Global News Blog
I let a stranger into our apartment.
I suppose that in moving from Mexico City to Paris, and feeling a sudden burst of elation for not having to worry so intently about drug and gang violence and, worst of all kidnapping, I went to the extreme.
A man knocked on the door of our temporary apartment saying he needed to check on something and asked if he could come in. He must have said what he was checking but my French, only now on its way back after lying dormant for over two decades, missed the details. He was dressed in work clothes, and I let him in.
He first said he was looking for the heater panel, then started asking all kinds of questions about who we were and how long we’d been in France. I thought this was a bit bizarre, but didn't think much of it.
Then he spotted the chimney. He opened the screen: “Oh no, look at all of this soot.” (I had to look up the word for soot, suie, on my laptop.)
“You have a small child,” he went on. “If she breathes this in, it could be the end. I am obligated to fix this.”
In my daze of jetlag, living out of suitcases, with a mountain of bureaucracy to tackle each day, I actually thought this man might be from the city government, and he was doing his municipal duty, for free, to make sure no Paris residents – even foreigners, God bless France! – breathe contaminated air.
I almost let him get to work – until my more rational husband said, “Let’s call the owner first.”
The owner's response was immediate: “Get that guy out of the house now.”
I learned later that it’s a well-known scam in Paris that plumbers or electricians and other workers will come in, and tell you you need X, Y, and Z fixed. A colleague told me one man entered her house, broke a pipe, and then tried to get them to pay to fix it. I told the guardian downstairs about our visitor, and she said any communal or municipal work to be done will always be posted in the building.
Some of these scams are actually done by thieves, she said, who might rob you – or worse. “Don’t let anyone in your house. It could be very dangerous.”
I did learn back in elementary school not to talk to strangers, and most definitely not to let them through the front door.
But I had a momentary lapse of judgment, a good reminder that you have to be careful anywhere – even in Paris!
Americans took a leading role in the world in the post-World War II era. And today they are used to being unpopular, yet called upon when needed.
Germans in the postwar era, on the other hand, have preferred to blend into the background.
But amid Europe's sovereign debt crisis, as Germany's healthy economy has put it at the head of the 27-member European Union, that's been proving impossible. And now Germans are dealing with the criticism that accompanies being a regional – if unwilling – hegemon.
While a recent Pew poll shows Germany to be considered by many countries to be the most trustworthy nation in Europe, it has also accrued new enemies far and wide, with Greeks burning German flags or picketing with signs of German Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed in Nazi uniform. There have even been claims from France that Germans are out to rule the Continent.
“We have made a lot of commitment to help those people,” says Markus, a musical theater stage producer, in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, a public square and major transportation hub in Germany’s capital Berlin. “It’s really unfair.”
Read more about the Franco-German alliance turning testy – and what that might mean for Europe
It’s also untrue – at least the part about Germany wanting continental dominion, say German and European observers. Instead, the avoidance of tough positions in foreign policy, so Germany is not led into a moral dilemma, is ingrained in the postwar mentality, they say.
“There is no appetite for domination. Germany has been pushed into this position by default,” says Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is no ambition to shape the continent in the image of Germany.”
“Germans want to be liked by the rest of the world,” says Michael Wohlgemuth, director of Open Europe Berlin. “Germany feels uneasy in its new powerful role. We don’t want to be leaders of Europe.”
Outside the US embassy in Berlin, Erkan Arikan says that Germany is being unfairly maligned in Europe. But he says he can also laugh it off, as a German of Turkish descent in a multicultural Germany that has nothing to do with the 1930s.
He says that he can see some parallels between the hegemonic positions of Germany and the US today, but there is a limit. “The US is still the world police for everyone; Germany doesn’t want to be the focus,” he says. “But maybe it’s becoming the economic police of Europe.”
It’s a role that many Germans might feel uncomfortable playing, especially with the bad will that can breed.
If Americans don’t like the term “ugly American,” Germans like it even less.
Ulrike Guérot of the European Council of Foreign Relations says when she travels around the country and talks to everyday Germans, they are starting to ask, “Are we responsible for this youth unemployment in Spain? There is an uneasiness they they are just starting to feel,” she says. “They don’t want to be the ‘ugly German.’”
