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Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena shows a temporary document to allow Edward Snowden, his client, to cross the border into Russia. Mr. Snowden has left the Moscow airport where he has been stranded for weeks and entered Russia on a one-year grant of asylum. (Russia24/AP)

After airport exit, what will Edward Snowden do in Russia?

By Correspondent / 08.01.13

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has been granted a year's political asylum in Russia. He has left Sheremetyevo airport and will remain in an "undisclosed location" for at least a day, according his lawyer Anatoly Kucherena.

Russian news agencies showed pictures of someone who might have been Mr. Snowden climbing into a car at Sheremetyevo airport Thursday afternoon, though no Western reporters witnessed any part of his passage through passport control and departure from the airport – where he has spend almost 7 weeks apparently cooped up in a "capsule hotel" in the legal limbo of the vast transit zone.

On Snowden's immediate agenda is a phone call from his father, which Mr. Kucherena said would be set up today, and some rather heavy contemplation about his future. Kucherena told journalists that the passport-like temporary asylum document he's been issued will enable him to travel freely around Russia, rent accommodation, and even find a job. 

And he even has a job offer to think about already. The Russian-language social network VKontakte, which is similar to Facebook, announced Thursday that he could come and work with them – presumably to help shield the network from NSA snooping.

"We invite Edward to St. Petersburg [where VKontakte is based] and will be delighted if he decides to complete VKontakte's star team of programmers," the organization's founder, Pavel Durov, wrote on his VKontakte page.

Snowden "might be interested in working on protecting the personal data of millions of our users.... Today, Edward Snowden, a person who exposed the crimes of the American special services against citizens of the entire world, has received temporary asylum in Russia. At such moments, you feel pride for our country and sorrow over the course of the USA, a country betraying the principles on which it was built," Mr. Durov added.

He also has an outstanding invitation from the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, to come and testify about how the spying programs he revealed might impact Russian users of big Internet companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook.

WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that's been sponsoring Snowden's flight, posted a lengthy statement thanking Russia and trumpeting what it called a "victory in the fight against Obama’s war on whistleblowers. This battle has been won, but the war continues."

It also praised Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks official who accompanied Snowden on his June 23 flight from Hong Kong and has remained with him through the 39 days of his stay in Sheremetyevo. 

"Ms. Harrison has remained with Mr. Snowden at all times to protect his safety and security, including during his exit from Hong Kong. They departed from the airport together in a taxi and are headed to a secure, confidential place," it said.

In Washington, news of Snowden's asylum grant in Russia was greeted with dismay.

"We see this as an unfortunate development and we are extremely disappointed by it," White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists. He suggested that President Obama's plans to meet with President Vladimir Putin before a G20 summit in St. Petersburg that's barely a month off might be in jeopardy.  "We are evaluating the utility of the summit in light of this," news agencies quoted him as saying.

"We made clear both privately and publicly that there was ample legal justification for his expulsion from Russia and return to the United States, that's a discussion we've had with Russia as well as with other countries that might have been considering providing asylum to Mr. Snowden," Mr. Carney added. 

Several United States Senators have also warned that the Snowden case could do irreparable harm to the already-frayed relationship between the US and Russia.

However, Mr. Putin's close aide and reputed foreign policy architect Yury Ushakov told journalists he does not expect any serious fallout from the decision.

"This issue is not important enough to affect political relations," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted Mr. Ushakov as saying.

Alexei Arbatov, a leading Russian foreign policy expert, says he believes the international ill-will surrounding the Snowden case will blow over.

"The Snowden issue might have domestic complications in the US, meaning that opposition will attack Obama [for mishandling the affair]. But on the international level it's just not sufficient reason to make the US and Russia quarrel seriously. I do not believe that the important economic and political issues on the US-Russia bilateral agenda will suffer because of the very questionable actions of this young man," he says.

Kucherena, the lawyer, told journalists that his client needed at least a day to clear his head, but might be available to talk to media as early as Friday.

"Of course, he will come. He is aware that mass media is interested in him. But in this case, the situation is such for now," he said, apparently meaning that his client would not be speaking not anytime soon.

He also contradicted reports that Snowden might have shared some of the secrets he reputedly holds in the four laptop computers he carries with him everywhere.

"I can absolutely say that he did definitely not pass on any documents to anybody here at the Sheremetyevo airport. That is, the documents that were published yesterday are documents that he handed over [to The Guardian] while still in Hong Kong," Kucherena said on Rossiya 24 news television channel.

