Saturday, August 22, 2009
Uyghurs in Kazakhstan have held a commemoration for the victims of ethnic clashes in the neighboring Uyghur Autonomous Region in Xinjiang, China, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.
Hundreds of ethnic Uyghurs gathered at a mosque in Almaty for the commemoration ceremony that ended the 40-day mourning period announced by leaders of Kazakhstan's Uyghurs on July 10.
Speaking during the ceremony, the deputy chairman of the World Congress of Uyghurs, Kaharman Kozhamberdiev, said that the Congress would keep on urging international human rights organizations to pursue independent investigations of the crackdown on a Uyghur protest in Urumchi on July 5, sparking days of rioting.
Chinese officials say that as a result of the clashes that began on July 5, over 190 people died and more than 1,600 were injured. Over 1,500 protestors were arrested later.
The World Congress of Uyghurs insists that the number of people killed, wounded, and arrested is actually much higher.
The unexpected and sudden renewal of the Turkmen-Azerbaijani dispute over three hydrocarbon fields in the middle of the Caspian Sea is the latest setback to the European Union's Nabucco gas-pipeline project.
An argument over ownership of the Caspian fields had soured Turkmen-Azerbaijani relations for more than a decade. But over the last two years, representatives of the two countries -- prodded by EU and U.S. officials -- had been meeting regularly, reviving hopes that Nabucco could be realized.
Those hopes took a hit on July 24 when Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov cited a report from Deputy Foreign Minister Toyly Komekov during a cabinet meeting.
Berdymukhammedov said the report showed that the impasse over the demarcation of the Caspian seabed between the two countries has remained unresolved "due to Azerbaijan's specific position. The main reason behind this situation is that there are mineral deposits located exactly in the disputed areas of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan claims ownership of these deposits, including the deposit known as Promezhutochnoyee during the Soviet era and which we now call our Serdar deposit."
Berdymukhammedov went on to mention the Omar and Osman fields, which he said Azerbaijan is already exploring but which, he claimed, "belong to us." The Turkmen president expressed regret that 16 bilateral meetings had not resolved the issue and then instructed Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov to take the issue to "the International Court of Arbitration."
More Gas Needed
That could present a major obstacle to the European Union's Nabucco plans. The proposed 3,300-kilometer pipeline starts at Georgia's western border and then heads toward Europe via Turkey. Nabucco wants to include Central Asian gas in the pipeline, particularly gas from Turkmenistan, which has one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas.
For some 15 years now the plan was to construct a "trans-Caspian" pipeline along the Caspian seabed from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, where it would be join a pipeline leading to Georgia's western border. But the dispute between Ashgabat and Baku over ownership of the three Caspian fields made construction of this pipeline impossible.
The recent warming of ties between the two countries, including a visit by Berdymukhammedov to Baku last year, raised hopes the pipeline could finally be built.
On state television on July 25, Deputy Foreign Minister Xalaf Xalafov indicated Azerbaijan was prepared to have a court decide on the ownership issue. "We believe that we are ready to defend Azerbaijan's position and rights on all levels," Xalafov said.
Ilham Shaban, an Azerbaijan-based energy expert and the editor of the "Turan Energy" daily newsletter, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that after years of this dispute, a court ruling may be the most "civilized" means of ending the stalemate.
"And to take this matter before a court is a natural step and we also hope the court will render a fair verdict," Shaban says.
Shaban adds that a resolution of the ownership question could then pave the way for dramatic improvement in Turkmen-Azerbaijani ties, which in turn opens up the way for projects like Nabucco. Nabucco foresees that the lion's share of the proposed 31 billion cubic meters of gas for the pipeline would come from Turkmenistan.
"I feel that this court will render a decision that will bring our countries even closer together if Ashgabat and Baku will observe and accept the decision of the International Arbitration Court," he says.
Shaban concedes that if the two countries do not show flexibility and maintain the rigid posturing that has marred bilateral ties for so long, the court case could drag on for years and endanger the construction of the trans-Caspian pipeline and also Nabucco.
A world slipping ever closer toward war awoke on the morning of August 24, 1939 to the shocking news that Adolf Hitler's Germany and Josef Stalin's Soviet Union had signed a nonaggression pact.
Hitler was beaming when his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, returned from Moscow with the agreements in hand.
"The name of party comrade von Ribbentrop, as [German] Reich foreign minister, will be forever associated with the political rise of the Germans and the German nation," he declared.
The pact, named colloquially for von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, was intended to give Hitler a free hand to deal with "the Polish problem" and, if necessary, fight Poland's Western allies -- Britain and France -- without the threat of Soviet intervention and a war on two fronts.
From Stalin's point of view, the goal of the pact was to buy time for him to rebuild a military that had been devastated by the purges of the 1930s and to prepare for what seemed an inevitable eventual showdown with Hitler.
'Spheres Of Influence'
But there was a secret protocol to the public agreement, under which the two dictators divided Central and Eastern Europe into "spheres of influence" in anticipation of "political and territorial rearrangements" in the region.
Although the secret protocol was widely believed to exist almost from the beginning, the precise wording of the text was not known until the Allies found and published a microfilmed copy that had been seized from German archives.
The Soviets maintained the document was a fake and denied the existence of the protocol until 1989. Three years later, Russia released the official protocol from its archives.
A week after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, on September 1, 1939, German forces attacked Poland, beginning World War II. On September 17, Stalin's Red Army moved into the eastern parts of Poland (see video here of joint Soviet-Nazi parade in Brest-Litovsk in September 1939).
In November, Stalin attacked Finland, which was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence under the secret protocol. In June 1940, the Soviets forcibly installed pro-Soviet governments in the three Baltic states, governments that promptly requested annexation into the Soviet Union. Later that month, Stalin occupied the Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina regions of Romania.
Throughout the territories it occupied, the Soviet Union carried out harsh political reprisals, including mass executions and deportations.
There is little agreement on how the pact between the two dictators came to be. The Soviets claimed they tried for years to contain Hitler through collective security arrangements with the Western powers, but that Britain and France were unresponsive.
This view remains prevalent in Russia today.
"Russian historians -- not all of them -- have continued to maintain this view, because it suits them to look as if the Soviet Union might have saved the peace, and that it was the British and the French who were responsible for the failure, rather than the other way around," says Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of numerous books about the war, "which was that the Soviet Union calculated, that it was better to get the British and the French to fight the Germans, than to fight them themselves."
In discussing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Russian historians tend to look at what came before -- notably the West's repeated failure to stand up to Hitler and the September 1938 Munich agreement, under which Britain and France sanctioned the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.
An official Soviet history published in 1948 established the argument that the Munich accord was "a secret agreement" and "a highly important phase in [the West's] policy aimed at goading the Hitlerite aggressors against the Soviet Union."
By contrast, Western historians, and the people of Central Europe, tend to emphasize what came after -- the de facto partitioning of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union and the establishment of a brutal Soviet sphere of influence across Central Europe.
Much In Common...To A Point
The news that Hitler and Stalin had reached an agreement came as a surprise to many. Hitler's disdain for the Slavs, his loathing of Bolshevism, and his numerous declarations that the German nation required the land and resources of the Western parts of the Soviet Union were well known in Moscow.
"If I had the Ural Mountains with their incalculable store of treasures and raw materials, Siberia with its vast forests, and the Ukraine with its tremendous wheat fields, Germany and the National Socialist leadership would swim in plenty," he told a Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg in September 1936.
But Overy says it was similarities between the dictators that made an accord possible. "Quite a lot unites them. And I think that, in the end, is what made it possible for Hitler to reach an agreement with Stalin," he says.
"He felt he understood a fellow dictator, somebody else who was equally ruthless as he was, who would tear things up, turn things upside down," he adds. "But at the back of Hitler's mind, of course, was always the idea that even if you did that, eventually a confrontation with Stalin was inevitable."
In addition, both Germany and the Soviet Union felt deeply aggrieved by the political settlements following the end of World War I. Russian diplomatic historian Sergei Sluch believes this played a role in the genesis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement.
"As you know, Soviet Russia and Germany were among the losers of World War I. Germany was defeated. Profound socioeconomic changes were going on in Russia that set Russia against the rest of the world," Sluch tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.
