Global News Blog
A true champion
Missy Franklin isn’t your ordinary teenager. Not only does the 18-year-old four-time Olympic medalist get straight A’s and spend her free time visiting children’s hospitals, she’s known to be one of the nicest elite gold medal athletes out there. So how did her parents raise such a well-adjusted champ?
“There is no blueprint,” writes ESPN The Magazine’s Wayne Drehs. “More often than not, parents are making mistakes without even realizing it. In [the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State’s] 2005 study of elite youth tennis players ... roughly 30% of parents were unintentionally acting in a way that troubled their children. It could be as simple as the way a father holds his face in his hands after his son strikes out, or as complex as an up-and-coming tennis star, seeing the money his parents are shelling out for coaching and travel, feeling pressure to deliver on the investment.”
But the Franklins’ effort to not get caught up in the race to athletic insanity seems to have worked: “If it’s one thing my parents have taught me it’s to follow my heart,” says Ms. Franklin in a related ESPN video.
Is it that simple? “By many standards, Missy is spoiled. Her parents have built their lives around her needs and her schedule,” writes Mr. Drehs. “But somehow, Missy hasn’t devolved into a self-centered egomaniac. Instead, she’s the exact opposite.”
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What Americans do best
Empathy is spreading in Kyrgyzstan, and just in time, writes Emily Canning for Registan.net, with the introduction of a new TV show called “Dorm,” funded in part by the United States. (Think a Russian “Friends” with a sentimental moral in each episode.) The show confronts pressing social issues that include racism, corruption, and cross-border tensions with neighboring Uzbekistan. While Ms. Canning laments the US government cutbacks for research and education in Central Asia, a critical area as American troops pull out of Afghanistan, “Dorm” serves as a good reminder of what she says Americans truly do best: entertainment.
Norway’s ‘slow TV’ movement
While many networks around the Western world are vying for viewers with short attention spans and a hunger for the latest exciting concept, a rather odd thing is happening in Norway, writes Mark Lewis for TimeWorld.
“More than 3 million people out of a population of 5 million tuned in to ‘Hurtigruten: Minutt for Minutt,’ the five-day, nonstop cruise program, at some point during its marathon broadcast.” That’s right. They tuned in to stare at a live feed showing people enjoying a cruise. Not an MTV-drama-filled cruise, mind you, just a rather normal cruise that your grandma might take, without the scripts that have taken over “reality” TV. Building on that success as well as that of an evening-long program about firewood, the network has plans to release a minute-by-minute knitting program this winter. The producers are already swamped with e-mails and calls from viewers wanting to be involved in some way.
Why? Part of it, Mr. Lewis writes, is that these “slow TV” programs “hark back to a simpler time when people enjoyed the more spartan pleasures of stoking fires, enjoying the landscape and knitting warm clothes for the freezing Nordic winter.” But ultimately this is something that’s different, and strange – and that is exciting.
Growing real, local friends
It’s no secret that processed foods are out, and local, organic foods are in. The logic behind why now extends to digital friendships as well, writes Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic Monthly. “Processed relationships get scare quotes: Facebook ‘friends.’ Processed relationships can’t be as genuine or authentic or honest as real life friendships.... So the solution is to make local friends, hang out organically, and only communicate through means your Grandma would recognize. It’s so conservative it’s radical!”
The theory behind this emerging trend is that “by stripping away the trappings of modern life, we reach a place where humans naturally fall into deep and honest relationships with each other,” says Ms. Madrigal.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been mused about by everyone from Henry David Thoreau to Naturalists in the 1960s and ’70s. Today it may seem more pertinent than ever: It’s hard to think when our phone is always making noises.
But Madrigal cautions that just as any individual’s dietary habits don’t solve global agriculture’s issues, “the biggest technological problems of our time ... are collective problems that will require collective action based on serious critique.”
Productive people are early risers
Ever wonder why productive people get up insanely early? Paul DeJoe, writing in an op-ed for Fast Company, may have figured it out: Morning is the one time in the day when there is no pressure and no expectations. “The second you check email or LinkedIn, an internal clock of new items immediately starts in our minds – a vicious cycle. Planning your day the night before allows you to feel on top of your day and even look forward to it.”
