April 19, 2013 12:55 pm
On Monday afternoon, four hours after the annual Boston marathon began, two bombs exploded in the area just around the finish line, killing three and injuring nearly 200 people. Four days later, one suspect in the bombing attack is dead, and, as of this writing, the city of Boston is in lockdown mode as a manhunt is underway for a second. Authorities have identified the bombing suspects as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, two brothers who moved to the area roughly a decade ago from Makhachkala, Dagestan, a region that is part of the North Caucasus that forms southwestern Russia.
The area has been a hotbed for conflict in recent decades, including terrorist bombings carried out elsewhere in Russia. Starting in 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the First Chechen War broke out. It was during this time that the Tsarnaevs would have grown up. The Council on Foreign Relations:
In the early 1990s, following the Soviet collapse, separatists in the newly formed Russian Federation Republic of Chechnya started an independence movement called the Chechen All-National Congress. Russian President Boris Yeltsin opposed Chechen independence, arguing that Chechnya was an integral part of Russia. From 1994 to 1996, Russia fought Chechen guerillas in a conflict that became known as the First Chechen War. Tens of thousands of civilians died, but Russia failed to win control of Chechnya’s mountainous terrain, giving Chechnya de facto independence. In May 1996, Yeltsin signed a ceasefire with the separatists, and they agreed on a peace treaty the following year.
But violence flared again three years later. In August 1999, Chechen militants invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to support a local separatist movement. The following month, five bombs exploded in Russia over a ten-day period, killing almost three hundred civilians. Moscow blamed Chechen rebels for the explosions, which comprised the largest coordinated terrorist attack in Russian history. The Dagestan invasion and the Russian bombings prompted Russian forces to launch the Second Chechen War, also known as the War in the North Caucasus. In February 2000, Russia recaptured the Chechen capital of Grozny, destroying a good part of the city center in the process, reasserting direct control over Chechnya. Tens of thousands of Chechens and Russians were killed or wounded in the two wars, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced.
The First Chechen War (so-called, though not actually the first) broke out in 1994, causing more than 300,000 people to flee the region as refugees. The Second Chechen War added to this emigration.
The Chechen’s (or Nokhchi in their own tongue) bid for independence, however, has stretched back hundreds of years. “The Chechens have evidently been in or near their present territory for some 6000 years and perhaps much longer,” says University of Berkeley professor Johanna Nichols. “There is fairly seamless archaeological continuity for the last 8,000 years or more in central Daghestan.”
PBS has a detailed look at the history of the region, tracing the lands change of hands from the 1400s onward, from the Mongols to the Ottoman Empire to the Russians under Ivan the Terrible in 1559.
In 1722, says PBS, “Peter the Great, ever eager for trade and military routes to Persia, invaded Chechnya’s neighbor Daghestan.”
Repulsed by the Daghestanis and Chechen mountain warriors, Russia fell back again, but would press on for the next 50 years with sporadic raids on Chechen and Daghestani territory. In 1783, Russia finally gained a strategic toehold in the Caucasus with the recognition of Georgia, Chechnya’s Christian neighbor to the south, as a Russian protectorate.
In 1784, led by Muslim leader Imam Sheik Mansur, the Chechens took back their land. This struggle went back and forth through the 19th and 20th centuries. Starting in the late 17th century, says Berkeley professor Nichols, the Chechens largely converted to the Sunni branch of Islam. “Islam is now, as it has been since the conversion, moderate but strongly held and a central component of the culture and the ethnic identity,” according to Nichols. Muslim beliefs are common throughout the region, as well as in nearby Turkey.
In 1944, in the midst of World War II, “Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the Chechens and their Ingush neighbors — some 400,000 people — to be deported to Central Asia and Siberia for “mass collaboration” with invading Nazis.” Evidence to support Stalin’s charges,” however, “remains limited.”
Over the centuries, the motivations for war have varied, from invaders wanting a trading path through the mountains to religious holy wars to pure political oppression.
*This post has been updated for clarity.*
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Georgia at a Crossroads
April 12, 2013 10:58 am
Sports aren’t exactly known for being inclusive to gay people. But on Thursday the N.H.L. announced a partnership with the You Can Play Project, a group aimed to up the acceptance of LGBT players and fans.
The National Hockey League says it’s always been committed to the LGBT community. Their press release, announcing the partnership, writes that the move “formalizes and advances their long-standing commitment to make the N.H.L. the most inclusive professional sports league in the world.” The players of the N.H.L. support the partnership, they say, and are ready to help the sports world move beyond discrimination against gay people.
In fact, the You Can Play project was founded in a large part because of a gay hockey player. The son of Brian Burke, one time general manager of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the U.S. Olympic hockey team, came out in 2009. He was tragically killed in a car accident the next year, and his death spurred the formation of You Can Play to further Burke’s memory.