"So the relations of these two countries with the rest of the world had a very specific character. There were serious mutual claims against one another...but the main thing is that Soviet Russia did not have any relations with the leading powers of the world."
Such factors pushed the two dictators into a pact that was for both of them a temporary alliance of convenience. Ultimately, Molotov-Ribbentrop only postponed the seemingly inevitable conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union. In June 1941, Hitler broke the pact and launched a massive surprise invasion.
The Soviet Union paid the lion's share of the cost of defeating fascism, with at least 20 million killed -- 14 percent of its prewar population, compared to about 9 percent in Germany.
But by the time the war was over and the Red Army was in Berlin, Hitler's vision of an all-powerful German nation was in ashes. Instead, the Soviet domination of Central Europe that was sketched on a map in the Kremlin on the night of August 23, 1939, had become the new geopolitical reality of the continent.
Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) has made its contribution to the president’s recently declared struggle against the falsification of history.
According to Interfax, the SVR has issued a collection of documents that point to some sensational conclusions. For example -- the newly released documents assert that the Soviet Union’s decision to conclude a nonaggression treaty with fascist Germany in August 1939 was the only possible means of self-defense for the country in the situation that had developed at the time.
“The British and French governments, by signing the 1938 Munich Agreement, staked their hopes on an agreement with Hitler. In August 1939, delegations from these countries broke off the Moscow talks on the creation of an anti-Hitler coalition,” the SVR’s documents state. Moreover, according to these historians-in-uniform, the West’s deal with Germany “enabled the Nazis to seize the Baltic region and transform it into a staging ground for an attack on Soviet territory.”
There is really nothing surprising in the fact that the government has so passionately taken up the defense of Stalin’s foreign policy. Vladimir Putin’s understanding of realpolitik is the same as Stalin’s; everything is decided by military might and if there is a chance to bite off a chunk of someone else’s territory, you should go for it.
But the conclusions of the SVR’s new book don’t stand up to criticism. The agreement with fascist Germany on the delineation of spheres of influence did nothing to help the Soviet Union prepare for the coming war.
The two-year “breathing space” led to a massive strengthening of the power of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. If the weight of the intelligence reports of that period really convinced Stalin that his only choice was to conclude an agreement with Hitler, then it was one of the most dramatic failures of Soviet intelligence ever.
But such a conclusion can only be made on the basis of an objective analysis carried out by authoritative historians with access to all the documentation. Unfortunately, the only research of this type attempted so far was undertaken in 1998, with the publication of the two-volume study “1941,” edited by Aleksandr Yakovlev. That collection included more than 600 documents from the archives of the president of the Russian Federation, military intelligence, the Defense Ministry, the Federal Security Service, and -- of course -- the SVR.
With the latest SVR publication, we are obviously talking about something else. Russian intelligence has rushed to find evidence confirming the correctness of the opinion of the country’s top leadership.
It is the same thing that happened in 1941, when their predecessors obsequiously interpreted all the intelligence reports about the looming attack as specially prepared disinformation. Of course, they were telling Stalin what he wanted to hear out of fear of being shot. Today’s intelligence chiefs are just being servile, nothing more.
But none of them – not the spymasters, nor the political leaders of the country – really understand what these political games might result in. They are all used to the idea that the intelligence services – the eyes and ears of the state – don’t report what is, but what the leadership wants to hear.
For the sake of fairness, I should mention that until very recently, military intelligence (GRU) was giving the SVR stiff competition in terms of obsequiousness. For instance, on the basis of information from the GRU, Russian news agencies recently reported the “exact date” of a U.S. attack on Iran and the absolutely pointless (although extremely boastful) information that recent Russian submarine-launched missile tests came as a complete surprise to the United States (ignoring the fact that Moscow is obligated under existing agreements to notify Washington in advance of all missile launches).
The new book is not the SVR’s only attempt to play at politics. In 1995 it published a report called “The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: Problems With Its Extension,” in which our spies hinted strongly that all the problems with proliferation stem from the position taken by the United States.
The experts at the SVR wrote this about the prospects that North Korea would be able to build a nuclear bomb: “The current scientific-technical level and technological capacity of the nuclear facilities of North Korea do not allow their specialists to create a nuclear explosive ready for testing or to model a cold test of a plutonium warhead under laboratory conditions. Even if they were able to produce a certain quantity of weapons-grade plutonium, the development of a practical nuclear weapon is unlikely.”
Were the SVR analysts simply blind? Of course not. They were just acting in accordance with a certain political line and so, despite the evidence, felt impelled to prove that the nuclear threat from North Korea was exaggerated.
Now the participants in this game have persuaded themselves that they are carrying out a remarkable move by producing intelligence information that confirms the Kremlin’s political line. In reality, they are destroying the already minimal confidence that exists between the intelligence community and the political leadership of the country.
When asked once about the most important quality of a diplomat, Igor Andropov – son of the former secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- answered, “honesty.” This is doubly true for intelligence agents. If they become nothing more than a means of confirming the opinions of the political leadership, then why waste money on them?
If the Kremlin wants to know the truth from its intelligence services, it should realize that the publication of books such as this collection of documents about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact simply makes that impossible. It just pushes the intelligence community to the realization that the country’s leadership can be the object of manipulation.
I know some readers are thinking that the Kremlin is not the only one putting pressure on intelligence services. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush pushed the CIA in 2003 to produce evidence that Iraq was attempting to produce an atomic weapon. But there was a small difference in that case. Back then, a few high-ranking CIA officials quit their jobs – unwilling to participate in an obvious fabrication.
In our case, it appears the entire SVR is happy to do whatever it thinks the bosses want. This means that our country’s leaders are utterly without objective information about what is happening in the world.
The upcoming anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact has once again sharpened the polemics around the events of 70 years ago.
In Russia -- including from official sources, such as the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) -- we are hearing statements justifying Stalin's foreign policy as necessary and forced upon him by the intrigues of the Western democracies, which had -- since the time of the Munich Agreement -- been trying to direct Hitler's aggression to the east.
The desire to defend the positions of one's country at all costs is completely understandable from the psychological point of view if you live within an "us vs. them" paradigm in which "us" must always be right.
In addition to psychology, there is another motive here: over the centuries the idea has developed that there are unchanging national-state interests that are independent of epochs and regimes.
The remarkable French diplomat Jules-Martin Cambon wrote just seven years after the Versailles peace agreement that ended World War I that King Philip II at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 was fighting for the exact same thing that General Joseph Joffre was fighting for in the First Battle of the Marne. That is, between the 13th century and the 20th, France's geopolitical situation had not changed much.
It would be interesting to conduct a little experiment. Say we described as objectively as possible some international conflict between abstract countries in which Country X acts in some ignoble way and find out the opinions of our elite about Country X. And then we would explain that Country X was really the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.
I think that the number of people holding to their original opinions would be very small. After all, we are now talking about our country, which simply must have the most serious reasons for acting one way and not another. The purpose of our historians is just to uncover those reasons.
Unfortunately, this view is no less popular in Europe today. The insistence on eternal, unchanging interests and the belief that one's own side is right in all that it does leads to centuries-long conflicts over disputed territories such as Alsace or Silesia. The era of nation-states has made such conflicts even more destructive than they were during the age of dynastic warfare. World War II proved that such conflicts are fraught with catastrophic consequences up to and including genocide.
Politically Incorrect Self-Justification
Justifying one's own mistakes and crimes means -- to say the least -- opening the door to repeating them. That's why Germany and France have embarked on a course of intense cooperation, forgetting about the issue of borders. Very few modern Britons or Frenchmen are ready to defend the capitulation to Hitler at Munich and the shameful betrayal of Czechoslovakia.
In some new democracies there have been attempts to "create" new heroes out of the pro-Nazi activists of the past -- people like Jozef Tiso in Slovakia and Ion Antonescu in Romania -- but these projects quickly came unraveled when it became obvious that they contradicted the European mainstream.
However, Russia has no visible prospects of entering the European Union, so it is free to justify Stalin without paying attention to the opinions of Strasbourg or Brussels. Incidentally, if a real European perspective suddenly opened up for Ukraine, then part of its political elite would have to abandon some of its current historical interpretations, just as Baltic state leaders can no longer show sympathy with the marches of Nazi veterans.
