Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why AOL Time Warner failed to change the world

The BBC reports on the Time Warner AOL tie-up in January 2000

As AOL prepares for the next decade free of Time Warner, the BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones looks back on the merger that was meant to change the world.

Was there ever a deal like the one which saw AOL merge with Time Warner in January 2000?

It took place during the biggest bubble the stock market had ever experienced, and it marked the final triumph of the internet over the old media.

Or so it seemed at the time.

AOL was the best-known name on the internet - who'd heard of Google then? - while Time Warner controlled a sprawling empire of magazines, music, movie and television businesses.

Together they would form, in the words of their press release: "The world's first fully integrated media and communications company for the internet century."

A decade on, it's hard to recapture the febrile atmosphere of those times

And while it was billed as a merger of equals, Steve Case of AOL - in a tie for once - was evidently the senior partner as he embraced Time Warner's chairman, a tieless Gerald Levin, before crowds of excited reporters.

Those journalists were in no doubt - this was not just a huge business story, it marked a sea-change in the way the world worked.

A glance at the story on the BBC's website gives a flavour of the mood. One reporter is quoted as saying "it will reinvent television and the possibilities are endless".

Another proclaimed that "putting these two companies together means huge gains for both", and a third, one Rory Cellan-Jones, said: "Shockwaves from the merger are already being felt around the business world."

Even that venerable BBC voice Alistair Cooke pondered the meaning of the merger in his Letter from America, mocking the jargon used to describe the deal's importance and wondering whether it really meant "The death of the old media", as the newspapers seemed to think.

Dotcom revolution

A decade on, it's hard to recapture the febrile atmosphere of those times.

Quite suddenly, young internet companies run by twenty-something entrepreneurs were apparently worth billions, despite having little or no revenue.
AOL home page
AOL prepares for next decade as an independent company

Anyone with any ambition was leaving their job in a bank, an accountancy firm or a newspaper to be part of the dotcom revolution.

And amateur investors sat for days in front of their computers trading in the shares of the dotcoms and urging everyone else to "fill your boots".

Martha Lane Fox was just a couple of months away from floating her tiny travel and tickets internet start-up lastminute.com at an outlandish price when the news came from across the Atlantic.

"I was busy stuffing tickets into envelopes," she recalls."Time Warner/AOL seemed a big deal - proof the world was irrevocably changed."

Not quite right, she now concedes.

In April that year, I travelled to AOL's headquarters in Virginia to interview Steve Case for Newsnight.

The sprawling campus seemed rather staid and corporate for the funkiest company on the internet, and Mr Case's answers to my questions were all pretty bland - but there was little doubt that I was in the presence of the man in charge of changing the world.

But from Virginia I flew on to Silicon Valley, and as I arrived all those day traders were looking at screens turning red.

On April 14th, the Nasdaq index of hi-tech shares fell by 10%, leaving it 35% down from its peak a few weeks earlier in March.

The bubble was bursting and over the next couple of years a lot of those young hopefuls who'd abandoned steady jobs or bet their house on the dotcom dream would have a rude awakening.

Pipes and poetry

The wheels did not fall off the AOL/Time Warner deal for quite a while.

But gradually the tensions in the marriage between old and new media began to tell.
Google's homepage
Google grew fat while AOL declined

Neither company was quite what it seemed - AOL may have built a huge audience of internet users, but they were to prove fickle as the years went by.

Time Warner had a great stable of old media brands but they were struggling to adapt to the online world - and a fading AOL was not the best route into digital homes.

The idea of bringing together the people who supplied the internet with the owners of compelling content - the pipes and the poetry as the phrase went - seemed compelling in January 2000.

But the companies that grew and prospered over the decade turned out to have a single-minded focus on the web as a means of communication, knowledge gathering and socialising.

The brash young internet players found that it was more important to build a great platform which everyone would enjoy using than to own the content that would be distributed over it.

It was meant to be the decade of AOL - instead, the noughties have seen the triumph of a company which has grown hugely powerful without getting into bed with old media.

"This merger will launch the next internet revolution," said Steve Case at that press conference in 2000.

But it turned out to be Google, not AOL, which changed the world.

OMG. Did you just feel a quake?

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News, San Francisco

The Great California Shakeout was a drill and not a real quake event

Tweets are being used by the US Geological Survey (USGS) to get instant public reaction to earthquakes.

The agency is trawling the messages to find out what people felt during a tremor - whether there was a lot of shaking in their area or not.

There are big spikes in Twitter traffic immediately following a quake and the USGS believes emergency responders might find the information useful.

It could help them assess very quickly the severity of a particular event.

However, the survey stressed that the social networking tool would only ever supplement the existing scientific reporting systems which determine shake effects.

Quake tweets

"It is a speed versus accuracy issue," explained Dr Paul Earle.

"Twitter messages start coming out in the seconds after an earthquake whereas, depending of the region, scientifically derived information can take 2-20 minutes," he told BBC News.

Dr Earle has been describing the Twitter Earthquake Detection project here at the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) Fall Meeting, the world's largest annual gathering of Earth scientists.

It seems that sharing their experiences is one of the first things tweeters are most keen to do following a quake.

For example, typical messages after a magnitude 5.1 event offshore of New Zealand earlier this month included:

• Wellingtonians - was that an earthquake or just a very big truck going past our building?

• that was a bigger earthquake the mirror shook in the bathroom and the floor moved ..... Scared :(

• Just had a Earthquake, biggest one ive ever seen, not huge, but enough to really shake our house and everything on my desk, good old NZ

• My monitors were shaking like the water in Jurassic Park, kinda awesome. #earthquake #wellington

"Twitter provides a stream that dumps out the tweets continuously," explained Michelle Guy, a software engineer working on the USGS project.

"We put a filter on that stream, looking for key words like 'earthquake' or 'quake'. We download it 24/7."

Noise filter

The USGS continuously collects, geo-codes (where the information is supplied, perhaps by a GPS enabled device) and stores the tweets.

When the national seismic network detects a quake, the new system then checks back to see if there was a significant increase in messages following the event.

If there was, it can send interested scientists emails that summarise where the tweets were coming from and the text from a sample of them.

The USGS development team concedes there can be a lot "noise" in the data stream.

For instance, the filter has had to be tuned to ignore references to the popular video game "Quake" and an ice cream known as the "Oreo Brownie Earthquake".

"Because there is a lot of noise in this data and we don't believe this system could ever be used to initiate a critical response such as shutting down a nuclear power plant, but what it may do is give us an initial heads-up in a region which doesn't have a dense seismic network that further scientific evaluation is needed," said Dr Earle.

A paper describing the project will be published soon in Seismological Research Letters.


Venezuela flood victims still live in ruins 10 years on

By Will Grant
BBC News, Los Corales, Vargas state

"It had rained non-stop for two weeks," says Luis Martinez as he remembers the days leading up to the mudslides of 1999.

On 15 December 10 years ago, Venezuela suffered its worst natural disaster of modern times when a wall of water, boulders and debris came down the side of the Avila mountain.

"If you were in its way, God help you," said the father of four, who still lives in Vargas, the worst-affected state.

Residents pick their way through debris in the town of Macuto, also hit by the floods on 21 December 1999
The 1999 floods swept away many buildings

The exact number killed in the tragedy is hard to know, as many bodies were buried under the mud or washed into the sea.

But there are estimates that between 10,000 and 30,000 people lost their lives. Tens of thousands more were made homeless.

"She was just three months old," said Mr Martinez, nodding in the direction of his 10-year old daughter, "and we had to flee with her in our arms."

