Close Enough For Non-Government Government Work

Moises Naim warns readers of the Washington Post to beware of a special type of non-governmental organization (NGO) that has begun to proliferate in international circles. The new and pernicious government-organized NGO, which Naim calls gongos, not only operate as laughable oxymorons but also undermines international efforts to isolate oppressive regimes:

Some gongos are benign, others irrelevant. But many, including those I mentioned, are dangerous. Some act as the thuggish arm of repressive governments. Others use the practices of democracy to subtly undermine democracy at home. Abroad, the gongos of repressive regimes lobby the United Nations and other international institutions, often posing as representatives of citizen groups with lofty aims when, in fact, they are nothing but agents of the governments that fund them. Some governments embed their gongos deep in the societies of other countries and use them to advance their interests abroad.
That is the case, for example, of Chongryon, a vast group of pro-North Korean “civil society” organizations active in Japan. It is the de facto representative of the North Korean regime. Japanese authorities have accused several of its member organizations of smuggling weapons technology, trafficking in pharmaceutical products, and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as orchestrating a massive propaganda operation on Pyongyang’s behalf.
For decades, “civil society” groups in a variety of countries have stridently defended Cuba’s human rights record at U.N. conferences and have regularly joined the efforts aimed at watering down resolutions concerning Cuba’s well-documented violations. Bolivarian Circles, citizen groups that support Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, are sprouting throughout Latin America, the United States and Canada. Their funding? Take a guess. Iran, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy governments in the Middle East are known to be generous — and often the sole — benefactors of NGOs that advance their religious agenda worldwide.

We used to have another name for gongos: front groups, or spy rings. Americans found out how these groups operate when the Nazi-sponsored German-American Bund offered friendship, cultural exchange, and peaceful coexistence while espousing the fuehrerprinzip during the 1930s. The FBI considered them a front group with the potential, and perhaps the track record, of seeking intel for the Nazis during the run-up to the war.
Gongos cause problems domestically as well. Naim points out examples in Kyrgyzstan that acted to undermine democracy activists in order to boost former president Askar Akayev, who left office just ahead of the torches and pitchforks in 2005. In Myanmar, formerly Burma, the Myanmar Womens Affairs Federation exists to give the ruling junta an excuse to keep freedom activist Aung San Suu Kyi imprisoned. Naim even belongs to an American gongo, the National Endowment for Democracy, which boosts non-governmental efforts to promote democracy and freedom abroad, which has been banned in places like Russia.
Naim says the gongo industry needs a ratings system in order to keep the malicious isolated from the benign. He proposes in general terms some sort of market response which would penalize those which act on behalf of oppressive regimes, but incentivize those which act out of principle and good intentions. I’m not so sure that will work. It sounds good, but I fail to see how such a certifying authority would have any impact on the Myanmar WAF, or on the Kyrgyzstan ANNO. Their governments will continue to fund them as long as they fulfill the government agendas, although the Kyrgyzstan ANNO is probably out of business now that the government has changed. A rating system will not convince Putin to allow NED to operate in Russia against Putin’s interests, even if it had the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
The best we can do is to expose these front groups for what they are, and keep funds from flowing to them. Moises Naim can do that by continuing to write about these shadowy groups and keep sunlight on them. Ratings systems, like any self-nominating system, will only serve to limit those who have no reason to be limited in the first place.

Canada: Bush Might Be Right

Canada, one of the staunch supporters of the Kyoto accord for the reduction of greenhouse gases, has now indicated that it might pull out of the treaty in favor of the Asian-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (AP6). Instead of binding and economically crippling targets on Western nations while exempting the biggest Asian polluters, the Bush administration initiative creates a partnership with those polluting nations to work towards the same overall goal:

This week’s announcement by the Canadian government — that it may join a U.S.-led coalition focused on voluntary emissions cuts — could be part of a global shift away from Kyoto’s binding targets.
In a somewhat surprising development, Canada, a long-time supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, announced that it may want to join the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (AP6), a six-nation coalition focusing on voluntary emission-reduction steps and technology transfers. Many environmentalists oppose AP6 out of a fear that it may undermine political support for the legally binding Kyoto treaty.
The partnership, launched in mid-2005, is an agreement among six countries — Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United States — to develop and share greenhouse-gasreduction technology to combat climate change. According to the AP6 Web site, the six partner countries “represent about half of the world’s economy, population and energy use, and they produce about 65% of the world’s coal, 48% of the world’s steel, 37% of world’s aluminum, and 61% of the world’s cement.” The countries also account for half the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Asia-Pacific Partnership is voluntary and technology-based, and lets each country set its own goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions, rather than legally binding them to a greenhouse gas reduction target. The group sees itself as “a voluntary, non-legally binding framework for international co-operation to facilitate the development, diffusion, deployment, and transfer of existing, emerging and longer term cost-effective, cleaner, more efficient technologies and practices.”