China asks its citizens to dream
A nation confidently on its way to becoming the biggest economy in the world ought to be chasing its own special dreams. So Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has taken on promoting “the Chinese dream” as his personal motto, and the Chinese character for “dream” has been declared the “character of the year” in China. But what do Chinese think about when they dream? In “Chasing the Chinese dream,” The Economist points out the term’s vagueness is both an advantage and a difficulty, a meme able to be fitted to many goals. Militarists see it as more than just an “American dream” of middle-class prosperity; it’s their dream of a powerful China preeminent on the world stage. Democratic reformers see a move toward Western-style personal and political freedoms. US Secretary of State John Kerry recently tried to lasso the term in the service of better Sino-American relations, proposing that Chinese and American dreams merge into a vision of a “Pacific Dream” that the two nations pursue together. But where it’s all headed is uncertain: When a people are allowed, even encouraged, to “dream,” the process may set off a series of unintended consequences.
How radical were the Tsarnaev brothers?
What caused Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to carry out their bombing of the Boston Marathon? We may never get a definite answer. But in “The Bombers’ World,” Christian Caryl in The New York Review of Books digs for facts and theories and concludes that despite possible links to radical Islamists “there are many other details of the Tsarnaev brothers’ case that make it seem starkly unique, more of an outlier than something that can be easily slotted into a larger pattern.” Those particulars include the Chechen culture, which places a high value on family and “honor” (and put immense pressure on Tamerlan, the older brother, to succeed when at the same time he was failing). Among the unanswered questions: Why was this particular Chechen family unable to assimilate into American culture when other Chechens have?
Stopping a humanitarian disaster
The sectarian war in Bosnia in the 1990s taught American presidents two irreconcilable lessons: First, US involvement is indispensable when it comes to stopping a humanitarian disaster. Second, a US president has little to gain politically from intervening overseas and plenty to lose if it goes badly. Just ask President George W. Bush, who ignored the lessons, invaded Iraq, and suffered the consequences. In “The Thin Red Line: Inside the White House debate over Syria,” Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker paints a grim portrait of US alternatives in Syria. (“All the options are horrible,” says one former presidential adviser.) Disturbing reports indicating that the Syrian regime is using poison gas, perhaps sarin, (cautiously and selectively to not rouse world opinion) have upped the stakes. President Obama has looked tentative, perhaps for good reason – drawing a “red line” warning against the use of chemical weapons but then being vague in assessing whether they have been used or saying exactly what the US response would be. “People on the Hill ask me, ‘Why can’t we do a no-fly zone? Why can’t we do military strikes?’ ” a senior US official says. “Of course we can do these things. The issue is, where does it stop?”
A future with ‘baked in’ heat
Bryan Walsh at Time magazine is among a throng of scientists and journalists noting that the level of carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere is about to pass a significant threshold: 400 parts per million. Why should we care? “The last time CO2 levels were this high was likely during the Pliocene epoch, between 3.2 million and 5 million years ago,” he points out. “The Earth’s climate was warmer during the Pliocene than it is today – perhaps by 2 to 3 [degrees] C – and sea levels were much higher. It was a very different planet than the one we’ve lived on so successfully for thousands of years.” Passing 400 p.p.m. means that warming effects of rising CO2 are already “baked in” to Earth’s future for many years to come. The Keeling Curve, which has measured and documented the rise in worldwide CO2 levels over the past half century, is “a roadmap for our future,” he says, “a future that will almost certainly be hotter and wilder.”
A keyboard for fat thumbs
KALQ is an effort to redesign a keyboard for mobile devices that better arranges the pattern of letter keys for the ubiquitous two-thumb system of typing. But can any new arrangement ever replace QWERTY, the more-than-a-century-old arrangement of letter keys on, first, typewriters and now computers and even tiny phones and tablets? “Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard,” a post at the Design Decoded blog at Smithsonian magazine, notes that the origin of QWERTY remains “a little foggy.” The popular notion that the keys were arranged so as to not jam the mechanisms of early typewriters may not be true. A new theory suggests the arrangement was a convenience for telegraph operators, who were among the first workers to adopt touch typing. Once early typewriter companies banded together and agreed on QWERTY, and set up training courses to learn the system, the die was cast. QWERTY has become what’s known in the design world as a “path dependency,” too entrenched to be replaced even by a superior system. Other letter arrangements have been proposed over the years, most notably the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard in the 1930s, but none have typed over QWERTY. Will KALQ be the first?
