November 30, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Dignity and Tedium

Diplomats are rarely blunt in public.

But on Tuesday German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier didn’t mince words after he and his colleagues from France, Russia and Ukraine admitted they had failed to end the insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

“It was very tedious again today,” Steinmeier told Reuters in Minsk. “Pure lip service will not be enough to solve this conflict.”

Since erupting in 2014, the Russian-backed insurgency has claimed 10,000 lives and eroded relations between the West and Moscow. A tenuous ceasefire has held in the region for the past year.

The impasse in negotiations was the latest dismal news for Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has been torn apart by competing visions of its future: whether it should gravitate toward Europe or toward Russia’s sphere of influence.

Three years ago this month, Ukrainians rose up in Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square in Kiev in what has been called the Revolution of Dignity and kicked out their corrupt pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. The uprising led Moscow to invade and annex the Crimean Peninsula and back ethnic-Russian separatists in the country’s eastern regions in a transparent move to maintain control there.

In exchange for the blood and treasure spilled defending their nation, Ukrainians are now coping with a new cabal of corrupt leaders who are trying to govern an unstable, nearly bankrupt country.

“People want to see success stories, the new laws being implemented, criminals punished, but the progress has frozen, it is just a nice façade—we can hardly push through any of our ideas,” said Olena Salata, a Maidan activist, in an interview with the Daily Beast.

Writing in the Kyiv Post, a respected English-language newspaper in Ukraine, Transparency International Ukraine Executive Director Yaroslav Yurchyshyn claimed that officials are loath to enforce the few anti-corruption measures enacted after Yanukovych’s flight to Russia.

“Courts are reluctant to bring corrupt officials behind bars,” he wrote. “It is not surprising because the courts themselves are called the most corrupt institutions in the country.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday – timed to coincide with the negotiations in Minsk – Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin argued that his country has made more progress tackling corruption than Yurchyshyn suggests. He argued that Ukraine was doing pretty well considering that it’s waging a war against one of the most powerful militaries on the planet.

Klimkin recalled that President-elect Donald Trump called for better relations between America and Russia on the campaign trail. He thought Trump had the right idea. But he added that the US shouldn’t lift the sanctions designed to punish Russia for its meddling in Ukraine as an olive branch to secure those better relations.

The sanctions are vital to compel Russia to continue negotiations to end the separatist conflict that is preventing Ukrainians from moving on and reforming their government, Klimkin argued. “When dealing with the Kremlin there can be a peaceful outcome only if we negotiate from a position of strength,” he wrote.

The talks might be tedious. But they are better than bullets flying.

Holiday Promo

WANT TO KNOW

With Blinders On

The Netherlands moved closer to banning the full-face burqa in certain public places Tuesday in Europe’s latest salvo in the dual fight against radicalism and Islamophobia.

The motion “to ban all clothing which completely covers the face” from government buildings was approved by 132 members in the 150-seat lower house, AFP reported.

The legislation must now go before the Senate for approval before becoming law. It follows similar bans imposed in France and Belgium, and comes amid rising tensions in Europe with Islamic communities.

The ban applies to situations where face-to-face interactions are required to guarantee safety, the government said, adding that it “sees no need to impose the ban on all public spaces.” If it passes, those flouting the decree will face a fine of up to 410 euros (around $430).

No Vote Here

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will have more time to lay the groundwork for his successor.

Palestinian leaders from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and abroad appointed Abbas to another five-year term at the beginning of a four-day meeting to select the members of Fatah’s governing bodies, the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council, Bloomberg reported. The leaders will vote on those members on Dec. 2.

Abbas is a relative moderate who has nonetheless opposed negotiations with Israel until it halts settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

He has been president since he was elected to a four-year term in 2005 – subsequent elections were never held. He is under pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Arab countries to pick a successor and assure a peaceful transition, Bir Zeit University political scientist Ghassan Khatib told Bloomberg.

Take Another Hack

Following similar allegations surrounding the US presidential election, Germany warned that Russian hackers may seek to disrupt its federal elections next year – in which Chancellor Angela Merkel announced last week she would seek a fourth term.

Germany’s foreign intelligence chief Bruno Kahl told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that German spooks had detected cyber attacks with no other purpose than “causing political uncertainty,” the BBC reported. “Europe is in the focus of this attempted disruption, and Germany in particular,” Kahl said.

The statement follows similar remarks from Merkel after a cyberattack Sunday cut off broadband service to 900,000 Deutsche Telekom users.

“Such cyber attacks, or hybrid conflicts as they are known in Russian doctrine, are now part of daily life and we must learn to cope with them,” Merkel said.

Earlier this year, Germany blamed a Russian group called “Fancy Bear” for a series of attacks on German state computer systems, including one that targeted the lower house of parliament in 2015. The group is also thought to have targeted Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union party, just as Russian hackers allegedly hacked America’s Democratic National Committee.

DISCOVERIES

The State of the Birds

Pity the saltmarsh sparrow. For years, researchers have known its population was declining as rising sea levels and man-made structures have taken a toll on the bird’s natural nesting areas.

But a new report from the Connecticut Audubon Society argues that the East Coast-based sparrow’s plight is in fact much worse than originally feared.

Scientists are now warning that the saltmarsh sparrow could be extinct in 50 years time – making it the first bird to go extinct in the continental US since the Heath Hen in 1931.

“There’s no way to characterize that as anything but a disaster,” said Milan Bull in the Society’s annual Connecticut State of the Birds Report.

Unfortunately, an easy solution is nowhere in sight.

Existing conservation efforts – including the millions of dollars spent on restoring low-lying marshes – have proven unsuccessful in creating more nesting habitats for the sparrows because they target vegetation and not birds.

As a result, the Connecticut Audubon Society is now calling for state officials to set aside funds to expand nesting habitats.

Researchers say it’s better to start addressing the effects of rising sea levels sooner than later, as the sparrow’s dilemma is likely a sign of what’s to come for other species in the region.