– Jenna Fisher / Staff writer
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The conviction and sentencing today of anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny has focused minds around the world on something that's allegedly been going on in Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power and accelerating over time: the selective application of criminal charges and Kremlin-controlled courts to smear and immobilize political actors who refuse to play by the rigged rules of "managed democracy."
For many people, especially those who respect Mr. Putin as a leader who rescued Russia from a catastrophic downward spiral in the 1990s, it's not exactly obvious that is what's happening. After all, no one in Russia today is being explicitly prosecuted, Soviet-style, for their political opinions.
The charges against Mr. Navalny, that he embezzled the equivalent of $500,000 from a state timber company while acting as advisor to a regional governor, sound plausible enough. And he was convicted, in a court of law. "Navalny. . . committed a grave crime," said Judge Sergei Blinov as he passed a five year prison sentence on Navalny Thursday.
Yet increasing numbers of people insist that they have no faith in Russia's courts, nor in the law enforcement bodies that choose which investigations to pursue and what evidence to admit.
They include US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who issued a distinctly undiplomatic Tweet after hearing of the verdict: "We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of @Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial." Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has repeatedly lambasted Mr. Putin for hijacking Russia's democratic experiment, posted a comment on his foundation's website contending that the conviction of Navalny "is proof that we do not have independent courts" in Russia.
The key reason that many long-term observers of Russia have arrived at this conclusion is that Navalny, who is one of Russia's best-known opposition figures due to his highly-effective anticorruption blogging, is far from the only anti-Kremlin politician to have been targeted with elaborate criminal charges.
One of the first was oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who may have made his fortune through dubious methods in the 1990s along with numerous other "oligarchs," but was only arrested and charged with tax evasion 10 years ago after he refused to stop supporting opposition politicians and funding critical civil society groups. Legal experts have disputed the state's case against Mr. Khodorkovsky, and a court clerk told journalists that his second trial in 2011 was thoroughly stage-managed by the Kremlin, but he remains defiant and – some say therefore – is kept in prison. Many recent signals suggest that the Kremlin's powerful Investigative Committee is preparing a third trial against Khodorkovsky to keep the renegade oligarch in his Siberian penal colony after his second term expires next year.
A surprisingly large number of leaders lifted to prominence by the street protest movement that appeared after mass electoral fraud was alleged in December 2011 Duma elections have since found themselves charged with a variety of crimes. They include Navalny, who will probably have to drop his bid to challenge pro-Kremlin incumbent Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin in September elections.
The leader of the Left Front, which dominates the left flank of the protest movement, Sergei Udaltsov, is under house arrest and, along with several associates, charged in an elaborate foreign-funded conspiracy to overthrow the Russian government using street protests as a springboard for revolution. At least two dozen people who attended a rally on Bolotnaya Square on the eve of Putin's third-term inauguration last year are awaiting trial for allegedly attempting to stage "mass disturbances" planned by Mr. Udaltsov.
Two parliamentarians who supported the protest movement, Gennady Gudkov and Ilya Ponomaryov, have faced endless legal woes. Among other things, Mr. Gudkov was expelled from the Duma last year, while Mr. Ponomaryov has been named by the Investigative Committee in a still-developing corruption scandal that may expand to include government figures who failed to crack down on the protest movement.
Early this month Yevgeny Urlashov, the popular mayor of Yaroslavl, one of Russia's largest cities, was arrested and charged with soliciting a bribe of about $500,000. Mr. Urlashov, who had defeated a candidate of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, taking almost 70 percent of the vote, was planning to head an opposition slate for September regional elections.
No one assumes that liberals or leftists in power are necessarily any less corrupt than pro-Kremlin politicians, and Urlashov's case might not be remarkable if he were the only one. But according to a study by political scientist Mikhail Tulsky, about 50 independent mayors, or over 90 percent of all non-United Russia mayors elected to lead Russian municipalities, have been arrested or removed from office on a variety of criminal pretexts over the past three years.
Kremlin supporters have two responses to all this. First, they argue, criminals always shout "political persecution" when they get nabbed. Second, they say, critics like Mr. McFaul and Mr. Gorbachev are motivated by political animus against Putin and Russia. It's in their interests to transform people like Navalny into martyrs.
