Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Multitaskers bad at multitasking

The people who engage in media "multitasking" are those least able to do so well, according to researchers.

A survey defined two groups: those who routinely consumed multiple media such as internet, television and mobile phones, and those who did not.

In a series of three classic psychology tests for attention and memory, the "low multitaskers" consistently outdid their highly multitasking counterparts.

The results are reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Increasingly, people who are looking at their computer screen are frequently watching TV, listening to the radio, maybe reading print media, chatting, texting," said Cliff Nass, a co-author on the study from Stanford University.

"On the computer you could be emailing while you have three chats going on while you're playing World of Warcraft. If you look at classical psychology textbooks, people cannot multitask - but if you walk around on the street, you see lots of people multitasking," he told BBC News.

"So we asked ourselves the question, 'what is it that these multitaskers are good at that enable them to do this?'"

Paying attention

The three experiments undertaken by high and low multitaskers were designed to test three aspects that the study's authors believed must contribute to multitaskers' skills.

The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that's necessary for multitasking
Clifford Nass
Stanford University

In the first, they were tested for their ability to ignore irrelevant information. They were briefly shown a screen with two red rectangles and either 0, 2, 4 or 6 blue rectangles.

The task was to determine whether, when the screen was shown again, one of the red rectangles had been rotated.

Low multitaskers were better at the task, regardless of the number of blue rectangles, whereas high multitaskers got worse at it as the number of distracting blue rectangles went up.

In a test of the degree of organisation of working memory, participants were presented with a series of letters, one at a time, and told to push a button when they saw a letter that they had seen exactly three letters previously.

Again, low multitaskers were significantly better at correctly spotting the repeated letters. Not only did the high multitaskers do worse from the beginning, they got worse at it as time went on.

Thirdly came a test of the participants' ability to switch tasks. They were first shown either "letter" or "number" on a screen, and then presented with a letter/number pair such as A7.

If the preceding screen said "letter", they were to determine if it was a consonant or a vowel. If it said "number", they were to determine if it was even or odd.

After, for example, a series of "number" tasks, the experimenters switched to "letter" tasks. Again, low multitaskers significantly outperformed their counterparts in switching to the new task.

"The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that's necessary for multitasking," Professor Nass said.

"The irony here is that when you ask the low multitaskers, they all think they're much worse at multitasking and the high multitaskers think they're gifted at it."

The pressing question that remains, Professor Nass said, is one of cause and effect: are those people with a dearth of multitasking skills drawn to multitasking lifestyles, or do the lifestyles dull the skills?

The team is actively pursuing new research avenues, such as studying the brain activity of the different groups as they go about their multitasking.

The results could be profound, Professor Nass said, potentially suggesting new means of teaching and even reporting news for those given to a multi-media feed of information.

But at the very least, he said, multitaskers should be told that they are bad at multitasking.

US names CIA abuse investigator

A special US prosecutor has been appointed to investigate allegations of abuse of terror suspects.

The announcement of John Durham's selection came as a report was published detailing the allegations of abuse by CIA agents.

Agents threatened to kill a key terror suspect's children and sexually assault another's mother, it is claimed.

The report was made in 2004 but only a heavily censored version appeared and a judge ordered fuller disclosure.

The justice department is reported to be reopening about a dozen prisoner abuse cases.

[I will] stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given
Leon Panetta, CIA director

Profile: John Durham
Teenager leaves Guantanamo

Also on Monday, President Barack Obama approved a new elite team to question terror suspects.

The team includes members of agencies other than the CIA. It will be led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and supervised by National Security Adviser James Jones.

The administration has vowed that in future interrogations will be strictly in accordance with the army's field manual, and adhere to strict rules on tactics.

Republican anger

Mr Durham, who is already investigating the destruction of videotapes of CIA interrogations, was picked by US Attorney General Eric Holder.

Drawn up by CIA Inspector-General John Helgerson in 2004. Edited version released last year
Lists cases of abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA "black site" prisons in Europe, Middle East and North Africa
Says interrogation techniques were "unauthorised, improvised, inhumane and undocumented"
Alleges agents carried out mock executions, threatened inmates with handguns and drills, and made suggestions about sexually assaulting a detainee's family
Finds that some detainees provided more information after brutal treatment
Says some methods, such as mock executions, failed
Read the report in full[6.17MB]
Most computers will open this document automatically, but you may need Adobe Reader
Download the reader here

Mr Holder said: "I fully realise that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial.