Ghost town

Los Corales is now a relatively peaceful coastal town. A decade ago, it was anything but.

The Martinez family was one of thousands fleeing the region to higher ground. But many were unable to get away in time and were trapped in their homes when the landslides hit.

Visiting the site of the tragedy a decade later is like stepping into a ghost town. Driving around the streets, there are dozens of homes which are mere shells, the boulders and compacted mud still evident in the rooms and patios.

Entire apartment blocks remain semi-collapsed, as though the flood waters had just hit.

Yet people live among these ruins.

Olga Hedler who lost her house in the 1999 landslide
We live without knowing if another mudslide is going to come exactly like before. In fact, it would be worse because there are so many dilapidated buildings here
Olga Hedler

Stepping past the stray dogs, rubbish and sewage in the front yard, we entered one such house in Los Corales, a few streets up from the seafront. Inside, three families are living in very precarious conditions.

"This place is critically dangerous," says resident Olga Hedler. "These pillars won't last much longer."

After being made homeless by the landslide, her family occupied two rooms on the top floor of a badly damaged holiday villa, with two other families living downstairs. In total, there are 12 children in the house, many of them walking barefoot or naked through the chaos.

Olga's main worry is simple.

"It could happen again, at any time. We live without knowing if another mudslide is going to come exactly like before. In fact, it would be worse because there are so many dilapidated buildings here."

Environmental groups would agree with her that the threat of a repeat experience looms over Vargas.

The Avila mountain has become even more denuded over the past 10 years as those who lost their homes in the floods have set up houses further up the hillsides.

Wasted hours

A supporter of the socialist government, Olga does not blame President Hugo Chavez for the slow pace of the reconstruction.

Instead she thinks the blame lies with "the people around him, the ministers, the government. Those people and their institutions, who he has charged with dealing with these problems, must do their jobs".

An alleyway in Los Corales
Residents say reconstruction has been patchy

In December 1999, President Chavez had been in office for just 10 months and this was by far his fledgling government's greatest challenge.

But he immediately came in for criticism over the response.

The government was holding a referendum on 15 December on a new constitution and Mr Chavez was accused of failing to execute an evacuation plan fast enough because military and police resources were concentrated on the vote.

At the time, he was robust in his defence, famously saying: "They should shoot me if I had any personal responsibility in this."

But sitting in a cafe in Los Corales, Mr Martinez remembers it differently.

"All the police were manning the polling stations," he says. "The response was slow."

He believes valuable hours were wasted in which people could have been reached or saved.

That said, he adds, all Venezuelans are unanimous that little could have been done about the unseasonably heavy rains or the terrible force of the natural disaster.


Instead, the difficult questions remain on the response in the intervening decade.

International aid and reconstruction money was sent from abroad, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, and emergency funds were freed up by the national assembly to the government.

Dozens of important reconstruction plans have never been carried out and numerous accusations of corruption have been made against the then-state and national authorities.

Some work has undoubtedly taken place, but many residents of Vargas say it has been patchy and inconsistent.

Earlier this year, during a visit to one of the government housing projects in Vargas, President Chavez referred to the state as a "phoenix rising from the ashes of 1999".

His critics say that vital lessons still have not been learned.

23rd Session of Arab Civil Solidarity Committees Begins In Tripoli

Tripoli-14.12.2009(JANA) The 23rd Session of the Arab Civil Solidarity Committees began in Tripoli today at the invitation of the Libyan Arab Peace and Solidarity Committee.
The opening session was attended by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs at the General People's Congress, Coordinator of the Libyan Arab Peace and Solidarity Committee, Chairman of the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation, its Secretary General, chairmen and members of Arab Peace and Solidarity committees heads of diplomatic corps accredited to Gt Jamahiriya.
Participants discuss over two days several issues including the Palestine, the Goldstone Report on the war crimes committed by the Israelis in the aggression on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, the situation in the Sudan, Iraq and Yemen , poverty, climate change and role of Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation in serving the peoples of the south.
The participants also discuss UN reform, establishment of a fair international system and the call for world free of weapons of mass destruction, respect of cultures and identities.

Leader of the Revolution conducts phone call with the Italian Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to inquire about his health condition

Tripoli 15,12,2009 -Jana- The Leader of the Revolution Tuesday conducted a phone call with the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to inquire about his health after the assault on him in the city of Milano.
The Leader expressed his solidarity with friend Berlusconi in the face of this unfortunate incident and wished him speedy recovery.
Berlusconi expressed to the Leader his appreciation for his call, and that he was moved by the emotions shown by the Leader towards him in these circumstances.

// JANA //

University of Meiji Hosts Leader of the Revolution in Intellectual Lecture

Tripoli-15.12.2009(JANA) The Japanese University of Meiji Tuesday hosted the Leader of the Revolution in an intellectual lecture via video link to the students and teaching staff of the University's Faculty of Disarmament and Peace.
The theme of the lecture to the second oldest university in Japan was about Africa and attempts by foreign powers to intervene in its internal affairs.
The Leader analyzed in his lecture Japan's political dependency of America which deprived it from being a useful power with Africa and the world ..explaining that such dependency undermined the vital interests and Japan's relations with the wider world which it needed.
The Leader noted that there was an awakening in Japan to restore its dignity surrendered by lack on liberation from American hegemony despite the fact that Japan's technological advancement.
The Leader also analyzed the premises that placed a question mark on the future of Japan and its position on the coming world map forming up in spaces.
The lecture was ensued by an intellectual debate between the Leader and the students and the staff of the university on the strategy of US President Barrack Obama in Afghanistan, the concept of education in the Jamahiri theory and the radical solution of the Middle East problem which the Leader presented in the White Book.

Under Auspices of Dr. Aisha Muammar al-Gathafi the UN Good will Ambassador: First Arab Conference on Mental Disability Policies Kicks off Today

Benghazi: 13.12. 2009 - JANA
For his part , Director of Social Development Policies Department at the Arab league called for the need to upgrade the legislations that ensure protecting the rights of this segment of the society and to enable those with disabilities to enjoy decent standard of living .
During the conference a festivity was organized where a Tunisian youth , '' Ramie Aljundi '' delivered a poem dedicated to Dr. Aisha Muammar al-Gathafi'' , in addition to other songs presented by mentally disabled youth in Benghazi Shabia .
On the margin of the conference an exhibition was held that included drawings and handcraft works by Disabled Persons .

EU cuts import tariffs in a bid to end 'banana wars'

By BBC Bureau:

The European Union has agreed a deal to cut tariffs on banana imports, signalling the end of the world's longest-running trade dispute.

Banana producers in Latin America will be subject to lower EU import tariffs as a result of the deal.

This should make them more competitive with producers in Africa and the Caribbean, who pay no tariff.

The price of bananas could fall by 12% as a result. The formal agreement will be signed in six to nine months time.

Duty on imported bananas will be cut from 176 euros (£158; $256) per tonne to an initial 148 euros (£133; $215). Further cuts will be made on an annual basis over the next seven years to 114 euros per tonne.

The deal was being "initialled" in Geneva on Tuesday afternoon by the various trade representatives.

"I am delighted that we have finally found a way to solve the bananas dispute with a compromise that works for all sides," said European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

"This is an important boost for the multilateral system".