Opinion polls show that Putin remains extremely popular, with public approval ratings that routinely top 60 percent. Opposition figures, including Navalny, have little name recognition among the Russian population – at least outside of Moscow and other large cities – and miniscule support even among those who know of them.
Hence, Kremlin supporters argue, why on Earth should Russian authorities want to fabricate cases against them?
That question still can't be definitively answered, though grounds for skepticism are growing by the day.
But before anyone concludes that such skepticism about the state of Russia's institutions is the invention of ill-intentioned Western journalists and diplomats, joined by Russia's beleaguered liberals, consider this May public opinion survey by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, which clearly shows that it's far-and-away the majority view among ordinary Russians.
When asked "Do you think that the trial of Alexei Navalny is the result of his political activities and his opposition views?" 59 percent of Russians answered "yes" while just 19 percent said "no."
Indian paramilitary forces opened fire on demonstrators today, killing at least four people and injuring dozens more, after protests erupted at a security base in Kashmir. The incident, which took place in Ramban district, marks yet another confrontation between Kashmiris and Indian occupying forces this year in the contested Himalayan region.
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The protests started in response to an incident yesterday, when Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) allegedly entered a mosque looking for militants, according to The Associated Press. Protesters claim the BSF troops assaulted a caretaker and desecrated a Quran.
BSF Inspector General Rajive Krishan denied that the incident happened, saying protests began because of “antinational elements,” reports Reuters.
[Mr. Krishan] told a news conference the deaths occurred when his men and police fired to disperse a violent mob trying to get into a post where arms and ammunition were stored.
"Our men used the force for self defence," Krishan said.
After rumors of the allegations spread, protesters gathered in front of BSF headquarters when shots were fired into the crowd. Tensions have since been high in Ramban, where a group of angry demonstrators tried to set the district magistrate’s office on fire, writes the Times of India.
Local authorities have imposed a curfew in Ramban, reports NDTV. They have also shut down mobile Internet access.
Kashmir has a long and troubled history with curfews. In 2010, nonviolent demonstrations were violently put down by police forces and curfews were subsequently imposed, reports The Christian Science Monitor. In response, young men started pelting stones at authorities. Members of the community worried that the retaliatory cycle could renew violence in the war-torn northern region.
Kashmir, whose population is majority Muslim, has been the subject of numerous wars between India and Pakistan, which both claim sovereignty over the territory. Today, a de facto border called the “Line of Control” divides the areas of Indian and Pakistani authority.
In the 1990s, militants from Pakistan joined with Kashmiri separatists, and a bloody guerrilla war broke out that lasted more than a decade. In recent years the violence has petered out as Kashmiris turned to nonviolent tactics for gaining independence. But India still maintains an enormous counterinsurgency force in Kashmir, effectively creating a police state.
Now, people are worried that the violence of the ‘90s may be returning. In March, heavily armed rebel militants attacked police headquarters in Srinagar, resulting in seven deaths. And in June, rebels attacked a military convoy, killing eight soldiers and injuring 14 more.
The shooting in Ramban today has only aggravated tensions. Protests broke out as far away as Srinagar today, 110 miles' distance, reports Reuters. Other demonstrators blocked a main highway.
Meanwhile, the Indian government is appealing to people to maintain calm, according to the Hindustan Times.
In New Delhi, Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde ordered an inquiry into the firing incident in Ramban district and said any excessive use of force will be dealt with strictly.
"I have ordered an inquiry to be conducted without any loss of time to ascertain the circumstances leading to the firing. I assure that any use of excessive force or irresponsible action shall be dealt with strictly," he said in a statement.
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Did a cache of priceless stolen art go up in smoke in a Romanian village?
That's what the art world is afraid of, amid reports that museum forensic specialists from Romania's National History Museum are analyzing ashes found in an oven in the village of the mother of the suspected heist ringleader.
The Associated Press reports that according to Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the museum's director, investigators found "small fragments of painting primer, the remains of canvas, the remains of paint" and copper and steel nails, some of which pre-dated the 20th century, in an oven in the village of Caracliu where Olga Dogaru lives. Mrs. Dogaru's son was arrested in January in connection with the theft of seven paintings – including works by Matisse, Monet, and Picasso – from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum last October.