Kenyan police on Tuesday fired teargas and used water cannons to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who had camped outside Parliament protesting an attempt by lawmakers to increase their own pay.
The protests began with a march through Nairobi's streets, with demonstrators chanting and carrying placards critical of Members of Parliament (MPs). Protesters had planned to then go inside and "Occupy Parliament," but that proved difficult after police in riot gear surrounded the building.
The police made 15 arrests, but struggled to control the agitated crowd as well as a drove of pigs – bearing the inscriptions "MPigs" – which demonstrators brought to the assembly's entrance. They also covered the ground with pig blood, which the pigs mingled in.
“We want to see resources being directed to service delivery, not meeting the wage bill” of lawmakers, says Morris Odhiambo, the director of the Centre for Law Research International.
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According to Mr. Odhiambo, many Kenyans were living in deplorable conditions, because their tax money has either been stolen or paid to undeserving people. Nurses and teachers, who have sought pay increases, have not received serious attention from the government, he says. “The attempt by MPs to increase their salary emphasizes the highest level of impunity.”
Kenya recently decreased the legislators’ annual earnings from $120,000 to $75,000 to rein in the burgeoning salary expenses, following the creation of new state offices by a new constitution. Some analysts were already warning government operations may become unsustainable unless the government controls salaries of state officers.
Disregarding the developments, MPs have demanded an upward adjustment of the salary from the current $6,250 back to $10,000 per month, demands that have angered the public.
“If they can’t take the pay, they should resign. We want to rein in their greed. They have not done any work and we are disappointed they are seeking a pay raise even before they work,” says Mr. Simon Muoki, a young environmental rights campaigner.
“This has been our country’s problem for the last 50 years. MPs have forced decisions – including their pay – in disregard of the feelings of those who elect them,” says Jedida Wanjiru, an octogenarian at the demonstrations.
For the past month, the lawmakers have arm-twisted the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC), a government body that’s sets salaries of all state officers. With MPs threatening to disband it, the SRC has stuck to its guns.
On Monday the commission said it will not increase the salary even with threats and intimidation. Sarah Serem, SRC’s chairperson said the commission’s concern was how to reduce the wage bill so that the savings can be used for development work. She said Kenya's total revenue was $11.8 billion, but the country spends $5.7 billion on salaries.
“This amount is not only huge, but it is unaffordable and unsustainable. It stands in the way of the country’s development agenda,” Ms. Serem told a news conference in Nairobi.
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Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, has never had very good relations with the Chinese government. But now his personal envoy to Beijing is offering to help another British leader who seems to be even more firmly in the Chinese doghouse – Prime Minister David Cameron.
Mr. Cameron, who would dearly like to head a trade and investment mission to China, incurred Beijing’s wrath last May by meeting the Dalai Lama. The fact that it was a private meeting, on sacred ground in St. Paul’s cathedral, makes no difference. He will be persona non grata until he apologizes.
That status can be costly: A 2010 study by academics at the University of Gottingen in Germany found that countries whose top leadership received the Dalai Lama lost an average of 8.1 percent of their exports to China over the following two years, though the effect wore off after that punishment period.
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Enter Sir David Tang, Hong Kong fashion tycoon and flamboyant London socialite, who also heads Prince Charles’s charitable foundation in Beijing. He told the Daily Telegraph’s gossip columnist over the weekend that he is ready to help defrost London’s diplomatic relations with Beijing.
“Look at the Prince of Wales,” he told the paper. “He’s now very engaged with lots of Chinese people.”
