Coexistence In The Middle-East (And Every Where else On Earth): Or Self Inflected Armageddon?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY  ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Coexistence Is the Last Chance to Avoid the Precipice

Last week, Egypt’s Coptic Christians cancelled Easter celebrations in mourning for those who were killed in two separate terrorist explosions targeting churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

In Iraq too, new maps are being drawn by sectarianism, while minorities shrink and ethno-religious fabric change under the violence perpetrated by Iran on one side and ISIS on another.

Likewise, we openly witness how shredded Syria has become, and under the eyes of the international community, it is well on the road of partition and population exchange– finally, the less said the better it is when the subject matter is ongoing events in occupied Palestinian territories.

Given this painful regional climate, the ongoing arguments about Lebanon’s future electoral system become a travesty, not much different from the ‘crowded’ field of Iran’s presidential elections where neither votes nor abundance of candidates mean a thing against what the Supreme Leader utters and the elitist Revolutionary Gaurd the (IRGC) dictates.

In Lebanon, the Middle East’s ‘democratic’ soft belly, the Lebanese’ daily bread and butter is endless and absurd arguments and counter-arguments about what the most appropriate electoral system should look like in upcoming parliamentary elections. This is not actually new. Moreover, true intentions behind what is going on have nothing to do with what is being said, whether the intention is escalation or hypocrisy.

The real problem is that the Lebanese are acutely divided on several basic issues regarding conditions of coexistence, political representation and even the meaning of democracy.

For a start, one must ask oneself whether the next elections – regardless of what system is adopted – are going to produce any change in the status quo? Is there any common Lebanese vision as to what the country’s identity is among the ostensible ‘allies’, let alone political adversaries and those dependent on foreign backing and sectarian hegemony?

Then, one may also ask – given defective mechanisms of governance – would ‘state institutions’ still be relevant and meaningful? Would any electoral law be effective in the light of accelerating disproportionate sectarian demographics, and the fact that one large religious sect enjoys a monopoly of military might outside the state’s umbrella, while still sharing what is underneath that umbrella?

The other day in his Easter sermon the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Ra’i said “the (Lebanese) Christians are nobody’s bullied weaklings, but are rather indispensable (!)…”. This is tough talk indeed, but it too is not new.

From what is widely known about Cardinal Ra’i, even before assuming the Patriarchate, is that he is highly interested in politics, and that political views are as candid as they are decisive. On Syria, in particular, he has been among the first to warn the West against and dissuade its leaders from supporting the Syrian uprising; when he claimed during his visits – beginning with France – that any regime that may replace Bashar Al-Assad’s may be worse, and thus it would better to keep him in power.

The same path has been followed by current Lebanese president Michel Aoun, who was strongly backed by Hezbollah, to the extent that the latter forced a political vacuum on Lebanon lasting for over two years.

Of course, Hezbollah, in the meantime, had been imposing its hegemony over Lebanon, fighting for Al-Assad in Syria, and training the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of Iran’s project of regional dominance. In promoting this ‘project’ globally, but particularly in the West, Iran has given it the themes of ‘fighting terrorism’ – meaning ‘Sunni Muslim terrorism’- and ‘protection of minorities’ within the framework of a tactical ‘coalition of the minorities’.

A few days ago Aoun said during an interview that “the aim behind what is taking place in the Orient is to empty it of Christians and partition the region into several states”. Again, this is not something new, as it used to be said on the murder and kidnapping road blocks during the dark days of the Lebanese War between 1975 and 1990. Those days the fears of uprooting were common and widespread; reaching the climax within the Christian community with rumors that the mission of American diplomat Dean Brown was to evacuate Lebanon’s Christians to Canada, and within the Druze community during ‘the Mountain War’ (1983-1984) that they would be expelled to southern Syria.

However, Aoun, as it seems, has not been quite aware of who was applying the final touches on population exchange, and drawing the map for the ‘future’ states he has been warning against. He has simply ignored the full picture, turning instead, to repeat old talk in order to justify temporary interests that are harmful if not fatal to minorities, rather than being beneficial and protective.

In this context, come the ‘try-to-be-smart’ attempts to impose a new electoral law in Lebanon as a means of blackmail, as if the country’s sectarian ‘tribal chieftains’ are naïve or debutants in the arena of sectarian politics. The latest has come from Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and President Aoun’s son-in-law, when he expressed his “willingness to entertain the idea of a Senate, on the condition that it is headed by a Christian!”. This pre-condition was quickly rejected by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on the basis that the presidency of a Senate, as approved in “Taif Agreement” – which is now part of Lebanon’s Constitution – was allocated to the Druze; and thus, what Bassil had suggested was unconstitutional.