But it's impossible to exaggerate the importance of an honest discussion of the real reasons for Soviet actions at key moments -- such as the run-up to World War II. Such a discussion is important most of all for Russia itself, if it wants to be a part of European civilization in reality instead of just in words. And it is important in order to ensure that the dialogue with one's partners on historical matters does not devolve into a senseless shouting match.
Stalin Looks West
So, what was Stalin trying to get out of his talks with England and France in the summer of 1939, before the agreement with Hitler?
If you look carefully at the Soviet position during these three-way consultations -- both political and military talks were conducted throughout August 1939 -- then one thing becomes clear: Stalin needed the territorial additions toward the West that the Soviet Union shortly thereafter achieved. The difference was in who was the first to agree to sanction his expansionism -- British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, or Hitler.
Initially the Soviet dictator decided to try to reach an agreement with the former, which is understandable. For one thing, they had already shown themselves to be weak at Munich. For another, the Soviet government could not suddenly abandon the course toward better relations with the Western democracies that had been begun by the previous Soviet foreign minister, Maksim Litvinov.
In order to achieve his goal, Stalin insisted in his talks with England and France on as loose as possible a definition of the term "indirect aggression," which would have provided him with pretext for intervening in the affairs of the Baltic countries, Poland, and Romania.
On July 9, 1939, the Soviets offered the following formulation: "The term 'indirect aggression' refers to actions under which one of the above-named states agrees under the threat of force from another power or without such a threat and which leads to the use of the territory or forces of that state for aggression against it or against one of the parties to this agreement and consequently leads to the loss of independence by this state or the violation of its neutrality." Such a formulation would have given Stalin the opportunity to intervene in any of these states practically at will.
To support this view, I would mention the events of June 1940 when Stalin used as a pretext for occupying the Baltic states the functioning of a "military" pact, the Baltic Entente, which had been created in 1934 and in reality presented no threat to the Soviet Union. One of the signs of the "aggressive intent" of this union, according to the Soviet Union, was the publication of its journal, "Revue Baltique."
The "above-mentioned countries" in the proposed agreement included Belgium, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. The Soviet Union at that time had borders with six of those eight countries. Notice the absence of Lithuania on this list, which can be explained by the fact that the countries were giving territorial guarantees to Poland, which was locked in an unregulated border dispute with Vilnius.
During the military consultations of August 1939, on the eve of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet negotiators persuaded Britain and France to agree to the transit of Soviet forces through Poland and Romania in the event of "aggression."
It wasn't clear if that meant "direct" or "indirect" aggression and, if "indirect," then under what definition and by whose determination. But everyone knew that the answers to these questions depended on Stalin's will. England and France -- in the light of their abysmal relations with Germany -- were in no position to fight against the Soviet Union. Soviet actions were fully in line with its previously developed conception of exploiting the "contradictions between the imperialist powers."
Lawlessness For All Or None
At the last minute (in fact, even after Stalin had decided to open talks with Hitler), the French agreed to Stalin's terms, but the British did not. The fear of repeating the shame of Munich in the form of another pact with a dictator was too great.
The British instead tried to play one last card -- talking Hitler out of going to war, but without handing over Poland as they had Czechoslovakia. But they had nothing to offer Hitler. So it isn't surprising that after signing the pact with the Soviet Union, the Nazis shut off this channel. After this, the fate of the Soviet Union's neighbors was just a matter of time and their defense capabilities (Finland was able to maintain its independence).
The English writer G.K. Chesterton has a story in which Father Brown, while investigating a crime, tells several respectable people about how the son of a murdered man took his revenge on the murderer, a dangerous maniac. The priest's interlocutors quickly agreed that taking the law into one's own hands in this case was justified by the extraordinary circumstances.
Then Brown explains that the murdered maniac was a famous billionaire and a pillar of society. And when they tried to modify their position and condemn the avenger, Brown "shouted loudly, like a pistol shot." He said that whatever side they chose, they had be either lawlessness for all or one law for all.
Applying this logic to individual people is hard enough -- applying it to whole countries is even harder. There is always the temptation to "support one's own," while at the same time never forgetting to condemn the double standards of others.
By Farangis Najibullah
Russia's recently announced plan to set up a second military base in Kyrgyzstan has evoked considerable reaction as proponents and detractors debate whether such a facility will boost or strain security efforts the region.
Moscow appears to be eyeing two possible sites in southern Kyrgyzstan that lie in the Central Asia's most densely populated and volatile region, the Ferghana Valley.
Ferghana straddles the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, is home to a combustible mix of high unemployment, diverse ethnicity, and religious conservatism.
Each of the sites shortlisted for the facility, Osh and Batken, is also near Kyrgyzstan's border with Uzbekistan.
Uzbek officials are reportedly concerned that such a base might provoke religious and extremist groups, and rumors of the deal prompted alarm from Tashkent even before the details were agreed during a recent Collective Security Treaty Organization Treaty (CSTO) summit on August 1.
Kyrgyz authorities have repeatedly asserted that the main security threats are from the south -- from areas bordering Uzbekistan.
But the Uzbek Foreign Ministry's Jahon news agency published a statement saying there was no need for a Russian base in the area, and that it would help destabilize all of Central Asia.
'The Pulse Of Central Asia'
The Ferghana Valley has a long history of ethnic tension and uprisings, and is home to a number of groups banned in many Central Asian states. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an alleged terrorist group whose operations now span South and Central Asia, was created there, and the banned Islamist Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been more active there than in any other part of Central Asia.
It has also witnessed periodic bloodshed, such as when ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashes in Osh killed nearly 300 people in 1990 or a popular uprising in the Uzbek city of Andijon was crushed by government forces in May 2005, killing or injuring hundreds more.
More recently, three attacks by unknown groups took place along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border within a span of 24 hours on May 26.
Such incidents appear to lend credence to Uzbekistan's fears of provoking extremists in the region.
But regional experts say Tashkent's opposition to a second Russian base in Kyrgyzstan has little to do with its stated objections. They suggest Uzbekistan, which considers itself a regional power, is wary of seeing increased Russian influence in Central Asia.
"Being present in a potentially unstable area, the Ferghana Valley, would mean that Russia has put its hands on the pulse of Central Asia," Andrei Grozin, the head Central Asia department at the Institute of the CIS Countries in Moscow, says. "Besides, Moscow wants to show who's the boss in Central Asia."
Hackles are already up among outsiders over draft legislation making the rounds in Russia that would make it easier to deploy troops internationally to counter aggression against Russian or foreign militaries. Russia's current counterterrorism law allows for deployments abroad to fight terrorism.
Grozin argues that an increased Russian presence would make it increasingly difficult for Uzbekistan to bully its neighbors.
"The presence of a Russian military base is perceived by many in Tashkent like the presence of a Russian military base in [Georgia's breakaway republics of] South Ossetia or Abkhazia, for example," Grozin tells RFE/RL.
"They all understand that when a Russian military structure emerges in the area of Uzbek interests, it will be harder for Tashkent to put pressure on Bishkek and Dushanbe."
Uzbekistan has a history of isolating itself when it comes to multilateral efforts. Taskhent has threatened to leave the Russia-dominated CSTO, and along with Belarus has refused to sign off on the organization's creation of a rapid-reaction force to fight terrorism.
Anna Matveeva, a visiting fellow with the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics, says that by setting up a second base in Kyrgyzstan, Russia would demonstrate that it does not consider Uzbekistan its favored partner in Central Asia.
"Uzbekistan has not been a stable partner to anyone," Matveeva says. "It frequently changes its foreign policy, shifting from Russia to the West, from the U.S. to China and so on. Kyrgyzstan, however, has been much more loyal to Russia."
Matveeva says Uzbekistan's warning about a new Russian military presence increasing the threat of militancy is "baseless."
"There is also quite a lot of military presence in Ferghana Valley and especially a huge Uzbek military buildup," Matveeva says. "The Russian base -- it will still take time until something of that order materializes -- will still be a very limited presence, we are not talking about deployment of a kind of big army unit there."
She notes the presence of a larger Russian military facility in Tajikistan "in a very devout area" near the border with Afghanistan and says, "It doesn't really provoke any passions of any kind."