He was referring to a sweeping exposé published Wednesday in the Guardian, based on documents provided by Snowden about an NSA tool known as XKeyscore, which allegedly enables the agency to scoop up "nearly everything a user does on the Internet."       

Snowden has "given his word and promised to stop the whistleblowing activity aimed at United States" and can be trusted to keep it, Kucherena said.

Kucherena, who has been Snowden's main spokesman during the long stay in Sheremetyevo, told journalists his client would undergo a period of "acclimatization," including studying Russian language, law, customs, and literature. The lawyer also said he would remain involved with Snowden in an advisory capacity.

"[Snowden] is the most wanted person on earth and his security will be a priority," Kucherena said. "He will deal with personal security issues and lodging himself. I will just consult him as his lawyer."

Experts say it's likely that Snowden will be kept under tough restraints by Russia's FSB security service in pursuance of President Vladimir Putin's oft-repeated pledge that he will not be allowed to harm US interests while he remains in Russia. That suggests that he may be as isolated from journalists in his new location as he was during the nearly seven weeks he spent hiding out in Sheremetyevo's transit zone.

His release comes just a day after his father appeared for the first time on Russian TV to thank Mr. Putin "for keeping my son safe" and to hope that Russia will take him in and accept him until such time as he can find safe haven somewhere else.

It also comes on the same day a Russian public opinion poll showed that just over half of Russians regard Snowden as a "hero" while just 17 percent were "negative" toward his actions. On the other hand, the poll found that only 43 percent supported giving him asylum in Russia, while 29 percent were against it to some degree. 

WikiLeaks quoted Snowden as heading into his new life in Russia defiant and, perhaps, just a little bit jubilant.

"Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning. I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations," Snowden is quoted as saying.

French bakers urge the French to eat more bread

By Staff writer / 07.31.13

The New York Times has a fascinating story this week on the French penchant for bread – or rather the country’s declining penchant. 

“The average Frenchman these days eats only half a baguette a day compared with almost a whole baguette in 1970 and more than three in 1900,” the paper reports.

What? I would never guess that from the line at the bakery right down the street, which is always long, and often out the door.

But the story does go a long way to clear up some mysteries that I’ve been encountering on an anecdotal basis here.

In my adult life, eating white bread has been naughty. It’s wheat or nothing, with slices of baguette something just reserved for a special dinner out. So it was with a degree of glee that I moved here and saw virtually everyone munching off the tips of baguettes while walking down the street. If they can do it, so can we!

And that we did. One of the first things that made us laugh when we moved to France was walking into the kitchen in our temporary apartment and finding that our two-year-old had grabbed a baguette from the table and proceeded to chow down.

Except, it’s now been four months and, unfortunately, a few extra kilos.

I always think of the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” which purports that, among other things, women can eat what they want here because they are slowing down and thoroughly enjoying it.

But I’ve come to learn that they also eat minuscule proportions. When you eat French food – croissants, buttery sauces, chocolate tarts, and yes, baguettes – like an American, you are in trouble.

It just so happens that we woke up to this revelation this very week and banned baguettes – as well as the sweets from the bakery – from our house. It’s going to be a two-week trial, with the goal of incorporating it back into our lives at much smaller volumes (i.e., we do not need to be eating two baguettes a day between three, one of whom is a toddler).

It’s decisions as such that are apparently worrying the Observatoire du Pain, the baker’s lobby, which the Times reports recently launched a campaign to draw the French back to bread, as a cheap and healthy option – and part of simply being French. 

“Coucou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hi there, have you picked up the bread?”) is the campaign’s slogan. Modeled on the American advertising campaign “Got Milk?” the bread slogan was plastered on billboards and inscribed on bread bags in 130 cities around the country.  …

The campaign’s Web site,, explains that “France is a ‘civilization of bread’ and this food is part of the traditional meal ‘à la française.' ”

Bread is described as healthy and useful in avoiding weight gain. “It is rich in vegetal protein and fiber and low in fat; glucides are a source of energy,” the Web site says, using the French word for carbohydrate.

If people on diets want “to avoid giving in to something with fat and sugar, bread is there,” it says. “Its satiating effect allows you to wait for the next meal.”

