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The World This Week: Peace, Violence and Scandal

Putin has responded with characteristic ruthlessness as Russian prestige has taken a thrashing over the last few months.

After protracted coffee-fueled all-night negotiations in Minsk, Ukraine has a deal for a ceasefire. Shelling has intensified after the ceasefire declaration. Pro-Russia rebels have surrounded around 8,000 Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub. As per Russian President Vladimir Putin, the rebels assume that Ukrainian troops will be surrendering. So, the deal in Minsk is already in doubt. It could go the way of an earlier ceasefire agreement signed on September 5, 2014, which collapsed within days.

Russian President Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent 16 hours to agree upon the terms of a ceasefire. Peace is predicated on autonomy or some form of self-rule for parts of eastern Ukraine. At the heart of the conflict is a clash of two principles — apart from the jostling over contending interests. The issue of self-determination is clashing with that of state sovereignty. Russia believes that if Ukraine had the right to ally itself with the United States and the European Union (EU), then Russians in the eastern part should have the right to their own state. The US and EU believe that Ukraine’s borders are sacrosanct and its sovereignty has to be protected against Russian aggression.

The reality is more complicated. First, the US is shifting its strategic focus to Asia. Earlier this year, the Pentagon announced that it was closing 15 long-standing US bases in Europe. Americans have long seen Europeans as freeloaders and want them to start paying for their own security. Second, Europeans are in no position to fight. They have aging populations and unaffordable welfare states. They want la dolce vita and not fisticuffs, particularly on their doorstep. It is an open secret that Merkel and Hollande detest each other, but they were willing to bury differences and negotiate for peace because neither of them can afford a war.

Finally, Russia is paranoiac about the constant whittling down of its power and status. Putin is an ex-KGB colonel who remembers the halcyon days of the Soviet Union. Now, he finds Russia’s realm shrinking ever closer to Moscow. The Russian economy is in free fall. Mother Russia is one of the few countries with both a declining population and decreasing life expectancy. Yet it still does not care about casualties and has conscription. It has been sending young conscripts to Chechnya and failing to let their mothers know anything about them even if they die. Putin is responding with characteristic ruthlessness as Russian prestige has taken a thrashing over the last few months. Backed into a corner, the bear feels it has no choice but to lash out. Yet it is famished and is not quite up for a full fight. So, a ceasefire suits its purposes and, if that fails, civil war in neighboring Ukraine using proxies is not too bad an option to preserve the little that remains of Russia’s erstwhile influence.

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Last week, Boko Haram militants launched their first attack in Niger. This week, they have struck in Chad. In an attack on a village, they torched two-thirds of the homes, killed at least five villagers and injured many more. Meanwhile, in another attack in northeastern Nigeria, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in a crowded market in Biu, a town 180 kilometers south of Maiduguri, the capital of the state of Borno. Due to the security threat posed by Boko Haram, Nigeria postponed its presidential elections scheduled for February 14 by six weeks. Recently, Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon have formed a military coalition against Boko Haram. Yet the Islamist group continues to remain strong.

Too many African states are arbitrary. Power is centralized in capital cities and dysfunctional bureaucracies are robbing the state exchequer in broad daylight. Tribes jostle to conquer power in national capitals to appropriate the patronage dispensed by the state. Those that get marginalized turn to leaders or groups who exploit religious or ethnic identities. Boko Haram’s recruits are largely Kanuri, an ethnic group to which its leader, Abubakar Shekau, belongs. They are young people from rural areas who are lured by radical Islam and paid through extortion, kidnappings for ransom and bank robberies. Boko Haram buys weapons from smugglers in the Sahel region, where arms from Libyan depots looted in 2011 have made their way. The states that have formed a coalition have more resources than Boko Haram but are not as hungry or ruthless. The stage is set for a protracted fight.

The Greek parliament voted to end the country’s bail-out agreement. The last four years have been disastrous for Greece. Nominal gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 22% from 2008-14. House prices fell by 40% and median incomes by 22% for the same period. Unemployment has soared. The Economist compares the Greek economic collapse to Libya’s. It is little surprise that the new government has decided to jettison austerity and spend more public money. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, is furious and has declared that if Greece did not seek an extension of its bail-out, “Then it’s over.” Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, predicted that Greece’s exit from the euro is only a matter of time. He went on to say that the euro itself is doomed — he may well be right.

In India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was decimated in the election for the Delhi Assembly. The Aam Aadmi Party, a new populist outfit that is an offshoot of the anti-corruption movement, won 67 of the 70 seats. India’s venerable Congress Party failed to win a single seat, and its share of the vote fell from 24.7% to a mere 9.7%, a dramatic fall for a party that ruled Delhi for 15 years. Clearly, voters are looking for alternatives, and inequality in India’s capital has created space for a new left-leaning party that promises to be more democratic than others.