By Kristin Deas
For the first time in more than 30 years, Muslims will be observing the holy month of Ramadan in what will be the peak of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
The timing has prompted concerns over how Muslim believers can deal with sunrise-to-sunset food and water abstention, while maintaining their health.
"From the medical point of view, Ramadan has many good points, but also for the people with certain health problems, it might be not so good," says Kyrgyz physician Ramis Usenbekov. "Also, the current hot weather is a big issue. In hot weather, the body dehydrates quickly, and it is necessary to get liquids frequently in this kind of heat."
Ramadan is tied to the lunar cycle and starts on August 20 in many Central Asian countries, although various Islamic sects and practices in different countries dictate different starting days. For example, Ramadan starts August 21 in Iran and Lebanon, but August 22 in the United States.
"We know that the temperature is a little bit high, and the day is much longer than last year," says Dr. Ali bin Shakar, director of the United Arab Emirates' Health Ministry. "So that's why we are concentrated on health education, how to deal with this time."
Shakar mentions "outdoor exposure, indoor exposure -- even what kind of food to take before fasting, how to start, and how to break your fast after that."
Kazan-based doctor Ildar Tukhvatullin explains that breaking the fast correctly can be critical, given that the longer days of summer will push that hour back considerably.
"During 'iftar' [evening] and 'sakhar' [morning], people have their meal. If they do it in a reasonable way -- don't overeat or eat anything irritating their stomach -- then fasting will be good for them," he says.
We know that the temperature is a little bit high, and the day is much longer than last year. So that's why we are concentrated on health education...
"It is important to have plenty of food containing carbohydrates -- that is, dried fruit, dates and figs, poultry, fish, dairy products. All of them are light and easily digested. Gas-forming products and water with gas should be excluded from the meal."
Afghan Mullah Mustafa Fedai stresses that Islam does make exceptions for health conditions.
"Islam wants convenience and health for its followers," Fedai says. "In a specific situation, such as if someone is going to lose consciousness and cannot continue fasting, the holy Koran makes clear that Islam allows people to eat. One verse says that exceptions can be made in cases of extreme need."
Tatar cleric Ildus Faiz points out the exception for the sick and tells RFE/RL that the point of fasting is holiness, not health.
" 'Uraza' [fasting] is not for getting healthier. People should know this. Sick people who think they will get better while fasting are mistaken," he says. "This shouldn't be the goal."
'Commit A Sin'
Iraqi cleric Ali al-Jubouri explains the travel exception, and cautions that while sickness exempts followers from fasting, faking illness is unacceptable.
"God says travelers and those who are ill are free from the fasting during Ramadan," Jubouri says. "But those who fake illness so they don't have to fast will have to fast at a later time, and they commit a sin."
Amid the heat of summer, fasting ethics have become a flashpoint this year. In Italy, for example, Muslim agriculture workers have been threatened with suspension if they refuse to drink liquids during the hotter parts of the day.
Speaking from Germany, Afghan Dr. Akram Malikzi says more could be done to help day laborers struggling to maintain their fast.
"In this holy month, if people follow the Islamic fasting rules, it is good for health and will not have a bad effect," Malikzi says.
"Regarding impoverished people who have to work in hot weather, it is clear that every human being loses a lot of liquid and minerals by sweating. If they continue to work in such hot weather, they will definitely they become dehydrated. But if they don't work, what will they eat, and who will support their children? I have a suggestion to the wealthy people in the government: help support these families," he said.
A shorter workday is informally kept during Ramadan in many Muslim countries.
Health concerns are compounded this year by the emergence of swine flu, a global pandemic. Ramadan is traditionally a popular month for followers of Islam to observe the hajj, a journey to the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.
The country issued a swine flu alert in July and announced that it will block visas from chronically ill pilgrims, as well as those over 65 or under 12 years old, to help prevent the spread of illness. More than 3 million pilgrims from 160-plus countries travel to Mecca each year.
The World Health Organization announced recently that 50 percent of Iran's 144 swine flu cases have come from Saudi Arabia, and a young Egyptian woman died July 19 after contracting swine flu during a pilgrimage to Mecca. Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt have imposed restrictions -- or outright bans -- on the pilgrimage.
Imagine seeing interesting information pop up as you stroll around. It is almost like a sixth sense, and it used to be mainly the stuff of science fiction.
But Augmented Reality (AR) - in which live video images like those from mobile phone camera are tagged with relevant data - is starting to be widely available.
This is largely because of advances in smart-phone technology, explained Chetan Damani, the co-founder of an AR application firm called Acrossair.
"Mobile manufacturers have started to add digital compasses into their mobile devices and that's allowed us to offer people augmented reality applications," he said.
"As the user moves the device left to right we can actually calculate where the user is pointing to and overlay the data accordingly," he said.
Add to that the ability to "geotag" - that is, add geographic information to places, pictures, or things based on a user's location handily grabbed from a handset's GPS - and the potential for AR applications skyrockets.
Late August saw the global release of a significantly expanded version of an AR application called Layar - which has been dubbed the world's first augmented reality browser.
The Layar system combines a digital compass and GPS co-ordinates to establish its location and where it is pointing.
Relevant information is then retrieved from a server and displayed in real time.
By scanning the landscape, the software shows houses up for sale, restaurants, bars, or Wikipedia entries that could be useful for tourists.
Also visible are Twitter "tweets" and photographs in various parts of the city that some people have geotagged.
"Layar enables you to see things that you didn't know about previously - data that was hidden in books or in the basement of a company," he explained.
Much of the content, he said, is created by users themselves.
"Right now anybody can make a Layar, and all this information is provided to you as a service, and you can make it and access it for free."
Layar has only been in development since April, but it recently launched globally for phones that use the Google Android operating system.
A version for the iPhone is slated for release soon after the upgrade of Apple's operating system, which is expected to give developers greater control to manipulate and merge on-screen graphics and the camera feed.
In Japan, a new iPhone application is being used to help visitors navigate their way through a museum and to find data on the exhibitions.
Developers Tonchidot's Sekai Camera app enables users to tag things they want others to see.
Other applications have more immediate practical value.
In London, for example, the Acrossair application allows commuters to find their nearest underground station.
Acrossair's app enables iPhone users in central London to point their handset's camera and see underground stops float over the picture.
The accelerometer within the phone means that if the user points their handset to the ground, arrows will pop up into view pointing the way to the nearest stations.
With hardware like GPS and digital compasses becoming more and more common on handsets - along with the ability to download and use apps - it's easy to imagine that AR will become the means of choice for delivering information that's specific to wherever we are, whenever we're there.
What's your biggest technology disappointment? For me, it's pervasive public wi-fi.
Man using a mobile phoneOnly a few years back a whole host of commercial and community schemes were underway in the UK and elsewhere which promised to blanket towns in free - or very cheap - wireless connectivity.
But as I wander round Britain or visit the United States - I rarely find wi-fi that is both easy to use and affordable.
I'm far more likely to get on the internet on the move using either a 3G phone, or a USB mobile broadband dongle (not cheap either - but easier) and given the soaring data traffic across mobile networks, I suspect that's the same for many people.
Municipal wi-fi, which attracted a lot of interest and investment in the early part of the decade, has proved something of a "bubble" phenomenon with many projects abandoned and others failing to deliver a return for their investors.
I put my view that public wi-fi has been a huge disappointment to Dave Hughes, director of Wireless Broadband at BT Retail.
He'd come on the phone to trumpet BT's announcement that it had now built half a million wi-fi hotspots across the UK, and to set a target of hitting a million by next February.
So naturally he disagreed with my diagnosis - he felt the wi-fi revolution was marching forward.
But eventually we found some common ground. He accepted that wi-fi in the open air had its limitations - and I agreed that in hotels, cafes and airports (when you can find it - it usually offers a much better connection than 3G).
Mind you, I've still not used a wi-fi connection indoors in the UK to make a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) phone call - one of the most attractive uses of the technology - whereas I have downloaded web pages using 3G, despite the cost.
So for now wi-fi appears to have retreated from the park and headed back indoors, to cafes and public buildings. But Mr Hughes at BT isn't giving up.
He says the technology is moving forward and the demand for mobile connectivity is growing exponentially. That's obviously true - the question is which technology will triumph.
It could be Wimax - although this "wi-fi on steroids" technology is doing better in the developing world than in places like the UK.
