Archive for December, 2014

December 31, 2014

Reuters U.S. Edition

After 15 years in power, Putin risks running out of luck

MOSCOW, Tue, Dec 30, 2014 4:06pm EST

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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting of the State Council and the Presidential Council for Culture and Art, at the Kremlin in Moscow, December 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool

(Reuters) – When Vladimir Putin was handed power unexpectedly by an ailing Boris Yeltsin on the last day of the last century, his first move was to go on television to guarantee Russia the freedoms needed for a “civilized society”.

Fifteen years later, his critics accuse the former KGB spy of sacrificing emerging political and economic freedoms to the idea of Soviet-style glory, bringing the country close to economic collapse and international isolation over Ukraine.

Opinion pollsters say his ratings are at near record highs and a groundswell of protest is unlikely in the near future.

But the financial stability his first spell as president brought – on the back of high energy prices – is threatened by the oil price drop and the ruble’s slide against the dollar.

Putin’s fate and that of the system he has built around him now depend largely on how he handles the deepening economic crisis and the conflict in Ukraine.

“Asking whether Putin can win the election due in 2018 is no longer the right question,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor, told Reuters. “Putin is focused on staying on the horse but it is very difficult. The question now is not whether Putin stays on, but whether the horse survives.”

Putin’s allies remain united behind him and portray him as a strong leader who rescued Russia from economic and political chaos under Yeltsin in the 1990s, the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Sergei Ivanov, the head of the presidential administration, was widely quoted in October as saying: “Putin is Russia.”

Putin and his allies blame the economic problems on what they call external factors, principally the West. Others, including former allies who worked with him, say he is out of touch and incapable of rescuing Russia from crisis.

“He used to have the image of a survivor who can handle problems and solve them, despite all difficulties. He was seen as the lucky guy. But now we are in probably the worst crisis since the Soviet Union collapsed,” said Vladimir Milov, an ex-deputy energy minister.

“Putin has demonstrated he has no plan. There is nothing in his pocket.”


Milov, who has entered the opposition, described the last 15 years as a period of missed opportunities.

When a faltering Yeltsin surprised the world by announcing his resignation on state television and naming Putin acting president on Dec. 31, 1999, the new leader set out his initial plans the same day in a short televised address to the nation.

He said the state would protect the freedoms of speech, conscience, mass media and property rights – what he called the “fundamental rights of a civilized society”.

At 47, the ex-KGB spy and prime minister was seen by many Russians as the man to revive past glories and he was easily elected president in 2000. He burnished his image with stunts such as flying with migrating cranes or riding horses with a bare torso.

Putin tightened his grip by reining in the media, crushed a rebellion in the Chechnya region, restored Kremlin control over the country’s other independent-minded regions, and watched as the economy boomed until the global financial crisis of 2008.

Putin also used arbitrary methods to clip the wings of the businessmen known as oligarchs who had amassed influence as well as wealth in the sell-off of state assets of the 1990s.

One, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, spent 10 years in jail on theft and money laundering charges after falling out with Putin. His Yukos oil empire was broken up and sold off, mainly to the state and Putin allies.

Some critics say that was a turning point after which political and economic freedoms were limited and that Putin had by this time abandoned any genuine attempt to build ties with the West, feeling his approaches had not been taken seriously.

Lev Gudkov, head of the independent Levada Center polling group, says the multi-party political system was eliminated in all but words.

“Of course it is not Stalinist totalitarianism and mass repressions, but there are nevertheless now ‘prophylactic repressions’,” he said, referring to opposition leaders who are behind bars or under house arrest.


The economic system of heavy state intervention, often known as “state capitalism”, continued through the 2008-09 global financial crisis and the 2008-12 presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, an ally who stood in for Putin because of constitutional limits.

During that time, Putin remained Russia’s most powerful man as the dominant member of their power-sharing “tandem” and was re-elected in March 2012 despite mass rallies against him.