"In this case, given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take."

Special prosecutors in the US are independent figures appointed to investigate the possible wrongdoing of government officials or agencies.

Senior Republicans have already expressed anger at the decision.

Nine signatories of a letter to Mr Holder said they were "deeply disappointed" at a decision that "could have a chilling effect on the work of the intelligence community".


The declassified document released by the justice department said that one agent told key terror suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that "we're going to kill your children" if there were further attacks on the US.

Kevin Connolly
Kevin Connolly, BBC News, Washington

The question now that these startling depictions of the handling of those suspects are in the public domain is - what should happen next?

Barack Obama doesn't want to inflame anti-American feelings around the world but he doesn't want to alienate the professionals within America's own intelligence agencies. The problem is that below the cautious pragmatism of the White House rages a partisan political battle.

America's human rights lobby wants full disclosure, and on the left of the Democratic Party there is a real appetite for proceeding with further investigations.

Conservatives, though, will argue that the harsh interrogations came at a desperate moment in American history. The interrogators could be cast as dedicated intelligence officers, ruthless only in the cause of protecting their fellow citizens.
Dilemma over CIA tactics

Another agent allegedly told Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, that his mother would be sexually assaulted in front of him. The agent has denied the allegation.

In other incidents involving Mr Nashiri, he was allegedly threatened with an unloaded gun and had a power drill held near him which was repeatedly turned on and off.

Another incident involved an agent pinching an artery in a detainee's neck. As the man was passing out, the agent shook him awake, then repeated the action twice.

Ahead of the document's release, CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote on the agency's website that the report was "in many ways an old story" and that he would make "no judgments on the accuracy of the report or the various views expressed about it".

He said it was clear that the CIA had "obtained intelligence from high-value detainees when inside information on al-Qaeda was in short supply".

Mr Panetta said the CIA had been "aggressive" in seeking regular legal advice from the department of justice on its techniques.

He said his primary concern was "to stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given. That is the president's position, too."

But Mr Panetta also said: "This agency made no excuses for behaviour, however rare, that went beyond the formal guidelines on counter-terrorism."

Earlier on Monday, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton confirmed there would be a new interrogation team for key terror suspects.

Correspondents say Mr Obama was concerned at the number of different agencies involved and he wanted to bring them together.

The new team will be called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group.

Jackson 'had lethal drug levels'

Pop star Michael Jackson had lethal levels of the powerful anaesthetic propofol in his body when he died, coroner's office documents show.

The findings were contained in a previously sealed search warrant which has been made public in Texas.

The singer died in June from a cardiac arrest at his home in Los Angeles. Police have interviewed his doctor, but he has not been named as a suspect.

There are reports that the coroner has concluded Jackson's death was homicide.

The reports, carried by the Associated Press news agency quoting unnamed police sources, have not been confirmed.

But the BBC's Rajesh Mirchandani in Los Angeles says homicide includes manslaughter, and investigators have been trying to establish if there is a case for that charge.

A powerful anaesthetic usually used before and during surgery
Can also be used in small doses to reduce stress or anxiety
Produced as a white, opaque fluid and administered intravenously
Marketed under the trade name Diprivan

Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray, has denied any wrongdoing.

Dr Murray's lawyer Ed Chernoff said in a statement that various details surrounding the investigation were just "police theory".

"Dr Murray simply never told investigators that he found Michael Jackson at 11am not breathing. He also never said that he waited a mere ten minutes before leaving to make several phone calls.

"In fact, Dr. Murray never said that he left Michael Jackson's room to make phone calls at all."

Mr Chernoff added he would comment on the coroner's report when it is officially released.

Details of the Los Angeles County coroners' findings were revealed when a search warrant affidavit was made public in Houston, Texas, where Dr Murray has offices.

Dr Murray's offices were raided last month as part of the police investigation into the singer's death.

The coroner's office has not published its findings regarding the singer's death.

Addiction fears

According to the affidavit, the LA chief coroner "had reviewed the preliminary toxicology results and his preliminary assessment of Jackson's cause of death was due to lethal levels of propofol".