I’m interested in the phrase here about “legally binding”. I believe that it means “legally binding on Canada,” because it certainly doesn’t apply to the US, China, or India. The US Senate, in a unanimous vote, told Bill Clinton in 1998 not to bother submitting the treaty for ratification as long as it exempted the other two nations. It has never been legally binding here, and George Bush has nothing to do with that fact.
The AP6 makes a lot more sense than Kyoto does for that very reason. Kyoto would force the West to commit economic suicide while allowing India and China to pollute to their hearts’ content in reaping the rewards. Bush’s AP6 engages all sides equally and uses technology sharing as an incentive for compliance. The Chinese need access to Western technology so badly that they jump through hoops to steal it. India doesn’t need it as badly, but they want to create a cleaner energy system for themselves, and have expanded their nuclear program to accommodate that need.
If Canada joins the AP6, Kyoto will collapse. It will bind only those nations who already have economic difficulties, and Kyoto compliance — which none of them have met — will cost them even more. In the end, AP6 will bind all nations together in a manner that Kyoto explicitly rejected and will allow everyone to proceed with clean-environment initiatives on an equal footing.

Is Japan Wrong To Honor Its Kamikaze Pilots?

Japan will confront its World War II history with a new film this May honoring the sacrifice of its kamikaze pilots. I Go To Die For You comes from the pen of a well-known politician, and will open up a debate over the nature of the Imperial culture that sent 5,000 young men to their deaths as the pilots of guided missiles:

Japan’s kamikaze pilots are to be honoured in a new film praising their bravery, sacrifice and “beautiful lives” in the Second World War.
The release in May of I Go To Die For You confirms a growing nostalgia in Japan about its wartime generation, even among the majority who accept the cause was wrong. …
The screenplay by the 74-year-old outspoken politician, Shintaro Ishihara, is based on conversations he had with Tome Torihama, a woman who ran a restaurant near the base and became a mother figure to many of the trainee kamikaze. …
Widely viewed as fanatics in Britain and America, kamikaze pilots have a complex place in the Japan’s collective memory. Far-Right nationalists venerate them as martyrs, while liberals see them as young victims of state brainwashing, bullied into volunteering to die.
Almost 5,000 kamikaze were sacrificed in a desperate and futile attempt to change the course of the war in its last months. Many did not reach their targets. A few would-be pilots are still alive today, saved by engine failure or by the end of the war.

Apparently, the screenplay indicates that this film will not follow the example of Letters from Iwo Jima, showing the bravery and the futility of the Japanese in the final straits of a collapse. It tends to glorify the decision to conduct so many suicide missions, even though the operation ended in disaster, and arguably in the atomic bombs dropped on two of their cities. The kamikazes had the intended effect of convincing the Americans of the lunacy of the Japanese government, a conviction that entered into the calculation of using those weapons as a means of avoiding the millions of deaths on both sides that a full-scale invasion would have caused.
Americans have a clear view of kamikaze missions; they believe them to be appalling. The pilots get consideration for their bravery, but they get portrayed as fanatics. The Japanese have conflicted views about the “special attack forces”, as Ishihara puts it. Newer generations of more liberal Japanese consider them to have been duped by a desperate war machine facing ruin and shame, while older and more conservative Japanese believe them to have sacrificed themselves with honor.
Both could be right, but this film might not deliver that kind of nuance. The kamikazes cannot speak for themselves, except for those few who missed their chance to commit suicide for the Emperor. The risk that Ishihara runs is in crossing the line between understanding the men themselves and lauding the mission, which was a truly insane operation that in the end did Japan far more damage than they could have imagined. If the film glorifies the kamikaze program, then it will almost certainly raise a firestorm of criticism, especially on this side of the Pacific.