Long-running dispute

1993: EU imposes first Europe-wide tariffs on banana imports from non-APC countries
1996: Ecuador leads Latin American countries in complaining to the WTO about the tariffs
1999: WTO allows US trade sanctions on EU exports for the first time after declaring banana tariffs illegal
2000: A new EU deal on tariffs is rejected by the US
2001: Banana war declared "over" as US-EU deal is struck on tariffs promising change by 2006
2005: Proposed new EU banana tariffs declared illegal by WTO, following complaints
2006: Ecuador again complains to the WTO
2008: EU tariffs again declared illegal by the WTO, upholding the latest complaints from Ecuador and the US
2008: EU trade commissioner warns that global trade deals at risk due to banana wars
2009: EU signs new deal with Latin American producers, fuelling new hopes of an end to banana wars

Q&A: The banana wars
Analysis: Fruits of world trade

The agreement potentially brings to an end the banana wars trade dispute which began 16 years ago with the establishment of European tariffs on banana imports.

But the origins of the discrepancy go back far further to European colonialism.

In 1975 former Caribbean countries were given a generous import quota. The BBC's Europe business reporter Nigel Cassidy says the idea was to enable the economies of former European colonies or dependencies to grow independently without recourse to overseas aid.

However, Latin American banana producers, together with the US, have long complained that the system is unfair.

This view has been supported by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has declared the banana tariffs illegal.

Although not a banana producer itself, the US is home to some of the biggest banana producers operating in Latin America, including Del Monte and Dole.

Compensation package

The move is likely to disadvantage the banana industries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (known as the ACP countries), who do not pay tariffs on imports to the EU.

Many of them have economies heavily reliant on banana production, and rely on the EU tariffs to secure them access to the European market.

Errol Emmanuel, acting manager of Dominica Banana Growers Limited, told the BBC World Service the agreement would hit poor farmers in the Windward Islands hardest: "These small farms are family owned. You have husband and wife and maybe one or two helpers... they don't have the resources to compete with the Doles and the Del Montes, who own vast tracts of land."

A compensation package for Dominica and the other ACP countries, worth 200m euros, is included in the deal.

The European banana market is the largest in the world, with 5.5 million tonnes of the fruit imported last year.

Saudi TV presenters break new ground by wearing niqab

BBC Arabic Service

Until recently you would never have seen women presenting television programmes dressed from head to toe in the niqab or burqa. But on the Saudi religious channel Awtan TV it has now become the norm.

Female broadcasters at the station are draped in the all-enveloping dresses, which are usually black and also cover their faces.

The work environment too is very different. Male technical assistants do not enter the studio while the women are presenting.

There are more than 60 religious channels across the Middle East. Some allow women to present programmes without being fully covered or dressed in black.

Others have no women presenters at all.


Awtan TV decided to take a unique approach. The station was launched in 2008, and last month it set a precedent by allowing women to present, but only on the condition that they wear the niqab.

We report from the field in the niqab and it does not stop us from doing anything
Ola al-Barqi
Awtan TV presenter

Ola al-Barqi anchors a breakfast show, as well as a quiz show for girls called Mosabqat Banat.

A key element of the programme is the relationship built between presenter, contestants and the audience - something that might be more difficult if the presenter is totally covered up.

"The face is not the only way to build a relationship," explains Ms Barqi, speaking to BBC Arabic.

"We're always receiving calls from viewers in various countries encouraging us to keep doing what we do."

And, as Ms Barqi points out, women are not just confined to the studio at Awtan TV.

"We report from the field in the niqab and it does not stop us from doing anything."


Wahhabism, the strain of Sunni Islam that is officially practised in Saudi Arabia, is considered one of the religion's most conservative forms.

Some critics say that Awtan TV is restricting women's freedom by making it compulsory to wear the niqab if they want to be presenters.
Women seamstresses in Saudi Arabia dressed in the Niqab
These seamstresses in Saudi Arabia work in the factory completely veiled

The issue recently returned to prominence when a leading Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, said he would issue an edict stating that the niqab was a "custom that has nothing to do with Islam".

Many Muslim scholars take the position that the niqab is not obligatory.

But Ms Barqi says nobody "forced the niqab" on her and she does not intend to force it on her three daughters, who watch their mother on television and feel proud of her.

However, the presenter thinks that when the time comes, her girls will want to wear the niqab because that is how they were brought up and it is, she argues, part of Shariah - Islamic law.


Ms Barqi says there are other good reasons why she wears the niqab.

It helps her to concentrate more on her work rather than anything else, and what she looks like is irrelevant.

"We don't introduce ourselves as beautiful women who put on layers of make-up. Our audience is focusing on what we present to them, our ideas and our discourse."

Ms Barqi believes some people work in the media to become famous. But that is not why she became a presenter.

"We don't need fame," she explains.

Crises multiply for divided Yemen

Faced with a civil war in the north, pro-independence protests in the south and al-Qaeda attacks throughout the country Yemen's government has its work cut out. But ministers insist the country has survived worse crises in the past and that the central authority will prevail.

"We have one Yemen and one state. The government has not yet used all the forces at its disposal," said Deputy Planning Minister Hisham Sharaf.

For western governments the most pressing issue is al-Qaeda.

The US is currently holding 94 Yemenis in Guantanamo, nearly half of the total number still in the camp. But Washington is reluctant to let them go back home because it sees Yemen as an unstable al-Qaeda stronghold.

I fear we'll have military insurgency in the south and then we'll have people wearing explosive vests attacking government buildings. That is close to happening now
Abdul Ghani al-Irayani, political analyst

Cold War roots of Yemen conflict
Yemen faces new Jihad generation
Yemen faces new Jihad generation

The government in Sanaa is more bothered by the civil war in the north. The conflict has been going on since 2004 but has intensified in recent months. About 175,000 people have fled the fighting.

The rebels demands are not entirely clear. Some of the leaders want to establish an Islamic emirate based on their branch of Shia Islam. But most of the fighters are tribesmen who would probably put down their arms if they were given rather more mundane concessions such as some roads and schools.

There is consensus in Sanaa that eventually the crisis in the north will have to be resolved by negotiation. But for the moment the governments strategy is to force the rebels into a position of weakness so that they will accept a political settlement.

The situation has been complicated by the recent involvement of Saudi forces on the side of the Yemeni government which in turn accuses Iran of backing the rebels.


While the conflict rages in the north, there are also political divisions in the south. Protestors, often carrying guns, take to the streets every few days demanding a reversal of the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen.
Displaced Yemeni women sit in a camp
The conflict in the north has displaced hundreds of thousands

"Our objectives are to gain our independence and to evict the occupiers from our country," said the self-styled President of Southern Yemen, al-Salam al-Beid who now lives in Germany.

The government in Sanaa argues it can take the sting out of the secessionist movement by offering some political concessions. But even those who agree with that view say that if the strategy is to work, the government needs to get on with it.

"I fear we'll have military insurgency in the south and then we'll have people wearing explosive vests attacking government buildings. That is close to happening now," said political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Irayani.

Water crisis

On top of all the security problems, Yemen is running out of two vital resources: oil and water. Oil revenues are down 75% this year although that drop is explained by lower global prices as well as decreasing production.
A still from a video posted on a Houthi website showing the Yemeni army advancing
Yemen's battle against Houthi rebels in the north has drawn in Saudi Arabia

The countries water supplies are diminishing so rapidly that a World Bank-financed project has predicted the capital Sanaa could run out by 2025. The country's rapidly growing population means the underground water table is declining by between one and 12 metres each year.

"We are in serious trouble," said water minister, Abdul Rahman al-Eryani.

With remarkable honesty for a government minister he openly accuses senior army officers, tribal sheikhs and even fellow ministers of making money through illegal drilling.

"We have passed the luxury of being diplomatic, the water crisis necessitates the most rude stating of facts," Mr Eryani said.