It is worth mentioning here that all suggestions regarding the future electoral law have ignored the issue of a Senate. It was has also been obvious that another item in the “Taif Agreement” was being intentionally ignored too, which is adopting ‘Administrative De-Centralization’.

However, if some Lebanese parties feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘De-Centralization’, more so as both Iraq and Syria seem to be on their way to actual partition, it is not possible anymore to separate Lebanon’s politics from its demographics.

The latter are now being affected by radical and everlasting demographic changes occurring across the country’s disintegrating eastern borders with Syria. These include what is being reported – without being refuted – about widespread settlement and naturalization activities in Damascus and its countryside. Furthermore, once the population exchange between Shi’ite ‘pockets’ of northern Syria and the Sunni majority population of the Barada River valley is completed, the new sectarian and demographic fabric of Damascus and its countryside would gain a strategic depth and merge with a similar fabric in eastern Lebanon.

This is a danger that Lebanese Christians, indeed, all Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and all Arabs, must be aware of and sincere about. The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic, as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.

Nation-building is impossible in the absence of a free will to live together. It is impossible in a climate of lies, while those who think they are smart gamble on shifting regional and global balances of power.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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Colorado State Congress Votes To Allow Marijuana Use To Help People With PTSD

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE DENVER GAZETTE)

As marijuana enthusiasts gathered in Denver’s Civic Center on Thursday, praying for rain to hold off during 420 festivities, lawmakers across the park rejected an effort to ban cannabis use in churches.

The Legislature on Thursday also approved adding post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.

Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, pushed a last-minute amendment as a bill that addressed open and public consumption was being considered for a final time in the House. Some lawmakers suggested that Pabon had hijacked the broader bill for an unrelated issue.

“This bill is about open and public. I’m confused about what we’re doing here because we’re talking about a place of worship …” said Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton. “Allow people to do what they want in a church.”

Pabon pushed the amendment in response to the International Church of Cannabis, which opened in Denver as lawmakers were debating the legislation. Pabon was careful to offer an exemption for religious purposes, but it wasn’t enough to persuade colleagues.

“We have a particular group of individuals who are seeking to take advantage of our consumption laws because a church would be considered private … and using that as a shroud to essentially allow consumption in a place where it should not be allowed,” Pabon said “A place of religious worship should not be authorized as a place for marijuana consumption.”

The International Church of Cannabis made national headlines after it boasted “Elevationism,” what the church refers to as religion for marijuana consumers. Followers believe cannabis should be used as a sacrament.

The effort by Pabon saw criticism from both sides of the aisle. It failed on a procedural motion and never came up for a vote.

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, said he “thoroughly and utterly” disagreed with the proposal.

“This is the archetypal nanny state right here,” Salazar said. “This amendment is saying to people we don’t like the way you worship.”

The attempt highlighted the continually evolving Senate Bill 184, which started as a measure that would have authorized local governments to allow private marijuana clubs. But that provision was stripped from the bill over health concerns and opposition expressed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat.

Instead, the measure only defines what open and public consumption of marijuana is, a thorny issue that has perplexed lawmakers since rules and regulations were first crafted in 2013.

Public places – where marijuana use is prohibited – would be defined as highways, transportation facilities, parks, playgrounds, and the common areas of public buildings, to name a few places.

The stripped-down bill was approved by the House on a vote of 35-30. It now heads back to the Senate for consideration of House amendments before it can go to the governor for his signature.

Also on Thursday, the House gave initial approval to a bill that would add post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. The Legislature has been debating the issue for years, but this is the first year that offers a glimmer of hope for pushing the legislation through.

“On this auspicious day, we have a serious bill,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, a sponsor of the bill, who pointed to the 420 celebrations.

“We know that there is no medical cure for post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapy, medication, exercise, diet, there’s no silver bullet. … This bill opens that door, it opens that door for our veterans to ensure that they are not sacrificing their future the way they decided to sacrifice their own health, and in some cases their own mental health for our country.”

The legislation saw some controversy over whether children should be allowed to use medical marijuana for PTSD. A successful amendment was offered Thursday that adds strict guidelines for recommending marijuana for children, including requiring that a pediatrician, board-certified family physician or board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, make the recommendation.

