Air Force Plane Belonging To 156th Air Wing Of Puerto Rico Has Crashed Killing 5

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF YAHOO NEWS)

 

Military cargo plane crashes in Georgia, killing 5

RUSS BYNUM

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Associated Press
Military cargo plane crashes in Savannah, Georgia
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PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (AP) — An Air National Guard C-130 cargo plane crashed Wednesday onto a busy highway after taking off from a Georgia airport, killing at least five National Guard members from Puerto Rico, authorities said.

Black smoke rose into the sky from a section of the plane that appeared to have crashed into a median on the road outside Savannah, Georgia. Firefighters later put out the blaze.

Capt. Jeff Bezore, a spokesman for the Georgia Air National Guard’s 165th Air Wing, said the crash killed at least five people. He said he couldn’t say how many people in total were on the plane when it crashed around 11:30 a.m.

Senior Master Sgt. Roger Parsons of the Georgia Air National Guard told reporters the cause of the crash was unknown and authorities were still working to make the crash site safe for investigators.

“Any information about what caused this or any facts about the aircraft will come out in the investigation,” he said.

The plane had just taken off from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport when it crashed, Parsons said.

The Air Force said the plane belonged to the 156th Air Wing out of Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico National Guard Spokesman Maj. Paul Dahlen told The Associated Press that all those aboard were Puerto Ricans who had recently left the U.S. territory for a mission on the U.S. mainland. He said initial information indicated there were five to nine people aboard the plane, which was heading to Arizona. He did not have details on the mission.

“We are saddened by the plane accident that occurred today in Georgia,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in a tweet. “Our prayers are with the families of the Puerto Rican crew.”

The plane crashed onto state highway Georgia 21, about a mile from the airport, said Gena Bilbo, a spokeswoman for the Effingham County Sherriff’s Office.

“It miraculously did not hit any cars, any homes,” Bilbo said. “This is a very busy roadway.”

The crash caused a big fireball and scattered debris over a large area, Bilbo said.

A photo tweeted by the Savannah Professional Firefighters Association shows the tail end of a plane and a field of flames and black smoke as an ambulance stood nearby.

The only part of the plane that remained intact was the tail section, said Chris Hanks, the assistant public information officer with the Savannah Professional Firefighters Association. The tail section was sitting on the highway and the ground in front of it was black and littered with debris, he said.

Savannah’s Air National Guard base has been heavily involved in hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. In September 2017, it was designated by the Air National Guard as the hub of operations to the island in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the base announced at the time.

Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport said on social media that some flights were being affected though the crash happened off its property. The airport advised passengers to check with their airline for updated flight information.

___

Associated Press writers Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Jeff Martin in Atlanta have contributed to this report.

Lost World Of Shipwrecks Have Been Found In The Black Sea Off Of Bulgarian Coast

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIME’S, SCIENCE SECTION)

An image of the well-preserved medieval ship found at the bottom of the Black Sea, one of more than 40 wrecks discovered. Photogrammetry, a process using thousands of photographs and readings, produced a rendering that appears three-dimensional.Credit Expedition and Education Foundation/Black Sea MAP

The medieval ship lay more than a half-mile down at the bottom of the Black Sea, its masts, timbers and planking undisturbed in the darkness for seven or eight centuries. Lack of oxygen in the icy depths had ruled out the usual riot of creatures that feast on sunken wood.

This fall, a team of explorers lowered a robot on a long tether, lit up the wreck with bright lights and took thousands of high-resolution photos. A computer then merged the images into a detailed portrait.

Archaeologists date the discovery to the 13th or 14th century, opening a new window on forerunners of the 15th- and 16th-century sailing vessels that discovered the New World, including those of Columbus. This medieval ship probably served the Venetian empire, which had Black Sea outposts.

Never before had this type of ship been found in such complete form. The breakthrough was the quarterdeck, from which the captain would have directed a crew of perhaps 20 sailors.

“That’s never been seen archaeologically,” said Rodrigo Pacheco-Ruiz, an expedition member at the Center for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton, in Britain. “We couldn’t believe our eyes.”

A photogrammetric image of a ship from the Ottoman era that most likely went down between the 17th and 19th centuries. The discoverers nicknamed it the Flower of the Black Sea because of its ornate carvings, including two large posts topped with petals. Credit Expedition and Education Foundation/Black Sea MAP

Remarkably, the find is but one of more than 40 shipwrecks that the international team recently discovered and photographed off the Bulgarian coast in one of archaeology’s greatest coups.

In age, the vessels span a millennium, from the Byzantine to the Ottoman empires, from the ninth to the 19th centuries. Generally, the ships are in such good repair that the images reveal intact coils of rope, rudders and elaborately carved decorations.

“They’re astonishingly preserved,” said Jon Adams, the leader of the Black Sea project and founding director of the maritime archaeology center at the University of Southampton.

Kroum Batchvarov, a team member at the University of Connecticut who grew up in Bulgaria and has conducted other studies in its waters, said the recent discoveries “far surpassed my wildest expectations.”

Independent experts said the annals of deepwater archaeology hold few, if any, comparable sweeps of discovery in which shipwrecks have proved to be so plentiful, diverse and well-preserved.

A photogrammetric image of the stern of the Ottoman-era ship showing coils of rope and a tiller with elaborate carvings. A lack of oxygen at the icy depths of the Black Sea left the wrecks relatively undisturbed.Credit Expedition and Education Foundation/Black Sea MAP

“It’s a great story,” said Shelley Wachsmann of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. “We can expect some real contributions to our understanding of ancient trade routes.”