Iranian men don hijabs in protest at student's arrest

Scores of men have responded to the hijab campaign

Iranian opposition supporters have launched an online campaign to free a student activist accused of dressing as a woman to try to avoid arrest.

Hundreds of men have posted photos of themselves wearing Islamic headscarves as part of the "Be a man" campaign to show solidarity with Majid Tavakoli.

He was arrested during protests in Tehran on Monday and state media showed images of him in headscarf and robes.

The opposition say the pictures were staged in a bid to discredit him.

It is getting harder to be a girl these days
iranian.com reader

They say he was not wearing the headscarf and robes when he was arrested.

Iranian state media say Mr Tavakoli was arrested as he sought to leave Tehran's Amir Kabir university "disguised as a woman" after Student Day protests.

He is a leading activist who spent 15 months in jail along with two fellow students after being arrested in 2006 on charges of insulting religion and the country's leadership in student publications, AFP news agency reports.

One US-based website for Iranian expatriates, iranian.com, has posted scores of photos submitted by readers.

"Iranian men are showing their solidarity with Tavakoli by wearing a hijab and posting their photo on the web," reads its appeal to send in photos.

Some of the website's readers argue that the campaign is also a gesture of solidarity with Iranian women, who are obliged by the authorities to wear the hijab in public.

Many of the contributors openly show their faces, in headscarves, while some have all but their eyes covered.

"Life is so short and so many fine, fine men around," one woman reader quipped.

"It is getting harder to be a girl these days."

Israel fury at UK attempt to arrest Tzipi Livni

By: BBC Bureau

Israel has reacted angrily to the issuing by a British court of an arrest warrant for the former Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni.

The warrant, granted by a London court on Saturday, was revoked on Monday when it was found Ms Livni was not visiting the UK.

Ms Livni was foreign minister during Israel's Gaza assault last winter.

It is the first time a UK court has issued a warrant for the arrest of a former Israeli minister.

Ms Livni said the court had been "abused" by the Palestinian plaintiffs who requested the warrant.

"What needs to be put on trial here is the abuse of the British legal system," she told the BBC.

"This is not a suit against Tzipi Livni, this is not a law suit against Israel. This is a lawsuit against any democracy that fights terror."

She stood by her decisions during the three-week assault Gaza offensive which began in December last year, she said.

Israel's foreign ministry summoned the UK's ambassador to Israel to deliver a rebuke over the warrant.

We completely reject this absurdity taking place in Britain
Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the situation was "an absurdity".

"We will not accept a situation in which [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, [Defence Minister] Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni will be summoned to the defendants' chair," Mr Netanyahu said in a statement.

"We will not agree to have Israel Defence Force soldiers, who defended the citizens of Israel bravely and ethically against a cruel and criminal enemy, be recognised as war criminals. We completely reject this absurdity taking place in Britain," he said.

Pro-Palestinian campaigners have tried several times to have Israeli officials arrested under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

'Cynical act'

This allows domestic courts in countries around the world to try war crimes suspects, even if the crime took place outside the country and the suspect is not a citizen.

Israeli air strike in Rafah, Gaza, on 13 January 2009

UN backs Gaza war crimes report
Legal row over Gaza report
Israel debates response to report
Full UN report on Gaza war

Israel denies claims by human rights groups and the UN investigator Richard Goldstone that its forces committed war crimes during the operation, which it said was aimed at ending Palestinian rocket fire at its southern towns.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas has also been accused of committing war crimes during the conflict.

Israel's foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday: "Israel rejects the cynical act taken in a British court," against Ms Livni, now the head of the opposition Kadima party, "at the initiative of extreme elements".

It called on the British government to "act against the exploitation of the British legal system against Israel".

Addressing a conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Ms Livni did not refer specifically to the arrest attempt.

But she said: "Israel must do what is right for Israel, regardless of judgements, statements and arrest warrants. It's the leadership's duty, and I would repeat each and every decision," Israeli media reported.

'Strategic partner'

Israel says it fully complies with international law, which it says it interprets in line with other Western countries such as the US and UK.

Oct 2009: Former military chief Moshe Yaalon cancelled a UK visit because of fears of arrest for alleged war crimes
Oct 2009: Filed attempt to raise warrant against Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Court ruled he had diplomatic immunity
Sept 2005: Arrest warrant issued for a former head of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip Gen Doron Almog. He received warning before disembarking from an aircraft at Heathrow Airport, and flew back to Israel

On Monday Ms Livni's office denied the reports that a warrant had been issued and that she had cancelled plans to visit the UK because of fears of arrest.

It said a planned trip had been cancelled two weeks earlier because of scheduling problems.

The British foreign office said it was "urgently looking into the implications of the case".

"The UK is determined to do all it can to promote peace in the Middle East, and to be a strategic partner of Israel," it said in a statement. "To do this, Israel's leaders need to be able to come to the UK for talks with the British government."

Palestinians and human rights groups say more than 1,400 people were killed during Israel's Cast Lead operation between 27 December 2008 and 16 January 2009, more than half of them civilians.

Israel puts the number of deaths at 1,166 - fewer than 300 of them civilians. Three Israeli civilians and 10 Israeli soldiers were also killed.

The BBC's Tim Franks says that, privately, senior Israeli figures are warning of what they see as an increasing anti-Israeli bent in the British establishment.

In turn, our correspondent adds, there is clearly concern among British officials that should further arrest warrants be issued, relations with Israel could be damaged.

Uzbeks, Turkmen To Ease Border Transit

ASHGABAT -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov have signed an agreement to ease cross-border transit for people living along their common frontier, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reports.

The protocol signed on December 13 amends a 2004 bilateral agreement.

Karimov, who is on a two-day visit to Turkmenistan for the opening ceremony of the Turkmenistan-China natural-gas pipeline, said the Uzbek-Turkmen talks are deeply symbolic for bilateral relations.

No specifics about the changes in border-crossing procedures were immediately reported.

Rozagul, a woman from the western Uzbek town of Khorezm, told RFE/RL that people living in the Uzbek-Turkmen border area are very happy to hear about simplified procedures to cross the border.

She said that currently the border can be crossed only once per month and after a payment of some $8.

Rozagul said that many people were often unable to visit their relatives in Turkmenistan for weddings and other family events.

A representative from the Khorezm-based organization Najot told RFE/RL that in the last 10 years some 62 Uzbek citizens have been shot dead by Turkmen border guards.

Iranian-American Author Discusses Islamic Dress

Tajik women wearing headscarves
November 08, 2009
Iranian-American Azadeh Moaveni is the author of the best-selling memoirs "Honeymoon in Tehran" and "Lipstick Jihad." She spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Kristin Deasy about Iran's strict Islamic dress code on one hand, and the banning of Islamic headscarves in Uzbekistan on the other.

RFE/RL: Do you think that a lot of the politics related to Islamic dress are related to a "state project" in Iran, and possibly elsewhere?

Azadeh Moaveni: In Iran it's a very unique situation where you have the state trying to impose this revolutionary Islamic ideology from above, over a population that is much more secular and sophisticated to simply accept this or to identify with it. Iran is very unique in the Islamic world in this way. I think in much of the rest of the Islamic world you have a lot of secular regimes who are in many cases indifferent to how women dress and you have women, socially, becoming more conservative and taking the lead in wearing more conservative forms of hijab, whereas in Iran it's very much the opposite-it's the state imposing it from above, because this is certainly the project of the revolution, to create sort of model Islamic citizens.

RFE/RL: Does this put moderate religious women who defend modest wear but want to distance themselves from a state policy in a bit of an awkward position?