Senate Bill 17 must still receive a final vote by the House before heading back to the Senate to approve amendments.

Jeff Sessions: If a Judge In Hawaii Shouldn’t Count Should A Idiotic Former Federal Judges Opinion From Deep South Alabama Mean Anything?

 

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said this week he was amazed that a judge in Hawaii could block President Donald Trump’s executive order halting immigration from several majority Muslim countries.

Sessions made the comments in an interview with “The Mark Levin Show” Tuesday evening that was put online Wednesday.
“We’ve got cases moving in the very, very liberal Ninth Circuit, who, they’ve been hostile to the order,” Sessions said. “We won a case in Virginia recently that was a nicely-written order that just demolished, I thought, all the arguments that some of the other people have been making. We are confident that the President will prevail on appeal and particularly in the Supreme Court, if not the Ninth Circuit. So this is a huge matter. I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.”
Last month, a federal judge in Hawaii, Judge Derrick Watson, issued an order that blocked Trump’s ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. The Department of Justice is currently appealing the decision.
In tweets on Thursday, both Senators from Hawaii responded to Sessions’ comments.
Justice Department spokesperson Ian D. Prior clarified Sessions’ remarks in a statement on Thursday.
“Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific — a beautiful one where the Attorney General’s granddaughter was born,” he said. “The point, however, is that there is a problem when a flawed opinion by a single judge can block the President’s lawful exercise of authority to keep the entire country safe.”
In the interview on Tuesday, Sessions also added that judges shouldn’t “psychoanalyze” Trump when he was asked about potential judges Trump would appoint.
“I think our President, having seen some of these really weird interpretations of the executive orders that he’s put out, I think he’s more understanding now that we need judges who follow the law, not make law,” Sessions said.
“The judges don’t get to psychoanalyze the President to see if the order he issues is lawful. It’s either lawful or it’s not. I think that it will be real important for America to have judges in the model of Judge (Neil) Gorsuch and (the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia, people who serve under the law, under the Constitution, not above it, and they are faithful to the law. They honor it and don’t try to remake it as they’d like it to be.”
Tal Kopan contributed reporting to this story.

West Virginia Becomes the 29th Medical Marijuana State

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE MPP WEBSITE)

West Virginia Becomes the 29th Medical Marijuana State

Apr 19, 2017 , , , , , , , ,, ,


Today, West Virginia officially became the 29th state to pass medical marijuana legislation!

Gov. Jim Justice signed the law today after the bipartisan bill passed both the Senate and House earlier this month.

While the law isn’t perfect, it’s a great start toward providing safe and legal access to medical marijuana for qualifying patients. A summary is available here.

This achievement didn’t happen overnight. In fact, MPP, along with many other advocates, has been working tirelessly to get a medical marijuana bill passed for years.

MPP released the following in a press release:

“This legislation is going to benefit countless West Virginia patients and families for years to come,” said Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project, who is a West Virginia native and graduate of West Virginia University. “Medical marijuana can be effective in treating a variety of debilitating conditions and symptoms. It is a proven pain reliever, and it is far less toxic and less addictive than a lot of prescription drugs. Providing patients with a safer alternative to opioids could turn out to be a godsend for this state.”

Six states have adopted comprehensive medical marijuana laws in the past 12 months. Three of those laws, including West Virginia’s, passed through Republican-controlled legislatures. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Ohio approved them last April and June, respectively. The other three were approved by voters in November in states won by Donald Trump — Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota.

“Intensifying public support and a growing body of evidence are driving the rapid growth in the number of states adopting medical marijuana laws,” Simon said. “Lawmakers are also learning about marijuana’s medical benefits from friends, family members, and constituents who have experienced them firsthand in other states. More than nine out of 10 American voters think marijuana should be legal for medical purposes. In light of this near universal support, it is shocking that some legislatures still have not adopted effective medical marijuana laws.”

Apr 19, 2017 , , , , , , , ,, ,


Today, West Virginia officially became the 29th state to pass medical marijuana legislation!

Gov. Jim Justice signed the law today after the bipartisan bill passed both the Senate and House earlier this month.

While the law isn’t perfect, it’s a great start toward providing safe and legal access to medical marijuana for qualifying patients. A summary is available here.

This achievement didn’t happen overnight. In fact, MPP, along with many other advocates, has been working tirelessly to get a medical marijuana bill passed for years.