Goods traded on the Black Sea included grains, furs, horses, oils, cloth, wine and people. The Tatars turned Christians into slaves who were shipped to places like Cairo. For Europeans, the sea provided access to a northern branch of the Silk Road and imports of silk, satin, musk, perfumes, spices and jewels.

Marco Polo reportedly visited the Black Sea, and Italian merchant colonies dotted its shores. The profits were so enormous that, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Venice and Genoa fought a series of wars for control of the trade routes, including those of the Black Sea.

Brendan P. Foley, an archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass., said the good condition of the shipwrecks implied that many objects inside their hulls might also be intact.

“You might find books, parchment, written documents,” he said in an interview. “Who knows how much of this stuff was being transported? But now we have the possibility of finding out. It’s amazing.”

Experts said the success in Bulgarian waters might inspire other nations that control portions of the Black Sea to join the archaeological hunt. They are Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Dr. Foley, who has explored a number of Black Sea wrecks, said the sea’s overall expanse undoubtedly held tens of thousands of lost ships. “Everything that sinks out there is going to be preserved,” he added. “They’re not going away.”

For ages, the Black Sea was a busy waterway that served the Balkans, the Eurasian steppes, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Greece. It long beckoned to archaeologists because they knew its deep waters lacked oxygen, a rarity for large bodies of water.

The great rivers of Eastern Europe — the Don, the Danube, the Dnieper — pour so much fresh water into the sea that a permanent layer forms over denser, salty water from the Mediterranean. As a result, oxygen from the atmosphere that mixes readily with fresh water never penetrates the inky depths.

In 1976, Willard Bascom, a pioneer of oceanography, in his book “Deep Water, Ancient Ships,” called the Black Sea unique among the world’s seas and a top candidate for exploration and discovery.

A photogrammetric image of a Byzantine wreck, dating perhaps to the ninth century. Superimposed is an image of one of the expedition’s tethered robots that photographed the lost ships.CreditExpedition and Education Foundation/Black Sea MAP

“One is tempted,” he wrote, “to begin searching there in spite of the huge expanse of bottom that would have to be inspected.”

In 2002, Robert D. Ballard, a discoverer of the sunken Titanic, led a Black Sea expedition that found a 2,400-year-old wreck laden with the clay storage jars of antiquity. One held remnants of a large fish that had been dried and cut into steaks, a popular food in ancient Greece.

The new team said it received exploratory permits from the Bulgarian ministries of culture and foreign affairs and limited its Black Sea hunts to parts of that nation’s exclusive economic zone, which covers thousands of square miles and runs up to roughly a mile deep.

Although the team’s official name is the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project, or Black Sea MAP, it also hauls up sediments to hunt for clues to how the sea’s rising waters engulfed former land surfaces and human settlements.

Team members listed on its website include the Bulgarian National Institute of Archaeology, the Bulgarian Center for Underwater Archaeology, Sodertorn University in Sweden, and the Hellenic Center for Marine Research in Greece.

An illustration of what the research team believes the medieval ship found in the Black Sea looked like during its heyday. Credit Jon Adams/University of Southampton/Black Sea MAP

The project’s financial backer is the Expedition and Education Foundation, a charity registered in Britain whose benefactors want to remain anonymous, team members said. Dr. Adams of the University of Southampton, the team’s scientific leader, described it as catalyzing an academic-industry partnership on the largest project “of its type ever undertaken.”

Nothing is known publicly about the cost, presumably vast, of the Black Sea explorations, which are to run for three years. The endeavor began last year with a large Greek ship doing a preliminary survey. This year, the main vessel was the Stril Explorer, a British-flagged ship bearing a helicopter landing pad that usually services the undersea pipes and structures of the offshore oil industry.

Instead, archaeologists on the ship lowered its sophisticated robots to hunt for ancient shipwrecks and lost history.

In an interview, Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz of the University of Southampton said he was watching the monitors late one night in September when the undersea robot lit up a large wreck in a high state of preservation.

“I was speechless,” he recalled. “When I saw the ropes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I still can’t.”

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Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz said the vessel hailed from the Ottoman Empire, whose capital was Constantinople (today Istanbul), and most likely went down sometime between the 17th and 19th centuries. He said the team nicknamed it “Flower of the Black Sea” because its deck bears ornate carvings, including two large posts with tops that form petals.

In an interview, Dr. Batchvarov of the University of Connecticut said most of the discoveries date to the Ottoman era. So it was that, late one night, during his shift, he assumed that a new wreck coming into view would be more of the same.

“Then I saw a quarter rudder,” he recalled, referring to a kind of large steering oar on a ship’s side. It implied the wreck was much older. Then another appeared. Quickly, he had the expedition’s leader, Dr. Adams, awakened.

“He came immediately,” Dr. Batchvarov recalled. “We looked at each other like two little boys in a candy shop.”

Dr. Batchvarov said the wreck — the medieval one found more than a half-mile down — was part of a class known by several names, including cocha and “round ship.” The latter name arose from how its ample girth let it carry more cargo and passengers than a warship.

Dr. Adams said the remarkable color images of the lost ships derived from a process known as photogrammetry. It combines photography with the careful measurement of distances between objects, letting a computer turn flat images into renderings that seem three-dimensional.

He said tethered robots shot the photographic images with video and still cameras. The distance information, he added, came from advanced sonars, which emit high-pitched sounds that echo through seawater. Their measurements, he said, can range down to less than a millimeter.

A news release from the University of Southampton refers to the images as “digital models.” Their creation, it said, “takes days even with the fastest computers.”