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Olga Dogaru says she first buried the art in an abandoned house and later in a cemetery in the village. But in February, when investigators began searching the village, she says she dug them up and burned them, reports BBC News.
"I placed the suitcase containing the paintings in the stove. I put in some logs, slippers and rubber shoes and waited until they had completely burned," the Romanian Mediafax news agency reported her as saying.
Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said that investigators "discovered a series of substances which are specific to paintings and pictures," including lead, zinc, and azurite, in the oven. And while he would not say whether the ashes belonged to the stolen paintings, he said that if they did, it was "a crime against humanity."
The stolen works were Pablo Picasso's 1971 "Harlequin Head"; Claude Monet's 1901 "Waterloo Bridge, London" and "Charing Cross Bridge, London"; Henri Matisse's 1919 "Reading Girl in White and Yellow"; Paul Gauguin's 1898 "Girl in Front of Open Window"; Meyer de Haan's "Self-Portrait" of around 1890; and Lucian Freud's 2002 work "Woman with Eyes Closed." The BBC writes that they were worth between $130 million and $260 million.
The pieces were taken last October in a daring theft from the Kunsthal, which was showing them as part of an exhibition called Avant-Gardes, a selection of 150 works from the Triton Foundation Collection, privately assembled by wealthy Dutch entrepreneur Willem Cordia and his wife, Marijke.
The museum had “state-of-the-art" security, according to its director, though it was purely technological – no guards were present on site. Ton Cremers, a consultant on museum security, told the Monitor at the time that the works of art, which could easily be seen from outside through the windows, were perhaps too visible. “You want works of such value in the heart of your building, in a separate space,” Mr. Cremers said.
Cremers also warned that chances of recovery were slim.
“For paintings, that chance is around 30 to 40 percent. On average it takes about seven years,” he says. But he notes that there is no guarantee of recovery, pointing to two works by Vincent van Gogh that were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in December 2002. Two thieves were sentenced for that crime in 2005, but the stolen paintings have never been recovered.
Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register, which specializes in tracking down stolen artworks, told the AP that if Dogaru did indeed destroy the paintings, "this isn't the first time the mothers of art thieves have come to the rescue of their son."
One case involved a prolific French criminal named Stephane Breitwieser, who stole more than 200 works from small museums across Europe in the late 1990s.
His mother admitted to destroying dozens of the works after police began investigating her son. She cut up paintings, stuffed the remnants down her garbage disposal, and threw valuable jewels and other antiquities into a canal.
She was arrested after some of the items resurfaced. "Old Masters were washing up on the bank," Marinello said.
The 142nd British Open golf championship gets underway Thursday at Muirfield. This will be the 16th time the Scottish course has hosted the Open Championship.
As with any golfing major, former winners hold an esteemed place of honor at the British Open. This year, no fewer than 17 former Open champions will tee it up in the first two rounds. And the R&A (formerly The Royal & Ancient Golf Club) has set up some interesting groups for the large British golf crowds to follow the first two days.
Former three-time champion Nick Faldo of Britain will be paired with American and former five-time champion Tom Watson. Former Masters champ Fred Couples rounds out the threesome that will tee off at 4 a.m. Eastern time Thursday.
Two-time defending champion Ernie Els of South Africa will play with current US Open champion Justin Rose of Britain and American Brandt Snedeker. This group will start their round at 4:11 a.m. Eastern Thursday.
Phil Mickelson, the recently-crowned Scottish Open champion, is paired with former US Open and PGA champion Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama, a threesome that will tee off at 4:44 a.m. Eastern.
While Mickelson was winning last week in Scotland, 19-year-old Jordan Spieth won his first PGA Tour event at the John Deere Classic. The Texas teenager, whose sparkling play at last year's US Open opened eyes, will play the first two rounds of his very first British Open with British amateur Matthew Fitzpatrick and Russell Healy of the US. They will tee off at 7:50 a.m. Eastern time.
Another threesome packed with star power hits the Scottish links at 9:12 a.m. Eastern. Defending Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia will go out with England's Luke Donald, No. 9 in the world this year, and American Matt Kuchar, who has won twice on the PGA Tour this season.