MPP released the following in a press release:

“This legislation is going to benefit countless West Virginia patients and families for years to come,” said Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project, who is a West Virginia native and graduate of West Virginia University. “Medical marijuana can be effective in treating a variety of debilitating conditions and symptoms. It is a proven pain reliever, and it is far less toxic and less addictive than a lot of prescription drugs. Providing patients with a safer alternative to opioids could turn out to be a godsend for this state.”

Six states have adopted comprehensive medical marijuana laws in the past 12 months. Three of those laws, including West Virginia’s, passed through Republican-controlled legislatures. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and Ohio approved them last April and June, respectively. The other three were approved by voters in November in states won by Donald Trump — Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota.

“Intensifying public support and a growing body of evidence are driving the rapid growth in the number of states adopting medical marijuana laws,” Simon said. “Lawmakers are also learning about marijuana’s medical benefits from friends, family members, and constituents who have experienced them firsthand in other states. More than nine out of 10 American voters think marijuana should be legal for medical purposes. In light of this near universal support, it is shocking that some legislatures still have not adopted effective medical marijuana laws.”

The University Of California Berkeley: Will Not Tolerate ‘Free Speech’ If You Don’t Agree With Their Views?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Photo

Ann Coulter in February. After the cancellation was announced on Wednesday, Ms. Coulter posted a Twitter message that “no school accepting public funds can ban free speech.” CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — The University of California, Berkeley, on Wednesday canceled a scheduled speech by the conservative author Ann Coulter, in the latest blow to the institution’s legacy and reputation as a promoter and bastion of free speech.

University administrators said in a statement that they could not allow Ms. Coulter to speak because of active security threats. In a letter to the Berkeley College Republicans, which was sponsoring the speech, two university vice chancellors said the university had been “unable to find a safe and suitable venue for your planned April 27 event featuring Ann Coulter.”

The letter, written by Scott Biddy, the vice chancellor, and Stephen Sutton, the vice chancellor for student affairs, said it was “not possible to assure that the event could be held successfully — or that the safety of Ms. Coulter, the event sponsors, audience and bystanders could be adequately protected.”

After the cancellation was announced on Wednesday, Ms. Coulter posted on Twitter that “no school accepting public funds can ban free speech.”

With its reputation as one of the country’s most liberal universities, the campus and surrounding areas have become a target for small, militant and shadowy right-wing groups who in recent months have clashed with equally militant and shadowy anarchist groups based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

On Saturday, at the latest of these violent encounters, the police arrested more than 20 people. One video that went viral on social media showed a man identified as a member of a white supremacist group sucker-punching a woman who identified herself as an anarchist. These fight-club-type episodes, which have occurred both on campus and in the city of Berkeley, have escalated since the election of President Trump.

In February, a speech by the incendiary right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos, also sponsored by the College Republicans, was canceled after masked protesters smashed windows, set fires and pelted the police with rocks.

Photo

Trump supporters clashed with protesters at a free speech rally in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday.CreditElijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for the university, said the college regretted that it had become a magnet for militant groups. “It’s become an O.K. Corral of sorts for activists across the political spectrum,” Mr. Mogulof said.

The university, he said, was committed to having a diversity of voices on campus and was working with the police to reschedule Ms. Coulter’s appearance. “We are going to do whatever we can to make that happen at a time and a place when police can provide safety and security,” he said.

At a time of heightened polarization, Berkeley is not the only university struggling to balance free speech and security concerns. The police clashed with protesters on Tuesday outside an auditorium at Auburn University where the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer was speaking. The university had canceled the event on the grounds that it could turn violent, but a federal judge in Mongtomery, Ala., ruled that the speech should proceed because there was no evidence that Mr. Spencer advocated violence.

The episodes have become fodder for conservative critics. In February, after the cancellation of the event with Mr. Yiannopoulos, Mr. Trump posted on Twitter: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Both Ms. Coulter and the Young America’s Foundation, which books her college speeches, said they expected the event to proceed as planned. Spencer Brown, a spokesman for the Young America’s Foundation, which promotes conservative ideals, said in an email that Ms. Coulter’s lecture would proceed next week “whether Berkeley likes it or not.”

The violent clashes in Berkeley have presented a dilemma for the police, who say intervening has its own risks. Anarchist groups have for years appeared at protests in neighboring Oakland, punctuating peaceful demonstrations by smashing shop windows and attacking public buildings.

The Oakland police came under heavy criticism in 2011 after a protester, a former Army Ranger, was severely injured during a demonstration. The protester, Kayvan Sabeghi, said the police beat him with batons. He sued, and the City of Oakland agreed to pay $645,000 as part of a settlement.