The documents go on to say that Dr Murray told police he had been giving Jackson propofol as part of his treatment for insomnia.

But, he said he had been concerned Jackson was becoming addicted to the drug and had been trying to wean him off, using alternative drugs.

But, on the morning of the singer's death, Dr Murray is reported to have relented and given Jackson a lower dosage of propofol after a number of other drugs had not worked.

He left the star alone to make some telephone calls and when he returned Jackson was not breathing, the LA Times reports.

Dr Murray is known to have performed CPR on his patient while the paramedics were called, but Jackson was declared dead when he arrived at hospital.

Dr Conrad Murray speaking on 18 August: I told the truth

Bottles of propofol found in Jackson's house show it had been prescribed by several doctors, not just Conrad Murray, but he remains at the centre of the inquiry, our correspondent adds.

Earlier this month, Dr Murray - who was employed as Michael Jackson's personal physician for a series of concerts in London scheduled for July - posted a video message on YouTube to thank his supporters.

"I told the truth and I have faith the truth will prevail," he said in the short one-minute clip.

Textbook sparks furore in Mexico

A row has erupted in Mexico after the government distributed a history textbook to primary schools which makes no mention of the Spanish conquest.

The chronology of the text neatly avoids the issue by ending before the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s.

Some opposition figures have seized on what they see as a calculated omission.

The arrival of the conquistadors resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people and the colonisation of Mexico.

On Monday, as 25 million children started the new school term, the government has found itself in the middle of a controversy it apparently did not see coming, says the BBC's Stephen Gibbs in Mexico City.

The new history textbook, published and distributed free by the education ministry, omits what historians agree was one of the most important eras in the country's history - the arrival of the Spanish led by Hernan Cortes in 1519 that led ultimately to colonisation until Mexico gained independence in 1821.

Some opposition politicians have accused the conservative government of President Felipe Calderon of deliberately discouraging a critical analysis of the conquest.

The government is even accused of being closer to the Spanish conquerors than to Mexico's indigenous population.

The textbook was "an attack on the nation's identity", said the president of the culture committee of the chamber of deputies, Alfonso Suarez del Real, from the opposition PRD party.

But the country's assistant education secretary, Fernando Gonzalez, said criticism was not warranted.

The Spanish conquest should and would be studied in depth by secondary school pupils, he said.

Mr Gonzalez added that the school history textbooks were "continually being improved".

Broken hearts mend with 'patch'

A team of Israeli scientists has developed a potential way to fix the damage from heart attacks.

A "patch" has been made from heart muscle that can be used to fix scarring left over from a heart attack.

Writing in the journal PNAS, the scientists describe how the technique strengthened the hearts of rats that had suffered heart attacks.

The "patch" was grown in abdominal tissue first, then transplanted to damaged areas of the heart.

This experiment is the first to show that such patches can actually improve the health of a heart after it has been damaged.

The scientists measured an increase in the size of the muscle in damaged areas, and improved conduction of the electrical impulses needed for the heart to pump normally.

Heart failure

Heart attacks usually cause irreversible damage to heart muscle. If people survive, then the damaged muscle can cause another serious condition called heart failure.

It is hoped that the procedure may eventually lead to treatments in humans because of its "simplicity and safety", the authors - led by Tal Dvir from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva - wrote in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

However, they added that "because most patients with heart attacks are old, and multiple surgery can pose a large risk to them, our strategy is not currently an option".

Ellen Mason, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), told BBC News: "In the last decade there has been significant research into injecting cells, including stem cells, into the heart to try and repair the damaged area.

"This study was in animals, but may help scientists better understand how to repair damaged human hearts in the future."

The technique is also being developed for livers and bladders.

Senator Edward Kennedy, 77, dies

Veteran US Senator Edward Kennedy, the brother of ex-President John F Kennedy, has died at the age of 77, after a long battle with a brain tumour.

He became a Democratic Massachusetts senator in 1962, replacing his brother when he resigned to become president, and was re-elected seven times.

Senator Kennedy had been a dominant force in liberal US politics for almost half a century.

Recently he was an active supporter of President Barack Obama.

He has championed issues like healthcare and education.