It looks more likely to be new flavour of mobile network, whether it's called 4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution). Users won't really care, as long as they can get online anywhere at a reasonable price.
But it matters for businesses which will want to offer customers a seamless broadband experience at home and on the move. Mobile operators - already offering broadband at home - will believe that they have the most complete wireless technology offering.
BT - which doesn't have its own mobile network - will be wondering whether it's wise to keep on betting on wi-fi as its solution.
Ever been on an online discussion forum to inquire about some technical problem you're trying to sort out? Then it's quite likely that after a while you will have received a terse message from some smart-alec, which will end with the acronym RTM, followed by a number of exclamations marks. That apparently stands for Read The Manual! - and in fact the acronym usually includes the letter "f" placed before the "m" to supply added emphasis.
Haynes computer manualWell, sorry, I'm not going to read the manual, as I explained to the makers of a charming Radio 4 programme which you can hear this morning at 1100.
"How to Write An Instruction Manual" is presented by an engineer from King's College London, Dr Mark Miodownik. He's also written this article about the man behind the Haynes Instruction Manuals, regarded by many as the works which define the art of describing in painstaking detail just how something works.
Now if you were acquiring a second-hand car 20 years ago, and were expecting to do your own maintenance, then one of these manuals would have been just the ticket. But, as I told Mark when he came to interview me for his programme, the world has moved on. The whole point of modern devices - from cars, to mobile phones, to wireless routers - is that they are designed for idiots like me who don't even know how to lift the bonnet, and wouldn't know how to proceed if they could. We want to take things out of the box, turn them on and see them leap into action without having to read anything.
There is a serious point here. These days, good product designers know that they must ensure that extraordinarily complex devices can be used by people without any kind of specialist knowledge. When I was at school - oooohh shortly after the last war - there was one computer in the science block. It was attended by what seemed like a team of engineers, feeding tickertape into it, and only physics students wearing white lab coats - I kid you not - were allowed to approach. Now, when I acquire a new laptop, I open the box, chuck out any accompanying paper, and power it up. There may be the odd on-screen instruction but that's your lot, and I often feel I can use my computer without wearing a lab coat.
And if I get sent a new mobile phone to try out, and find I actually need to open the chunky instruction manual in seven languages, I put it back in its box and return it to its makers. Good products today combine excellent technology with an intuitive user interface - and if they don't they are likely to fail.
Dr Miodownik seemed slightly crestfallen at my lack of enthusiasm for manuals. He fears that our impatience with instructions is a symptom of a throwaway society where products become obsolete within months.
I understand why an engineer might feel passionate about what are sometimes rather lovely products in themselves. On our bookshelves at home we have the Eagle Annual of the Cutaways, a collection of beautifully executed drawings from the boys' comic of the 1950s and 1960s explaining the workings of everything from a VC10 aircraft to a "do-it-yourself" petrol pump.
It may be sad that we no longer seem to have that thirst for knowledge about how things work. But I'm afraid I'm just not going to start reading the manual.
Shortly after President Obama took office, he made a promise to make the default position for government open rather than secret. This is evident today in a host of websites already up and running and being dubbed as part of Government 2.0. Yes, think Web 2.0 but without the overarching social media obsession evident during the campaign.
• Data.gov provides access to government data and allows the public to create new web applications, carry out analysis and perform research.
• USAspending.gov is "where Americans can see where their money goes."
• Recovery.gov shows where stimulus money is being spent and how.
• Regulations.gov the one-stop shop for government regulations.
• WhiteHouse.gov which is of course where citizens can find out what the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania are up to.
All these websites contain a treasure trove of information, statistics and raw data, but what good is it all and what does all this mean?
Anil Dash from Six Apart, which is one of the most significant players in blogging, said what the government is doing represents the "most promising new start-up of 2009 (and) one of the least likely."
"I am not a Polyanna about this, " Mr Dash told me.
"I don't think necessarily everything that comes out of this will be immediately great. It will take people some time to understand the potential there is for something great to happen.
"In the past, when this information was printed on paper and stuffed into a box and filed in a building no-one had access to, there wasn't any potential for anything great to happen," explained Mr Dash.
Mike Masnick at techdirt.com backs that sentiment.
"With a focus on openness and data sharing... I have to agree with Anil Dash that one of the most interesting tech "start-ups" to watch this year is the federal government of the US. The tech projects they are already coming out with are compelling and well done," said Mr Masnick.
And cities throughout the United States are following suit.
Here in Silicon Valley, San Jose has just just approved what it calls some "sunshine" reforms to ease public access to some city records. The move however was seen by critics as too timid and not going far enough.
San Francisco launched DataSF.org in the hope, said mayor Gavin Newsom, it will "create a torrent of innovation similar to when the developer was given access to the platforms behind popular technologies and devices like Facebook and Apple's iPhone."
Mr Newsom gives as an example the use of data on recycling that was released by the Department of Environment and used by a third party to develop EcoFinder, an iPhone app that helps residents recycle based on their location.
And for Mr Dash and many others who have weighed in on this topic, the crucial factor
is allowing the public to take all this open and easily accessible information and use it in new and exciting ways.
"That is when innovation happens. You build a system for one thing and someone uses it for something different. In the technology world that is very common and these government efforts allow that to happen.
"With the closed system we had in the past, only what government staffers anticipated was what was created," explained Mr Dash.
As part of a project called Apps for Democracy, developers have set up a website to show people "interesting ways to mash up data for the betterment of all."
These include an app called StumbleSafely that uses crime data to help people get home safely after a night on the tiles and Carpool Mashup Matchmaker to help people find carpools.
Others agree that the focus on openness and data sharing is key to changing government and how citizens relate to it.
Tim O'Reilly, the internet guru and the man who popularised the phrase Web.20 puts it best.
"Rather than licencing government data to a few select "value added" providers, who then license the data downstream, the federal government (and many state and local governments) are beginning to provide an open platform that enables anyone with a good idea to build innovative services that connect government to citizens, give citizens visibility into the actions of government and even allow citizens to participate directly in policy-making.
"That's Government 2.0: technology helping build the kind of government the nation's founders intended: of, for and by the people."
Bill Thompson has been using Unix for a quarter-century - and doesn't plan to stop now.
In the autumn of 1984, I completed the Diploma in Computer Science at Cambridge University and started looking for my first job in the computing industry.
Cambridge was a good place to be a programmer at the time. Trinity College had built its Science Park on the northern fringe of the city in 1970 and the university's permissive approach to intellectual property meant that it was relatively easy to spin off an idea and see how it worked out without severing all links to a departmental salary.
As a result the cauldron of innovation had been well-stirred by academics from Computer Lab, the Engineering Lab and elsewhere, with a good mix of venture capitalists and an influx of talented managers eager to guide new companies. By the mid 1980's, the Cambridge Phenomenon was in full flood.
I ended up in the middle of it, joining a small software house called Bensasson and Chalmers as a programmer to work on their database management system, Spires.
During my course I had used the large IBM mainframe computer and also smaller microcomputers that ran an operating system called Tripos, written at Cambridge. I had learned to programme in the teaching language Pascal and in BCPL, a stripped down language also developed at Cambridge by Professor Martin Richards.
BCPL was largely intended for writing operating systems and compilers for other languages (a compiler is a utility that takes the source code of a program and turns it into the binary commands a specific computer can execute).
However, I had now arrived at a commercial software developer, so I had to work in a commercial language on a commercial operating system, and at BCL that meant coding in the C programming language on a British-built Bleasdale computer running the Unix operating system.
I didn't know it at the time, but Unix was more generally used in academia and was relatively rare in commercial settings. However, that was already changing, and the few weeks it took me to come to terms with C programming and learn my way around Unix provided the basis for much of my future career, both in the computing industry and as a journalist.
It was the IT equivalent of becoming a "made man" or "wise guy" in the Mafia, and has stood me in very good stead since. I am still proud to call myself a C/Unix programmer, even if it has never got me an upgrade on a long-distance flight and rarely works as a chat-up line at parties.