Moaveni: I think even many religious women are democratically-minded and open-minded enough not to want the state to impose religious dress for women who don't wish to wear it. So I think it's one of the issues that where women, secular [and] religious, spanning a lot of different backgrounds of belief and culture in Iran, agree that this is something that should be up to the individual woman. And I think there's a lot of comfort in the Iranian women's movement with looking at it that way.

RFE/RL: In Uzbekistan, they've gone the opposite route and are banning headscarves from schools. Is there so much frustration with the imposition of the headscarf in Iran that women there would see the new rule in Uzbekistan as a good thing?

Moaveni: Well, Iran has gone through many stages of all of this. Reza Shah, in the early part of the twentieth century, banned the wearing of the hijab in Iran as part of a state westernization and modernization project. And that created a lot of backlash. It's become very clear through...historical experience that neither really works because it's artificial, and imposes a sort of state agenda on what women are wearing.

I think that Iran has come a long way. I think that people realize that it needs to be an individual choice and that's really the only healthy, practical and long-term option. I mean, I'm sure there's a fringe of very secular women are so angry at having the hijab imposed on them for 30 years that they would say, yes, you know, that's fantastic that in Turkey and Uzbekistan, you know, they're banning it because there are people who feel that the state has to [...] keep Islam out of public life. But again, I think that would be a fringe. I think that most people are now aware, from real-life sort of experiences in the last century, that it's not a lasting solution, it's just going to create a backlash, it's going to be unstable. It's going to be unstable, culturally, to impose something one way or the other. The society, and the culture, needs to work it out.

RFE/RL: And in your view, what is the reason that, of all things, Islamic dress, women's dress, has become such a politicized issue in the last decade?

Moaveni: I think that Islam has a unique and very specific set -- a controversial set -- of prescriptions on how women should dress and behave. And I think that political Islam has made a point of working out a lot of its political and ideological issues through the issue of hijab. So a lot of times it's about other things, but it's an ideological project for the expansion of Shi'ism, or it's a very ambitious and a very pious fundamentalist agenda and part of that has to be, in a way, imposing a very conservative form of dress and women have to be part and parcel of that. Because in the strictest sense of Islamic ideology, you can't demolish the sort of buddhas of Afghanistan and wage jihad and let your women, you know, uncover their hair.

So I think it's very often a male, extremist political agenda that just has to have this sort of element along with it, unfortunately. I think a lot of the Arab Middle East women are taking up more Islamic dress independently as a way of sort of signaling their anger toward the West, you know sort of retreating into sort of a very pious version of Islam to sort of express their defiance and anger toward Western policies in the region, in their country and in Israel and Palestine, et cetera.

RFE/RL: Are twentysomethings in Iran seeing imposed Islamic fashion differently? Are they dressing differently?

Moaveni: I think that young Iranian women are more willing to experiment with Islamic dress because it's the only thing that's available to them, they're young, they want to look beautiful, they want to express themselves, their individuality, and so they do this through, you know, colorful hijab, and different kinds of tunics, and these sorts of things.

I think my mother's generation tends to be much more conservative there were a lot of women before the revolution who did not wear hijab and never felt as though they could sort of claim this as their own and experiment with it. I think that idea is very alien to them. They just wear a very staid or simple sort of headcovering -- what they need to go outside -- because to them, wearing sort of 'fashionable' Islamic dress is possibly abhorrent, because they reject the idea so entirely that they're not willing to even individualize it and create their own sort of style within it. I think that has fallen to the younger generation, who doesn't know anything else.

Ukraine '10: In Presidential Race, The Biggest Billboard Wins

Dueling billboards for parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn (left) and former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in downtown Kyiv.
November 24, 2009
By Irena Chalupa
KYIV -- Size does matter. Particularly when it comes to campaign ads in Ukraine's January 17 presidential election.

Here, the guiding principle is: the bigger, the better. In a country where advertising was practically nonexistent during the Soviet era, today the billboard is king.

One of the first things a visitor notices upon leaving Ukraine's main airport, Boryspil, en route to Kyiv is the seemingly endless chain of billboards that escort her all the way to the capital. Currently, it's the slogans of presidential hopefuls that make up the lion's share of this type of advertising.

Vadym Karasyov, a prominent Ukrainian political analyst and director of the Institute for Global Strategies, recently made the claim that Ukrainians are not guided by political programs when they go to the polls. Rather, he argued, they vote for the slogan they like best.

So Ukraine's 18 presidential candidates have their work cut out for them -- and billboards are proving perhaps the biggest and most immediate way of bringing those slogans to the voter.

The 'She' Campaign

Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister and one of the leading contenders for the presidency, launched her billboard attack well before the campaign's official kickoff on October 18.

Candidate advocacy ahead of the official campaign included the distribution of surgical masks at the height of the recent swine-flu panic.
As early as August, signs were already appearing over the capital's streets bearing messages like: "They strike -- she works," "They block -- she works," and "They ruin -- she works." The slogans were unveiled references to the Ukrainian parliament, which has spent the good part of 2009 doing basically nothing because one faction or another was blocking the rostrum.

Despite the fact that the signs bore no identifiable copyright marks, photographs, or indication of political affiliation, it wasn't difficult to decipher that the "she" in question was none other than Tymoshenko.

Now "she" is all over the country, on billboards of all shapes and sizes. And in a clever turn, the "she" has now become more than just Ms. Tymoshenko: Now "she" is Ukraine herself. As a recent ad announces: "She works, she will win, she is Ukraine."

Some political analysts have praised the "she" campaign as memorable. And indeed, the charismatic Tymoshenko, with her ever-present braids, appears to have had little trouble solidifying her public image. Current polls put her in second place, with a healthy lead over her former Orange Revolution partner, incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko.

'For The People'

The man she trails behind is Viktor Yanukovych, someone who has had his share of negative image perception. Yanukovych, leader of today's parliamentary opposition, lost in the last presidential election to Yushchenko.

A tall, imposing figure of a man, Yanukovych is an awkward and undynamic communicator. Twice imprisoned for theft and violence in his youth, Yanukovych continues to be perceived by some as a thug, despite having his criminal record expunged.

Whether the very digitally enhanced image beaming down from his campaign billboards will change that perception remains to be seen. Where Tymoshenko has identified herself as Ukraine, Yanukovych, true to form, is simply himself.

A Viktor Yanukovych election poster in Kyiv
Initially, Yanukovych's billboards boasted that each and every person's complaint, idea, and view would be heard. The next round of ads, logically, suggested the listening period was over and one of action had begun. Last but not least, a third group of Yanukovych billboards proclaimed, in a brusque and seemingly Soviet manner: "Your opinion has been heard. The problem has been solved."

Currently, his leading campaign slogan is "Ukraine for the people." In a recent call-in program with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, political analysts deemed the slogan ineffective and perilously reminiscent of the old Soviet slogan "Everything for the people." One listener even suggested that if Yanukovych really is listening to all views and all people, then he should listen to the portion of the electorate who don't want to see him become president and quit the race.

Misfires And Mystery Men

Another candidate who has taken his campaign to the billboards is the current parliamentary speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn. He plastered Kyiv with bright yellow, anonymous billboards with such mysterious slogans as "Only he is worthy of leading Ukraine," and "Only he can be trusted with our future."

While no one had any trouble identifying the "she" as Tymoshenko, for weeks no one quite knew who the "he" in question could be. Some suspected it was the incumbent, Yushchenko. But then Lytvyn dispelled the mystery and, overnight, his face appeared on billboards.