Filmmakers are profiling the Black Sea hunt in a documentary, according to the team’s website.

Another part of the project seeks to share the thrill of discovery with schools and educators. Students are to study on the Black Sea, the website says, or join university scientists in analyzing field samples “to uncover the mysteries of the past.”

The team has said little publicly on whether it plans to excavate the ships — a topic on which nations, academics and treasure hunters have long clashed. Bulgaria is a signatory to the 2001 United Nations convention that outlaws commercial trade in underwater cultural heritage and sets out guidelines on such things as artifact recovery and public display.

Dr. Pacheco-Ruiz said the team had so far discovered and photographed 44 shipwrecks, and that more beckoned.

Which was the most important? Dr. Adams said that for him, a student of early European shipbuilding, the centerpiece was the medieval round ship. He said it evoked Marco Polo and city states like Venice. The ship, he added, incorporated a number of innovations that let it do more than its predecessors had and paved the way for bigger things to come.

“It’s not too much,” he said, “to say that medieval Europe became modern with the help of ships like these.”

The V.A. Refuses To Pay Their Own Bills: Yet It Is Your Credit Rating That Gets Tanked

The V.A. Refuses To Pay Their Own Bills: Yet It Is Your Credit Rating That Gets Tanked

This post today is a first hand story, not a second, third or any other kind. I know this story is 100% true because it is my own story. There are quite a few issues that I could talk with you about concerning the VA but for the purpose of keeping this post to readable length I am only going to talk about my largest medical bill that is on my personal credit. I have a hospital bill among other medical bills from an event that happened on September 13th, 2011 in N.W. Atlanta Georgia. I had blacked-out face first into an exterior steel doors steel hinges, made me even uglier than I used to be. I got awaken by three of the workers there where I was at. I then drove myself to a clinic there locally where once I had gone inside I blacked out again there. It was only about a quarter of a mile from the clinic to the huge Medical Center Hospital so I was taken by ambulance (unconscious) to the ER. It was three days before I remember anything, I was there five days total and their bill was $60,000 and some change. On day three once I had gotten my consciousness back I remember a few things the Doctor told me about my condition when I came into the ER. I was told that besides not being awake that both of my kidneys had shut down and that my BP was in the 50/20 range and dropping. So, was this hospital bill something that the VA should have paid for? Under the agreement that the VA has with America’s Veterans, this definitely qualified as a life or death emergency wouldn’t it? O, by the way, the reason that my BP tanked the way it did? The Georgia Doctors said that the VA had me on four times too much blood-pressure medicine and that it had kicked me down, very obviously (my opinion) once again, the VA Doctors almost killed me, again.

 

To make this a shorter story the VA has time and again refused to pay the hospital the money owed them. I have been told that it is their opinion that I could have made it to the closest VA, really! Thus being I could have made it to the Atlanta VA Hospital many miles away, it is my bill, not theirs, really! (This is how local Doctors, Clinics, Ambulance services, and Hospitals are being treated all over Our Nation by the VA, REALLY). Besides the fact that these fine people who kept you alive not getting paid for their work preformed, now the bills show up on your credit report. Why doesn’t it show up on the VA’s credit report and leave the people’s credit report alone? If the bill by law belongs to the VA why can that bill be held against the credit and good standing of a person when it is plainly not the persons bill?

 

In this closing paragraph I would like to give you their best slap in the face, your credit. Last summer my wife and I bought a home for the first time in our lives (I did pay off a house for an x-wife but it was never in my name). This $60,000 hospital is on my credit, I have challenged it a couple of times to no avail. This debt made my credit rating dive to about 680 and this forced me to have to go through the VA Loan Program to qualify for a home loan. I am not going to say that the VA system is all bad or that all of their employees are bad, that is not true. I believe I would not be alive today if it weren’t for the VA yet at the same time they have almost killed me several times through their ignorance and apathy (from some). So, what can a little person do when Goliath’s big brother won’t even pay his obligated debts and decides to dump his garbage on you? The only answer I could think of was to throw in my two cents worth on this subject matter which is now finally in the national news through this little blog in which I get to speak with you in.  I hope you have a great week, stay safe, God’s blessings I pray to each of you.

 

 

The DAV 100% Worthless To America’s Service Connected Disabled Veterans!

Is The DAV 100% Worthless To America’s Service Connected Disabled Veterans!

 

This article today is derived from my personal experiences with the DAV. The DAV for those of you who don’t already know stands for Disabled American Veterans. This is an organization that its members (like me) have paid $230.00 to for a lifetime membership. Their job is to help service connected disabled veterans concerning issues with the VA (Veterans Administration). My personal experiences with them have gotten me nothing except having $230.00 less in my bank account. Each month members get a small magazine telling its members about things they are doing like having conventions and of course, asking for donations and offering things for sale like t-shirts. Where I live here in eastern Kentucky I have three neighbors whom the DAV ‘represents’. When I have spoken with them and or their wives they say the same thing, that yes the DAV is their representative but no, they haven’t seen anything from them yet. They like I have waited and waited for years now to have our issues with the VA addressed, but still nothing.

 

I have a case before the VA to have my service connected disability rating increased from its current 40% as I am totally disabled because of being hit by lightning while I was in the Army. I filed for the increase in February of 2013 and was turned down in March of 2014. I at that time filed an appeal but as of yet I still don’t have a date to get to see the Judges (next step in the appeals process). I was told in March of 2013 that the process was taking about 22-23 months before I could expect to have my case in front of this 3 Judge panel. Folks, that was 30 months ago and I still have no date set for this meeting with these Judges. So far what has the DAV done for me concerning this issue? As far as I can tell the answer to that question is, absolutely nothing!