Spires is no more, though the company is still around, and Simon Bensasson, John Chalmers, Jamie Radcliffe, Chris Richardson and the other talented people I worked with in my time there have other roles, in other places. Unix, however, has done rather better in the intervening quarter-century, and this month it is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Originally written by Ken Thompson in August 1969 because he wanted a lightweight operating system to let him play a game called Space War on the rather underpowered PDP-7 computer that his employer, Bell Labs, had provided him, Unix has been at the heart of the IT revolution that has swept the world in the last four decades, even though most computer users will never have heard of it.
In the 30 or so years since it moved out of the research labs and started appearing on workstations, minicomputers and desktops, it has been embraced in particular by computer scientists and engineers.
They want to build systems that are open, flexible and expandable, systems that respect their users and administrators and acknowledge that they will want to make choices and should not be overly constrained by the tools they have chosen.
Today Unix systems are everywhere. All of the variants of the successful GNU/Linux operating system, including the recently-announced Google Chrome OS, build on an original design that came from Unix via a teaching implementation called Minix written by Andrew Tanenbaum. Scratch the surface of your shiny Apple laptop and you'll find that Mac OS is a Unix variant, and even mainframe computers run Unix-like systems.
This has happened despite massive resistance to Unix in almost all areas of the industry, especially from Microsoft who wrote Windows NT as a Unix-killer. But Unix has succeeded despite this because it is an operating system that people who understand operating systems like to use. It has succeeded because its core philosophy favours freedom and choice over user control and second-guessing, encouraging questions and investigation and rewarding those who try hard to understand it.
Free and easy
Unix systems are also inextricably linked to the free software movement, and not just because the idea of free software originated in programmer Richard Stallman's attempt to build GNU ('GNU's Not UNIX'), a non-proprietary version of Unix, when AT&T, who had taken over Bell Labs and therefore owned the copyright in the main commercial version of Unix, tried to lock it up. Unix always encouraged tinkering, innovation and experimentation, and in order to do that effectively you need to look under the bonnet and read the source code - something that remains central to the free software philosophy.
In a world that is increasingly shaped by and managed through advanced computer technology, the ideologies built into applications and operating systems matter more and more because they shape the potential of the systems we are developing.
I choose Unix over anything else because I believe that the respect for the system's administrators, programmers and end-users that lies at the core of the Unix philosophy remains our best hope for creating computer systems that will promote and encourage free expression, liberalism and humanism.
Unix is the operating system that most clearly expresses the values of the liberal enlightenment that form the basis of my own personal philosophy, and I will continue to use and support it.
The wrinkle-faced bat's strangely shaped skull gives it a remarkably strong bite force, say scientists.
Researchers report in the Journal of Zoology that this bizarre-looking bat has evolved a powerful bite that may give it an advantage over other bats.
It allows it to eat a broader range of foods than other small fruit-eaters with weaker bites.
The tiny creature, which weighs just 17g, produces bite forces up to 20% higher than other bats of similar size.
The Centurio senex bat has a extremely short and wide skull, the shape of which has long puzzled evolutionary biologists.
"We found that relative to head size, Centurio generates the strongest bites known for any fruit-eating phyllostomid (or leaf-nosed) bat," explained lead author Elizabeth Dumont from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US.
They proposed that a shortage of softer fruits during "lean times" may have provided a selective pressure, driving the evolution of its oddly-shaped skull.
"The New World leaf-nosed family of bats exhibits spectacular diversity in diet," explained Professor Dumont.
"Centurio is a dedicated fruit-eater, but the family also contains insect-eaters, nectar-feeders, species that eat small vertebrates - such as lizards, frogs, rodents - and vampire bats.
"Although Centurio looks ferocious, it is a small and gentle animal."
n what has been described as a step towards the creation of a synthetic cell, scientists have created a new "engineered" strain of bacteria.
A team successfully transferred the genome of one type of bacteria into a yeast cell, modified it, and then transplanted into another bacterium.
This paves the way to the creation of a synthetic organism - inserting a human-made genome into a bacterial cell.
The team describe the work in the journal Science.
This advance, the researchers say, overcomes the obstacle of making a new inserted genome work inside a recipient cell.
The experiment was carried out by a team that included scientist J Craig Venter, a leading figure in the controversial field of synthetic biology.
Sanjay Vashee, a researcher at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, in the US, was one of the authors.
The resulting cell he and his team created went on to undertake multiple rounds of cell division, to produce a new strain of the modified bacteria.
Dr Vashee explained to BBC News that the work overcame a hurdle in the quest to create a fully synthetic organism.
"Bacteria have 'immune' systems that protect them from foreign DNA such as those from viruses," he explained.
He and his colleagues managed to disable this immune system, which consists of proteins called restriction enzymes that home in on specific sections of DNA and chop up the genome at these points.
Bacteria can shield their own genomes from this process by attaching chemical units called methyl groups at the points which the restriction enzymes attack.
The scientists modified the original genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides, whilst it was inside the yeast cell. Then they either attached methyl groups to it, or inactivated the restriction enzyme of the recipient bacterium, before transplanting the genome into its new cell.
One of the team's ultimate aims is to transplant a fully synthetic genome into a bacterial cell - creating bacteria that can be programmed to carry out specific functions - for example, digesting biological material to produce fuel.
Race for life
Researchers at the same institute have already synthesised the complete genome of a bacterium they have called Mycoplasma genitalium. Dr Vashee described this work as a "logical extension" of that.
He told BBC News that attempts to create a synthetic bacterium by transplanting M. genitalium into a cell were "ongoing".
"We have as of yet no conclusive proof that we have obtained M. genitalium cells after its genome has been put into various recipient cells," he said.
"[But this] is a major advance in our effort to create a synthetic cell."
Dr Vashee continued: "We were very concerned that the differences between the modifications in... bacterial DNA and [yeast] DNA might be an insurmountable barrier, preventing transplantation into bacteria of genomes that were passed through yeast.
"Now we know how to do this."
Critics have expressed reservations about synthetic biology, and the aim to create what has been widely referred to as artificial life.
Many are concerned that the technology to engineer organisms could end up in the wrong hands.
Dr Vashee concluded: "Dr Venter and the team at JCVI continue to work with bioethicists, outside policy groups, [politicians], and the public to encourage discussion and understanding about the societal implications of their work and the field of synthetic genomics."
Palaeontologists have drawn with ink extracted from a preserved fossilised squid uncovered during a dig in Trowbridge, Wiltshire.
The fossil, thought to be 150 million years old, was found when a rock was cracked open, revealing the one-inch-long black ink sac.
A picture of the creature and its Latin name was drawn using its ink.
Dr Phil Wilby of the British Geological Survey said it was an ancient creature similar to the modern-day squid.
"The structure is similar to ink from a modern squid so we can write with it," he said.
The find was made at a site which was first excavated in Victorian times where thousands of Jurassic fossils with preserved soft tissues were found.
Dr Wilby, who led the excavation, said: "We think that these creatures were swimming around during the Jurassic period and were turned to stone soon after death. It's called the Medusa effect."
It is difficult to imagine how you can have something as soft and sloppy as an ink sac inside a rock that is 150 million years old
Dr Phil Wilby
Experts believe one possibility is that thousands of the creatures congregated in the area to mate before being poisoned by algae in the water.
Remains of a different species of squid have also been found, suggesting the carcasses attracted predators to feed on them and they in turn also died.
Dr Wilby said: "They can be dissected as if they are living animals, you can see the muscle fibres and cells.
"It is difficult to imagine how you can have something as soft and sloppy as an ink sac fossilised in three dimension, still black, and inside a rock that is 150 million years old."
The specimen is now in the British Geological Survey collection in Nottingham.
Part of the ink sac has been sent to Yale University in America for more in-depth chemical analysis.
Few plants can grow without soil and even fewer are capable of growing on nothing but bare rock.
Yet some species of desert cactus manage this extraordinary feat, and now scientists have worked out how.
The plants have evolved a symbiotic relationship with rock-dissolving bacteria, which they allow to grow in their roots, say the scientists.
The cacti even incorporate these rock-busting bugs into their seeds, passing them on to future generations.
"We were working in the desert, when we observed that many individual cacti grew in sheer rocks," says Dr Yoav Bashan, a biologist at the Northwestern Center for Biological Research in La Paz, Mexico.
"They looked good and green in habitats where usually plants do not grow."