Last but not least, former three-time Open champion Tiger Woods will be joined by another former champion, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, and former US Open champ Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland. This group will begin play at 9:45 a.m. Eastern time.
The British Open is scheduled to be televised by ESPN, beginning at 4 a.m. Eastern time, Thursday through Sunday.
• A daily roundup of global news reports.
The usually busy markets closed early today, and traffic is almost nonexistent in the town of Chapra, in India’s Bihar Province. But the streets are far from quiet. A bandh, or demonstration, has been called and protesters are out on the street, demanding answers for the tragedy that struck this small provincial city some 550 miles from New Delhi.
As of midday on Wednesday, 22 children – all under the age of 12 – have died after eating tainted government school lunch program meals, while dozens more are reported to be seriously ill. The deaths have shed light on serious problems with India's school meal programs, which are designed to increase attendance and combat India’s high rates of child malnutrition.
According to the Indian Express, the incident took place at a public elementary school in the Saran district of Bihar, about 15 miles away from Chapra. Traces of organophosphorus, an organic compound used in pesticides, were found in the meal served to students. One of the cooks is also reported to be ill.
The meals were part of the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, a government program aimed at encouraging school attendance by offering free food to pupils, reports the BBC. The program impacts some 120 million children across the country – making it one of the largest in the world – and is intended to not only increase literacy but also put a dent in India’s chronic malnutrition problem.
Despite India’s impressive economic growth, it is still home to approximately one third of all malnourished children in the world, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). That’s more than all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Progress has been made on the issue. According to a report released in January 2012, India’s child malnutrition rate fell more than 10 points to 42 percent. While the figures are still alarmingly high, the government is starting to make attempts to fight child malnutrition, reports The Washington Post. India has seen large expansions in child welfare services and efforts to improve education in rural parts of the country.
Since the Mid-Day Meal Scheme was implemented in the 1960s it has been seen as a success overall, writes BBC’s Soutik Biswas. But gains made by the program have been marred by reports of corruption, negligence, and poor food inspection and hygiene, reports The Wall Street Journal:
“Staff had not been trained properly and lack the capacity to carry out proper monitoring,” said Yamini Aiyar, director of the Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank that carried out the study. The study was published in June.
State government officials monitor the quality and delivery of meals to schools, but only district authorities can implement changes to the system and this can take considerable time, Ms. Aiyar said.
There have been other cases of children dying after eating school food. Two children from Panipat, in Haryana state, died in March after eating a free meal under the program. And in May, 18 girls from another district in Bihar state fell ill after eating a meal at school, according to the Hindu.
Still, none of the cases have been as grave as the recent tragedy in Bihar, where, according to the Times of India, students and parents have often complained about the quality of the food, having found dead lizards, insects, and a rat in the school-distributed meals.
Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has ordered an investigation, reports Reuters. He has also offered 200, 000 rupees ($3,400) to the families of victims as compensation.
This has done little to satisfy community members in Chapra, where violent protests have broken out amid speculation of foul play, reports the Telegraph.
The Telegraph's South Asia editor Dean Nelson said that allegations that the authorities took 15 hours to hospitalise the sick children led to dozens of residents taking to the streets in Chapra, pelting a police station with stones and setting ablaze buses and other vehicles.
"There have also been allegations that the cause of these death may have been deliberate, the government education minister in Bihar is saying this is not normal food poisoning," he added.
Russia's Federal Migration Service is processing Edward Snowden's hand-scrawled application for temporary asylum in Russia, and the former National Security Agency contractor's Russian lawyer says he might be able to walk out of Sheremetyevo airport – where he's been holed up for over three weeks – holding Russian refugee papers within a few days.
"The question of giving him temporary asylum won't take more than a week. I think that in the near future he will have the possibility to leave the Sheremetyevo transit zone," the independent Interfax agency quoted the lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, as saying.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's treated Mr. Snowden's forced presence in the Sheremetyevo transit area as an "unwelcome gift," also appeared resigned to having the former CIA employee as a guest of Russia for the foreseeable future in remarks made to reporters during a visit to Siberia Wednesday.
"I won’t give you any details. We have warned Snowden that any activity of his that could damage US-Russian relations is unacceptable for us," Russian news agencies quoted Mr. Putin as saying.