The campaign reads a bit like desperation, but I don’t think the bread and pastry makers of France need to worry just yet. France, the Times reports, still enjoys the world’s highest density of independent bakeries. And even if the number, 32,000, is down from 54,000 in 1950, there are still too many bakeries for one bread-loving family to easily resist. 

A shoe of a civilian is seen at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 11. In a new UN report, Afghan civilian casualties are rising, noting an increase of 23 percent in the first half of 2013. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters/File)

UN: Afghan civilian casualties on the rise amid new fighting

By Correspondent / 07.31.13

A new UN report on the protection of civilians in Afghanistan is painting a bleak picture of the country after the withdrawal of American forces. Issued by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the report said that Afghan civilian casualties are rising, noting an increase of 23 percent in the first half of 2013.

The upsurge has reversed a downward trend from 2012 and calls into question the ability of Afghan forces to take over security responsibilities when the US forces leave.

According to the report, between January and June of this year, 1,319 civilians were killed, while 2,533 more were injured. Women and children casualties are also on the rise, increasing by 61 and 30 percent, respectively. While the highest number of casualties came from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a new trend in 2013 shows fallout from fighting between government forces and insurgents to be another major cause for civilian death and injury.

The spike in casualties comes as US troops begin to wrap up their operations in the country, closing down bases and handing over responsibility to their Afghan counterparts for providing security. As the report notes:

The stepped-up transition of security responsibilities from international military forces to Afghan forces and closure of international forces’ military bases was met with increased attacks by Anti-Government Elements on Afghan National Security Forces mainly at checkpoints, on strategic highways, in some areas that had been transitioned and in districts bordering neighboring countries.

The Taliban has condemned the report as propaganda, saying that the use of the word “civilian” is misleading, as many included are government workers.

Criticism for excessive violence against civilians has seen the Taliban make efforts to stem the number of civilian casualties over the past few years, reports The New York Times. Unfortunately, these efforts have not borne the desired results, as civilian casualty rates remain high.

And there are fears that the violence will only intensify as the imminent departure of US troops may see mounting challenges to territorial control from insurgents, challenges that many believe the Afghan National Army – whose desertion rates are among the highest in the world – is not prepared to face, according to Reuters. The continued battles between the Taliban and the government, as well as reported abuse against civilians on the part of Afghan police forces, has seriously undermined trust in the government’s ability to provide protection and order.

Many in both Afghanistan and the US have been hoping that an agreement will be struck to extend the presence of US forces past 2014, reports The Christian Science Monitor. But as recent events have cooled relations between US President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the zero option is looking more and more possible.

While the more than decade-long US-led war with the Taliban is slated to come to a close, Afghanistan’s future is much more uncertain, with more public officials voicing concerns over the transition process, writes Voice of America.

Angheza Shinwari, a member of the provincial council of Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, says Afghan security forces are not prepared to defend the population.
She says that she is not optimistic about the security transition process. She praised Afghan men as being "very brave" and having God to help them. But she is not hopeful for what happens next.

Lon Snowden, father of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, appears on NBC's 'Today' show in New York last Friday. In an interview aired on Russian television today, Mr. Snowden said that his son was safer in Russia because he could not get a fair trial in the US. (Peter Kramer/NBC/AP)

Snowden's father thanks Russia, says he hopes to visit his son soon (+video)

By Correspondent / 07.31.13

The father of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who's been stranded in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for almost seven weeks with no end in sight, has given an emotionally charged interview to the state-run Russia-24 news channel. He thanked the Russian people and President Vladimir Putin personally for "keeping his son safe."

He also told Russians that he may soon come to Moscow to visit with his son.

Lonnie Snowden, a former officer of the United States Coast Guard, told Russian audiences early Wednesday morning – through a translator – that his son would be better off remaining in Russia because he probably can't get a fair trial in the US. Mr. Snowden also said he was sitting on an FBI invitation to visit Russia and talk with his son, but would not go until he was sure about the FBI's intentions.

"If I were in his place, I would stay in Russia, and I hope that Russia will accept him," he said, according to a text summary of the interview on the Russian station's website.

"I hope that he will return home and appear in court, and we will have an open dialogue about that. But given what's happened over the past [few] weeks, I have no grounds to expect that a court would be fair. We cannot guarantee a fair trial," he said.

Told by the Russian interviewer that his son might be watching, from his perch somewhere in Sheremetyevo's vast transit zone, Snowden said "Edward, I hope you are watching. Your family is well. We love you. We hope you are healthy, we hope you are well, I hope to see you soon, but most of all I want you to be safe. I want you to find a safe haven."