The enigma, says Dr Bashan, is that plants need minerals and nitrogen to survive.
We believe that we have found a new symbiosis between bacteria and plants
Dr Yoav Bashan
But neither are available from rock, which binds in minerals and contains no accessible nitrogen.
"The only explanation that we could think of is involvement of microorganisms assisting the plant to grow, fixing nitrogen and dissolving mineral."
"We looked for them and found them."
Dr Bashan and US-based colleagues Dr Esther Puente and Dr Ching Li have discovered that cardon catus (Pachycereus pringlei) growing in the volcanic region of the Baja California Sur mountain range harbour bacteria that are capable of dissolving rock.
These bacteria not only live on the surface of the plant's roots, but also within cells that make up the root itself, the scientists report in the journal Environmental and Experimental Botany.
Cardon catus growing on rock
A cross section reveals the roots of a cardon cactus seedling taking hold
Further tests revealed the endophytic bacteria also grow in the cactus fruit and from there are transferred into seeds, and that these bacteria can weather rock, dissolving particles into smaller sizes.
"We believe that we have found a new symbiosis between bacteria and plants," says Dr Bashan.
"The cactus is the carbon provider for the bacteria and the bacteria indirectly provide the minerals and nitrogen for the plant."
The bacteria and plant work in concert. The bacteria dissolve the rock, allowing the cactus seed to take purchase. The roots then drill into the weathered rock, fracturing it further.
"Consequently, below the plant is a small cave where the rocks were consumed and washed as soil and the roots are literally in the air," Dr Bashan explains.
Further tests revealed that without the bacteria, cacti couldn't survive.
Cactus species growing in Baja, California
With a little help, even cracks aren't inhospitable
The relationship is especially fruitful because the cacti are able to pass the bacteria onto the next generation.
"When a seed falls in bats and bird droppings onto barren rock, it contains all the bacteria it needs to pioneer colonisation of that rock," says Dr Bashan.
"The seed is the lucky one, as there is no other competition from other plants that do not have these bacteria."
The bacteria and cactus likely evolved together, with their ancient ancestors developing their symbiotic relationship.
The cactus also then helps produce soil from the rock, which other plants can use to colonise what was once an extreme habitat.
"They are the pioneering plants," says Dr Bashan.
"They formed soil in accelerated speed that otherwise will take millions of years to form."
Scientists have revealed a spectacular insight into turtle evolution - how the unique animals get their shells.
A Japanese team studied the development of turtle embryos to find out why their ribs grow outward and fuse together to form a tough, external carapace.
Reporting in the journal Science, the researchers compared turtle embryos with those of chicks and mice.
They found that, as turtles developed, part of their body wall folded in on itself forcing the ribs outward.
The team of researchers from the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, described the turtle shell as an "evolutionary novelty".
It represents such a leap from the soft-bodied ancestors that turtles share with mammals and birds, that scientists have long puzzled over how exactly it came about.
"Other groups have looked into why the shoulder blade in turtles is encased inside the rib cage," said Olivier Rieppel from Field Museum in Chicago, an expert in reptile evolution who was not involved in this study.
"That makes them unique."
This study identified the key event in the development of a turtle embryo that changes its fundamental "body plan" - when the upper part of the its body wall folds in on itself.
No matter how exquisite it may seem, as if it were some sort of magic, evolution is at most a good trick
This fold produces what scientists refer to as the carapacial disc - a thickening of the deep layer of the turtle's skin that maps out the position of its shell.
"Once you have this body plan, you have the carapacial disc and all the rest of it follows," said Dr Rieppel.
In the early embryo, the muscles and skeleton are in similar positions to those of the chicken and mouse, explained Shigeru Kuratani, one of the authors of the study.
As the embryo develops, this folding essentially "re-maps" the turtle's body - mechanically preventing the ribs from growing inward and holding the shoulder blades in place.
Dr Kuratani explained that some of the connections between developing bones and muscles were the same as in birds and mammals, but there were some, including the pectoral muscles, that "showed entirely unique (types of) connectivity in turtles".
The discovery helps define a position in evolutionary history for a 220-million-year-old turtle fossil discovered last year in China, which had an incomplete shell that only covered its underside.
Artist's impression of ancient turtle
The fossil captured an "intermediate step in the evolution of turtles"
"The developmental stage of the modern turtle, when the ribs have not encapsulated the shoulder blade yet, resembles the (body) of this fossil species," said Dr Kuratani.
Dr Rieppel, who examined the Chinese fossil when it was discovered late in 2008, said this study illustrated that the ancient turtle was "basically an intermediate step in the animals' evolution".
The scientists do not yet know what causes the folding. "That belongs to a future project," said Dr Kuratani.
Stressing the importance of developmental research to evolutionary biology, Dr Kuratani said: "Developmental changes in evolution give rise to an enormous diversity of animal forms."
"No matter how exquisite it may seem, as if it were some sort of magic, evolution is at most a good trick... and there is a way to make it work.
"In case of turtle evolution, a major part of the trick was found to be (this) embryonic folding."
Females do not always trust males who emit strong sexual signals, according to a study by evolutionary biologists.
Researchers from Glasgow and Exeter universities studied mating behaviour in three-spined stickleback fish.
They found "initial flashy displays" by males were not always successful at attracting a mate.
The study said some females waited until sexual signals were more honest as weaker males exhausted themselves with "shows" they could not sustain.
The team, led by Dr Jan Lindström, found that the honesty of mating displays could vary dramatically over time.
Dr Lindström said: "Honesty in males mostly depends on how many opportunities there are to breed.
If males can potentially breed several times over the course of a breeding season, it pays those in best condition to keep some of their strength in reserve
Dr Jan Lindström
"If males can breed now but the future promises little in terms of further matings, all males should immediately reveal their 'true colours' - so that the signals they produce are a reliable indication of their quality.
"But if males can potentially breed several times over the course of a breeding season, it pays those in best condition to keep some of their strength in reserve.
"In contrast, those males in poorer condition cannot afford to delay seeking a mate, so must signal as hard as they can - with the result that at the start of the breeding season a female cannot reliably judge a male's quality from his signal.
"However, as time goes on, the poorer condition males must drop out of the competition, leaving only the better ones and making it easier for a female to pick a high quality mate."
The predictions were tested using three-spined sticklebacks, a species of fish in which breeding males develop a red throat in order to attract females.
Sticklebacks can breed several times over the course of the summer, but pay a heavy price since few survive for another year.
Dr Lindström added: "We found that the redness of the males changed over the summer, with all starting out red but only those in good condition being able to sustain their colour.
"As predicted by our model, females seemed to ignore the redness of a male when choosing a mate in early summer, and only developed a preference for redder males later, once it became a more honest signal of a male's quality."
The study was funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council. It will be published in the scientific journal, American Naturalist.
One amphibian has evolved a bizarre and gruesome defence mechanism to protect itself against predators.
When attacked, the Spanish ribbed newt pushes out its ribs until they pierce through its body, exposing a row of bones that act like poisonous barbs.
The newt has to force its bones through its skin every time it is attacked, say scientists who have described the form and function of the barbs in detail.
Yet this bizarre behaviour appears not to cause the newt any ill effects.
The ability of the Spanish ribbed newt to expose its rib bones was first noticed by a natural historian in 1879.
But scientists have now used modern photographic and X-ray imaging techniques to reveal just how the animal does it.
And what they discovered is even more gruesome than they imagined.
When the newt becomes agitated or perceives a threat, it swings its ribs forward, increasing their angle to the spine by up to 50 degrees.
As it does this, the newt keeps the rest of its body still.
"The forward movement of the ribs increases the body size and stretches the skin to the point of piercing it," says zoologist Egon Heiss of the University of Vienna in Austria.
The tips of the newt's ribs then stick outside its body, like exposed spines.
But there is more to the newt's defence, Heiss and his Vienna-based colleagues report in the Journal of Zoology.
"When teased or attacked by a predator, [the newt] secretes a poisonous milky substance onto the body surface. The combination of the poisonous secretion and the ribs as 'stinging' tools is highly effective," says Heiss.
The impact on any predator can be striking, particularly if they try to bite the newt or pick it up using their mouth.
Then the poison in almost injected into the thin skin within the mouth, causing severe pain or possibly death to the attacker.