The youngest of the candidates, 35-year-old former Foreign Minister and parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was initially thought by many to be Ukraine's fresh young hope in these elections. He created the Front for Change, claimed to be a new style of politician, and by spring 2008 he was pulling in 12-13-percent support.

A billboard for Inna Bohoslovska asks voters whether they want five more years of the same.
And then he hired a Russian team to run his campaign. They devised a pseudo-military approach and message for him. An intent-looking Yatsenyuk now peers down from a billboard that proclaims "Ukraine will be saved by new industrialization." Promises extend to a battle-ready army. A productive agrarian sector. Healthy and educated people. Yatsenyuk's youthfulness and new approach have evaporated amid a misguided, khaki-colored campaign that harks back to Soviet ideas and slogans.

Billboard slogans are slowly giving way to television commercials, but the boards still continue to be omnipresent throughout the country.

Tymoshenko's slogans have even inspired witty rebuttals from another female candidate on two of the biggest billboards to date, which claim: "I will win, so she can stop working," and "I will win, so she can have a rest."

Those promises are made by Inna Bohoslovska, formerly of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, a so-called technological candidate with no chance of winning but whose sole purpose is to siphon votes from others.

Irena Chalupa is the director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

Turkmen Pilgrims Make A Homegrown Hajj

The ruins of the ancient city of Merv, now known as Mary, lies along the Silk Road.
November 25, 2009
By Bruce Pannier
The hajj is just getting under way in Mecca, but for Turkmen pilgrims, their country's homegrown version of one of the Five Pillars of Islam has been going on for weeks.

Fears of swine flu led the Turkmen government to ban its citizens from participating in this year's hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia that every able-bodied Muslim is required to make during his or her lifetime if able to afford it.

In its stead, according to the Turkmen state news agency, the Turkmen government answered calls by "elders and faithful" by launching the country's first official internal pilgrimage on the eve of the hajj.
In Pictures: Turkmen Pilgrimage Sites

A resolution authorized by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov paved the way for the inaugural pilgrimage, in which an official delegation of elders and pilgrims originally chosen to make the hajj will travel by plane, train, and automobile to 38 "holy" sites within Turkmenistan.

Many of the 38 sites chosen for the inaugural Turkmen pilgrimage, which began on November 11 and is set to finish on November 29, are indeed impressive and religiously significant, but a number of sites simply have little, if anything, to do with religion.

Local Landmarks

The Paraw Bibi mosque, which is among the sites and is located in the western Balkan Province, has long been visited by religious pilgrims.

The eastern city of Mary also has newer sites, such as this mosque opened earlier this year.
The mosque stands on the site where Paraw Bibi is said to have disappeared forever into the mountains. According to legend, Paraw Bibi was a pious Muslim and for centuries she has been a patron saint of pregnant women and children.

"According to one of the legends, the local governor's daughter was named Paraw. When the enemy was about to conquer the fortress, she wanted to escape with her servants and one of these servants was a traitor and revealed where they were hiding," Turkmen writer Ashyrguly Bayri says.

"To prevent being captured she went to the mountains, and they say the mountains opened up and hid her inside."

Another site, the Kutlug-Temir minaret, is the tallest minaret in Central Asia and is located in the northern city of Urgench (formerly Gurganj), the ancient capital of the Khwarezmian Empire (1077-1231).

Thirty kilometers to the west of the Silk Route city of Merv (now called Mary) lies the Talkhatan Baba, a mosque built in the 11th century to commemorate Sufi saints.

Members of the delegation this week planted pine trees in a park near the grave of Talkhatan Baba (1020-1095), a saint who, the Turkmen news agency noted, "devoted his life to serve the God."

The Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar, also located near Mary, is all that remains of a larger religious complex dating back to the 12th century. The mausoleum itself, however, is dedicated to Seljuk ruler Ahmad Sanjar, a political rather than a religious figure.

The ancient ruins of Nisa was the capital of the Parthian Empire (third century B.C. to third century A.D.). But the site, located a short drive from the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, was long past its glory by the time Islam made its way into Central Asia in the early 8th century.

'Why Spend All That Money?'

Considering the sites' sometimes questionable relation to religion, do the people of Turkmenistan accept local pilgrimage sites as an acceptable substitution for Mecca?

The answer is "yes" a woman who says she has made the hajj abroad tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.

"Inside this country we have famous places you can visit where great people are buried -- more than you can count," she says. "If in Saudi Arabia people go to Mecca, then here in our country we have the '360 site,'" where 360 defenders of northern Turkmenistan were killed by Mongol invaders.

Pilgrims making the hajj this year will take precautions against the flu.
The woman adds that even pilgrims making the hajj express surprise that Turkmen would "spend all that money" and make the trip to Mecca when there is an abundance of pilgrimage sites in Turkmenistan.

"The [Turkmen] people who went to Mecca spent a lot of money and they didn't need to spend that so much, the [Turkmen] state doesn't need to spend so much money," she says. "It's better to make the pilgrimage inside the country. We could develop those sites and people from outside the country would come here to make pilgrimage."

The woman says that she and some family members traveled to Iran once to visit pilgrimage sites and found the Iranian sites to be crowded to the point where "one could not even take a step."

She concedes, however, that Iranian sites were more popular for pilgrims and added that the sites in Turkmenistan were certainly not "on the same level" as Mecca.

Saving The State Money

At times, the Turkmen pilgrimage appears intended to serve the government's interests in ways that go beyond its stated intention.

The Turkmen state news agency, for example, reported in announcing the government-led project that while "taking a pilgrimage to the holy places the faithful will see the grandiose changes that have taken place in the ancient Turkmen land in the epoch of New Revival.

"They will see and tell about them to their fellow villagers, neighbors, relatives and friends. New factories, roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, cultural centers, and stadiums -- all of these vivid symbols of the epoch of New Revival, a result of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's policy aimed at increasing the welfare of the Turkmen people."

Considering that the Turkmen state usually pays to send a group of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, the internal pilgrimage could presumably improve the welfare of the state budget as well.

Every year at the end of Ramadan the Turkmen government pays for some 200 pilgrims to make the hajj, exactly the number of seats on one airplane. This year, those selected to go to Mecca will instead be participating in the Turkmen pilgrimage, keeping any money they spend inside the country.

Saudi Arabia gives every a country a quota for pilgrims wanting to make the hajj (1,000 people for every million of a country's Muslim population), and 200 to 300 of Turkmenistan's Muslims usually make the trip to Mecca using their own money.

This year, however, the fear of exposure to swine flu has led the government to advise citizens against paying their own way to circumvent the ban and traveling to Mecca.

According to an official at the Saudi Embassy in Turkmenistan who spoke to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service on condition of anonymity, it appears Turkmen Muslims are abiding by the government's wishes.

"This year we are very, very sad because our embassy has given visas only for foreigners living in Ashgabat -- Turkish, Iranian, and so on -- but no one from Turkmenistan," the official said.

Turkmen writer Amanmyrat Bugaev also laments the loss of an opportunity for Turkmen to make the hajj.

As wonderful as the pilgrimage sites in Turkmenistan may be, Bugaev says, they cannot replace the hajj, one of the Five Pillars of Islam that is incumbent on every Muslim.

"I believe in God, and greatly respect traditions of Islam and I cannot understand why the hajj is replaced with the pilgrimage to the holy and historical sites in the country," he says.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report

'SMS Divorces' Cut Tajik Migrants' Matrimonial Ties To Home

A Tajik migrant worker in Russia texts a message home.
December 06, 2009
By Farangis Najibullah
Aziza Kobilova, a 25-year-old housewife in eastern Tajikistan's Rasht region, recently received notice that her marriage of four years was over.

