlled it ever since. Unlike Crimea, there are no ethnic Russians on Gotland, but the island is still closely tied to Moscow's interests. Russia's Gazprom conglomerate owns Nord Stream, an $11-billion pipeline running along the Swedish island that pumps 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year to Western Europe. Russian President Putin vowed to defend the strategically vital pipeline with the Russian Navy in 2006, and in one March 2013 incident reminiscent of the Cold War, two Russian heavy bombers and their fighter escorts skirted Swedish airspace and simulated a bombing run against the island. NATO's Baltic air patrol responded. Sweden's did not.

The Crimean crisis has renewed the ongoing debate in Swedish political circles about the country's dilapidated military defenses. Military budget cuts by successive post-Cold War Swedish governments grew so severe that Göransson, the country's supreme commander, publicly estimated in January 2013 that Sweden could only hold out for a week if it were attacked. A Swedish military college later confirmed Göransson's analysis in a report titled "Can We Defend Ourselves For A Week?" and said that international help would be required because "the military does not have a credible ability to defend all of Sweden." (NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen later remarked that Sweden cannot count on military support from NATO unless it becomes a member state.)

In response, a Russian TV program broadcast a parody music video in which a Göransson impersonator bemoans, to the tune of ABBA's "Mamma Mia!", Sweden's military weakness. "It's very scary! Really! Let us join NATO already," the impersonator sings at one point, "Otherwise Russia will conquer us all right the next week!" (Watch the full skit below with English subtitles.)

Sweden's military isn't necessarily idle. Two hundred and seventy Swedish soldiers are currently deployed in Afghanistan alongside NATO, and the country's air force helped enforce the UN-authorized no-fly zone over Libya in 2011. Swedish soldiers have also joined UN peacekeeping missions in Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But its home defenses are what causes the most concern among some Swedish officials, leading Sweden to increase its defense-cooperation efforts with non-aligned Finland shortly before the Crimean crisis erupted.

The idea of joining NATO has also gained traction among Swedes in recent years. A 2013 poll found that popular support for becoming a member had jumped 9 percent in two years, even though it still falls short of a plurality. "Sweden must realize that we can no longer defend ourselves alone. NATO membership must be debated seriously. It is the best long-term option for our defense and security," said Christian Democratic spokesman Mikael Oscarsson last January after the coalition government to which his party belongs announced a formal review of Swedish military capabilities. "With significantly higher spending on defense and material acquisitions, we will see better equipped and trained Russian troops in this region. This strengthening requires a credible response by Sweden," Oscarsson added.

Swedish membership in NATO would leave Finland as the last non-aligned Scandinavian state, but the Finnish people are warier about picking sides. A February 24 Helsinki News poll, conducted prior to Russia's occupation of Crimea, found that 64 percent of Finns oppose NATO membership, 60 percent oppose forming an EU common-defense policy, and 60 percent oppose a proposed defense alliance between Finland and Sweden. Given Finland's proximity to the Russian border, one can hardly blame them for embracing non-alignment. Henry Kissinger opined in The Washington Post that the new Ukrainian government should follow Finland's example. "That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia," he wrote approvingly.

A Russian threat to either country isn't immediate, and so far, talk of joining NATO remains just talk. Last year, after Göransson's claim that the military could only defend the country for a week, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt stated that, despite their build-up, Russian armed forces have "neither the will nor the capacity to attack Swedish territory."

But Crimea's example might force some in the Swedish government to reassess the threat's likeliness. "You have to build up your fire brigade to the same dimension as the risk of a fire," Björklund told reporters last week. "How many people thought that Russia would go into Crimea? The same argument could hold true for the Baltic states."


Categories: News Analysis

Russian Lawmaker Wants to Abolish the Letter 'ы'

Wed, 03/12/2014 - 23:55

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist Russian politician known for outrageous remarks on everything from migrant laborers to terrorism, has now targeted a letter in the Russian alphabet.

The letter in question is the vowel "ы"—a difficult-to-pronounce sound for non-native Russian speakers that is usually transliterated simply as "y" in English. Zhirinovsky says he wants the letter removed from the Russian alphabet, calling it a "nasty Asiatic" import. The vowel came to the Russian language from the Mongols, Zhirinovsky was quoted as telling the State Duma on March 12.

"Only animals make this sound, 'ы- ы,'" he said, adding that the regular 'и' ('i') is enough for the Russian alphabet. 'Ы' doesn't exist in any other European language, argued Zhirinovsky. "This primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don't like us in Europe," he told lawmakers.

The politician seemed to have a longstanding issue with the "guttural" letter, which he claimed his son wasn't able to pronounce as a child. "He once told me, 'Dad, dad, look, there's a 'мишка'," the Russian word for 'bear.' "I thought 'What 'мишка'? A bear? But he meant 'мышка'," the word for "mouse."

Insulting rhetoric is nothing new for the leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party. Last month, Zhirinovsky sparked outrage in Central Asia, saying the region's five republics should be grouped together as subjects of Russia. The Almaty-born politician suggested the creation of the "Central Asian Federal Region" of Russia with a capital that should be known as "Verny." 'Verny' is Russian for 'loyal,' and also the old name for the Kazakh city of Almaty.

Straying beyond politics, Zhirinovsky suggested last month in the Duma that people should not kiss on the lips but only on foreheads. He also advised disinfecting the skin before planting a kiss.

Beside the Russian and Belarussian Cyrillic alphabets, the letter 'ы' also exists in most of the Turkic languages spoken in former Soviet republics, including Kazakh and Kyrgyz, which use the same alphabet.

The vowel is widely used in Kazakh and Kyrgyz, sometimes several times in the same word. "Ырыс алды—ынтымақ," ("Yrys aldy—yntymaq") reads a Kazakh proverb, which translates as "There is no abundance without solidarity." The letter 'ы' also makes up most of the vowels of a well-known Kyrgyz saying— "ырысы жоктун ырымы күч" ("yrysy zhoktun yrymy kuch")—that means "a person with no confidence believes in superstition."

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


Categories: News Analysis