The Berkeley campus gained national attention in 1964 as the center of a movement to expand political expression, which became known as the Free Speech Movement.

Mother Of All Protest Marches In Venezuela Against President Maduro: Starvation

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR NEWS)

Racked by food shortages and political unrest, Venezuela swelled with what organizers are calling the “mother of all protests” on Wednesday. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital, Caracas, and other major cities across the country to rally against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who assumed office precisely five years ago.

Throughout the day, those rallies often devolved into clashes between demonstrators and security forces — chaotic, violent scenes rent by tear gas, tossed rocks and even two reported deaths.

Citing witnesses in Caracas, Reuters reports that Carlos Moreno, a teenage student who had not planned to join the demonstration, was shot in the head after “government supporters approached an opposition gathering and fired shots.” The news service says he died in the hospital later.

Later in the day a 23-year-old woman named Paola Ramirez was also shot and killed by pro-government groups, according to The Associated Press.

They were not the first to be felled in the course of the anti-Maduro protests that have been mounting since late last month. As of last week, five protesters — including a 13-year-old boy — had died of injuries suffered in fights with riot police.

But the protesters who showed up Wednesday vowed to keep struggling against Maduro and voicing their displeasure with the state of the country.

“This is exhausting — but we won’t give up until we achieve a better country and democracy,” Luiza Mayorca, a lawyer and mother of three, told NPR’s Phil Reeves in Caracas. “Every time we do something, that’s what we feel: that the worst thing would be to stay home, let fear take over us. This government, this regime, is making life miserable, and we cannot accept it.”

Demonstrators clog a Caracas highway on Wednesday, shouting their resistance to President Nicolas Maduro. The president’s push to tighten his power has helped trigger deadly unrest in Venezuela.

Carlos Becerra/AFP/Getty Images

“We want to get out of all this oppression and dictatorship, all the mistreatment we have had — the hunger, the kids dying in the countryside, the poverty,” another protester, an unemployed school teacher named Libertad Diaz, told Phil.

By several media accounts, hundreds of thousands of anti-Maduro demonstrators flooded city streets to protest bread scarcity, ballooning inflation — which several estimates peg at triple digits — and what they see as an increasingly dictatorial regime.

Protesters point to a moment a few weeks ago as proof of Maduro’s ever-tightening grasp on the levers of power, when a Supreme Court loyal to the president attempted to nullify the opposition-dominated legislature. The court backpedaled and restored power to the body after the abortive attempt drew anger both in Venezuela and the international community.

Maduro’s opposition is also demanding new elections, which were indefinitely postponed last year — mere months after Maduro also canceled a recall referendum that could have ousted him from power.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was banned from public office for 15 years, protects himself against tear gas during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday.

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

“What will end the phase in which our country currently finds itself? Allowing free and democratic elections and respecting the constitution, to put a stop to this coup d’état that’s being staged and controlled by Maduro together with the Supreme Court,” Henrique Capriles, a leading figure of the opposition, tells the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Capriles, who Deutsche Welle calls “the opposition’s most promising candidate for the coming elections in 2018,” was banned last week from holding office for 15 years — a move Capriles says he does not recognize.

Maduro, for his part, has rejected the unrest as manufactured by forces outside Venezuela’s borders.

“The US government, the state department, have given the green light, the approval for a coup process to intervene in Venezuela,” Maduro said in a televised address Tuesday, according to The Guardian.

Demonstrators hurl flaming objects at riot police during a rally in Caracas against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday.

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

In response to Wednesday’s massive protests, which had long been in the works, Al Jazeera reports Maduro ordered the Venezuelan military to march in Caracas in “defense of morality” and “in repudiation of the traitors of the country.”

“From the first reveille, from the first rooster crow, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces will be in the streets … saying, ‘Long live the Bolivarian Revolution,’ ” he announced, referring to the populist “revolution” that brought his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, to power in 1999.

The military presence did little to ease the upheaval, however — or to dissuade protesters like Diaz.

“We’re going to go on struggling,” she said Wednesday, “because the one who tires, loses.”

Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway 2016 U.S. election – documents

 

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway 2016 U.S. election – documents

By Ned Parker, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott | WASHINGTON

A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.

They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies [en.riss.ru/], after the election.

The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin’s office.

The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.

It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.

A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.