Cuba’s Classless Society

The London Telegraph takes a look at the reality behind the rhetoric that surrounds Fidel Castro’s Cuba and sees a simmering tension between the haves and the have-nots on the island. Far from being a worker’s paradise free from class distinctions, the Cuban currency games have created an underclass that breeds resentment:

In the hushed tones that all Cubans adopt when they talk about their ailing leader Fidel Castro, who six months ago was forced to hand over the reins of power to his younger brother Raul after undergoing emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding, Carlos explained the continuing frustration of a nation still firmly under Communist rule.
“Fidel has starved us,” he whispered. “Yes, there is a lack of food but it is more than that. We are starving for information, for opportunity, for freedom. We want to enjoy the same things as those people over there,” he said as a fresh batch of tourists spilled out of the doors of a tour bus.
Cubans struggle to survive on an average wage of less than £10 a month to supplement the state rations which provide them with basics such as rice and beans and either one small bar of soap or tube of toothpaste a month.
Visiting foreigners can spend almost double that on a taxi ride to the airport or a meal in one of Old Havana’s state-run restaurants.

Fidel is not the only dying principal in Cuba. Those unlucky enough to have no access to the convertible currency that Cuba launched after the end of the Cold War to boost tourism have sunk further into poverty. Workers at tourist traps get paid in the CUC rather than the peso, which gives them exponentially more buying power, creating an inequality that grates on Cuban nerves.
As one dissident told the Telegraph, Cuba has created a system where taxi drivers and bellhops get more compensation than professionals such as doctors and teachers. With pesos next to worthless, engineers have to starve as waiters become relatively wealthy. In such a system, no one has any incentive to work in the professions, and the brain drain threatens Cuba with a professional collapse.
Castro has even indulged in gentrification to build the tourist business. He has displaced families from run-down tenements in order to renovate them into high-priced hotels and restaurants. The poor can no longer afford to even eat where they once lived, instead dependent on their weekly ration of rice and beans.
Who funds this deterioration? Tourists do, and they come from everywhere but the United States, which still enforces a decades-old economic embargo. The US comes in for plenty of criticism for its refusal to engage with the Cubans on trade, and perhaps for good reason — but this demonstrates that Castro is most responsible for the sad state of the Cuban economy. He has done what he once castigated Fulgencio Batista for doing: prostituting Cubans for the sake of rich touristas that exploit their misery, wittingly or unwittingly.
The Telegraph quotes Cubans as hoping that Raul Castro will bring in some economic reforms. They’d be better off praying that both Castros end their days soon, and that they can create a democratic government that allows Cubans to direct their own destinies. Perhaps they can also pray that tourists find someplace else to spend their money, rather than fueling Castro’s ego and filling his pockets.

An Unfortunately Fitting Transition In Turkmenistan

The death of Saparmurat Niyazov gave Turkmenistan an opportunity ti shake off decades of rule by personality cult and to allow Turkmen to make a step or two towards democracy and self-rule. Unfortunately, the results show that the cult leaders remain in control, as the vote appears rigged to elect Gerbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a Niyazov confidante, as his replacement:

Turkmenistan held the first officially contested presidential elections in its history on Sunday, conducting a carefully choreographed vote almost certain to be won by a confidant of the reclusive Central Asian nation’s former autocratic leader, who died seven weeks ago.
The election was organized by the tightly controlled state after Saparmurat Niyazov, the only president in the nation’s 15-year history, died on Dec. 21. It was not formally monitored by international observers, who sent small teams of experts that are not expected to make any public statement about the government’s conduct.
But the election was being closely followed by the West, Russia and China for signs of whether the expected result could be the start of changes in a country with gas reserves that are among the largest in the world. Any changes in its foreign and trade relations could have a deep significance for world energy markets, and especially for Russia and its gas monopoly, Gazprom, which relies in part on Turkmen natural gas to meet its obligations to customers. …
The initial reports of voter turnout, released hours after polls closed at 4 p.m., indicated that nearly 99 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots, a number so high that the opposition in exile said the vote had been flagrantly rigged to ensure an overwhelming victory for Mr. Berdymukhammedov, and to give his victory the patina of legality.