In remarks directed to the Russian audience, Snowden said "I also would like to thank President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government for what I believe to be their courage and strength and conviction to keep my son safe."

The elder Snowden's views have evolved somewhat as his son's intercontinental saga has progressed. In interviews with US TV stations in mid-June, shortly after Edward revealed himself as the source of the stunning revelations of NSA secrets published in The Guardian and The Washington Post, he seemed unsure how to judge his son's actions.

In a June 17 interview, he urged his son to stop leaking information to the media. "I hope, I pray and I ask that you will not release any secrets that could constitute treason," Snowden said, addressing his son.

"I sense that you're under much stress from what I've read recently, and ask that you not succumb to that stress ... and make a bad decision." he added.

In a June 28 interview with NBC, Snowden worried that the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks might be manipulating his son's actions.

"I think WikiLeaks, if you've looked at past history, you know, their focus isn't necessarily the Constitution of the United States. It's simply to release as much information as possible," the elder Snowden said at the time.

But in an interview with NBC's Today program last Friday, Snowden said he was thankful to WikiLeaks and "everybody else who is helping my son." He went on to blast the US government and Congress allowing "unconstitutional surveillance programs," and otherwise fully take his son's side in the widening controversy.

"I am extremely disappointed and angry. I am an angry American citizen. The American people – at this point, they don't know the full truth, but the truth is coming," he said.

As to visiting Russia on the FBI's request, the elder Snowden told the Russian TV station that he hasn't declined the offer and intends to visit Russia "when it is appropriate."

"I will not discuss this matter with the FBI. Currently I am a US citizen, the father of Edward Snowden and I will not apologize [for what he did]. I love my son, I'm proud of my son and I think that if we go to Russia, we will do so on legitimate grounds," he said.

Edward Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told a Russian radio station Wednesday that he was actively organizing a visit to Russia by the ex-CIA employee's father.

"I will do my best to get this done today," Mr. Kucherena said.

Civilians carrying bread and purchases are seen through a damaged bus at the Karaj al-Hajez crossing, a passageway separating Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr, which is under the rebels' control and Al-Masharqa neighborhood, an area controlled by the regime, July 31. (Malek Alshemali/Reuters)

Why fewer ground reports are emerging from Syria

By Correspondent / 07.31.13

Among the journalists I know covering Syria, almost everyone is swearing off crossing the border and going inside the country. It’s not the threat of violence that’s stopping people, but the risk of kidnapping.

Working in Syria during the war has always been dangerous. Since March 2011, the conflict has claimed the lives of at least 24 journalists and 60 citizen journalists. But for those working inside, there were ways to limit exposure to violence and there was relative comfort in knowing that you could trust the people around you. In opposition-controlled areas, Syrians wanted the outside world to hear their story and many locals went to great lengths to protect and welcome foreign reporters.

Nearly two and a half years into the war, all of that has changed. In northern Syria, the country has fallen into economic ruin and hardcore jihadist groups, many with foreign ties, have proliferated. These two factors have created an environment ripe for kidnapping. Those desperate for cash are willing to abduct people for ransom or to sell them to extremist groups willing to pay for a foreign hostage.

Last Wednesday, armed men abducted Polish journalist Marcin Suder. According to media reports, militants took Mr. Suder from a media office in Idlib. An activist at the media center intervened in an attempt to stop the kidnappers, but he was beaten and hospitalized.

Even just several months ago, the abduction of a foreign reporter under these circumstances would have been unheard of, but kidnappings like Suder’s are rapidly undoing the idea that “safe houses” can exist in a place like Syria.

While some of the kidnappings appear to be conducted by criminal groups looking to make money, there are indications that groups with links to Al Qaeda or other extremist groups are now looking to kidnap people for potentially much more complex, political reasons. If this trend develops, it will drastically reduce the risk of foreigners surviving a kidnapping.

Already, Syrians throughout the north are suffering a rash of kidnappings. During my last visit there in late April and early May, I met one man who knew of eight people on his block who’d been kidnapped in recent months and he’d personally witnessed four of the abductions.

According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 15 foreign journalists have been kidnapped or gone missing inside Syria since the conflict began. 