Since then, the economy has been found wanting, with recession looming, annual inflation hitting 9 percent in November and set to rise in 2015, and currency and gold reserves being depleted as the central bank tries to shore up the rouble.

“Russia is going into decline. It means the model which Putin created – capitalism for friends – has already collapsed,” Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin’s prime minister for much of his first four-year term, said in an interview.

Like other opponents, he says Putin failed to use the boom years to build infrastructure such as roads, did not wipe out rampant corruption and spent money on what critics say were vanity projects such as the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

For now, the political and business elite are united behind Putin. He is still benefiting from a surge in popularity over the annexation of Crimea, even though it brought Western sanctions on Russia, and over his support for Ukrainian separatists fighting to break away from Kiev’s rule.

But Gudkov says discontent is growing over the economy and euphoria over Crimea will soon fade. Putin, he says, has enough support to ride out the dissatisfaction for the next 18 months to two years, but discontent will start to grow in the spring.

(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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December 31, 2014

‘The Interview’ is a gross-out comedy, but it pegs North Korea quite well

‘The Interview’ is a gross-out comedy, but it pegs North Korea quite well

We all know how the release of “The Interview” turned into a real-life Cold War thriller: North Korea hates the movie, lashes out at Sony Pictures by hacking its computers and threatens movie-goers, an act of state-sponsored cyber-aggression. At least that’s the story from the U.S. perspective.

Many aspects of this strange conflict remain a mystery — presumably they’re playing out on secure computers at the Pentagon and CIA. But there is one detail we could research ourselves: Is the movie any good?

Actually, yes. “The Interview” is a buddy movie that succeeds despite its outlandish premise: James Franco and Seth Rogen as lightweight TV journalists who score an interview with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then accept a CIA assignment to kill him.

The best thing about the film is … you can see it. When major movie theaters balked at releasing “The Interview” because of the threats, independent movie houses stepped in. Sony followed by arranging to rent or sell digital downloads.
lRelated Sony broadly releases ‘The Interview’ in reversal of plans

We understand why the big movie theater companies got nervous and why Sony bought time to assess the situation. But the movie opened on schedule, and the intimidation tactics ultimately failed. Score one for free expression. The film has pulled in more than $15 million in digital revenue in just a few days.

Still, if the film had been a stinker, people might have felt dispirited. Who would want to say they risked their lives to go see “Police Academy 5”?

Not to worry with “The Interview,” which we watched via Apple’s iTunes service.

Some reviewers have called it a modern-day Bob Hope-Bing Crosby comedy. That’s a canny comparison, except for the film’s reliance on raunchy humor. It’s not for kids.

But here’s the surprise: The movie works well as an absurdist, low-brow satire of the bizarre and dangerous regime that controls North Korea.

Understanding the tragedy of North Korea is tricky even for the experts. Very few outsiders are allowed to visit the country, while its citizens, excluding a small number of elites, are kept in extreme isolation. Do most North Koreans understand they are veritable prisoners of their leadership? They probably suspect as much.

Like the worst dictatorships, North Korea exists to preserve the regime. It uses brinkmanship, lies and a cult of personality to keep threats at bay. The country lives in a perpetually trumped up state of near-war, investing in nuclear weapons at the expense of food production. To ensure loyalty, Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, is glorified as godlike. If he cannot be questioned, he cannot be accused of starving his own citizens.

You can get this insight from a close study of North Korean affairs … or watch “The Interview.” It nails the small details and the big picture of an immature tyrant using a nation as his plaything.

In the movie, Kim Jong Un — who in real life befriended basketball personality Dennis Rodman — invites vapid TV talk show host Dave Skylark (Franco) to Pyongyang. Viewers who are familiar with the region get some pretty quick confirmation that the filmmakers did their research: One of Pyongyang’s lifelines to the outside world is the Chinese border town of Dandong, and that’s where Seth Rogen’s character, Aaron Rapaport, is told in a cellphone call to show up for a preliminary interview. When Rapaport takes the call, he looks at his phone to identify the caller but sees just a mysterious set of zeros. That’s exactly what you see when you send a fax to Pyongyang: 00000.