’Twas not ever thus. The Prince’s stock here hit rock bottom in 2005 when somebody leaked the private diary he had kept in 1997, when he represented the Queen at the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. He famously described the assembly of top Chinese leaders at the ceremony as “appalling old waxworks.”
In 2009, however, Prince Charles opened a Chinese branch of his international foundation, funding projects that build sustainable communities. That has helped, but he has still never visited mainland China.
Charles himself is close to the Dalai Lama, which makes him a suspicious character in Beijing’s eyes. The Chinese authorities go to extraordinary lengths to persuade foreign leaders not to meet the Tibetan leader, whom they accuse of being an anti-Chinese “splittist,” and when those leaders fail they grow very angry.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was subjected to such anger when he met the Dalai Lama.
France emerged from such a period of diplomatic and trade punishment in 2009, only after it signed a joint statement with China clarifying that Paris “fully appreciates the importance and sensitivity of the Tibet issue and reaffirms … that Tibet is an integral part of Chinese territory.”
Since the Dalai Lama himself has also said, repeatedly, that Tibet is part of Chinese territory, and that he does not seek independence, French diplomats could argue that they were not conceding anything. But the symbolism of the statement was clear.
London appears to have escaped the export boycott: A British government spokesman pointed out that UK exports to China had climbed by 13.4 percent last year.
He also defended Cameron’s right to choose who he meets in private regardless of China’s feelings on the matter. “It is entirely reasonable for the prime minister to decide who he meets,” the spokesman said.
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But no sooner had the queen finished her speech opening Parliament last Wednesday, than Cameron was offering olive branches to Beijing. A senior member of the ruling Conservative Party lobbed the prime minister a clearly pre-arranged question about Sino-British relations; Cameron lost no time in reassuring Parliament, and Beijing, of course, that “we recognize Tibet as part of China. We do not support Tibetan independence and we respect China’s sovereignty.
“We do want to have a strong and positive relationship with China,” he stressed.
It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to placate Beijing.
The United States has appealed to Russia to stop the reported delivery of six batteries of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian government, warning that this type of weaponry threatens to "destabilize" the region.
According to media reports, the US was alerted this week by Israel that Russia is preparing to begin deliveries, perhaps as early as this summer, on a $900-million contract for six S-300 launchers with 144 of the long-range surface-to-air missiles. They are said to be the equivalent to the US Patriot system.
"We have consistently called on Russia not to provide a further supply of weapons to the Assad regime, including air defense systems that are particularly destabilizing to the region," White House press spokesman Jay Carney told journalists on Thursday.
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"We have previously stated that [these] missiles are potentially destabilizing with respect to the state of Israel," he said.
Israel has carried out two airstrikes on Syrian targets in the past week, dramatically raising the stakes in the Syrian civil war, which is now in its third year.
Introduction of the S-300 into Syria's air defense arsenal could sharply limit the future options not only for Israel but for the US as well, should it decide to intervene in the conflict.
The latest version of the S-300 reputedly has a range of 125 miles, can engage 12 targets simultaneously, and can strike missiles or aircraft at altitudes of up to 20 miles.
The US and Israel waged a long and ultimately successful diplomatic campaign to persuade Russia to renege on a contract it had signed many years ago to provide S-300 missiles to Iran.
But since agreeing in 2010 to cut off arms supplies to Iran, the Kremlin has dug in its heels and refused to sign on to any more sanctions against its dwindling number of client states.
Russia has an estimated $5 billion in outstanding arms contracts with Syria, mostly sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, tactical surface-to-surface missiles, submarines, warships, and training aircraft.
Though Moscow has not yet commented on the allegation that it is preparing to deliver S-300s to Syria, Russian officials have repeatedly insisted that they are acting within the framework of international law in honoring arms contracts with a long-standing ally that is not subject to any United Nations-approved sanctions.
The fresh accusations against Russia for supplying arms to Syria come just days after Mr. Kerry met with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and agreed on the need for Russia and the US to combine efforts in a joint push to find a peaceful settlement to the spiraling Syrian conflict.
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Seventeen days after the building collapsed killing more than 1,000 workers in Bangladesh, armed forces and firefighters have rescued one woman alive from the basement of the eight-story building at 4:28 p.m. local time, raising cautious hope that more people could still be found alive.