That figure likely does not include a number of incidents, like one that happened to me last November. Several other reporters and I were driving through an area of Aleppo that was firmly under opposition control when a car cut us off, gunmen surrounded our car, took our driver, and brought us back to their base for several hours. Eventually, they released us, claiming to have rescued us from another kidnapping attempt. They would not tell us who they were, what rebel group they belonged to, or even if they were Syrians.

I’ve heard a number of stories about reporters who experienced brief abductions like mine, but who were released within several hours. The kidnappings now taking place appear to be of a much more serious and dangerous nature. With at least 1,200 different opposition factions, controlling the various groups, or simply understanding who is a legitimate rebel military group or a criminal group will become exceedingly difficult.

Even those who travel to northern Syria without experiencing any close calls, often leave saying they’re unwilling to return because they feel unsafe due to the massive number of foreign fighters and jihadists.

More than making it difficult, if not impossible for journalists to deliver on-the-ground reporting on one of the most brutal wars in decades, the cause of the problem is one that can only spell a dark and troubled future for Syria. 

Workers cut enoki mushroom into equal lengths at a mushroom processing factory in Shanghai, China, Monday, July 29. China's manufacturing activity has fallen to an 11-month low, a disappointing performance that puts pressure on Chinese leaders to reverse a deepening slowdown in the world's second-largest economy. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Why China is so worried about 7 percent growth

By Staff Writer / 07.31.13

For the second time in two days a top official has pledged to keep Chinese growth rates at a respectable level, despite ominous signs that factories around the country are slowing down. Yesterday it was President Xi Jinping himself making the promise, and that means Beijing means it.

The government’s target, 7.5 percent this year, would sound good almost anywhere else in the world. For China, it would be the slowest rate in two decades. And if growth falls below 7 percent, the official thinking goes, that could lead to rising unemployment and social unrest – which is what the ruling Communist Party fears most.

The trouble is, Beijing does not have many options. China’s extraordinary economic growth until now has been driven by exports and by massive investments in roads, railways, and industrial infrastructure, along with the debt incurred to fund all that construction.

But export growth is falling as the rest of the world struggles to pull itself out of the 2008 economic and financial crisis. And the government is clearly worried that its debt burden – anywhere from 46 percent to 78 percent of GDP, depending on whose estimates you believe – is becoming unmanageable.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang, the man in charge of the economy, has said his government will not take the easy way out in the face of slowing growth, as it did in 2008 when the authorities came up with a stimulus package worth nearly $600 billion.

Those debts are coming home to roost now. And auditors are fanning out across the country to inspect local governments’ books, to get an accurate picture of how much money local authorities have borrowed in recent years behind Beijing’s back.

The idea is that China will “rebalance” its economy away from traditional drivers and toward more domestic consumption, which means raising citizens’ disposable income.

That is good news for the rest of the world, and for any foreign company making things that Chinese consumers might want to buy. The Chinese market is already huge; if Chinese shoppers had more money to spend it would be even more attractive.

But this plan will take time to work – assuming that it does work. And until it does, tighter credit and less reliable export growth are bound to mean slower GDP growth.

Many economists say that even 7.5 percent a year is unrealistic and that China’s leaders will have to find a way to live with 5 percent or 6 percent – and with whatever implications that has for joblessness.

But one thing is sure, in a country where economic data are often opaque and the government controls all the information. If Xi Jinping promises 7.5 percent growth, that is what the end of year figures will say, whatever the underlying reality. The president cannot be wrong. 

As Reuters reported:

China will meet its economic growth target of 7.5 percent this year as authorities will continue to implement prudent monetary policy and keep market liquidity relatively ample, the chief of the top economic planning agency said on Wednesday.

Xu Shaoshi, chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, also said in a live webcast that the government will unveil an urbanization plan in the second half of 2013 and will push ahead with housing registration and land reforms.

Xu's comments are the latest from top officials to affirm China's plans to transform its economy and reassure markets it is on track to meet its goals. On Tuesday the politburo, China's top decision making body, vowed to keep growth steady while pressing on with reforms.

"We are confident, and have the necessary means and the ability to achieve this year's economic growth target of around 7.5 percent. But we also need to make arduous efforts," Xu said in the webcast on the central government's website.

Top leaders have made clear they will accept a slowdown in growth as they restructure the economy away from dependence for growth on exports and manufacturing, and towards one driven by consumption and services.

However, they have indicated that annual growth should not be allowed to slip below 7 percent.

Getting rural workers to move to the cities is part of the transformation effort as the government sees it as boosting consumption, which it wants to make the main engine of growth.