 

I have two medical bills that are on my credit report that are labeled as ‘in collections’. These two bills are from September of 2011. I was in a suburb of Atlanta Georgia at that time and I blacked out and busted my forehead open about 3 to 4 inches on a large steel exterior door hinge . The reason I blacked out I was told later by the Doctors was because the VA had me on 4 times too much blood pressure medicine. I was taken while unconscious in an ambulance to the nearest hospital which happened to be a civilian hospital that was about 1/4 to 1/2 mile away. I was unconscious for three days once I got there. I was later told by the ER Doctors that when I arrived that both of my kidneys had 100% shut down and that my blood pressure was 50/20. They also told me that if I had not gotten there within another 5 to 10 minutes, I would have died. The VA via their guidelines are supposed to pay the medical bills if the bills derived from an emergency, they still have not paid the bills and now they are on my credit report. The VA has said that the reason is that in their opinion I could have made it to the Atlanta VA which would have been at least 30 minutes away, in good traffic. Also anyone who knows anything at all about Atlanta traffic at about 4-PM knows that the chance I could have made it to the VA before I died, knows that I would not be writing this letter to you now, I would be dead. I have written and called the local DAV rep here in my home town and all they do say is for me to contact the National office in Louisville Ky. Concerning writing letters to them, they just send you a letter back telling me/you to either visit or call the Louisville office. Well, I have done this and the people who you are able to get a hold of don’t know anything about what the VA policies are and all they try to do is push you off the phone telling me that I need to handle the issue and that it would be an up hill battle trying to get them to pay those bills because “I should have gone to a VA Hospital’.  The DAV, even at the National Head Quarters, zero help, total laziness, total ignorance of the rules/policies.

 

I have an electric wheel-chair that I got from the VA back in 2007 that weighs 300 lbs, plus the weight of the lift that is hooked to the back of our 2006 Chevy Equinox. This vehicle is getting old and it has 150,000 miles on it so my wife and I are a bit concerned about how much longer it can last. Even this large SUV strains a bit with all of this weight hooked onto its rear end. I went to the VA in Lexington to see if I could get a smaller chair with a smaller lift so that hopefully we could trade the SUV in on a smaller vehicle. The Doctors did their evaluations and then told us that I am going to be getting a new chair but that this new one weighs 425 lbs. They also informed us that we needed to purchase a large van for the new chair as they didn’t want it hanging on the back of a vehicle exposed to the weather. The VA has a program where if you can jump through all their hoops that a service connected disabled veteran can get up to a once in a life time sum of money of up to $20,000 (paid directly to the seller of the vehicle) to help pay for things like this needed van. My local DAV lady did as she/he always does, they tell you to contact the National Office in Louisville. In other words the local office has been 100% useless to me since I started paying that $230.00 fee. So, when I called the Louisville National Office, all I got from the man on the other end of the phone was attitude, he knew nothing and he very obviously didn’t want to be bothered with talking to me about anything.

So, I ask you this question once again, is the DAV 100% worthless to America’s service connected disabled veterans?

(Yesterday march 31st I got a letter from the VA stating that in their opinion I did not qualify for the disabled van program and a letter saying that all of my disability claims for a higher rating have been denied. I never received a single letter or call from anyone with the DAV nor did I get to see any ‘Judges’. Now after waiting for 5 years and 2 months I get to try to start the appeals process all over again. What a HUGE FRAUD the VA and the DAV are!)

Ukraine Ejects Ex-Georgian President, Deporting Him To Poland

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR AND THE BBC)

 

Ukraine Ejects Ex-Georgian President, Deporting Him To Poland

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks to the media prior to a scheduled court hearing in Kiev last month.

Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian authorities have deported Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who has emerged as a vocal antagonist of the government in Kiev. Ukraine’s border agency confirmed his deportation to Poland on Monday, while videos on social media purported to show Saakashvili getting seized by masked men.

“This person was on Ukrainian territory illegally,” the agency said in a statement released Monday, “and therefore, in compliance with all legal procedures, he was returned to the country from which he arrived.”

Representatives of Saakashvili are describing the incident in starkly different terms.

Earlier Monday the populist politician’s Facebook account released a plea for help, saying “unknown people in masks kidnapped [him] and drove him in an unknown direction.” At the same time, the account uploaded several videos appearing to show his “abduction” in a restaurant at the hands of several shouting men.

Hours later, he called reporters from Warsaw with his account of the confrontation: “They broke into the cafe,” he said. “They tried to close my eyes, tie my hands.”

Within hours he had been placed on a plane to Poland.

Saakashvili and his supporters have cast the move as an attempt to remove a prominent threat to President Petro Poroshenko, a former ally who granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship and even appointed him governor several years ago — only to strip him of that citizenship after Saakashvili quit amid a flurry of accusations that Poroshenko was blocking his attempts at reform.

Saakashvili — a populist politician who also faces a three-year prison sentence in Georgia for embezzlement and abuse of authority during his presidency there — lost his rights as a Ukrainian last summer while he was in the U.S. He returned, though, gathering supporters on the Poland-Ukraine border for a climactic push back into the country in September. Since then he has drawn a considerable following in Ukraine, even as Ukrainian officials have condemned him as a provocateur backed by a pro-Russian criminal group.

Earlier this month Saakashvili lost his appeal for protection against the possibility of getting extradited to Georgia to stand charges.