Once in North Korea, Skylark falls for the party fiction that the nation is affluent and Kim is benevolent and misunderstood. Pyongyang looks nice; a supermarket reminds him of Whole Foods.

All visitors to North Korea struggle to process this lunacy: broad highways without cars, department stores without customers. Pyongyang truly is a stage designed to fool outsiders. Skylark eventually figures out he has been taken.

It’s no wonder North Korea is fit to be tied. The movie nails it.
Copyright © 2014, Chicago Tribune

December 24, 2014

Laos: condoms, teenage pregnancies and sex talk on youth agenda

the guardian

Laos: condoms, teenage pregnancies and sex talk on youth agenda

Laos is aiming to teach its young population about sexual health and family planning, but too many of the youngsters remain out of reach

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 The cover of a comic book distributed to health centres and schools in Laos.

The cover of a comic book distributed to health centres and schools in Laos. Photograph: UNFPA

Dr Arsone Vongruily stands at the entrance of the youth health clinic in Laos’s capital, Vientiane, taking an inventory of the boxes of condoms that have just arrived. “We give out almost 3,000 condoms a month at this youth centre,” she says as she counts the supply. “They’re not just for the young people who come here. They take many to give out to friends at their school too.”

The clinic is across the road from a busy secondary school and is the only place in the capital offering reproductive health services to young people, including free contraceptives and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), an outreach programme to schools, and a hotline for young people in rural areas.

The clinic is a model of what youth family planning services could look like in Laos, but health workers say too many young people remain out of reach.

Laos has one of the youngest populations in south-east Asia, with more than 60% of the population aged under 24. The country also has the highest adolescent birth rates in east Asia and the Pacific – almost one in 10 girls aged 15 to 19 has given birth. The unmet need for contraception is high, with 19% of girls aged 15 to 19 saying they want but do not have access to contraceptives.

Vongruily says attitudes discouraging young people from talking about sex have contributed to silence on the issue, preventing young people from receiving the advice they need. “It is conservative, our culture,” she says. “Some young people are shy to come to us, especially young women. That’s why it’s important to have enough female doctors, which we don’t have. Most of the girls, when they feel they need private and confidential time, need to talk to a female doctor.”

At the school opposite the clinic, Koung, 17, says she is learning about sexual health in class. “I learn about the STIs, and I know that if you don’t protect yourself by using the condom when you are having sex, you get the STIs,” she says. But the teenager says girls often receive different guidance on sex from boys. “My parents told me I have to keep my virginity until I am married because I am too young. Some families will tell the boys do not have sex before marriage like they tell the girls, but mostly it’s for the girls. In Laos women preserve themselves to keep their virginity; for boys it is easy, they can just use condoms.”


A comic book on safe sex aims to reach Laos’ young people. Photograph: UNFPA

The majority of Laotians are Theravada Buddhists, and influences from traditional animist beliefs are also present, particularly among ethnic minorities. The government recognises 49 ethnic groups in Laos, with four main language groups. Many of the ethnic minorities live in mountainous regions of the country, making it harder to access a range of health services, including family planning. Of the young women aged 15 to 19 who give birth in Laos, 90% live in rural areas.

Seven hours’ drive from the capital, in the southern district of Kaysone, the head of the district hospital, Dr Sisalao Phaxaysy, says reducing high birth rates among teenage girls in the area has become a priority. He is quick to admit his hospital’s family planning services are yet to reach most of the young people who need them. “In reality, not that many young people are coming to access the service. For those who do come here, they already come with problems, but we haven’t been able to tackle the root cause. We need to work more on prevention,” he says. The district hospital offers family planning to more than 60 surrounding villages, and the majority of clients are married women. “In Lao culture, the unmarried feel shy to get counselling on contraceptives and family planning. We as health personnel do not have any judgment but they may think we do,” Phaxaysy says.