The N.H.L. isn’t the only place with a policy against discrimination against gay people. But policy and practice are often two different things. Robbie Rogers, former U.S. National Soccer team member and professional player in England, came out of the closet this year to much discussion. Many have wondered whether he will continue playing. It would make him the first openly gay athlete to play in a major American team sport. Many athletes have come out after their careers. Kwame Harris, an offensive tackle who played in the N.F.L. for six seasons didn’t come out until after he retired. The same goes for former running back David Kopay, one of the first American professional athletes to come out at all.
Players stay in the closet during their careers for a lot of reasons. Sports are still grappling with not just homophobic players, but coaches and owners as well. Last year, when a Ravens player spoke in favor of gay marriage, a Maryland politician sent a note to the team’s owner chastising him for allowing the player to speak up, promoting this now notorious response from Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. But even the N.F.L. is making moves that at least indicate willingness to try. Here’s the New York Times:
In the N.F.L., the league’s security department would monitor public reaction, looking for potential threats from fans in the event a player comes out. Troy Vincent, a former player who is now the league’s executive charged with player engagement, and Anna Isaacson, the league’s community relations director, have been designated to cull ideas from gay advocacy groups and to build relationships with the groups that the N.F.L. might then use to help them address players.
Wade Davis, a former N.F.L. player who’s now out of the closet is on You Can Play’s advisory board spoke recently about some of the challenges of gaining LGBT acceptance in the locker room, beyond the common homophobia the resides in the United States. Many athletes are quite religious and find it difficult to reconcile their beliefs with their potentially open teammate. Other players, however, just have one question. “Can someone help us win?” asked Robert K. Kraft of the New England Patriots. If they can, he told the New York Times, they should play. End of story.
For their part, the N.H.L. hopes to focus on that mentality, one that points out that gay players are not any different on the ice (or field) than straight ones. That has been You Can Play’s philosophy all along, that gay or straight, if you can play, you can play.
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April 8, 2013 10:34 am
Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, died today at the age of 87. Thatcher, the first woman to lead a Western power, pushed back against socialism in Britain and ushered in a new era of partnerships with Russia.
Thatcher wasn’t exactly an uncontroversial figure. She was fiercely conservative, tough and unwavering in her commitment to her own ideas, earning her the nickname the Iron Lady. “I am not a consensus politician,” she would say. “I am a conviction politician.” Later, she said to her internally warring party “Turn if you like, the lady’s not for turning.”
Some think that this hard-working, hard-headed ethic came from her working class background. Thatcher was born above a shop in Grantham, to a grocer. Early in her career, Thatcher underwent an image overhaul that included changing her voice to be lower. She worked with a speech therapist to lower her register. In Vanity Fair, her biographer chronicles the episode saying, “soon the hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to softer notes and a smoothness that seldom cracked except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons.”
This sort of commitment and work wasn’t uncommon for Thatcher: if she set out to do something, she did it. And it is that resolve that made Thatcher successful, according to the New York Times:
At home, Lady Thatcher’s political successes were decisive. She broke the power of the labor unions and forced the Labour Party to abandon its commitment to nationalized industry, redefine the role of the welfare state and accept the importance of the free market.
Abroad, she won new esteem for a country that had been in decline since its costly victory in World War II. After leaving office, she was honored as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
Thatcher was one of first Western leaders to work with Mikhail Gorbachev, spurring a slow turn towards working with the former Soviet Union. Thatcher pushed British Petroleum to explore oil deals in Kazakhstan to help Gorbachev, eventually creating a giant oil production facility in Azerbaijan that has pumped thousands of barrels of oil a day for the last seven years.
Of course, these policies weren’t universally praised. During her time, inequality in the U.K. rose, and her own former university, Oxford, refused to grant her an honorary degree, making her the first prime minister educated at Oxford to be denied the honor. Here’s the BBC on the internal Oxford debate:
The principal of Mrs Thatcher’s old college, also supported her nomination. Daphne Park said: “You don’t stop someone becoming a fellow of an academic body because you dislike them.”
But Professor Peter Pulzer, of All Souls, who led the opposition, said: “This is not a radical university, it is not an ideologically motivated university.
“I think we have sent a message to show our very great concern, our very great worry about the way in which educational policy and educational funding are going in this country.
Thatcher didn’t comment on the snub, but her spokesperson said, “If they do not wish to confer the honour, the prime minister is the last person to wish to receive it.”
Eventually, however, Thatcher’s political enemies caught up with her. She fought over poll taxes and over water privatization. She called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. And then, in 1990, she left office.
Here is her last speech to Parliament, made on November 22, 1990.