“The Georgian authorities never asked for my extradition when I was in America or in Europe,” the 50-year-old opposition leader told The Guardian last week, when he was still living and working in central Kiev. “They only did it when I returned to Ukraine because Poroshenko asked them to.”

Now, after grappling with Saakashvili for months, Kiev has managed to eject him. Time will tell whether he will stay out of Ukraine or whether, as he did last year, he will somehow manage to return. In the meantime, Saakashvili might be out of the country — but he is not exactly out of earshot.

“This is not a president and not a man,” he said of Poroshenko in a statement after the deportation Monday, according to Reuters. “This is a lowlife crook who wants to wreck Ukraine. All this shows how weak they are. We will of necessity defeat them.”

Read All About It: Breaking News

Is Ex-Soviet Georgia Backsliding on Justice?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

Is Ex-Soviet Georgia Backsliding on Justice?

Georgian Policemen on Duty. Photo by Flickr user jb via Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY 2.0)

by JUSTINE DOODY

The following article was written for Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index(BTI) and published on Global Voices with permission. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Global Voices.

On June 10, 2017, thousands of Georgians protested on the streets of Tbilisi, the country’s capital, in support of two members of the rap group Birja Mafia. The young men were arrested on drugs charges they allege to have been trumped up. The protests marked a further step in the decline of Georgians’ trust in their law enforcement system.

Former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s successful police reforms in the first decade of the 21st century served as a model for reform in transition countries, but the gains may have been short-lived. By April 2017, only 38% of Georgians rated police performance good or very good, down from 60% as recently as November 2013. Meanwhile, only 13% rated the performance of both the courts and the office of the Chief Prosecutor good or very good; 27% said the courts performed badly or very badly, and 19% said the same of the Office of the Chief Prosecutor. Is the rule of law in Georgia on a downward trend?

Georgia scored 6.5 on the “Rule of Law” criterion in the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2016, a respectable showing that placed it in the “Sound” category alongside 22 other transitional and developing countries. Georgia was ranked lower than the nine countries ranked as “Excellent”, but higher than the remaining 97 countries designated “Fair”, “Flawed”, or “Poor”. However, the report notes problems in the country both with the prosecution of abuse of office and the independence of the judiciary, two issues that are contributing to the current deterioration in public confidence.

The Birja Mafia affair is not the only high-profile case to hit the headlines. In May, Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was abducted in Tbilisi and transferred to prison in Azerbaijan, and accusations of complicity among the Georgian police led to the suspension of the head of the Border Police and the chief of Counterintelligence in July. Mukhtarli’s lawyers and wife say that the journalist’s abductors wore the uniform of the Georgian police. In June, one of Tbilisi’s police chiefs was suspended after Georgian media released a video showing apparent police abuse, in a March incident in which a man called Shota Pakeliani ended up in a coma after injuries received while in police custody. In both cases, the authorities took action after the public outcry, but critics say that this happens too rarely, and that even when it does the consequences are insufficiently severe.

Difficult Reforms

In 2015, the Prosecutor’s Office announced plans for the creation of a Department for Investigation into Crimes Committed throughout the Judicial Process. But as the Prosecutor’s Office is frequently accused of having political motivations, this department might not represent a real solution to the problem. In 2016, investigations were opened into 173 cases of alleged police mistreatment; but none of these for police brutality or torture, only for the less serious crime of “exceeding official powers.” Only five investigations led to criminal proceedings, and only two resulted in guilty verdicts. In its 2016/2017 annual report, Amnesty International raised concerns about the Georgian government’s failure to move on legislation to create an independent mechanism for investigating human rights violations by law enforcement bodies.

Georgia received visa-free travel to the European Union in March 2017, and its Association Agreement with the EU entered into force in July 2016. Georgians overwhelmingly support eventual EU membership. In a poll taken in February and March this year, 90% of respondents favored EU membership. So, although accession is not on the EU’s radar just yet, the Georgian government should be strongly motivated to comply with the Association Agenda, which includes reforming the prosecution service. Efforts to do that are in progress. The Prosecutor’s Office was separated from the Ministry of Justice in 2012, and in early 2016 a Prosecutorial Council and a Consultation Board were established to increase the office’s independence. In a January 2017 report, the Council’s anti-corruption body, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), praised Georgia’s progress in reducing corruption, and welcomed the country’s efforts to reform its prosecution service. But GRECO noted that further work was needed to fully implement reforms and reduce the influence of the executive and the legislature on high-level prosecutorial appointments and on the activity of the Prosecutorial Council.

De-Politicization of Justice

The same kind of political linkages contribute to the problems within the police force. The appointment of top police officers is dependent on the will of the interior minister, which undermines the independence of the force. In the courts, too, the legacy of politicization left over from the Saakashvili administration persists, although the new government has taken some steps to improve the situation. The Public Defender’s Office is one bright spot. Responsible for overseeing human rights and freedoms in Georgia, it enjoys broad public support, although its recommendations are not implemented often enough.

De-politicization of justice needs to be a priority of the ruling Georgian Dream party, for the sake of the public at large, the country’s EU hopes, and perhaps even the party’s own political fortunes. The former governing party, Saakashvili’s United National Movement, found, to its detriment, that failing to provide adequate support for the rule of law can have political consequences. Widely publicized cases of prison abuse and police violence contributed to the party’s loss of public trust and eventual ouster in 2012. If the current government cannot improve public confidence in the system, it might find that history can repeat itself.

Justine Doody is an editor and analyst. She writes for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s BTI Blog and SGI News.