The liberal lion's mighty roar may now fall silent, but his dream shall never die
Harry Reid
Senate Majority leader

Senator Edward Kennedy: Your comments
Kennedy family statement

In 2006 Time magazine named him as one of America's "Ten Best Senators" saying that he had "amassed a titanic record of legislation affecting the lives of virtually every man, woman and child in the country".

The BBC's Richard Lister in Washington says Senator Kennedy, known affectionately as "Teddy", will be remembered as one of the most effective and popular legislators in American history.

Our correspondent says he was also skilled at forging alliances across party lines: pushing an education initiative with President George W Bush, and immigration reform with Republican John McCain.

But he was also a fierce critic of the Bush administration, in particular over Iraq and the prisoner abuse scandal.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said the Kennedy family and the Senate had "together lost our patriarch".

"The liberal lion's mighty roar may now fall silent, but his dream shall never die," he said.

'Joyous light'

The Kennedy family announced his death in a brief statement in the early hours of Wednesday.

1932 Born, youngest of nine children
1962 Becomes country's youngest senator
1963, 1968 Brothers President John F Kennedy and Senator Robert F Kennedy both assassinated
1969 "Chappaquiddick incident" - Kennedy flees scene after road crash in which his young passenger dies
1980 Runs unsuccessfully for Democratic nomination against sitting President Jimmy Carter

Obituary: Edward Kennedy

"Edward M. Kennedy, the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply, died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port (Massachusetts)," the statement said.

"We've lost the irreplaceable centre of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever."

Edward Kennedy was the only one of four brothers to die a natural death.

His brother Joseph was killed in an air crash in World War II, and both President John F Kennedy and presidential hopeful Robert F Kennedy were assassinated in the 1960s.

He was widely expected to be the next Kennedy in the White House, but he was never able to fully overcome the scandal caused in 1969, when he drove a car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick near his home, killing his female passenger.

The incident helped derail his only presidential bid, more than a decade later.

But he remained active in politics right up until his death, famously endorsing Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination during a tight race with Hillary Clinton last year.

Last week, he asked the Massachusetts governor to change state law to allow a speedy succession when his Senate seat became vacant.

Analysts suggest that Senator Kennedy feared a lengthy gap could deny Democrats a crucial vote on Mr Obama's flagship health reform.

His death comes weeks after that of his older sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, on 11 August.

Will Ahmadinejad Be Stronger, Or Weaker, In His Second Term?

By Mazyar Mokfi, Charles Recknagel
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has cracked down so hard on postelection protesters that his forceful behavior has precipitated a second crisis that few foresaw -- a battle with mainstream conservative leaders who are the backbone of the establishment and regard Ahmadinejad’s aggressive style as a threat to their own interests.

The battle comes just as Ahmadinejad begins his second term and the stakes are how powerful he will be in his second term.

On paper, Ahmadinejad should not a strong president.

His hard-line conservative supporters are a minority in parliament, where they share power with a majority block of fellow conservatives usually labeled “traditionalist” and “pragmatic.”

Weakening his parliamentary clout further, there also are sizeable, minority blocks of reformist and “independent” deputies.

But if Ahmadinejad should be a weak according to his parliamentary base, his behavior – particularly in the current postelection crisis – has notably been the opposite.

Tensions Hardening

The death of one protester, the son of a top aide to former Revolutionary Guard leader Mohsen Rezai, the only conservative to challenge Ahmadinejad in the presidential race, has been particularly noticed by mainstream conservatives.

So has Ahmadinejad’s showdown with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative usually considered one of the establishment’s most influential leaders. Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts, is widely believed to have financially backed the leading reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi against Ahmadinejad.

Now, as reformists have been forced from the streets, the tensions between the president and more mainstream conservatives are hardening.

“The conservatives who have a pragmatic view about the government and are looking at the future of the political system are the main opposition to Mr. Ahmadinejad," analyst Ali Reza Haghighi of the University of Toronto told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

"This group has long-term plans for itself and in this future program Mr. Ahmadinejad has no place. Therefore, they are planning for the next parliamentary and presidential elections and are trying to put their members in key policy-making positions," he says.

Open Letter

The tone of exchanges between mainstream conservative groups and Ahmadinejad can be surprisingly sharp.