"As I understand it, Snowden didn’t aim to spend his whole life in Russia. I don’t understand how a young man decided to do what he did, but it’s his choice," Putin added.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney hinted that failure to satisfactorily resolve the Snowden affair might result in "long-term problems" for US-Russia relations.
Moscow and Washington have recently been "engaging on a number of important issues, both economic and security related issues, and we want to continue that relationship unimpeded by this issue," Mr. Carney said. If Russia were to turn Snowden over, or at least expel him from the country, that would "resolve this situation that they have been dealing with now for three weeks," he added.
Carney didn't spell out the nature of the "problems" Snowden's continued presence in Russia might generate. But it's not hard to guess what they might be.
President Obama is slated to visit Russia in September to attend a G20 summit in St. Petersburg, and both sides have pinned hopes for a warming of the deepest diplomatic chill since the cold war on planned sideline meetings between Obama and Putin. It's hard to predict a positive outcome for that if Snowden is still being harbored in Russia at that point.
Another vulnerable point for Russia – where memories of the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games are still painfully alive – could be a similar move to shun the upcoming Sochi Winter Games, into which Russia has invested over $50 billion and much Russian prestige, over the Snowden issue.
That very threat was explicitly floated Tuesday by US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who told NBC news that the US should consider leading a Sochi boycott to let the Russians know that "enough is enough" if they won't hand Snowden over.
"I love the Olympics, but I hate what the Russian government is doing throughout the world," Senator Graham is quoted as saying. "If they give asylum to a person who I believe has committed treason against the United States, that's taking it to a new level."
There seems little doubt that Putin is sensitive to such talk. In his remarks to journalists Wednesday he reiterated that Russia would take steps to ensure that Snowden will inflict no harm on the US during his stay in Russia, and he seemed to dismiss the whole matter as a minor tiff between spy agencies that shouldn't be allowed to interfere with serious politics.
"International relations, in my opinion, are more important than the special services' hassles," the official RIA-Novosti quoted Putin as saying.
A home in Russia?
In a lengthy interview with the Kremlin-funded English-language TV network Russia Today, which prefers to be called RT, Snowden's lawyer Mr. Kucherena said that his client had told him that Putin's demand that he do no further damage to US interests was "attainable."
"I believe that [Snowden] will be true to his word," said Kucherena, who has met three times with the ex-NSA contractor in Sheremetyevo, and says he questioned him deeply about his motives, beliefs, and intentions.
"From his replies, I can understand that he is an adamant human rights activist and when he says that his past employment duties blatantly violated universal human rights, he says it sincerely. Because he, unlike someone else, understands that he used certain methods to spy on people, to read their communication."
Kucherena said Snowden refuses to return to the US because he does not believe he will be treated humanely or get a fair trial.
"He fears for his life and well being.... [H]e is also afraid of torture, and that he could get executed. And what he says sounds quite convincing, because the US still administers capital punishment and torture," he said.
Political asylum in Russia would provide Snowden with documents enabling him to live in Russia and enjoy many privileges of a Russian citizen, and be renewable annually, he added.
"I’m not eliminating [the possibility that he might remain permanently] because he told me that he would like to stay in Russia. [In this case] he will become a citizen with all rights and privileges," Kucherena told RT.
No Russian summer would be complete without some publicly-staged feat of derring-do by President Vladimir Putin, who seems drawn to perform macho stunts as much out of a boyish sense of adventure as any public relations calculation.
This week saw President Putin plunge to the bottom of the frigid Gulf of Finland in a bubble-topped luxury submersible to view the amazingly well-preserved wreck of the Oleg – a steam-powered, wooden Czarist-era frigate that was accidentally sunk during war games in 1869.
Putin returned from his half-hour excursion to a depth of 60 meters effusing about both the modern, 6-seat C-Explorer-5 mini-sub and the remains of the Oleg, which he said was in such good shape he could read its name emblazoned on the hull.
"This submersible is different, impressions are also a bit different," said Putin, who knows a thing or two about submarines.
His first major crisis as president was the August 2000 Kursk disaster, a Russian ballistic missile submarine that sank in the Arctic with all hands, followed by a badly-botched rescue effort that exposed the incompetence, mendacity, and callousness of Russian officialdom to the world.