Putin orders cut of 755 personnel at U.S. missions

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

 

Putin orders cut of 755 personnel at U.S. missions

Why Russia is demanding the U.S. cut diplomatic staff
The Post’s Andrew Roth explains a statement the Russian Foreign Ministry issued July 28, seizing U.S. diplomatic properties and demanding the State Department reduce its staff in Russia. (Andrew Roth, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
 July 30 at 4:41 PM
 Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that the U.S. diplomatic missions in Moscow and elsewhere in the country will have to reduce their staffs by 755 people, signaling a significant escalation in the Russian response to American sanctions over the Kremlin’s intervention in the 2016 presidential election.The United States and Russia have expelled dozens of each other’s diplomats before – but Sunday’s statement, made by Putin in an interview with the Rossiya-1 television channel, indicated the single largest forced reduction in embassy staff, comparable only to the closing of the American diplomatic presence in the months following the Communist revolution in 1917.

In the interview, Putin said that the number of American diplomatic and technical personnel will be capped at 455 — equivalent to the number of their Russian counterparts working in the United States. Currently, close to 1,200 employees work at the United States’ embassy and consulates in Russia, according to U.S. and Russian data.

“More than a thousand employees — diplomats and technical employees — have worked and are still working in Russia these days,” Putin told journalist Vladimir Solovyov on a nationally televised news show Sunday evening. “Some 755 of them will have to terminate their activity.”

Putin’s remarks came during a three-and-half-day trip by Vice President Pence to Eastern Europe to show U.S. support for countries that have chafed at interference from Moscow – Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro.

Russian President Vladimir Putin watched a parade on the Neva River, followed by a short air show and gun salute to celebrate Navy Day on July 30. (Reuters)

“The president has made it very clear that Russia’s destabilizing activities, its support for rogue regimes, its activities in Ukraine, are unacceptable,” Pence said, when asked by reporters in Tallinn, Estonia, whether he expects Trump to sign the sanctions. “The president made very clear that very soon he will sign the sanctions from the Congress of the United States to reinforce that.”

“As we make our intentions clear, we expect Russian behavior to change,” Pence continued.

The Kremlin had said Friday, as the Senate voted to strengthen sanctions on Russia, that some American diplomats would be expelled, but the size of the reduction is dramatic. It covers the main embassy in Moscow, as well as missions in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.

The U.S. Embassy in Russia has been unable to provide exact numbers on the number of staff it employs in Russia. But a 2013 review by the Department of State said that the American mission in Russia “employs 1,279 staff, including 301 U.S. direct-hire positions and 934 locally employed staff positions from 35 U.S. government agencies.” (A good breakdown of the numbers was posted on the blog Diplopundit).

“This is a landmark moment,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist for the newspaper Kommersant who regularly travels with Putin and has interviewed him extensively over the past 17 years, told the Post in an interview on Friday. “His patience has seriously run out, and everything that he’s been putting off in this conflict, he’s now going to do.”

The Russian government is also seizing two diplomatic properties — a dacha, or country house, in a leafy neighborhood in Moscow, and a warehouse — following the decision by the Obama administration in December to take possession of two Russian mansions in the United States.

The move comes as it has become apparent that Russia has abandoned its hopes for better relations with the United States under a Trump administration.

“I think retaliation is long, long overdue,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“We have a very rich toolbox at our disposal,” Ryabkov said. “After the Senate . . . voted so overwhelmingly on a completely weird and unacceptable piece of legislation, it was the last drop.”

Hours later, Putin said during his evening interview that he expected relations between the United States and Russia to worsen, and that Russia would likely come up with other measures to counter American financial sanctions, which were passed by the House and Senate last week and which President Trump has said he will sign.

The reduction in U.S. diplomatic and technical staff is a response to President Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in December in response to the alleged Russian hacking of the mail servers of the Democratic National Committee. The United States also revoked access to two Russian diplomatic compounds on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and on Long Island. American officials said they were used for intelligence collection.

It is not yet clear how the State Department will reduce its staff in Russia. Some of the local staff were hired to help with a significant expansion of the U.S. embassy compound in Moscow.

The move increases the likelihood of new, perhaps asymmetrical reprisals by the United States in coming days.

Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, tweeted Sunday: “If these cuts are real, Russians should expect to wait weeks if not months to get visas to come to US.”

Ashley Parker , in Tallinn, Estonia, and Madhumita Murgia, in Washington, contributed.

Putin’s Russia Is Crumbling From The Inside

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NEWSWEEK)

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

At first glance, Russian actions since the 2014 annexation of Crimea appear to signal a resurgence of power in the international system. Increases in military spending, forays into the Middle East and a foreign policy punching above its weight have all served to remind the world that Russia maintains influence on the global stage.

However, behind the Cold War-levels of military activity and violations of international laws are fundamental issues which will plague Russia going forward.

Demographic struggles have stricken the state since World War II, commodity price fluctuations and sanctions have crippled economic output and the current defense spending trends are unsustainable. Against the backdrop of harsh economic reality, the illusion of Russian resurgence can only be maintained for so long, and NATO policymakers should take note.

An increased NATO presence in the Baltics and more robust defense measures are all necessary and proportional steps towards creating a formidable deterrent to protect the United States’s more vulnerable allies in Russia’s neighborhood.

Russia, however, is not the existential threat to Europe that the Soviet Union once was, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Time is not on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side, and he can only ignore fundamental flaws in the socioeconomic landscape of Russian society for so long.

Building submarines and nuclear weapons will not reinvigorate the Russian economy and could eventually degrade what progress has been made to re-establish Russian prominence on the world stage.