When the woman, whom soldiers identified as Reshma, was freed within an hour of her discovery in the flooded basement of the building, the crowd erupted in both cheers and tears. Despite her ordeal, she appeared to be in good shape and was rushed to a military hospital on the outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital.
Reshma’s rescue comes 12 days after Bangladesh mourned a failed attempt to rescue another woman, Shahina Akhter. After the death of Ms. Akhter, rescuers lost hope of finding anyone alive in the rubble and rolled out heavier equipment to clear the rubble and recover dead bodies. But with Reshma's rescue, the mood at the scene has been uplifted.
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The death toll from the collapse of a building, which housed five factories, reached 1,036 today, and that number is expected to rise as more bodies are being found. The incident is being described as the world's deadliest garment industry disaster and one of the worst industrial accidents. As many as 6,000 people may have worked in the building, according to some estimates. The collapse puts a spotlight on the often extremely poor labor conditions of the country’s $20 billion garment industry, which provides cheap clothing for major retailers around the world.
As some bulldozers were crushing building beams to clear the way to look for bodies today they reached the basement, and noticed something.
“We were removing slabs. Between 2:45 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. we learned of the trace of a person,” says Lt. Col. SM Imran-Uz-Zaman, an Army spokesman at the site. “We immediately halted work in all other areas and [focused] people on rescuing Reshma.”
Maj. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Sarwardy, coordinator of the search and rescue operations at the disaster site, told The Christian Science Monitor how she was discovered: “She shouted when we were going inside. We saw her. I talked to her,” he says.
“We have halted use of all heavy equipment such as hydraulic drilling. Our rescuers are working with information we are getting from her,” said Sarwardy – just before she was rescued.
Rescuers at the site said Reshma was confined between two beams and they had to be extremely cautious in order to rescue her alive.
After a fire broke out just before the rescue of Shahina, Imran said the rescuers put water around the perimeter of their rescue operation to ensure that wouldn’t happen again.
Once the woman was pulled out alive, says Sawardy, “we provided her with oxygen and saline.” Reshma was rescued unhurt but with complications after 17 days without food and trauma.
Though Reshma told rescuers there were no more survivors in her area, workers began to sift through nearby rubble for more survivors.
“Guess what? I love him,” he told reporters. “He’s really awesome.”
But now the basketball diplomat is testing his friendship with the young Kim by asking the leader to release an American sentenced last week to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the North Korean regime.
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The missive came in response to a Seattle Times opinion piece last week, in which writer Thanh Tan called on Rodman to put his goodwill with Pyongyang on the line for Mr. Bae, a tour operator arrested in November on murky charges.
Perhaps now is the time for the NBA has-been to practice some real basketball diplomacy and call up his so-called friend for a favor: Grant American detainee Kenneth Bae amnesty and release him to his family….
Bae is being used as a political pawn by a desperate despot who happened to gallivant around the country with Rodman in March. Perhaps now is the retired player’s chance to use his notoriety for something other than to over-inflate his ego.
Rodman apparently got the message.
And while Twitter is an admittedly feeble platform for diplomacy, it’s not out of the question that Kim will see the tweet. After all, the North Korean government has an active – if bizarre – Twitter presence itself, putting out an erratic blast of messages about American imperialism and the “victory and glory” of the Kim regime.
But even if Kim gets Rodman’s message, will he understand it? After all, “do me a solid” isn’t exactly a phrase that translates easily.
Washington Post blogger Max Fisher writes that the closest Korean equivalent of the colloquialism would be the somewhat menacing (at least to American ears) phrase, “Look at my face and release Kenneth Bae.”
“Look at my face,” he writes, “is a Korean expression that’s like a special, for-friends-only version of ‘do me a favor.’”
Whether Kim will look at Rodman’s face – double nose ring and all – remains to be seen, but Americans favored by North Korea have helped coax the regime to release American prisoners in the past.