At the hospital’s family planning counselling room, 22-year-old Alisa Xaysithideth has arrived with her mother after learning about the service from an outreach worker in her village. The student says she has friends who were forced to drop out of school after becoming pregnant. “I have seen some young girls, around 14 or 15 years old, who get pregnant before marriage in school, and then they get married very quickly,” she says. “Maybe they don’t get enough knowledge about female reproductive health, or maybe they want to have children, I’m not sure.” Xaysithideth says she plans to have a baby after finishing her studies. “Maybe when I’m 26. Then I will use contraceptive after I have children. I would choose the contraception implant, I think, because it lasts a long time.”

Alisa Xaysithideth walks to the youth health clinic near her village in the Kaisone district.

Alisa Xaysithideth walks to the youth health clinic near her village in the Kaysone district, southern Laos. Photograph: Micka Perier

Unsafe abortions

Abortion is illegal in Laos unless it is to save a mother’s life or preserve her physical health, and Phaxaysy says there is no data available on the number of unsafe abortions carried out in the district. “There are cases of abortions happening, but we don’t know where and by who,” he says. “We get telephone calls to our counselling rooms when girls are considering it, but if they go ahead with it we don’t hear from them. We tell the young girls, ‘don’t do anything to harm yourself’.”

It’s a similar story back in Vientiane, where Vongruily says there is little information on illegal abortions in the city. “When we meet with a girl with an unwanted pregnancy, we provide counselling and suggest she also discuss it with her family and her partner,” she says. “We explain the risks of abortions. But mainly we should tell her that abortion is illegal.”

The UN population fund (UNFPA) Laos representative, Hassan Mohtashami, says high teenage pregnancy rates and the dangers of unsafe abortions show that greater investment is required to bring family planning to those who need it. He says the UNFPA does not promote abortion as a method of family planning. “Our focus is ensuring those unwanted pregnancies don’t happen in the first place, and that young people have access to the family planning they deserve, wherever they live,” Mohtashami says.

Laos is making progress in achieving its millennium development goals, including cutting its poverty rate by 40% in the past two decades and achieving gender parity in primary schools. There have also been improvements in family planning, with the unmet need for contraception among women aged 15-49 halved in the past two decades. The UNFPA is the biggest supplier of contraceptives to Laos, while the Laotian government has committed to increasing its share.

“There have been improvements, but clearly we have more work to do,” Mohtashami says. “I’ve always said that the best indicator of how committed a government is to its women is how many contraceptives they buy. From then, we work on getting them to everyone who needs them – that’s our challenge.”

December 24, 2014

Laos Dam Risks Damaging Mekong River, Igniting Tensions With Vietnam

December 24, 2014

Vietnamese committee opposes Laos’ new dam

Thanh Nien News

Vietnamese committee opposes Laos’ new dam

Thanh Nien News

HANOI – Tuesday, December 23, 2014 11:20

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A hydropower dam on the Mekong. Photo: Vietnam News Agency/

A hydropower dam on the Mekong. Photo: Vietnam News Agency/

Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee voiced more arguments against the Don Sahong, Laos’ latest hydropower project, at a conference held in Hanoi on Monday.
Nguyen Hong Phuong, deputy spokesman of the committee, said the new dam will block the river’s Hou Sahong tributary and the migratory pathways used by numerous fish species in the area, Vietnam News Agency reported.
Few fish will survive the dam’s turbines, Phuong told an audience of hydropower experts.
She said the 260-MW dam will destroy the ecology of the tributary and endanger the livelihood of people in the area, especially those who make their livelihood fishing the river.
Participants at the conference said the dam threatens the last remaining members of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin population, which is split between Laos and Cambodia.
Vietnamese officials, experts and residents in the Mekong Delta have denounced the Don Sahong in recent months, arguing that Vietnam’s downstream communities have already suffered from damage caused by salinization and erosion brought on by upstream Chinese dams.
China has built seven dams along the upstream Mekong and has planned or is building 20 others.
Laos and Cambodia have plans for another 11, including the US$3.8-billion Xayaburi, which they started building in 2012.


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