Related: Nolan Peterson: The Syria strike deals Putin a double blow

The inertial nature of demographic pressure makes it an exceedingly difficult problem to address but also allows nations to forecast more easily. By nearly all calculations, Russia’s projected population growth appears stagnant at best. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the population of Russia (despite upward of 9 million immigrants) declined each year until 2013.

04_14_Putin_Vulnerable_01Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 11. Jacob Sharpe writes that the war in Ukraine, once popular among Russians, is now hurting morale and draw attention to the economic malaise at home.SERGEI CHIRIKOV/REUTERS

The combination of a decreased standard of living, a decline in the number of women aged 20 to 30 and an increased mortality rate have all damaged the prospects for growth in Russia. Rosstat, the Russian state statistical agency, estimated that the population will decline 20 percent in the next 35 years if current trends continue. This decline has been halted and even reversed to a minor extent in recent years, but reversing long-term trends will be difficult.

The economic outlook for Russia offers similarly bleak prospects, yet there are some signs of a slight turnaround. When compared to a negative 3 percent growth over the past two years, even the small 1.2 percent growth projected by the Russian finance minister (as well as the World Bank) is something to celebrate. Moscow has made some spending adjustments to reflect current oil prices, and Standard & Poor’s has upgraded its credit rating to stable.

The Russian people, however, are still in dire straits. In 2016, one-quarter of Russian companies cut salaries. Overall, the average Russian wage dropped 8 percent last year and 9.5 percent the year before. International sanctions imposed on Russia continue to cause problems, and energy prices have not recovered to previous highs.

Even as some Russians celebrated the election of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who has expressed a desire for better relations with Russia and suggested that sanctions may be at least partially lifted, the potential for the removal of sanctions could lead to a speculative capital rush, creating more uncertainty in an already fractured economy.

Worsening the economic downturn is the Kremlin’s spending to modernize and expand its military capabilities amidst declining revenue and depleted reserves.

In a recent defense industry meeting, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that “funding has already been set aside for the coming years and that amount won’t be changed.” That statement doesn’t appear to be entirely correct, as defense spending is set to decrease by 7 percent, but it is telling when other federal departments were dealt 10 percent reductions.

For the time being, it seems this plan has won Putin praise at home and power abroad, but in the long-term it could place him on unsteady ground.  As early as 2015, Russia had begun tapping into its “rainy day fund ” (generally regarded as an emergency measure to address economic slowdowns), and the minor economic recovery is not enough to make up for these shortfalls.

Related: Putin’s Flirtation with Le Pen is likely to backfire

A continuation of this spending behavior combined with budgetary constraints could force Putin to make politically risky fiscal adjustments. He may have convinced his admirers that a bit of budgetary belt-tightening is necessary to ensure Russian security and stature, but economic backpedaling is only digestible for so long.

Even the Ukrainian conflict, once a source of popularity among the Russian people, has begun to hurt morale and highlights the economic malaise at home.

However, Vladimir Putin is not a man to be underestimated, and Russia will remain a threat. It still possesses one of the most powerful militaries in the world, a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons and a reinvigorated willingness to use its political muscle to influence the international system.

Yet while a cursory examination of approval ratings may show an unassailably popular leader, Putin’s power structure is more fragile than it first appears. Financial strain will continue to pressure state-dependent segments of the Russian populace, which have historically been the bedrock of Putin’s support.

It seems Putin’s Russia won’t perish in a Manichean clash in the Fulda Gap, but like the Soviet Union before it, today’s Russia will crumble under the weight of its own mismanagement and economic failure. Perhaps history does repeat itself.

Jacob Sharpe is an intern with the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Study: States with medical marijuana have lower prescription drug use—Plus Fewer Drug Overdoses And Deaths

 

Study: States with medical marijuana have lower prescription drug use—This Causes Fewer Drug Overdoses And Fewer Drug Related Deaths As It Is Impossible To Overdose (Die) From Marijuana Usage!

Prescription drug prices are up, making policy experts increasingly anxious. But relief could come from a surprising source. Just ask Cheech and Chong.

New research found that states that legalized medical marijuana — which is sometimes recommended for symptoms like chronic pain, anxiety or depression — saw declines in the number of Medicare prescriptions for drugs used to treat those conditions and a dip in spending by Medicare Part D, which covers the cost on prescription medications.

The study, which appears in Health Affairs, examined data from Medicare Part D from 2010 to 2013. It is the first study to examine whether legalization changes doctors’ clinical practice and whether it could curb public health costs.

The findings add context to the debate as more lawmakers express interest in medical marijuana. Ohio and Pennsylvania have this year passed laws allowing the drug for therapeutic purposes, making the practice legal in 25 states, plus Washington D.C. The question could also come to a vote in Florida and Missouri this November. A federal agency is considering reclassifying it under national drug policy to make medical marijuana more readily available.

Medical marijuana saved Medicare about $165 million in 2013, the researchers concluded. They estimated that, if the policy were nationalized, Medicare Part D spending would have declined in the same year by about $470 million. That’s about half a percent of the program’s total expenditures.

That is an admittedly small proportion of the multi-billion dollar program. But the figure is nothing to sneeze at, said W. David Bradford, a professor of public policy at the University of Georgia and one of the study’s authors.

“We wouldn’t say that saving money is the reason to adopt this. But it should be part of the discussion,” he added. “We think it’s pretty good indirect evidence that people are using this as medication.”