The current and former U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the Russian documents’ classified status. They declined to discuss how the United States obtained them. U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them.

Putin has denied interfering in the U.S. election. Putin’s spokesman and the Russian institute did not respond to requests for comment.

The documents were central to the Obama administration’s conclusion that Russia mounted a “fake news” campaign and launched cyber attacks against Democratic Party groups and Clinton’s campaign, the current and former officials said.

“Putin had the objective in mind all along, and he asked the institute to draw him a road map,” said one of the sources, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

Trump has said Russia’s activities had no impact on the outcome of the race. Ongoing congressional and FBI investigations into Russian interference have so far produced no public evidence that Trump associates colluded with the Russian effort to change the outcome of the election.

Four of the officials said the approach outlined in the June strategy paper was a broadening of an effort the Putin administration launched in March 2016. That month the Kremlin instructed state-backed media outlets, including international platforms Russia Today and Sputnik news agency, to start producing positive reports on Trump’s quest for the U.S. presidency, the officials said.

Russia Today did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Sputnik dismissed the assertions by the U.S. officials that it participated in a Kremlin campaign as an “absolute pack of lies.” “And by the way, it’s not the first pack of lies we’re hearing from ‘sources in U.S. official circles’,” the spokesperson said in an email.

PRO-KREMLIN BLOGGERS

Russia Today and Sputnik published anti-Clinton stories while pro-Kremlin bloggers prepared a Twitter campaign calling into question the fairness of an anticipated Clinton victory, according to a report by U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the election made public in January. [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

Russia Today’s most popular Clinton video – “How 100% of the 2015 Clintons’ ‘charity’ went to … themselves” – accumulated 9 millions views on social media, according to the January report. [bit.ly/2os8wIt]

The report said Russia Today and Sputnik “consistently cast president elect-Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional media outlets.”

The report said the agencies did not assess whether Moscow’s effort had swung the outcome of the race in Trump’s favor, because American intelligence agencies do not “analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.” [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

CYBER ATTACKS

Neither of the Russian institute documents mentioned the release of hacked Democratic Party emails to interfere with the U.S. election, according to four of the officials. The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin.

The overt propaganda and covert hacking efforts reinforced each other, according to the officials. Both Russia Today and Sputnik heavily promoted the release of the hacked Democratic Party emails, which often contained embarrassing details.

Five of the U.S. officials described the institute as the Kremlin’s in-house foreign policy think tank.

The institute’s director when the documents were written, Leonid Reshetnikov, rose to the rank of lieutenant general during a 33-year-career in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to the institute’s website [bit.ly/2oVhiCF]. After Reshetnikov retired from the institute in January, Putin named as his replacement Mikhail Fradkov. The institute says he served as the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service from 2007 to 2016. [bit.ly/2os4tvz]

Reuters was unable to determine if either man was directly involved in the drafting of the documents. Reshetnikov’s office referred questions to the Russian institute.

On its website, the Russian institute describes itself as providing “expert appraisals,” “recommendations,” and “analytical materials” to the Russian president’s office, cabinet, National Security Council, ministries and parliament. [bit.ly/2pCBGpR]

On Jan. 31, the websites of Putin’s office [bit.ly/2os9wMr] and the institute [bit.ly/2oLn9Kd] posted a picture and transcript of Reshetnikov and his successor Fradkov meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. Putin thanked Reshetnikov for his service and told Fradkov he wanted the institute to provide objective information and analysis.

“We did our best for nearly eight years to implement your foreign policy concept,” Reshetnikov told Putin. “The policy of Russia and the policy of the President of Russia have been the cornerstone of our operation.”

(Reporting by Ned Parker and Jonathan Landay, additional reporting by Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Rohde and Ross Colvin)

China Is The First Country To Offer Assistance To Nepal With Election Equipment

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES)

As Nepal steps up efforts to hold polls to local government bodies on May 14 in the face of opposition from the Madhesi Morcha, China has become the first country to offer assistance for the elections.India, which has been pushing for all stakeholders to join the electoral process, is still silent on offering any kind of assistance despite several requests from the Nepalese side.

Besides monetary support of nine million Yuan announced during Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s recent visit to China, a tranche of election-related materials arrived in Kathmandu from Beijing on Monday.

Chinese ambassador Yu Hong handed over election-related materials, including pens, stamp pads, rubber stamps, calculators, scales, punching machines and table watches, during a function in Kathmandu.

Nepal has also purchased 30,000 ballot boxes from China that are set to arrive in Kathmandu in a day or two, the Election Commission of Nepal said.