"We will push forward reforms on household registration system, land, fiscal and financial areas, social security and so on while improving the quality of urbanization," Xu said.

(Reuters reporting by Aileen Wang, Xiaoyi Shao and Jonathan Standing; Editing by John Mair)

People enjoy the sun next to Pont Neuf bridge as 'Paris Plage' (Paris Beach) opens along the banks of River Seine in Paris on July 20. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Sun, sand, and summer on the streets of Paris

By Staff writer / 07.29.13

Paris Plage,” the annual transformation of urban concrete into faux beach in Paris, was begun more than a decade ago as an experiment of equalization. The French are famous for taking off the entire month of July or August – but of course not everyone can afford such summer rituals. For those who cannot, the thinking went, why not bring the beach to them? It’s been such a hit that it’s been copied the world over.

This year, it might be more popular than ever.

We recently finished a Focus story on global vacation patterns. (The story will go up on the website on Wednesday.) For my part, as Europe correspondent, I have written about how the French, more than others in debt-stricken Europe, are planning on carrying on with their summer respite, with 62 percent saying they plan to go away, compared to an average of 54 percent in the European countries surveyed.

But that number, while higher than the average, still represents an 8-point drop in vacation-goers from the previous year. And I suspect many of them might be heading to the Seine and nearby Parisian canals for at least part of this summer.

I’ve never been to one of these urban beaches, even after one was created in Mexico City where I lived for seven years. Frankly, nothing seemed less appealing to me: hot sun beating on trucked-in sand, in stinky summer streets, with no option for cooling off in the water. But I’ve heard so much about “Paris Plage,” I wanted to see it for myself, so the Llana family packed up and set off – preparing to catch a quick glimpse and go.

It turns out we could hardly peel ourselves away.

In deciding where exactly to head, I relied on the reporting of my Monitor predecessor in Paris, Robert Marquand, who visited not the posher, tourist-infested beachfront of the Seine but the Canal de l’Ourcq in La Villete in the 19th arrondissement. He described the gathering as “a multiethnic romp for kids, and a place where locals do tai chi and play petanque, a kind of horseshoes with heavy balls. In an expensive city, drinks are supermarket prices.”  

Not interested in seeing or being seen, that seemed the place for us.

It was blisteringly hot but we found two seats under umbrellas, also shielded by palm trees, and plopped down with our two-year-old and her buckets and shovels. As she usually does, our tomboy immediately gravitated to a boy with cars, cranes, and buses.

One challenge I’ve had as a mother in Paris is how hard it is to meet other moms, even at the parks. But the vibe was far friendlier “on the beach.” Cecelia and her friend Victor immediately hit it off. He shared his fruit snacks; she her raisins. There was a breeze. His grandmother was lovely. We actually did feel like we were on vacation.

“It feels like summer,” my husband said, a lemonade in hand.

There are also boat rides, go-karts, ice-cream stands, and anything else you might find at a beach boardwalk. When it got too hot, we found a sprinkler system, which Cecelia ran back and forth through for a full 45 minutes without stop – which, as any parent knows, is better than a vacation. (She slept for 3 hours when we got home.)

These beaches are always depicted as a consolation prize for those not fortunate enough to go away. But I left feeling lucky that I live in a city where there is so much offered – whether one is going away or not. The vibe was certainly not one of runner-up.

The Faridkot estate is seen in New Delhi, India, Monday, July 29. A court in Punjab state recently ruled that the will of Sir Harinder Singh Brar of Faridkot leaving all his wealth to a trust set up by his palace officials was forged. (Shivan Sarna/AP)

Fairy tale: Court ruling awards $3.3 billion to Indian princesses

By Correspondent / 07.29.13

A roundup of global reports

Scheming servants, disinherited princesses, forged wills – these are standard elements of fantasy. But for the daughters of Sir Harinder Singh Brar, the last Maharajah (or king) of Faridkot, a small city in India, the elements are all part of a very real saga they have endured for more than two decades.

Last Thursday, a judge in Chandigarh, in the northwest state of Punjab, awarded Mr. Brar’s daughters the equivalent of $3.3 billion after ruling that a 31-year old last will and testament that placed his estate in the hands of his servants and lawyers was a forgery. The verdict ended the decades-long legal battle and made the sisters the 33rd richest in India, according to the Guardian.