The election would have made Niyazov, known to his countrymen as Turkmenbashi or Father of all Turkmen, proud. The opposition claims that as little as 10-12% of the eligible voters actually cast ballots, which would have made the election invalid, according to Turkmen law. The transitional government simply cast ballots for those who declined to participate, apparently understanding their intent to keep the strange tyranny in place. Western observers agree with the opposition in exile, calling the announced results “implausible”.
Turkmenistan has strategic value, especially for Vladimir Putin, who can hardly afford to lose control of the gas fields that Niyazov opened to Russia. He needs the supply in order to exploit European demand for his own purposes. Putin also needs that supply to pressure Ukraine and now Belarus to remain in the orbit of his influence. He cannot afford to see Turkmenistan fall into the hands of the West-leaning opposition.
However, the West seems to be taking a more cautious approach than with Ukraine and Georgia earlier, even before the elections. They have not used aggressive diplomatic tactics to push for democratic reforms. Even in the face of a fraudulent election, the response has been muted and careful, even from the Bush administration. Berdymukhamedov has promised some reforms from the total oppression of the Niyazov regime, including universal Internet access and student exchange programs. In return, the West hasn’t even sent formal election observers to Turkmenistan, avoiding the messy issue of reporting the election as a fraud.
Perhaps this caution is appropriate. However, if the West is afraid to speak out against election fraud in Turkmenistan and press for true democratic reform when it counts, when and where will they bother to do so in the future? Turkmenistan probably elected another 20-year dictatorship over the weekend without a peep from the West. It appears as if Europe has understood the message of energy disruptions from Putin, and have sacrificed Turkmenistan as a result, and the US has followed suit.

A Carbon Tax?

Anne Applebaum offers her solution to global warming, one that she claims any nation serious about the issue can apply without waiting for international accords to come into force. She favors a carbon tax, applied at every level, in order to create incentives for innovation and conservation:

The much-vaunted treaty [Kyoto] creates a complicated and unenforceable system of international targets for carbon emissions reduction, based on measurements taken in 1990. Critics of the American president have condemned him for failing to sign it, conveniently forgetting that the Senate rejected it 95 to 0 in 1997, a margin that reflects broad bipartisan opposition. At the same time, few of the Asian and European signatories are actually on track to meet their goals; those that will meet the targets, such as Britain, can do so because their economies rely less on industry than they once did. Canada and Japan aren’t even close to compliance; China and India, whose emissions rates are growing most rapidly, are exempt altogether as “developing” countries — which, given their economic strength, is absurd.
None of which is to say that reduction of carbon emissions is impossible. But the limiting of fossil fuels cannot be carried out with an unenforceable international regime, using complicated regulations that the United Nations does not have the staff or the mandate to supervise, with the help of a treaty that effectively penalizes those who bother to abide by it. I no longer believe that a complicated carbon trading regime — in which industries trade emissions “credits” — would work within the United States either: So much is at stake for so many industries that the legislative process to create it would be easily distorted by their various lobbies.
Any lasting solutions will have to be extremely simple, and — because of the cost implicit in reducing the use and emissions of fossil fuels — will also have to benefit those countries that impose them in other ways. Fortunately, there is such a solution, one that is grippingly unoriginal, requires no special knowledge of economics and is easy for any country to implement. It’s called a carbon tax, and it should be applied across the board to every industry that uses fossil fuels, every home or building with a heating system, every motorist, and every public transportation system. Immediately, it would produce a wealth of innovations to save fuel, as well as new incentives to conserve. More to the point, it would produce a big chunk of money that could be used for other things. Anyone for balancing the budget? Fixing Social Security for future generations? As a foreign policy side benefit, users of the tax would suddenly find themselves less dependent on Persian Gulf oil or Russian natural gas, too.