Read more

The Election Commission said it requires 67 types of election-related materials to conduct the polls. It identified India, China and the UNDP as major sources for these items.

“Nepal had requested for around 1,000 vehicles of various types from India but we are not sure whether we are getting them or not,” said a senior Nepal government official who did not want to be named.

According to officials, the election commission had requested India to provide vehicles and the special ink used to mark the fingers of voters after they cast their ballots. It had sought 11 cars, 35 double cabin pick-up vans, a mini bus, a micro bus, 30 motorcycles and seven scooters.

Officials of the election commission and the home ministry said there had been no confirmation from India on whether it would provide the assistance sought by Nepal.

During the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013, India had provided 750 vehicles and other election-related materials.

Jakarta Indonesia’s Muslim’s Make Tomorrows Election About Religion And Race, Not Issues

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

(CNN) Indonesia’s capital is on edge one day before a vote that has become a test of tolerance in the world’s most populous majority-Muslim nation.

The incumbent governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, is facing a challenge by a Muslim former government minister backed by hard-line religious groups.
“There’s been quite a lot at stake, mostly because of how the election has been framed, (not) issues about how Jakarta will be run itself but rather questions of identity politics,” Ian Wilson, research fellow at Australia’s Murdoch University Asia Research Center, told CNN.
Tensions have risen since the first round of voting on February 15, when Ahok came in first with almost 43% of the vote, just ahead of former Education and Culture Minister Anies Baswedan.
Religious groups determined to see Baswedan take the governorship have been accused of stoking religious discord in the city ahead of the second round, analysts say, a startling turn in a country with a secular constitution and a long tradition of pluralism.
“I think a lot of Chinese Jakartans are feeling anxious about what will happen regardless of the outcome,” Wilson said.

Anies Baswedan (2L) and his running mate pray during an event in Jakarta on March 4.

Mass protests against Ahok

Tensions began to build in November 2016 after Ahok made comments during a campaign speech, which were interpreted by some as an insult to the Quran and Islam.
Now Ahok is on trial for blasphemy and Islamic conservative groups are pushing hard against him. In March, during the campaign, large crowds of thousands of protestors massed in Jakarta’s streets to call for his imprisonment.
“(The vote) is being framed in these semi-apocalyptic terms — that if Baswedan loses it means this infidel, conspiratorial Chinese group will be in power and it will be a disaster,” Wilson said.
While Baswedan himself has taken a step back from the aggressive rhetoric of the first half of the campaign, analysts say, conservative Islamic groups have picked up the slack.

Jakarta's Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, inside the courtroom during his blasphemy trial on April 11.

“There was this grandma who died and she voted for Ahok and she was (reportedly) denied Muslim funeral rights,” Tobias Basuki, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an Indonesian think tank, told CNN.
“(Islamist groups) are using a lot of very blatant religious messages. Very blatant. There are various messages showing people … making oaths in communities saying you cannot vote for a non-Muslim and so on.”
With polls showing a tight race between the two candidates and religious tensions running high, both camps have reasons to be anxious.
Wilson said there is a possibility things may descend into violence.

Thousands of Indonesian Muslims protest against Ahok on March 31 in Jakarta.

Anies for president?

It isn’t just religious tolerance that’s at stake though.
The eyes of Indonesia’s national leaders are fixed on the vote as well, and who will be in the powerful position of Jakarta governor during the next national election in 2019.
Ahok is an ally of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi — in fact, he was his running mate during Widodo’s own successful run for the governorship in 2012.
After Widodo’s 2012 win quickly led to a successful run for the presidency in 2014, Indonesian political insiders now see the Jakarta governorship as a step to the highest office in the land.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) with Anies Baswedan (L) at the presidential palace in Jakarta on October 24, 2014.

A Baswedan win will be seen as a major blow to Jokowi.
“It would be a major political win for (former 2014 presidential candidate) Prabowo Subianto, who has been very transparent in his support for Anies,” Wilson said.
Whether Baswedan runs for the presidency in 2019, or supports a second run by Prabowo, Basuki said a win by the former minister in Jakarta would embolden Islamic groups.
“If Anies (is elected), the peddling of influence by these Islamic groups will be greater, and use of religion will be much more in vogue in local elections heading towards the 2019 vote,” he said.