Recently, the head of the country’s powerful alliance of clerics and shopkeepers, wrote an open letter to the president reminding him to work in the interest of the Islamic Revolution.

The letter from Habibollah Asgar Ouladi of the Hay’atha-ye mo’talafe-ye eslami (Coalition of Islamic Associations), reads in part:

“If you make some mistakes by inaccuracy, by lack of consulting with other honest followers of the Islamic Revolution, and by policies that do not precisely follow the Velayat-e faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent), it will demolish the people’s trust in you ... and it can damage the whole system irrevocably.”

Ouladi has separately praised Rafsanjani for trying to calm the postelection crisis and said he deserves full public respect.

The Coalition of Islamic Associations, with members in mosques and bazaars throughout the country, is a major backer of the mainstream conservative deputies who make up the largest block in parliament.

But Ahmadinejad has shown no readiness to listen to such warnings. Rather than reach out to other conservatives, he is proceeding alone with the first major step of his second-term: forming his cabinet.

Young Cabinet

Ahmadinejad has rejected urgings from the parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, to discuss the appointees before he presents them to the legislature for approval next week.

Instead, he has signaled he may further challenge Iran’s aging establishment by forming a cabinet made up of “young people who have experience.” It is not yet clear what that means, but it may be more people like Ahmadinejad himself. That is, a second generation of revolutionaries who are ready, like the Jacobins of the French Revolution, to wrest power from the Islamic Republic’s founding generation and pursue their own purist vision of the future.

The mainline conservatives’ mounting frictions with Ahmadinejad suggest that his second-term could be filled with the kinds of power struggles now on display in Tehran.

Some analysts see Ahmadinejad’s prospects for dominating the establishment as limited. That is not only because ultimate executive power in Iran belongs to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but also because Ahmadinejad has made himself some very powerful enemies.

“Going forward, we are going to see, in fact, a weaker Ahmadinejad presidency, not because of Khamenei, but because of all the conservatives who now oppose him," Geneive Abdo, a regional expert at The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C., told Radio Farda.

"He now has heavyweight, big players in Iran openly against him, not the reformers who are sort of irrelevant, but he has now Larijani, Rezai, Rafsanjani, all these people with real power who now are working diligently to undermine his authority,” she says.

Crises As Weapons

But other analysts say that Ahmadinejad is likely to respond to such powerful enemies by using political crises to neutralize them as he mobilizes parliamentary support for his government in the interest of stability. The model for using political crises may be exactly what he is doing now in making no compromises to end the post-election trauma in the country.

“We need to know whether [Ahmadinejad’s] type of management, which is not in favor of the ‘traditional conservatives’ and the ‘bureaucratic conservatives,’ can be understood, and countered, by these groups," says Taqi Rahmaneh, a reformist leader with the Melli Mazhabi movement close to former President Muhammad Khatami.

"He does not give a lot of importance to these groups. For example, he did not take part in [the annual commemoration ceremony] of the Coalition of Islamic Associations. He said that he was too busy last year, even though Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khatami have always taken part in this ceremony,” Rahmaneh says.

Maintaining a crisis atmosphere also enables Ahmadinejad to sidestep rivals by going directly to his powerbase: a mass of poorer Iranians who see him as one of their own. That base can be called out for mass demonstrations and counterdemonstrations and its members are strongly represented in the Basij and Revolutionary Guards.

Combined, those are powerful tools for street power and Ahmadinejad has employed all of them in the postelection crisis.


What is not known today is exactly what Ahmadinejad and his hard-line camp would do with any additional power they wrest from the mainstream conservatives.

The hard-liners pledge loyalty to the supreme leader and that entails simply following his lead in directing the country’s affairs.

The president's spiritual mentor, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, restated that loyalty as he called on Iranians to unquestioningly follow Ahmadinejad on August 12.

“When the president is endorsed by the [supreme] leader, obeying him is similar to obedience to God,” Mesbah-Yazdi said.

But all of the increasingly independent president's enemies in the postelection crisis – be they reformist or conservative – also follow the supreme leader. And that suggests, when so many rivals pledge the same allegiance, that following the supreme leader can be a relative thing.