I’m an agnostic on global warming. The temperatures of Earth have waxed and waned over the millenia, and even in the last few centuries we have seen significant shifts that have made a large impact on human habitation, prior to any massive releases of carbon into the atmosphere. At one point, Vikings farmed Greenland until a mini-Ice Age struck the northern hemisphere and the land got swallowed up by ice. It’s part of a natural cycle that we don’t fully understand. I also have great suspicion of environmentalists acting like Chicken Little, and worse, demanding that dissent from their orthodoxy be squelched. That indicates a hysterical approach to science that masks a great deal of insecurity over the actual data.
However, massively releasing carbon into the atmosphere certainly cannot be viewed as a positive thing to do. It pollutes the air, and the means necessary to retrieve the carbon in the forms of oil, coal, and natural gas tend to pollute the earth as well. Given the location of much of the Earth’s oil reserves, dependence on that for our energy creates national security problems and long-term instability in our economic viability. Even if one doesn’t buy into the global-warming hysteria, these concerns should press us to leverage our technological leadership to create alternatives.
Unfortunately, that will not come through a “carbon tax”, which would shift resources away from the innovators and leave the money in the hands of bureaucrats. Applebaum means well, but the solution she has in mind would cripple the private sector and create a bureaucracy that would rival anything considered under HillaryCare. It would require every household with a heater to file a carbon-impact equivalent of a 1040 every year. Think of the notion of having an IRS for carbon use, and one gets a very ugly picture indeed.
Besides, we already tax gasoline by significant percentages, and that has hardly had the impact that Applebaum predicts. It hasn’t slowed the demand for gasoline; that has risen in relation to the growth of the population and the economy. Only a small percentage of energy taxes go to innovation. Most of them go to general funds, feeding bureaucratic growth.
The idea that this can be done on an ad-hoc basis undermines the entire argument for action, anyway. Global warming does not just occur over those countries that fail to become enlightened, as defined by environmentalists. Britain will not impose such a tax on its economy if the rest of the world refuses to follow suit, because they know it will cripple their ability to compete on the global market. That was why Kyoto came into existence — to get broad agreement to jump into tough regulations immediately. They made the mistake of excluding China and India, among others, two nations rapidly becoming the leaders of carbon releases and challenging for economic leadership as well.
If Applebam wants innovation, then set up incentives that don’t require massive bureaucracies to get it. NASA put men on the moon not by taxing everyone to death for living on Earth, but by offering government contracts for innovation as part of a shared mission. Create breathing room by allowing the oil companies to get their product from American reserves over the next fifteen years in exchange for benchmarked progress on making oil an obsolete commodity for energy. It will relieve us of a national-security nightmare in the Middle East, starve our enemies, and use our economic strength to solve the problems created by carbon-release energy. Instead of growing the government, we will create a stronger — and cleaner — private sector in energy.

We’ll Just Settle For A Little Extortion

The Libyan government indicated for the first time that the six medical workers sentenced to death for purportedly exposing a family to AIDS and touching off an epidemic would not get executed. Western governments have continuously lobbied Tripoli to stop the execution and release the workers, calling the accusations ludicrous, but until yesterday it appeared that those efforts would fail. Moammar Gaddafi’s son told a Bulgarian newspaper that his father opposes the execution — but that compensation has to be offered:

LIBYA will not execute five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death last month, the son of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi said in a newspaper interview, calling the verdicts unfair.
A Libyan court sentenced the six for intentionally infecting hundreds of children with the HIV virus in a case which started eight years ago and that has triggered widespread international concern about its fairness.
Speaking to a Bulgarian daily newspaper 24 Chasa, Col Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, said a solution would be found soon to save the six and satisfy families of the infected children. “There will be no executions. I hope there will be a happy end soon … My father is also against the executions,” said Mr Islam, who is Col Gaddafi’s leading envoy.
“The case went in the wrong direction from the very beginning. There were many manipulations in the original files, many errors … This is why we should seek a compromise,” Mr Islam said, adding that Tripoli had already discussed a plan with Germany and France.

Libya accused the Palestinian doctor and the five Bulgarian nurses of negligently infecting a family with AIDS and allowing it to spread throughout the nation. AIDS researchers have repeatedly shown this to be false, and challenged the Libyan government’s assertion that AIDS did not exist in the country before their arrival. Despite numerous entreaties, Gaddafi allowed the trial to continue and sentence the six to death. Now Gaddafi has apparently changed his mind, a happy turn of events.
However, Gaddafi wants a little something for his trouble. Claiming that the family still has case, Gaddafi wants the Western nations to pay blood money for the workers’ release. Blood money has a long tradition in Islamic culture and is called bloodwit, and is described in Al-Baqarah (The Cow), Section 22, verse 178 as “ransom for manslaughter”. It also gets described in An Nisa’ (Women), Section 13, verse 92:

It is not befitting for a believer to kill a believer except by accident, and whoever accidently kills a believer, he is commanded to free a believing slave and pay bloodwit to the family of the victim, unless they forgo it as a charity. If the victim is from a hostile nation, then the freeing of a believing slave is enough, but if he belonged to a nation with whom you have a treaty, then bloodwit must be paid to his family along with the freeing of a believing slave. Those who do not have the means (bloodwit and / or a slave) must fast two consecutive months: a method of repentance provided by Allah. Allah is the Knowledgeable, Wise.