The researchers found that in states with medical marijuana laws on the books, the number of drug prescriptions dropped for treating anxiety, depression, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders and spasticity. Those are all conditions for which marijuana is sometimes recommended. Prescriptions for other drugs treating other conditions, meanwhile, did not decline.

The study’s authors are separately investigating the impact medical marijuana could have on prescriptions covered by Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people. Though this research is still being finalized, they found a greater drop in prescription drug payments there, Bradford said.

If the trend bears out, it could have meaningful public health ramifications. As doctors and public health experts grapple with the consequences of excessive prescription painkiller use, medical marijuana could provide an alternate path. Experts say abuse of prescription painkillers — known as opioids — is in part driven by high prescribing. In states that legalized medical uses of marijuana, painkiller prescriptions dropped — on average, the study found, by about 1,800 daily doses filled each year per doctor. That tracks with other research on the subject.

Questions exist, though, about the possible health harms or issues that could result from regular use.

It’s unlike other drugs, such as opioids, in which overdoses are fatal, said Deepak D’Souza, a professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, who has researched the drug.

“That doesn’t happen with marijuana,” he added. “But there are whole other side effects and safety issues we need to be aware of.”

“A lot of people also worry that marijuana is a drug that can be abused,” agreed Bradford. “Just because it’s not as dangerous as some other dangerous things, it doesn’t mean you want to necessarily promote it. There’s a lot of unanswered questions.”

Meanwhile, it is difficult to predict how many people will opt for this choice instead of meds like antidepressants or opioids.

Because the federal government labels marijuana as a Schedule I drug, doctors can’t technically prescribe it. In states that have legalized medical marijuana, they can only write patients a note sending them to a dispensary. Insurance plans don’t cover it, so patients using marijuana pay out-of-pocket. Prices vary based on geography, but a patient’s recommended regimen can be as much as $400 per month. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency is considering changing that classification — a decision is expected sometime this summer. If the DEA made marijuana a Schedule II drug, that would put it in the company of drugs such as morphine and oxycodone, making it easier for doctors to prescribe and more likely that insurance would cover it.

To some, the idea that medical marijuana triggers costs savings is hollow. Instead, they say it is cost shifting. “Even if Medicare may be saving money, medical marijuana doesn’t come for free,” D’Souza said. “I have some trouble with the idea that this is a source of savings.”

Still, Bradford maintains that if the industry expanded and medical marijuana became a regular part of patient care nationally, the cost curve would bend because marijuana is cheaper than other drugs.

Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who has written two books on the subject, echoed that possibility. Unlike with many drugs, he argued, “There’s a limit to how high a price cannabis can be sold at as a medicine.” He is not associated with the study.

And, in the midst of the debate about its economics, medical marijuana still sometimes triggers questions within the practice of medicine.

“As physicians, we are used to prescribing a dose. We don’t have good information about what is a good dose for the treatment for, say pain,” D’Souza said. “Do you say, ‘Take two hits and call me in the morning?’ I have no idea.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Drought In U.S. Southeast: Appalachia Burning

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Forest fires force hundreds to evacuate in Appalachia

Wildfires, like this one near Lake Lure, North Carolina, are burning across the Southeast.

Story highlights

  • Dozens of wildfires spring up across the southeast
  • Evacuations of communities and towns take place

(CNN) Dozens of wildfires ravaging forests in Appalachia are prompting mass evacuations — including an entire town in western North Carolina, a state official said.

The Party Rock Fire, which has consumed about 2,000 acres, was headed toward Lake Lure, a community of about 1,200 people, beside a lake by the same name in Chimney Rock State Park on Saturday, said Brian Haines, spokesman for the North Carolina Forest Service.
“It’s headed toward town. They are hoping to stop it before it gets there,” Haines said. “The only people there now, I think, are the firefighters.”
Authorities earlier evacuated another 127 residences and vacation homes threatened by the fire in the area, about 30 miles southeast of Asheville, Haines said. Authorities are warning people in other rural communities to be ready to flee.
The fire started last Saturday on Party Rock, prompting evacuations there and also around the village of Chimney Rock, CNN-affiliate WLOS reported.
Party Rock is one of more than 20 fires ongoing in North Carolina, forcing evacuations of more than 200 homes in the Nantahala National Forest, Haines said. Other fires are burning in other states in the drought-stricken region.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday declared a state of emergency in 25 western counties after the fires resulted in evacuations in Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain and Rutherford counties.
The forest fires are forcing the state to close several state parks so that the people who work there can help fight the fires, CNN-affiliated WTVD reported.
More than 5,000 firefighters and support staff from around the nation are trying to suppress these fires — which have burned tens of thousands of acres — in an effort that includes about 40 aircraft, including three large air tankers flying out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the television station reported.
A number of the fires are being investigated as suspected arson, but natural causes and conditions are also responsible for blazes, Haines said.
The humidity, which normally rises at night and helps to suppress the fire until morning, has been low — and that has meant many of the blazes go unfettered and move more quickly, he said.
“It is just due to the drought, honestly,” he said. “The wind is coming in and picking up the fire and running with it at night.”
The Rough Ridge Fire, which has consumed more than 13,300 Cohutta Wilderness acres in Fannin County in northeast Georgia, was caused by lighting 28 days ago, said Mary Stuever, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
“The fire is currently burning down toward a couple of rivers and we want to make sure the fire ties in to those rivers,” she said. “We’re trying to herd the fire.”
The Rough Ridge Fire was 20% contained Saturday, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Michelle Burnett said.
The “human-caused” fire is under investigation, the Forest Service said.
Rabun County is about 110 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta.
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