Finally, HSBC, a leading British bank, found itself in the spotlight when some of its leaked documents were published. It turns out that HSBC has helped clients ferret away $120 billion in secret Swiss accounts. Like the scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, the scent of this recent scandal seems to lead all the way to 10 Downing Street. British Prime Minister David Cameron once worked in a shady world of financial public relations. He claimed that his ministers have only come to know about potential tax evasion by HSBC over the weekend. This seems to be false.

In 2011, Britain’s chief tax inspector told members of parliament that a disc containing 6,000 names from the Swiss subsidiary of a major UK bank were “ripe for investigation.” Stephen Green, a former chairman of HSBC, was trade minister back then. In 2010, the Financial Times reported that HSBC fought to block French tax authorities from transferring the material to their British counterparts and to protect their clients’ confidentiality. Rona Fairhead, the chairwoman of the BBC Trust, was the chair of HSBC’s audit committee at the time and has refused to respond to queries about tax evasion. Again far too much smells rotten in Cameron’s incestuous Britain and, to twist a proverb, Caesar’s wife is not at all above suspicion.

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The Source of Economic Success in the 21st Century
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European countries must focus on their children’s skills in an increasingly competitive world, argues former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton.

A lot of attention is being given to the competition Europe and the United States will face from economic growth in Asia over the next 25 years. A survey conducted by the World Economic Forum shows that Asia is the most optimistic about its economic future. And optimism is essential to investment.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has estimated that between 2015 and 2060, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita will increase eight-fold in India and six-fold in Indonesia and China, whereas it will merely double in OECD countries, which include Europe and North America. This will affect the balance of power in the world. It is interesting to note that two of the top three Asian dynamos are democracies: India and Indonesia. And both of them have substantial Muslim populations. Read More

My Cousin Joined ISIS
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In Istanbul, Maria Khwaja Bazi recounts a Syrian refugee’s story, whose cousin joined the Islamic State.

Full disclosure: I’m too lazy to do my hair. There’s a lovely salon overlooking Istanbul’s Taksim Square where, for only about $6.75, Khalid will blow out my hair into the kind of Kardashian waves I can only dream of achieving at home.

Last Sunday, my husband came along to sip on Turkish tea and yell over the hair dryer to Khalid, who occasionally put down the brush to gesticulate wildly. “Daesh,” said Khalid, stabbing the air for emphasis. My husband put down his tea and looked more serious, nodding along to Khalid’s flurry of Arabic.

“What’s he talking about?” I said. I had only caught the word Daesh, a name used by Arabic news media for the Islamic State (aka ISIS).

“I asked him about ISIS,” my husband said. Read More

BJP Bites the Dust in Delhi, While AAP Steamrolls to Victory
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The BJP’s rout in Delhi should serve as a wake-up call for the party and the prime minister.

In India, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept the Delhi state assembly elections, winning 67 seats out of 70, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) securing the remainder. The elections were held on February 7 and the results announced on February 10.

Amazingly, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, Kiran Bedi, lost from the Krishna Nagar constituency, a party bastion since 1993, by over 2,000 votes. AAP Chief Arvind Kejriwal is expected to take his oath as Delhi’s chief minister on February 14.

Whether one likes Kejriwal or not, there is no denying that this is a pivotal moment in his political career, and a testament to his dogged efforts to return to politics after he resigned from the post in frustration over stalled anti-corruption legislation in 2014. Read More

In the Midst of a Revolution, The X Factor Meets The Apprentice
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© Bamyan Media

How do you tackle social and environmental problems and make money at the same time?

Tired of reality TV shows focusing on Kim Kardashian or some other pointless celebrity? Ever think reality TV could be a little deeper? Thankfully, you’re not alone. A groundbreaking, new “edutainment,” reality TV show that launched in late 2013 in Egypt has skillfully harnessed the power of mainstream media to ask some bigger questions of its audience, such as: How do you tackle social and environmental problems and make money at the same time?

Combining some of the best aspects of The X Factor, The Apprentice and Ashoka’s Changemakers, El Mashrou3 (The Project, in Arabic) is the first-ever reality TV show about business and social entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

Produced by Bamyan Media, a social enterprise that specializes in creating impact-oriented television shows for social change in the developing world, El Mashrou3 is an innovative and original formatted reality TV show. Read More

Let’s Talk About Sex
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Sex is a natural human desire, but how do different communities and cultures perceive it?

There is a popular myth that men think about sex every seven seconds, or up to 8,000 times a day. While research has shown that the number is actually lower – on average around 34 times a day for men and 18 for women – sex is, for the lack of a better phrase, a hot topic. We may dedicate a similar amount of thought to other simple pleasures like food and sleep, but it is the element of sex that makes bestsellers out of books like Fifty Shades of Grey.

According to Rudolph Brasch, the first exhaustive discussion on sex occurred in the Bible. He dubs it the first comprehensive sex “manual,” which indicated early on that sex and religion are not divorced from each other. But the first literature that treated sexual intercourse as a science was Kama Sutra. Read More

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