In 2009, for instance, former President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang and shortly after the visit then-Dear Leader Kim Jong-il pardoned two American journalists who were being held in the country. In total, six Americans – including Bae – have been held by the North Korean government since 2009, the Monitor reported. The other five were all released.
Rodman’s February visit to North Korea – along with the friendship tour of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt in January – was initially hailed by some Western observers as a sign that the young Kim might be more interested in opening his country to the rest of the world than his father and grandfather had been.
However, analysts say there have been no fundamental changes to the regime’s posture since then. If anything, interaction with Western celebrities puts the regime in a more powerful position because it can claim new geopolitical cache.
“Ultimately, they [North Korea] come out ahead because they can portray it as the world coming to pay tribute, or at least to be there,” Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korean expert, told the Monitor in March.
Indeed, as the state-run Korean Central News Agency (as well as Western outlets) reported during Rodman’s trip, the basketball player was an enthusiastic tourist, visiting a greatest hits list of Kim-related sites.
Rodman and his cohort "paid high tribute to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il before their statues. They entered the halls where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie in state and paid homage to them,” a press release announced. “They made an entry in the visitor's book.”
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Today is Europe Day. It marks a pivotal declaration by French foreign minister for foreign affairs, Robert Schuman, on May 9, 1950, that led to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community and essentially the foundation of the European Union.
One history professor did, but this was his take: “It’s nothing.” Pieter Lagrou, a contemporary European history professor at the Free University of Brussels, says he likes to tell his students the obscurity of the holiday marks "the symbolic deficit of Europe.”
The central question of "What is Europe?" is being picked apart across and beyond the continent. In the midst of debt crisis, nations are fighting to get in, questioning getting out and even splitting in two, and bickering over banking unions and political control and sovereignty.
On the ground – the level at which citizens take time to raise a flag and celebrate, or at least ponder, their national founding – it’s also an exceedingly hard question to answer.
Dr. Lagrou used himself as an example. He’s a Dutch-speaking Belgian, living in bilingual Brussels, with a French employer. His regional government and federal government are accountable to him. But so are his EU representatives.
If he, for example, cared deeply about a jobs-creation program, would it be his federal government or the EU that he should contact, and among the latter, who holds the control among the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament?
“The political landscape is increasingly difficult,” he says.
As a journalist new to Europe, I made Brussels, the heart of the European Union, my first stop on the European circuit. Perhaps it would have been better to visit the EU capitals first and then Brussels, where it’s harder than most places to know whom you need to talk to, who holds the power, and how it all works.
I walked through the city, which is the first thing I usually do when I arrive somewhere new. I went to the European district, past the European Parliament and the Commission. I went to the daily Commission press briefing. There were only a few questions asked: about funding proposals in Spain for the unemployed, EU representation at the International Monetary Fund, and Macedonia. All answers were about the same: “We can’t speculate, we can’t answer at this point.” None of them shed any light on how the EU works.
I told many people that I couldn’t get my head around it. Without fail, they all replied, “Don’t worry, neither can most Europeans.”
They were joking to a certain extent (at least those who work for the EU). But Lagrou says there is a risk here. To many, the EU has become a giant bureaucracy “without a face or identity,” he says. In the face of crisis – as real fault lines are forming between nations, especially over austerity – many are increasingly losing faith in the project.
Each year, around Europe Day, the EU opens its doors to the public, so citizens get an inside look at the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the Commission, the Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, and the Office of the Ombudsman. These kinds of events, of any governmental institution, are often disregarded as hokey. But it might be as important a time as ever to sign up for the tour. I know I wish I had.
Vladislav Surkov, the former theater arts major who took on the job of stage-managing Russian democracy on behalf of Vladimir Putin, was abruptly shown the Kremlin door Wednesday. Most analysts see the move as a sign that an increasingly heavy-handed Mr. Putin has no further use for Mr. Surkov's elaborate and relatively gentle methods of manipulating the political landscape.
Surkov, an influential Putin advisor who helped sculpt Russia's so-called "sovereign democracy" system, told the Moscow daily Kommersant that he had tendered his resignation on April 26, but will only discuss the reasons for his departure "when it is appropriate."