The expectation exists with wronged Muslims that any mercy must be purchased from the victims or their kin. However, in this case, it seems less religious and more mercenary on the part of Gaddafi and his government. The Scotsman reports that Gaddafi wants $10 million from Bulgaria to release the women, a rather steep price for bloodwit, which usually amounts to a few thousand dollars, if that. Bulgaria has already set up a foundation to pay for the continuing care of the afflicted, but they have already said that their settlement will not be in the millions.
We shall see whether Gaddafi and his son are in a bargaining mood. At the moment, though, we can hope that the six medical workers will not have to worry about a date with the hangman.

Maybe He Should Have Called Them ‘Manufacturers’

Japan’s health minister, Hakuo Yanagisawa, had to pull his foot out of his mouth when addressing Japan’s population decline in a speech this weekend. In an attempt to encourage families to have more children, Yanagisawa referred to Japanese women as “child-bearing machines”, provoking outrage and embarrassing the Shinzo Abe government:

“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed,” he told the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the city of Matsue. “Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask is for them to do their best per head.”
Before his speech was over, Mr Yanagisawa seemed to realise that he caused offence. “I’m sorry to call them machines,” he said afterwards.
Eminent women reacted angrily. “His remarks were the worst possible and should not have been made,” said Mizuho Fukushima, the woman head of the opposition Social Democratic Party. “We cannot tolerate a Cabinet with such a minister.” The controversy goes to the heart of the debate about one of Japan’s most intractable social problems — the disinclination of its women to have children.
In 2004 the population peaked at 128 million and began to shrink last year. At current levels of decline, it will have fallen to less than 90 million by 2055, with potentially devastating social and economic consequences.

No doubt, Yanagisawa chose a tacky appelation. It reduces the value of a woman to what sounded like a disturbingly clinical productivity measurement, and Japanese women are right to react angrily. Abe will probably have to find himself another health minister, and Yanagisawa may have to find himself a book on women’s liberation.
However, the problem Yanagisawa describes will require correction if the Japanese want to remain a vibrant society — and it’s not just the Japanese. Across the developed world, the rates of reproduction have fallen, and in several countries below the rate of replacement. While this trend has exposed nanny-state welfare societies for the Ponzi schemes they are, it still means that the aging populations in the West will create a harsher burden on the succeeding generations, and that as more people age themselves out of the economy, the worse that economy will get.
What has caused the decline? In industrialized societies, people do not need large families to work as an agricultural unit. The need for children as economic security has lessened, and in its place came two-career families — mostly out of necessity to keep up with costs. That has disincentivized people from choosing larger families, as those require either a stay-at-home parent or expensive day care for a two-income family. Multiple generations are less likely to live together than in generations past, which means the grandparents can’t watch the children while both Mom and Dad work all day.
Even in a country like Japan with such traditional roles for men and women, this phenomenon has had its effect. Yanagisawa may have spoken like an idiot, but he certainly didn’t make up the problem out of thin air. The diminshing populations of the industrialized world means trouble for Western civilization in particular, as Europe imports more of its workers and loses more of its Western identity. Japan may face the same choices in the near future as its population ages and fewer people remain to support it.

Are We Missing An Opportunity In Turkmenistan?

When Turkmenistan’s cult dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died last year, hope for reform in the Central Asian republic rose in the West, as well as the potential for an opening towards loosening Vladimir Putin’s grip on the region’s energy resources. Simon Tisdall reports for the Guardian that both hopes may be dashed if the West does not take more aggressive action to promote democracy:

Turkmenistan has some of the world’s biggest natural gas fields, producing the equivalent of 11% of total EU consumption annually. But its pipeline export routes remain firmly under Russian control, a legacy of the Soviet era. Last September Moscow’s state energy giant Gazprom won access to the large Yolotan field and an option on any surpluses until 2009. The deal marked the end of President Saparmurat Niyazov’s bid to weaken Russia’s grip. And in any case, in December Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi the Great, died after 21 years running one of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships.
Apparently oblivious to concerns about democratic transition, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was quick to cement ties with Mr Berdymukhamedov, a Niyazov favourite, who was named interim president. The two men exchanged assurances about a continuing, close energy relationship.
Washington has not been totally inactive, sending two mid-level envoys to Ashgabat. But having tolerated Niyazov’s authoritarian personality cult and courted his energy favours, its public statements about the succession have been cautious. The European Commission declared this month that the EU should expand its strategic stake in central Asia, human rights notwithstanding. But exiled Turkmen opposition leaders say that by turning a blind eye to a looming electoral travesty, western countries are passing up “a historic second chance” to advance democratic reform and reverse Moscow’s energy dominance to their own advantage.