On at least two occasions, Putin has gone on undersea patrols aboard a nuclear submarine, and dramatic photos of him in naval uniform are among the most popular stock images offered by the state news agency RIA-Novosti.
In 2009 he rode a Russian deep-sea Mir-1 mini-submersible to the bottom of Siberia's Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, and later reported that the lake's famously pure water actually looked to him like "plankton soup."
But the brand new mini-sub that took him to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland Monday was much better, he said, because it has a large plexiglass bubble that allows a full 360 degree view. "It's very interesting. Impressive. … It’s like a time machine taking you to another period," he said.
The wreck of the Oleg – one of the last wooden warships, which went down in 15 minutes after being accidentally rammed by a new ironclad vessel – was discovered near Gogland Island in the Gulf of Finland by Russian researchers ten years ago. The Kremlin has given the Russian Geographical Society a major grant to study it and other Russian warships whose remains litter the bottom of the Baltic Sea after many wars.
"We didn't really do such work before. I think the time has come now, we can finally do that in terms of financial and technical capabilities. The moral duty towards the fatherland defenders goes without saying," Putin told reporters.
Putin frequently combines his publicity stunts with causes that he supports. Last year he took to the air in a motorized hang glider to guide a flock of endangered Siberian cranes onto their correct migratory path.
He has harpooned a grey whale and shot a rampaging tiger with a tranquilizer dart – both times in the interests of science – and regularly attends conferences devoted to saving endangered animal species.
As wildfires raged across Russia three summers ago, Putin personally took control of a Beriev-200 amphibious water-bomber and was shown on Russian TV expertly dousing an out-of-control forest fire.
Putin's extracurricular antics, which seem bound to continue as long as he remains in the Kremlin, have included bare-chested fishing and horseback riding, driving the trans-Siberian highway in a Russian-made Lada, and multiple displays of his black-belt prowess at judo.
And, who knows? The summer's not over yet. Mount Everest beckons. Or better, perhaps, a challenging mountain in the former Soviet Union. It happens that there's a very impressive one in the Tien Shan range of central Asia, which the Republic of Kyrgyzstan recently named "Putin's Peak," in honor of Vladimir Putin.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin indirectly addressed Edward Snowden's renewed request for political asylum in Russia, noting that the former National Security Agency contractor appears to be "trapped" in Russia. But, he added, he and Mr. Snowden are in agreement about about one important matter: he really shouldn't stay in Russia any longer than he needs to.
That said, Mr. Putin went on, Snowden has moved toward accepting the Kremlin's condition that in order to be granted refuge in Russia he must stop leaking damaging NSA secrets to the global public.
"As soon as there is an opportunity for [Snowden] to move elsewhere, I hope he will do that," Russian news agencies quoted Putin as saying. "The conditions for granting political asylum are known to him. And judging by his latest actions, he is shifting his position. But the situation has not been clarified yet."
"There are certain relations between Russia and the United States, and we would not like you to harm them with your activity," said Putin, quoting Russian officials talking to Snowden during a conversation at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after he arrived. "He said no. He said, ‘I want to continue my activity, fighting for human rights. I think the US is violating certain international regulations and intervening in private lives and my goal is to fight this.'"
Unless Snowden definitively changes his attitude, Putin said, Russia will not help him.
At a meeting with Russian human rights workers and parliamentarians at Sheremetyevo on Friday, Snowden insisted that his actions have not caused harm to the US, and said he would immediately renew his application for temporary asylum in Russia.
It's not clear whether Snowden's remarks meant that he intends to stop leaking NSA secrets. It may be out of his hands in any case. The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who's been spearheading most of the revelations, told journalists last week that Snowden has already turned over a great many documents to him and he will be doing exposés based on them for months to come.
As for remaining in Russia, Snowden really doesn't seem able to move along – as Putin has repeatedly urged him to do – because the US has used all its tools of global influence to block Snowden's ability to travel anywhere beyond Moscow, Putin said.