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, suggested to the Kommersant FM radio station that he had been pushed out the door due to poor job performance.
"[His resignation] is related to the high-priority task of implementing presidential decrees," Mr. Peskov said.
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Often referred to as the "grey cardinal" of the Kremlin, Surkov's star had been falling since a massive protest movement hit Moscow streets in December 2011. It had been triggered by the near-universal allegations of electoral fraud committed by Surkov's own brainchild – the pro-Kremlin United Russia party – in parliamentary polls.
He was subsequently eased out of his role as Putin's deputy chief of staff and given the thankless-by-definition job of deputy prime minister in charge of modernizing Russia's economy.
"His resignation testifies to the fact that there is a real political crisis in the country. Different bureaucratic structures are at war with each other, and Russia is becoming increasingly ungovernable," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute of Globalization and Social Movement Studies in Moscow.
"Surkov had his own vision. He tried to control the process, to reconcile different structures, and he lost," he adds.
Surkov had been a Kremlin fixture since Putin's first presidential term and is widely regarded as the chief architect of the Putin-era system of "sovereign democracy," whose basic idea is that the political system headed by Putin is the direct outgrowth of Russia's own history and public dynamics – not an import from anywhere else – and is therefore democracy.
Critics, and even many independent analysts, quickly substituted the more descriptive term "managed democracy." The phrase evoked the Kremlin's aggressive role in landscaping Russia's political garden – weeding out pesky opposition parties and independent politicians, concentrating official resources and state media attention behind the ruling United Russia party, and generally altering rules of the game to favor pro-Kremlin outcomes.
In addition to fathering United Russia, Surkov created a bouquet of pro-Kremlin public organizations, such as the youth movement Nashi and a state-supported assembly of tame civil society groups called the Public Chamber.
Even critics were often admiring of Surkov's deft behind-the-scenes manipulation of Russian politics, which produced massive pro-Putin majorities in several elections and generally eschewed the application of crude police methods and – until the 2011 Duma polls – blatant mass electoral fraud.
The curtain dropped briefly on Surkov's almost spider-like role in September 2011, when tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov angrily quit as head of the pro-Kremlin Right Cause Party, and publicly accused Surkov of acting like a "puppet-master" and trying to micromanage all his key decisions, including party program and candidate lists.
Analysts say Surkov's fall from Kremlin grace was largely propelled by his failure to prevent or even predict the emergence of the street protest movement. When it first appeared, he made the mistake of describing the mainly-youthful, educated, and middle-class demonstrators as "the best part of society."
Many analysts say Surkov has since moved into the camp of former president and current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who appears to be under increasingly furious attack from Russia's pro-Putin conservatives, because he is perceived as the head of the more liberal, pro-Western wing of Russia's bureaucracy and business community.
In recent weeks Surkov had been engaged in a war of words with the powerful head of the Kremlin's Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin. Mr. Bastrykin's agency, the most powerful police body in Russia, has been investigating the alleged misappropriation of funds at Skolkovo, a futuristic Kremlin-funded technopark near Moscow that was championed by then-President Medvedev. Surkov is a supervisory board member.
"The energy with which the investigative committee publishes their suppositions evokes the feeling among normal people that a crime took place," Surkov said in a public speech in Britain last week.
"But it is just the investigative committee’s style. It is their energy. Let them prove it," he said.
It seems fairly apparent that it is no longer Surkov, but the more blunt-edged Mr. Bastrikin who is tasked with managing Russia's political outcomes these days.
Over the past year there has been a major crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs and a wave of arrests of protest leaders, who are charged with participating in elaborate, foreign-backed conspiracies aimed at fomenting violent revolution in Russia.
"Surkov is no longer needed to regulate the system in his way, because Putin has switched to much tougher measures," says Nikolai Petrov, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
"His departure bespeaks tectonic shifts in the foundations of Russia's political system. It was probably triggered by something more immediate, such as the Skolkovo business, but it is a sign that we are going down a very different road from the past," he adds.
As for Surkov's future intentions, he told the Russky Pioner magazine this week that he might write a novel.
"I have a plot for a political comedy based on real events," he said.
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