The end was unexpected and quick. Her husband, a migrant laborer working in Russia, first telephoned to tell Kobilova that he was divorcing her. Then he made good on his promise by sending a text message from a mobile phone that read only "talaq," a term of estrangement that according to Sunni Muslim tradition is enough to annul a marriage.

In Kobilova's case, her husband's use of modern technology to execute a traditional Islamic divorce left her homeless and with no means of support.

She is not alone.

With jobs at home in dismally short supply, a significant percentage of Tajikistan's male population depends on seasonal work abroad to earn money that can be sent home in the form of remittances. But as this migrant culture takes root, long-distant marriages are increasingly ending in "SMS divorce," contributing to a spike in the country's divorce rate and leaving countless Tajik women without recourse.

Following her own text-based divorce Kobilova returned to her childhood home, where she now she lives with elderly parents along with three older brothers and their families.

"My husband let me down," Kobilova says, "but most of all I blame labor migration for my marriage breakup. Even though we were married for four years, we only spent a few months together. Most of the time he was away working in Russia."

"I guess the money migrants make in Moscow blinds them, and they forget all about their wives back at home," she adds.

Tajik law doesn't recognize "talaq" divorce, but things are different in practice.
It is estimated that nearly a million Tajiks -- accounting for one out of every seven citizens and consisting mostly of men aged 18 to 60 -- depend on seasonal jobs in Russia or elsewhere abroad to make a living. The migratory nature of the work leads to prolonged periods away from home, a scenario that women's rights activists say negatively affects the institution of marriage in Tajikistan.

While reliable, up-to-date divorce figures are unavailable, divorce lawyer Bakhtiyor Nasrulloev estimates that "at least one in four marriages in Tajikistan ends in divorce." While that rate is still low when compared to countries like the United States, where divorce rates hover around 50 percent, it marks a sharp increase in comparison to official data compiled the late 1990s that placed the Tajik divorce rate at only 8 percent.

However, the traditional, but unofficial, nature of many Tajik marriages means that the true divorce rate could be higher still.

Laws vs. Reality

It is common practice for young couples in Tajikistan to enter matrimony in an Islamic religious ceremony, and to make it official by registering the marriage at a local registry office.

Unions based only on a religious ceremony, however, are not officially recognized under Tajik law. Likewise, Tajik law does not recognize "talaq" as a legal divorce, and requires that married couples annul their marriages through legal channels.

But divorce lawyer Nasrulloev explains that the reality is much different.

"Despite our secular and modern laws, the plain reality is that many migrant men are effectively ending their marriages by saying 'talaq' through SMS and phone calls," he says.

"Unfortunately, there is not much women can do about it."

Tajikistan's family and divorce code is technically based on Soviet-era law. Women's rights in the event of divorce, such as the right to claim an equal share of the family's joint property and money, are thus officially protected.

However, Nasrulloev cites hundreds of cases in which women have applied for legal divorce and financial settlements after receiving "SMS divorce" messages, only to encounter another obstacle.

"Courts cannot start divorce procedures in such cases because, according to the law, the husband has to be officially notified by court about the pending divorce procedure," Nasrulloev says.

Again, reality often makes this impossible, as the women on the receiving end of the divorce cannot provide a precise address for their migratory spouse living abroad. Most migrants seeking divorce, lawyers suggest, simply obtain a new passport that bears no stamp showing their marital status.

Maryam Davlatova, founder of the Dushanbe-based NGO Center for Gender Politics, says that many Tajik women, particularly in rural areas, are unaware of their rights under divorce and that "many men take advantage of it."

Citing a recent study conducted in the northern region of Panjakent that concluded that 95 percent of its divorces over the past 10 years were initiated by men, Davlatova says that most of women in the region were not aware that they could claim financial support after their marriages fell apart.

To counter this, women's NGOs and government agencies have set up meetings and seminars for women in Panjakent and other rural areas to explain their marital and divorce rights.

"After participating in such seminars, some women who have been divorced even for seven or 10 years went to court to claim proper divorce settlements or alimonies for their children," says Davlatova.

'Part-Time Marriage'

Again, however, reality makes the situation considerably more complex.

Married sons often reside in the same home as their parents, with the home registered under the parents' names. This makes it nearly impossible for women to claim a share of their home following a divorce.

The majority of migrants, meanwhile, have irregular incomes and are not engaged in legally registered employment abroad, making it difficult for women to claim alimony for themselves and their children.

Sultona Alieva, a teacher from northern Sughd region, says that "everything comes down to poverty; if men had job opportunities here, they wouldn't leave to Russia."

Alieva says that labor migration has completely changed Tajikistan's marriage culture, a development that has affected her own relationship with her husband, who works in Russia for long stints.

"It's like a part-time marriage," said Alieva. "I don't see my husband for months. I'm afraid we are becoming strangers. The kids are growing up without him and don't even recognize him when he comes back after nine or 10 months."

"But I know that we have no other choice because of economic hardships," says the 40-year-old village teacher. "And I look forward for his return."

Alieva's husband plans to be home by the New Year's Eve.

But others appear to be in no rush to return home to their wives and children.

Some, like Aziza Kobilova's husband, may even instead seek quickie divorces by text message.

"I try to call my ex-husband to explain me the reason for divorce," Kobilova says, lamenting that her former husband simply doesn't return her calls.

Russia, U.S. May Sign Nuclear Deal At Climate Talks

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama will both be in Copenhagen later this week.
December 15, 2009
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia and the United States may sign an agreement to replace the START nuclear weapons treaty during the Copenhagen climate summit, a Russian source familiar with the summit plans told Reuters today.

The presidents of the United States and Russia will go to the Danish capital later this week to attend the climate conference, and agreement on cutting their arsenals of nuclear arms would signal previously tense relations are easing.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will be joined by his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who will be attached to the presidential delegation, said the source.

"Lavrov will be travelling to Copenhagen with the president," the source said, adding that the foreign minister would not be going unless Russia believed the new treaty could be signed with President Barack Obama there.

The White House declined to comment.

Washington and Moscow failed to reach agreement on a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the biggest agreed nuclear weapons cut in history, before December 5 when the pact had been due to expire. However, both sides agreed it should remain in force indefinitely pending agreement on a successor.

The START-1 treaty, signed by then-U.S. President George Bush senior and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, took nearly a decade to achieve. Under the deal, Russia more than halved its nuclear arsenal, the Foreign Ministry has said.

Over the past decade, relations between Moscow and Washington became strained over the Iraq war, NATO's eastward expansion and last year's Georgia war, but Obama pledged to improve relations after his election as U.S. president.

A new deal would cut the number of deployed nuclear weapons and the submarines, bombers and missiles used to launch them. But the United States and Russia would still have enough firepower to destroy the world several times over.

Murder Of Priest Highlights Missionary Role In Russian Church

Daniil Sysoyev speaks with his parishioners in Moscow in July 2008.
December 01, 2009
By Kevin O'Flynn
MOSCOW -- Flowers still decorate the gates of St. Thomas, the small wooden church in the south of Moscow where Father Daniil Sysoyev served. They represent an outpouring of grief for the priest who had built his parish from nothing and hoped to eventually build in place of the modest wooden structure a brick church big enough to hold 2,000 people.

Four red carnations adorn a photo of the priest, who was murdered November 19 after an unidentified gunman entered his church and shot Sysoyev twice. Someone has pinned up a poem dedicated to him. A sign nearby notes that surveillance cameras have been installed at the church in the wake of the tragedy.