Of course, no one with such sway stays quiet once officially out of politics. Thatcher is thought to have greatly influenced George H.W. Bush in his decisions about the first Gulf War, telling him it was “no time to go wobbly.” She retired from public life in 2002, after a stroke, and it was another stroke that ultimately claimed her life on Monday.
Thatcher was divisive; she was tough; and she was intense. The New York Times closes its obituary of the Iron Lady with this quote:
“Margaret Thatcher evoked extreme feelings,” wrote Ronald Millar, a playwright and speechwriter for the prime minister. “To some she could do no right, to others no wrong. Indifference was not an option. She could stir almost physical hostility in normally rational people, while she inspired deathless devotion in others.”
And while many disagreed with her policies, most agree that her resolve was admirable and her precedent as a woman in charge opened doors for generations after her.
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March 29, 2013 10:53 am
Three weeks ago North Korea announced that if joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises were not called off by March 11 then they would consider the sixty-year old armistice between the two Koreas null. March 11 has come and gone. The U.S. and Korea are still exercising their militaries, and North Korea is still not happy about it. At all.
In an act that certainly didn’t de-escalate the situation, the U.S. sent a pair of B-2 stealth bombers cruising over the Korean peninsula. The two bombers left from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, says the Atlantic Wire, buzzed South Korea’s western coast, and then returned home.
Obviously, the test run demonstrates that the U.S. has the capability of flying that far without actually crossing into North Korea and it appears to be meant to send a message that the U.S. is willing to defend South Korea against the North. There’s also probably some historical symbolism thrown in. Hun adds, “After suffering from the American carpet-bombing during the 1950-53 Korean War, North Korea remains particularly sensitive about U.S. bombers.”
“The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel,” says the Guardian, “said that the decision to send B-2 bombers to join the military drills was part of normal exercises and not intended to provoke North Korea.”
But it did.
In response to the flights, says the BBC, North Korea trained its missiles on American and South Korean military bases, with the North Korean state news agency reporting that “the US mainland, their stronghold, their military bases in the operational theatres in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea” were all being targeted.
As the BBC reports, “Russia has warned of tensions in North Korea slipping out of control… Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the situation could slip “toward the spiral of a vicious circle”.
Though North Korea has a long history of making quite threatening displays, an unnamed U.S official told NBC News that “North Korea is “not a paper tiger” and its repeated threats to attack South Korea and the U.S. should not be dismissed as “pure bluster.”
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March 29, 2013 9:30 am
This week, the Supreme Court of the United States has been hearing arguments for and against the legalization of gay marriage, and the hearings have rekindled the debate among American people, outside the courthouse, in the news, on Facebook. But the U.S. isn’t the only nation struggling with the gay marriage issue. Here are where the debate stands in other countries around the world:
There are a few places where gay marriage is legal. Denmark began allowing couples to marry last year. Argentina did three years ago. It’s also legal in Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Spain legalized gay marriage eight years ago and ever since has been hearing counterarguments in court. It wasn’t until November of last year that the highest court in Spain rejected an appeal presented by conservatives, perhaps closing the case for good.
Other places are debating the issue much like we are. France in many ways seems like a mirror to the United States. The senate there will make a final vote on a bill that would legalize marriage and adoption for gay couples in April. Riot police were called to an anti-gay marriage protest on Sunday, where most estimate there were about 300,000 protestors (although conservatives who organized it claim there were 1.4 million). France’s president, much like our own, supports the bill.
Colombia is debating the issue now, and Uruguay will vote in April. Taiwan started hearing arguments on gay marriage this year, and if they legalize it they’d become the first nation in Asia to do so. India decriminalized homosexuality in 2009 but has yet to broach the marriage subject.
In China, the gay marriage question is a little different. The Los Angeles Times explains:
Women who unwittingly married gay men, dubbed “gay wives,” have pleaded to be able to annull their unions and then be labeled as “single” rather than “divorced,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported in January. Gay rights advocates countered the real solution was to allow same-sex marriage.
Sixty percent of U.N. countries have abolished laws that ban same-sex couples, but two-thirds of African countries still have laws banning homosexuality. Five countries still punish homosexuality with death: Sudan, Mauritiania, Nigeria, Somaliland and Afghanistan. In Russia, a huge proportion of the citizens are opposed to gay marriage—85 percent according to one poll. Five percent of the people polled said that gays should be “eradicated.”
The tides are turning elsewhere. In Uganda, an anti-homosexuality bill has been in the works since 2009, but protests against it have kept it from becoming law. Malawi no longer enforces its anti-gay laws. And even in Russia, things might be changing. The country’s first lesbian-only magazine was just published earlier this month.
So the U.S. isn’t alone in tackling the gay marriage question, and they’re certainly not the only citizenry up in arms on either side.
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