According to the Hindu newspaper, Maharajah Brar’s servants and lawyers forged the will in 1982, while the maharajah was in the grips of depression following his only son’s death. Instead of awarding his assets to his family, the fraudulent will set up the Maharawal Khewaji Trust to manage Mr. Brar’s estate.

The suspicion about the will arose as the Maharaja excluded his mother Mohinder Kaur and his wife Narinder Kaur while all the servants, irrespective of their designation, and lawyers were appointed trustees. Amrit had been divested of all the powers of heiress on the grounds that she had married against the wishes of the late Maharaja. Deepinder had been appointed trust chairman on paltry salary of Rs 1,200 per month while Maheepinder Kaur was given a salary of Rs 1,000 a month.

Brar had been the ruler of Faridkot until 1947, when India gained independence from Britain, reports the Times of India. After independence, he was allowed to keep his fortune and properties.

The maharajah died in 1989 and three years later his daughter Amrit Kaur filed a suit against the trust, alleging that the will had been forged. And after 21 years, a court magistrate ruled that the will was a fraud, thereby making the trust’s claim to the estate illegal.

Instead, Brar’s two daughters, Amrit Kaur and Deepinder Kaur, were awarded the remainder of the former royal’s estate, which included several properties and palaces, jewels, and even a private aerodrome, reports the Daily Telegraph. A third daughter, Maheepinder Kaur, died in 2001.

However, according to the Times of India, the Maharawal Khewaji Trust is planning on challenging the ruling to an upper court, with Ranjit Singh, the trust’s legal counsel claiming that “The will was real and it was not forged.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd from l.) meets with members of the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday. Mr. Putin also met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to urge that Ukraine join Putin's planned Eurasia customs union. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP)

Putin to Ukraine: You belong with Russia, not Europe

By Correspondent / 07.29.13

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine over the weekend to attend a joint commemoration marking the 1,025th anniversary of Russia's conversion to Christianity, which took place in the original Russian state centered in Kiev.

Mr. Putin used the occasion to press a far more secular and, for the Kremlin, urgent agenda. Ukraine is facing an historic choice that may determine its development for decades to come. Much of Russia's own strategic future plans also revolve around what it decides.

The Kremlin wants Ukraine to integrate economically with Russia by joining a Moscow-led customs union and then go on to become part of Putin's grand "Eurasian Union" of former-Soviet states, which would have an eastward-looking focus.

But Ukraine plans to sign a landmark association agreement with the European Union in November, which would grant it trade preferences with Europe and preclude membership in an alternative trading bloc such as Russia's customs union.

Putin arrived in Kiev Saturday, with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in tow, to attend lavish celebrations marking the day in 988 AD when Prince Vladimir of Kiev adopted Orthodox Christianity and then ordered a mass baptism of his subjects in the Dneiper River. Though the church has since fragmented, millions of Ukrainians still adhere to the Moscow-based church headed by Kirill.

But Putin's mind was clearly elsewhere.

"This day marks the unity of our peoples. We have several common questions we will be able to discuss during these days of celebrations. There will be another meeting tomorrow… where we will talk security," the Kremlin-funded English-language RT network quoted Putin as telling Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Ukraine was on a pro-Western path following the 2004 Orange Revolution, but that movement was reversed after the Russian-speaking Mr. Yanukovych won a hard-fought 2010 election, in part on pledges to repair Ukraine's tattered relations with Russia.

In the months that followed Yanukovych's election, he largely succeeded in reversing the Orange Revolution and, in particular, derailed Ukraine's bid to join the Western military alliance NATO. He also sealed good ties with Moscow by extending Russia's lease on Sevastopol, headquarters of the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet, by another 25 years.

However, Yanukovych has been unable – or unwilling – to deliver Ukrainian agreement to join the customs union, whose main members are Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, a step that might forever cement Ukraine into a Russian-led economic and political union of ex-Soviet countries. At the same time, he has insisted that Ukrainian cooperation with Europe shouldn't close the door to better relations with Moscow.

At a meeting with Ukrainian religious and political leaders Saturday, Putin made his best pitch for choosing the Russian path.

"Competition on global markets is very fierce today. I am sure that most of you realize that only by joining forces can we be competitive and stand a chance of winning in this tough environment. We have every reason too, to be confident that we should and can achieve this," Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript of his remarks.

Putin argued that Ukraine was built up and industrialized within the USSR, and it still shares a considerable amount of common infrastructure with Russia. He claimed that living standards in Soviet Ukraine were even better than in some European countries, such as Italy.