As well as elucidating the spear-like shape of the ribs, and exactly how the ribs swing forward and protrude, the scientists have demonstrated that the bones must break through the newt's body wall every time the amphibian evokes the defence response.
Initially, it was thought that the ribs may passively emerge through pores, rather than be actively driven through the body wall.
Surprisingly, the newt, which is related to other newts and salamanders, appears to suffer no major ill effects, despite repeatedly puncturing its own body and exposing its rib bones.
"Newts, and amphibians in general, are known to have an extraordinary ability to repair their skin," says Heiss.
"Anyway, if this newt can avoid being eaten in some cases, this surely has a positive influence."
It also seems that the newt is immune to its own poison, which is normally confined to glands in the newt's body.
When the newt wounds itself by exposing its ribs, the poison can seep into its body tissue, again apparently with no ill effects.
Heiss now hopes to investigate which compounds are in the poison.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has promised to buy up diamonds, as part of a $1bn (£605m) support package for diamond miner Alrosa.
The state-controlled miner has $3.6bn in outstanding debt and state support will help service it, during what Mr Putin called a "difficult period".
Diamond sales have lost their sparkle during the global recession.
Alrosa produces 25% of the world's rough diamonds and is the main rival to De Beers, the South African company.
"We understand that this sector, which gives serious revenues to the federal budget and regional budget, is in a difficult situation and needs support due to the global market situation," the Russian prime minister said.
"To support the sector, the state has agreed to significantly increase state purchases of diamonds," he added.
Diamonds are one of the biggest sources of income in Russia's Yakutia region, with gem sales making up 30% of local government income.
Alrosa's importance to Russia and Yakutia makes it a prime candidate for government help as Russia endures its worst recession since the 1990s, analysts said.
Alrosa, which sells more than half its polished diamonds in the US market, is not the only diamond company to have been knocked by the recession.
Profits at De Beers, the world's biggest diamond producer, have slumped in the "most difficult" economic environment in decades.
In the first six months of 2009, it made a profit of $3m , down from $316m a year earlier.
While demand is weak in the US, De Beers said that many in China and India are still buying gems.
The tremendous growth of India's economy over the last decade has put more money in the pockets of the country's middle class, prompting retailers to target this group of consumers.
But the fallout of economic slowdown has made the country's middle-income earners revise their spending habits.
At a popular shopping centre in west Delhi, Devender Singh Bisht carries a huge pile of clothes for his wife.
She walks ahead of him, searching for bargains, among rows of colourful t-shirts.
They love shopping and they are one of the thousands of young urban couples who are making money and know how to spend it.
They might be keen to show off their new wealth, but the global economic downturn is making them nervous about their previously carefree spending urges.
They will not pay top prices for branded clothes any more.
Devender is very honest about their previous shopping habits.
"We used to visit only exclusive stores before and spend thousands of rupees on branded clothes. I don't like wearing anything locally made, I want international brands," he says.
But times have changed and thrift is now high on the couple's agenda.
"I work in a place where all my clients and colleagues wear smart clothes and it would hurt my confidence levels if I'm not dressed like them.
"But it is a huge burden on my pocket. So now I look for discount offers where I can buy two or three items of clothing for the price of one," says Devender.
The Loot is one of India's discount retail chains that hopes to benefit from consumers getting more price-conscious.
The group buys surplus products cheaply from big brands and sells them at discounted prices and the recession has been good for them.
Jay Gupta, who heads the store, says they are aiming to double the 100 shops they currently have and eventually list on the stock market.
"The recession is ideal for shops like ours to do good business. People who wouldn't have normally looked for bargains are now looking for good deals," he says.
Jay Gupta has noticed the change in consumer thinking.
"We did an internal study to assess the impact of the downturn and realised when people have money in their wallets, they have plenty of options to choose from," he explains.
At one shopping mall, which claims to be India's largest with more than a kilometre of shopping on every floor, families are thronging the stores.
But despite the increased footfall, very few are making any real purchases.
The generation which drove the country's rapid economic boom by their conspicuous consumption is now going back to a much-favoured Indian value - thrift.
This time of year in India is usually a peak season for retailers with festivals and the country's renowned wedding season around the corner.
But this year most shops have had to resort to sales to tempt in customers.
The country seems to be full of bright red 'sale' boards and some places are offering 50% or 70% discounts.
But it is a hard sell for the shops as many families are avoiding the local mall to spend weekends at home.
The Mahesh family, like most Indians, teach their young children to save money for a rainy day.
As a result, households in India are among the most frugal in the world.
Lanka Mahesh and his wife are both dentists with two young daughters.
While their incomes have risen, so has the price of essential goods like food and fuel. They have been forced to rethink their spending habits and the downturn has made them cautious.
Plans to buy a second car and move to a bigger apartment have been put on hold.
Dr Mahesh admits that they are not hard-pressed for money, but they do believe it is essential to make savings.
"We should be prepared for anything now," he says.
"What if there is a sudden blip - like an illness in the family or a rise in school fees? Anything can happen.
"Earlier we didn't think before making purchases; now we're having second thoughts about all expenses," he adds.
The four-bedroom villa in the leafy Dubai suburb known quaintly as The Meadows could be an advert for "The Dubai Dream" with its marble floors, spacious gardens and outdoor swimming pool.
As little as 12 months ago, buoyed by an influx of expatriates on tax-free incomes, developers could not build villas like this fast enough to meet the demand.
Even the $2m (£1.2m) price tag did not put people off, so for estate agents like Raymond Kuceli it meant their job was easy.
But today he has to work harder.
In the wake of the global recession, mounting job losses and growing debts have forced many would-be buyers to pack up and leave.
"People are still interested in property," says Mr Kuceli.
"But they're just not moving as fast as they were before and there aren't as many buyers. It takes a lot of negotiating."
As demand falls, so too do the prices - in Dubai, the cost of property is down 40% in 2009.
Another 40,000 new villas and apartments are expected to flood the market in the next few months, which would put even more pressure on prices.
These developments, planned to meet the soaring demand in the good times, are now going on sale in the bad times.
With such an oversupply of property, one estimate suggests prices could have slumped more than 70% by 2010.
That means agents are looking for new tactics to entice buyers back and Mr Kuceli's firm, Madania Real Estate, is experimenting with the idea of auctions.
Although it is a tried and tested concept elsewhere, it is a first for Dubai.
After years of rampant speculation and artificially inflated prices, the idea of letting supply and demand determine the price takes some getting used to.
With only five registered bidders and just eight properties on sale at a recent auction, it was never likely to spark a bidding frenzy.
The auctioneer's attempts to liven up the bidding raised laughs, but not bids.
"You're nodding the wrong way," he says to one bidder who is shaking his head, declining to raise his offer.
But with all the properties failing to meet their reserves, none sold.
So was the Dubai auction experiment a failure?
"No," says Mr Kuceli, "It's just that buyers still aren't sure how all this works. We need to educate buyers and sellers about where the market is," he says.
"At auction, people can tell us what they think the property is worth, because property only sells for what people will pay for it."
The market has changed. There is now a market price and that is what needs to be found.
But finding that price is proving difficult. The perception that distressed property is going cheap means buyers are holding out for bargains and sellers, still reluctant to lower their prices, are struggling to make a sale.
"There is a re-education process to go through" says Nicholas Maclean, managing director of CB Richard Ellis in Dubai.
"Some ridiculous prices are being offered that are not acceptable and never will be acceptable," he adds.
"Both sides of the equation are experimenting to find the correct price and until that is balanced out, there's likely to be frustration on both sides."
For the first time in a long time, Dubai is now a buyer's market, but as a result of heavy job losses and a shrinking population, there simply are not many buyers.
For Mr Kuceli, changing how he does business could be starting to pay off.
The four-bedroom villa in The Meadows, that failed to meet its reserve at the auction, now has a buyer.
"This sale is a real milestone for us," he says.
"It reconfirms our belief that the auction method will work in Dubai.
"The biggest myth we're trying to dispel among bidders is that they'll get rock-bottom prices simply because it's an auction."
And perhaps that message is getting through. The villa sold for more than $1.1 million.
Not exactly cheap, but around 50% less than last year.
It seems that the Dubai dream is still on sale, and this year it is at half price.