Berdymukhamedov — a name I will soon grow tired of typing — appears poised to seize the mantle left by Niyazov and continue the oppressive, autocratic rule of the man who called himself the Father of All Turkmen. Tisdall’s comment regarding Putin’s oblivious outreach either qualifies as naiveté or, more likely, typically dry British humor. Putin has never met an oil-rich tyrant he hasn’t loved, and having Berdymukhamedov on his side as opposed to the more prickly Niyazov will no doubt delight him.
Tisdall notes that the US has so far taken the same position for Turkmenistan as we did for Azerbaijan last year, which is to subsume the push for democracy in favor of energy and political concerns. Turkmen opposition leaders point out the benefits of having Turkmenistan as a solid ally and a functioning democracy. They border both Iran and Afghanistan, and transforming Niyazov’s cultish police state into a self-governing and stable nation would put pressure on both to match its progress. Especially when the US has finally started setting a tougher stance towards Iran, the fate of Turkmenistan’s governance outweighs its potential benefits as an oil supplier, at least for the moment.
We need to start insisting on a clean and democratic process for the replacement of Niyazov, and it should be a higher priority that it appears to be at the moment. We need high-level American officials talking about Turkmenistan and our support for those Turkmen who want to bring democracy to their nation. If we don’t encourage the democracy activists now, we won’t get another chance for years, perhaps decades, and that will do us little good in the war on terror and its sponsors.

Russia Clams Up Again

Georgian officials, with the cooperation of American investigators, managed to snare a man selling weapons-grade uranium last summer, a victory against black-market proliferation. The victory has been fleeting, however, as the combined task force has not been able to trace the source of the material to determine the origin of the uranium. Just as in another, more splashy case of rogue nuclear material, the problem results from Russian intransigence:

“Given the serious consequences of the detonation of an improvised nuclear explosive device, even small numbers of incidents involving HEU (highly enriched uranium) or plutonium are of very high concern,” said Melissa Fleming of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency.
Details of the investigation, which also involved the FBI and Energy Department, were provided to The Associated Press by U.S. officials and Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.
Authorities say they do not know how the man acquired the nuclear material or if his claims of access to much larger quantities were true. He and three Georgian accomplices are in Georgian custody and not cooperating with investigators.
Merabishvili said Georgian attempts to trace the nuclear material since the arrest and confirm whether the man indeed had access to larger quantities have foundered from a lack of cooperation from Russia.
Merabishvili said he was revealing the story out of frustration with Russia’s response and the need to illustrate the dangers of a breakdown in security cooperation in the region.

Russia has not covered itself in glory in recent months, even apart from the increasingly autocratic domestic policies of the Vladimir Putin administration. One of its former agents wound up dead through poisoning by polonium after he started criticizing Putin. Now a sample of HEU winds up on the black market, and Russia won’t cooperate.
A couple of scenarios could be in play. The first is that Putin has decided to gain hard cash by putting fissile material on the black market, which is not only insane but counterproductive. After all, Putin has his own insurgencies in the Caucasus, and the material could just as easily find its way there rather that against Putin’s enemies. The second possibility is even more frightening — which is that Russia has lost control over its nuclear materials and wants to keep the West from discovering it.
In any event, the lack of cooperation on such a danger speaks volumes about security arrangements in the former Soviet republics. It’s no secret that Georgia has angered Russia in its efforts to spin out of Putin’s orbit, and if this intransigence is Putin’s idea of retribution, then we can pretty much kiss nuclear security in that region good-bye. Apparently, rogue proliferation matters less to Putin than petty squabbles and influence peddling. Such a ruler is no partner for peace and economic stability, and Putin seems intent on proving that in other areas as well, such as energy transport and arms dealings with Iran.
We used to excuse the exceptions to good relations from Russia and Putin. It’s difficult to see anything else these days.