Iranian Reformist Leader's Son Talks About Court Appearance

The son of reformist cleric and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi says that he was summoned to court on August 25 on security charges and for giving interviews to Persian-language media based outside Iran. Hossein Karrubi was interviewed by RFE/RL's Radio Farda broadcaster Roya Karimi.

RFE/RL: Hossein Karrubi, can you tell us what happened at court today?

Hossein Karrubi: At today's court hearing they brought up several charges against me, including propaganda against the establishment, spreading prostitution, agitating public opinion, attempting to [assist] rioters, and so on.

I responded that the country's youth had shed its blood in the streets, and young detainees in prison had been killed in the worst possible ways. We talked about what these things [mean] for the health of the [state]. They let me go after I paid bail.

RFE/RL: Was the basis for the accusations against you comments that were made by your father, reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi?

Karrubi: They referred to comments to Karrubi's letters and comments and asked why I had published them. They also said that [I] "confirmed" Karrubi's comments in the interviews [I] gave to the Persian Service of the BBC and [Deutsche Welle].

This is just an excuse. The main issue has been brought up by Mehdi Karrubi. This is just an excuse. The shutting down of the newspaper ["Etemad-e Melli"] had nothing to do with my comments. They've linked [the newspapers' closing] to my talks with Karrubi.

RFE/RL: So in general, were the accusations based on what was published in "Etemad-e Melli" or was it based on your interviews with foreign media?

Karrubi: No, they didn't blame me for the articles that were published in the newspaper. But they made the accusations against me based on the interviews with foreign media.

They have an issue with it and asked me why [I speak] to foreigners. When [the authorities] shut down the paper of a prominent figure such as Mehdi Karrubi, what does the establishment expect? If they would let the newspaper continue publication then maybe what [the authorities] say would be right.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us how the August 24 meeting went between Karrubi and members of the parliament?

Karrubi: Mehdi Karrubi yesterday [told the] the investigation committee [about] four cases [of rape in prison] and told them go and talk to these four individuals and investigate the issue.

It was a very good meeting. Both the parliament members and Mr. Karrubi were satisfied with the meeting. They first have to investigate the four cases, [and] then Mr. Karrubi will present other cases.

Sweden Lists Balkans, Russia, Iran As Among Top Foreign Policy Challenges

By Ahto Lobjakas
BRUSSELS -- Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has introduced his country's foreign policy priorities as EU president for the next half-year.

Speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels, Bildt said the ongoing global downturn is hitting fragile economies and states in much of the EU's own neighborhood. How well the EU does in helping provide stability for these countries, he said, will also determine the bloc's global role and credibility.

"The role of the European Union is also to try to bring stability to fragile nations and fragile economies in our immediate vicinity," he said. "If we fail in that, we'll fail in other tasks as well."

The Swedish foreign minister had very little to say on the EU's evolving relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, noting only that there now exists a "more promising" relationship. This reflects the current view in Brussels that on many of the issues affecting Europe and its environs, Obama's priorities are a work in progress.

Bildt identified the Western Balkans' process of EU integration as one of Sweden's top concerns. Traditionally enlargement-friendly, Sweden will try to speed up the accession processes of candidate countries Croatia and Macedonia, and facilitate the progress of others.

Bildt said the EU can take credit for helping to keep the Western Balkans on the path of integration -- most recently with a move to lift visa restrictions for Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. But he warned the bloc must not let slip what has been gained.

"I would say that, for the first time in a very long time, the forces of integration in [the Balkan] region are beginning to be stronger than the forces of disintegration," he said. "But this is critically important upon us maintaining momentum in our policies of integration in that particular region."

'Most EU-Friendly Government'

Sweden's top diplomat, who has a long history of involvement in the region as a mediator, praised Serbia as the "perhaps most reformist and EU-friendly government in history." He noted Kosovo is now independent, though he conceded some "issues" remain within the EU itself -- a reference to the fact that five EU member states have yet to recognize the country.

Croatia's progress on the road to the EU has been snagged by a highly public row over borders with neighboring Slovenia. An EU member state, Slovenia is blocking Croatia's accession talks and Bildt will have his work cut out for him if he is to put Zagreb back on track to join the EU in 2011. Without revealing too much of his strategy, Bildt said governments in both countries must tone down their rhetoric.