"As you know, there are various integration processes underway now in the post-Soviet area.... There are facts that speak for themselves. Our bilateral trade with Ukraine fell by slightly over 18 percent in the first quarter of this year. Our trade with the customs union countries increased by 34 percent in 2011, by 11 percent, I think, in 2012, and was up by 2 or 3 percent in the first quarter of this year, despite the downturn in the global economy. We have steady growth," he said.

Putin added that Russia will respect Ukraine's choice, whatever it may be.

"Russia is really desperate, because Ukraine is the major trophy in Putin's Eurasian Union project. That's what leads Putin to pull out all the stops in the race to win this," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.

"Ukraine is trying to delay this choice as much as possible, because it wants to keep its European window open. But the Europeans have been quite tough, basically telling Ukraine that it can't sit on two chairs. Ukrainian public opinion is divided over this, but it seems that the dominant mood – at least of the younger part of the population – is for a European strategy. Trying to sit on two chairs is probably the best Yanukovych can do for Putin. But the European option is looming, and Ukraine will probably try to use it – regardless of what Putin wants," Mr. Strokan says.

A vendor displays amber jewelry at his stall at Old Town in Gdansk, Poland, in 2009. A visa-free travel agreement between Poland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad has spurred many Russians to spend their money in Gdansk and other Polish shops – to the potential detriment of Kaliningrad's business community. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File)

Russians shopping up a storm in Poland, thanks to visa-free travel

By Michael AmundsenContributor / 07.26.13

Kaliningrad Oblast is a unique part of Russia. Sandwiched between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea, the exclave is isolated from the rest of the Russian mainland, both physically and culturally. As such, Moscow has launched several disparate policies over the years to address its unique geographic and economic concerns.

There was the plan to turn Kaliningrad into the "Russian Macao": one of a small number of special legal gambling zones in the Russian Federation. But the scheme has been scuttled and Kaliningrad’s casinos have moved to Minsk in Belarus.

Then there was the ambitious effort to promote investment in the oblast with special tax incentives for businesses that chose to make Kaliningrad home. However, this mandate ends in 2016 and will not be renewed, as the business community has shown little interest.

Now, one of the latest plans looks like it has indeed benefited Kaliningrad’s residents – but to the detriment of the oblast’s business community, especially the retail sector.

A new agreement between the Russian Federation and European partners Poland and Lithuania, which took effect in 2012, allows residents of Kaliningrad to  travel visa-free into the neighboring countries up to 50 kilometers (31 miles), for durations of a few days. Likewise Poles and Lithuanians can visit Kaliningrad with similar restrictions.

Travel to Poland has proven especially popular and the zone for visa-free visits has been expanded beyond its original limits by mutual agreement. Kaliningraders are enjoying brief holidays in Polish Baltic Sea resorts, weekends in the beautiful medieval city of Gdansk, and shopping sprees in Polish supermarkets and shops.

All of this great news for residents of Kaliningrad, who have been bottled up in their exclave 350 kilometers (about 220 miles) from contiguous Russia since the ascension of Poland and Lithuania to the European Union in 2004.

“I prefer to go to Gdansk or Sopot just to have fun, to eat, to walk, just to change the environment,” says Margarita Bochkova, a Kaliningrad native in her 20s. “And if I go there I might also stop by at the supermarket to buy some food we don't have in Kaliningrad yet."

"But I know lots of people who go there to shop every weekend," she says. "They are mostly families, so it is much cheaper for them to stock up on food, clothes, and items for the home there.” 

Illya Dementev, a professor at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad sees a similar pattern but notes that Poles are barely making reciprocal journeys – instead just popping over the border for the cheaper gasoline. “Usually, Polish people come to the petrol stations, and that is all. As for us, we prefer Polish shops and cultural centers such as Gdansk, so we go there often,” he says.

Professor Dementev notes that consumer rubles flowing out of the oblast is a concern to local businesses. “As for the outflow of cash from the oblast, it is a problem. Retail businesses in Kaliningrad are very frightened by this regime because they are losing money," he says.

A Kaliningrad official put the situation succinctly. “Frankly speaking, I'm very glad to spend my money in [large department stores] IKEA and Auchan in Gdansk, for instance," he said, before asking to remain anonymous. "That’s just between us.”

Michael Amundsen is co-editor at

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