Jakarta’s poor turn on Ahok

But despite the high religious and racial tensions in the Jakarta governor race, they aren’t the only reason Ahok is in trouble.
Greg Fealy, an associate professor in Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, told CNN in February Ahok’s blunt, combative style of governing put a lot of Jakartans off.
“He’s a very combative, outspoken, reckless kind of character who has achieved a lot for Jakarta, but he’s a character who has created a lot of antipathy toward him,” he said.

Ahok flanked by his wife Veronica (R) and son Nicholas (L) show off their first-round ballot papers in Jakarta on February 15.

Not only that, but a lot of the poor Jakartans who voted for the joint Widodo/Ahok ticket in 2012 in hopes of a new style of government have been the target of large-scale evictions under the governor’s administration.
“They have very specific material grievances against the governor, they feel there was a betrayal of a political contract … I think that magnified feelings of injustice against those neighborhoods,” Wilson said.

Turkey’s opposition calls for vote to be canceled after ‘irregularities’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SHANGHAI DAILY NEWS)

Turkey’s opposition calls for vote to be canceled after ‘irregularities’

TURKEY’S main opposition party yesterday called on the country’s electoral board to cancel the results of a landmark referendum that granted sweeping new powers to the nation’s president, citing what it called substantial voting irregularities.

An international observer mission who monitored the voting also cited irregularities, saying the conduct of Sunday’s referendum “fell short” of the international standards Turkey has signed up to. It specifically criticized a decision by Turkey’s electoral board to accept ballots that did not have official stamps, saying that hurt the fight against fraud.

Turkey’s electoral board confirmed the “yes” victory in the referendum and said the final results would be declared in 11-12 days.

The state-run Anadolu agency said the “yes” side stood at 51.4 percent of the vote, while the “no” vote had 48.6 percent support.

The margin could cement President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hold on power in Turkey for a decade and is expected to have a huge effect on the country’s long-term political future and its international relations.

“I suspect the result was narrower than Erdogan expected,” said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East History at St Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

“Erdogan has ruled with a narrow victory before. He does not see a narrow victory as anything less than a mandate.”

Erdogan, 63, initially sounded conciliatory in his remarks, saying the result was a victory not just for those who voted “yes,” but for “the whole 80 million, the whole of Turkey.”

But his more abrasive style quickly returned.

“There are those who are belittling the result. They shouldn’t try, it will be in vain,” he told cheering supporters in Istanbul. “It’s too late now.”

Opposition parties still cried foul. Bulent Tezcan, deputy chairman of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, cited numerous problems in the conduct of the vote.

An unprecedented electoral board decision to accept as valid ballots that didn’t bear the official stamp led to outrage.

Normally for a ballot to be considered valid, it must bear the official stamp on the back, be put into an envelope that also bears an official stamp and be handed to the voter by an electoral official at a polling station. The system is designed to ensure that only one vote is cast per person and to avoid the possibility of ballot box-stuffing.

The board announced on Sunday, however, that it would accept unstamped envelopes as valid after many voters complained about being handed blank envelopes.

“There is only one way to end the discussions about the vote’s legitimacy and to put the people at ease, and that is for the Supreme Electoral Board to cancel the vote,” Tezcan said.

Tana de Zuleta of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the vote, said the ballot decision undermined important safeguards against fraud and contradicted Turkey’s own laws.

The monitoring group described a series of irregularities, including a skewed pre-vote campaign in favor of the “yes” vote, the intimidation of the “no” campaign and the fact that the referendum question was not listed on the ballot.

De Zuleta said that overall, the procedures “fell short of full adherence” to the standards Turkey has signed up for.

Electoral board head Sadi Guven rejected claims of foul play, saying none of the ballot papers declared valid was “fake” or fraudulently cast.

Guven said the decision was made so voters who were by mistake given unstamped ballot papers would not be “victimized.”

“The ballot papers are not fake, there is no (reason) for doubt,” Guven said.

Tezcan said any decision that changes Turkey’s political system to such a vast extent should have been passed with an overwhelming endorsement.

“This is not a text of social consensus but one of social division,” Tezcan said.

The referendum approves 18 amendments that will replace the parliamentary system with a presidential one.

The changes allow the president to appoint ministers, senior government officials and half the members of Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as to issue decrees and declare states of emergency. They set a limit of two five-year terms for presidents.

The new presidential system takes effect at the next election, currently due in 2019. Other changes will take effect sooner, including an amendment that scraps a clause requiring the president to be impartial, allowing Erdogan to regain membership of the ruling party he founded‚ or even to lead it.