The issue of Turkey is sometimes controversial. I think that is fairly natural. It is a big issue.
Bildt returned repeatedly to the issue of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose leaders he said had squandered the chance to join Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia in the lifting of the visa regime. Leaders of the Bosnia's three ethnic communities dragged their feet over EU demands to introduce biometric passports and implement other measures.

Bildt said Bosnia's bickering politicians were failing the country's youth, who he said "want a European future."

Bildt also argued that Bosnia needs a so-called "Brussels process" to replace the Dayton process that brought peace to the country in the mid-1990s. He said Bosnia's current bid to move closer to the EU presents much more complex challenges than the Dayton framework is equipped to handle.

'It Is A Big Issue'

Briefly addressing Turkey, the EU's largest candidate nation, Bildt admitted controversy within the EU, where Germany and France want Ankara to accept a "privileged partnership" instead of full membership.

"The issue of Turkey is sometimes controversial. I think that is fairly natural. It is a big issue," Bildt said. "But the task of a presidency is, of course, to execute -- in an impartial and objective way -- the policies that have been decided by the union and supported by the vast majority of this particular parliament. We need to bring also that accession process forward in the months ahead."

In immediate terms, however, Cyprus remains the main obstacle in Turkey's accession talks. Mindful of this, Bildt said reconciling the island's Greek and Turkish communities is "perhaps the most important" challenge facing the EU. The two communities' leaders are currently holding talks, but Bildt ruefully conceded the bloc's own impotence in the matter, as it can have no role in the peace process, which is overseen by the United Nations.

Bildt predicted "maneuverings in the east" will occupy much of his time over the next six months. This will involve delicate efforts to add substance to the EU's Eastern Partnership with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the three South Caucasus countries without alienating Russia, which is loath to cede any influence over former Soviet territory to the EU.

"We need to develop the Eastern Partnership into something that is felt to be real and relevant for all of the countries, that deploys the transformational forces and powers that we have demonstrated in the past that we have, and that brings them hope for the future," he said.

"At the same time, [we need] to continue to engage with Russia, a country with which our relationship has deteriorated over the past year due to the conflict in Georgia and by the inability to fully implement the agreements that were done the wake of that particular war," he added.

'Hope For The Future'

Bildt painted a fairly bleak picture of the situation in the 12 countries "between the EU and China," where democracy has largely "stalled" and authoritarianism is on the rise. He said the EU must expand the transformational power that brought about its last rounds of enlargement and give those countries "hope for the future."

He argued for giving greater travel freedom to Ukraine and the South Caucasus countries, but admitted deep domestic concerns in many EU member states means such quick changes are unlikely.

Bildt could afford to be comparatively bullish on one enlargement prospect, however. With Iceland having declared interest, Bildt said he hopes the EU can in future gain a stake in the strategically important Arctic issues. There, again, it is likely to find itself opening up another front of confrontation with Russia.

The Swedish foreign minister had relatively little to say about the EU's southern, Mediterranean neighbors, for whom future membership has been ruled out. He noted that within a few decades, the region will gain "two Egypts" -- or 160 million people -- in terms of population increases. This is a process the EU is vitally interested in managing, given the increasing migratory pressures at its own southern borders.

Bildt said the EU's relationship with the Muslim word is "a huge issue," adding he believes a more positive relationship has now been made possible as a result of U.S. policy changes.

The Swedish foreign minister also paid homage to the "highly significant nation" of Iran, saying the EU wants to reach out to the country's people. But Bildt also defended the EU's determination not to cut links with the Iranian government -- although he acknowledged the regime in Tehran faces "legitimacy" issues in the wake of the violently contested elections last month.

"We need to deal with all of the issues connected with Iran, deal with what has been seen happening on the streets, deal with the consular and other related issues that we've done in the last few weeks and days and will continue to do in a couple of highly important cases," he said. "But [we need] also to see if there is any way in which we can reach an accommodation on important issues, notably but not isolated to the important nuclear dossier."

Bildt largely skirted over his four-day trip to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, which ended July 20. This was largely due to a lack of interest on the part of his audience of EU parliamentarians. The Swedish minister was also not asked to address the forthcoming elections in Moldova, a country whose internal turmoil has kept EU diplomats exercised behind closed doors for the better part of four months.