"He arrived on our territory without an invitation, he was not flying to us. He was flying in transit to other countries. But as soon as he got in the air it became known, and our American partners, in fact, blocked his further flight," Putin said, referring to Snowden's stealthy June 23 flight from Hong Kong to Moscow aboard a Russian Aeroflot airliner.
Putin appeared to be claiming that Snowden's passport was only revoked after he boarded the Aeroflot plane, although other reports indicate that his passport was canceled at least a day before he fled Hong Kong. That would leave open the embarrassing question of how Hong Kong authorities and Aeroflot officials allowed him onto the Russian national airline's regular Moscow flight.
Snowden had an onward ticket from Moscow to Cuba for the next day, June 24, but he failed to use it for reasons that are still unclear.
"[The US] scared other countries. No one wants to accept him," Putin said.
According to some news reports, Putin added: "Such a present to us. Merry Christmas."
Putin's remarks suggest he may be leaning toward taking Snowden in at least temporarily, although the former KGB spy clearly has no enthusiasm whatsoever for an idealist who refuses to defect in the traditional manner and publicly opposes government secrecy on principle.
But many other Russians, including leading parliamentarians, have been urging the Kremlin to embrace the wayward ex-CIA employee who has done so much to undermine the image of the US as the global champion of freedom and democracy.
As of Monday, Russian officials were maintaining that they have not yet received any asylum requests from Snowden.
"There has been no application from Edward Snowden today," the independent Interfax agency quoted Konstantin Romadanovsky, director of Russia’s Federal Migration Service, as saying. "If an application is received, it will be examined under the established legal procedures."
It was a scene that India hadn’t witnessed for decades: lines stretching around the block, hundreds deep, of customers waiting to send a telegram.
But as the state-run telecommunications company prepared to shutter its telegram service Sunday, thousands queued up at the country’s 75 telegram offices for a final chance to send one of the old-school missives.
Telegrams in India, as elsewhere, have long been on a backslide into obscurity, crowded out of the market by a flood of digital communications devices. In its last year of life, the state telegram service sent out only about 5,000 messages per day – 1.8 million a year – down from a peak of 60 million in 1985, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
"We were incurring losses of over $23 million a year because SMS and smartphones have rendered this service redundant," Shamim Akhtar, general manager of BSNL's telegram services, told the Monitor.
Still, particularities of Indian culture and history helped the increasingly outdated service cling to life in the country, Time reports.
In India, the telegram has owed its curious resilience to the two distinct advantages it has over rival technologies: it is already there, and it works, bearing messages rapidly across the country in places where telephone or Internet access is either nonexistent or erratic. For these reasons, it has retained a place in the country’s official life. India’s legendarily change-averse bureaucrats still use telegrams out of habit. Lawyers and courts use them to create written records in judicial proceedings. The army uses them occasionally to communicate with troops at remote stations. A handful of private customers use them too.
For 163 years, telegrams ferried some of India’s most important political messages – helping the British squash an anti-colonial uprising in 1857 and carrying the news of Pakistan’s invasion of Kashmir to London in 1947. But they have also been the purveyor of far less historic news. Telegrams historically brought notice of births and deaths to far flung family members, and they are still frequently used by eloping couples to inform their families that they have run away for love.
"They inform their parents that they are married, and fearing violence from the family, inform the police and the National Human Rights Commission," said R.D. Ram, a telegram operator in New Delhi, in an interview with the Monitor.
The demise of India’s state-run service comes seven years after Western Union ended its telegram service in the United States. But even as the telecom giants bow out of telegraphy, a number of private services have stepped in to fill the – admittedly small – gap.
Canadian company International Telegram (iTelegram), which began sending telegrams in the US after the Western Union closure, announced on its website this week that it has begun a private telegram service in India as well.
Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL), the Indian state-owned telecommunications company, has decommissioned its telegram services as of July 2013.
Does this mean the end of telegrams in India? Or, as some news outlets have reported, the end of telegrams everywhere? No….
Customers wishing to place a telegram order to India, or from India to other countries, can do so through the iTelegram web site. Service is available to over 200 countries. And yes, happily that includes India!
For many Indians, however, the closing of the government telegram service still heralds the end of an era.
"Soon this will all be history,” said one Indian, who stood in line to send a telegram on Sunday, in an interview with CBS News. “Our last telegrams will become collector's items."