St. Thomas held a service on November 28 to mark the ninth day after the killing. Sysoyev was only 35 years old but had already built a reputation as a priest who stood out for his proselytizing work among Russia’s Muslim community -- a relatively new phenomena for the Orthodox Church.

Andrei Zolotov, a journalist specializing in religious issues, says Sysoyev was known for his missionary zeal.

“He was one of the several most prominent missionaries, and also someone who was known as a bit controversial -- one of those who insisted on the necessity of missionary work among Muslims,” Zolotov says.

Sysoyev actively sought to convert Muslims, working in the capital city’s Muslim communities and reaching out to the thousands of immigrant workers who have come to Moscow from Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and elsewhere. He would routinely go to the city’s construction sites, where many immigrants are employed, and successfully converted as many as 80 people.

But his work didn’t stop there. He also wrote books warning Christians not to marry Muslims and posted online videos that attacked Islam. Copies of his book, “An Orthodox Response to Islam,” have sold out at St. Thomas in the days since his death.

Sysoyev also posted videos of himself on YouTube, in which he would often be heavily critical of the Muslim faith. In one of them, he ends his lecture with an expression of hope that all Muslims would eventually convert to Christianity.

"That’s it. May God help all of us," he says in the video. "We will pray so that Muslims will come to Christianity and not follow the conspiracy of the Prophet.”

'I'm Already Used To It Now'

Sysoyev’s outspokenness did not go unnoticed, and he wrote that he was continually threatened by Muslims angered by his work.

"You're going to laugh, but the Muslims have again threatened to kill me. The threat was by telephone this time," Sysoyev wrote on his blog in October. "It's already the 14th time. Before it scared me, but I'm already used to it now."

Sysoyev's wife and two of his daughters pay their last respects to the slain priest.
After his murder, his wife, Yulia, wrote in a letter of his premonition of death.

“He told us which vestments to bury him in. Then I joked that there was no need to speak about that, we still did not know who would bury whom," Yulia says. "He said that I would bury him.”

The Orthodox Church has come around to the importance of missionary work in Russia in recent years. Zolotov says it is a trend that has been especially evident under the new patriarch, Kirill, who has led the church for less than a year.

“In the last several years, missionary work has been increasingly recognized as a top priority, or one of the top priorities," Zolotov says. "Basically, the election of Patriarch Kirill to a large extent was the manifestation of this recognition that we need to carry out a mission. It is not enough to just be reconstructing the church or sit there saying how important we are for Russian history.”

Part of that mission is to reach out to nominal Russian Orthodox Christians who do not attend church. Different figures show that only between 3 to 10 percent of Russians attend Orthodox Church services, when as many as 80 percent identify themselves as Orthodox.

But many in the church believe that missionary work extends beyond activating dormant Orthodox Christians to attempting to convert members of the Muslim community as well.

Zolotov says while official church policy does not publicly endorse proselytizing of Muslims, it does not discourage priests from missionary work. Patriarch Kirill presided over Sysoyev’s funeral, a gesture that many saw as emphasizing the Orthodox Church’s tacit support for conversion work.

Struck A Nerve

Sysoyev was one of only a few Orthodox priests active in full-time proselytizing work. One of his parishioners, Larisa Vasilieva, was brought up in Kazan, the capital of the Muslim-majority republic of Tatarstan, where her mother was a Muslim and her father an Orthodox Christian. She says Sysoyev struck a nerve by speaking openly about what otherwise remains a hushed battle by the church for influence over what may be as many as 20 million Muslims in Russia.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill
“Nobody speaks out about it [in Kazan]. But here [in Moscow], he spoke openly and wrote openly about his views, and that is what they did not like," Vasilieva says. "He wrote about what other people think but are too afraid to say.”

With the stark exception of the federal wars in Chechnya and spreading unrest through much of the North Caucasus, experts say contemporary relations between Muslims and Orthodox Christians have rarely been confrontational.

But there are fears that may change as the Orthodox Church, with the explicit backing of the Kremlin, seeks to assert its role as the standard-bearer of Russian national identity. The Sysoyev murder, it is feared, will bring latent tensions between the two communities out into the open.

(And the November 27 bombing of a Moscow-St. Petersburg railway, in which 26 people were killed, may stoke Christian-Muslim tensions further. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the blast, but terror attacks in Russia frequently provoke speculation of a North Caucasus link.)

In the wake of Sysoyev’s murder, religious leaders from Russia’s Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish communities called the killing of a priest in his church a “mortal and unforgivable sin” and warned that “the tragedy might be used by extremist forces to foment interethnic and inter-religious conflict.”

Not all parishioners are convinced that an Islamic extremist was to blame for the killing, however. Some point instead to a land dispute. St. Thomas was facing problems getting permission to construct a larger building on its grounds. Some of Sysoyev’s followers say that his death may have been connected to that dispute and not to his proselytizing work.

No Quick Fix For Moldova's Political Crisis

Was there any talk of direct presidential elections before Alliance candidate Marian Lupu's poll rating passed that of the Communist leader?
November 30, 2009
By Louis O'Neill
In sports, as in politics, "moving the goalposts" -- and thus changing the rules of the game midstream -- may make the spectacle more intriguing, but it doesn't do much for fairness, consistency, or the long-term viability of the enterprise. A momentary "win" may be achieved by this or that side, but the real victim can end up being the process and people's trust and future participation in it.

Momentum is building in Moldova for a constitutional amendment to lead the way out of the current deadlock over electing a president. For sure, Moldova's election laws and practices are impossibly tangled and contradictory. Since 2000, six out of eight presidential ballots in parliament have failed to yield a leader. Sometimes precisely opposite outcomes find equal support in law. The courts -- which should be the final arbiters -- remain politicized and subject to pressure. All of this mixed together with the venal post-Soviet legacy has allowed a creeping "Ukrainization" to enter Moldova's politics in 2009.

Thorough and thoughtful constitutional changes are needed to allow direct presidential elections and to fix other serious shortcoming in the system, particularly the lack of local representation in parliament, which keeps political elites Chisinau-bound and out of touch with the rest of the country.

Not having a fully empowered head of state is, of course, a serious problem. But resorting to rushed constitutional amendments as a way out of a political crisis also presents a danger to this deeply divided fledgling democracy. The Alliance for European Integration (AIE) risks continuing a troubling trend in which each newly ascendant group of politicians spikes, or is perceived to spike, the ground rules to suit its interests.

The alliance complained bitterly about this rule-tweaking by the previous Communist government. Vladimir Voronin's party was notorious for its disciplined use of administrative resources and, generally, for doing whatever it took to remain on top. The AIE's lamentations about these highly effective tactics played a prominent role in their campaign strategies and promises, particularly after the terrible events of April.

What Comes Around

Since gaining power in the July repeat elections, however, the alliance has flirted with moves uncannily similar to those it so decried as an opposition force. It has already changed the rules in a self-serving manner on a number of very important issues. First, it pushed through a simplified procedure for electing a president in parliament. Now a single candidate (theirs) can run unopposed.

Then, the AIE amended the Audiovisual Code to ensure that it could use its simple majority of 53 votes to elect the members of the Audiovisual Coordination Council and the Board of Observers of Teleradio Moldova. Such a move had formerly required a consensus of three-fifths of legislators, the same troublesome threshold that currently so complicates electing a president. Not surprisingly, Moldova 1, the state's national broadcaster is now giving a priority to information about the alliance, just as it formerly did in reporting the doings of the Communist Party after it had packed broadcaster's board.

The AIE thought it fit to leave nine alliance ministers as deputies in parliament for a period of six months, essentially violating the separation of powers, stretching what had been a "temporary" measure, and preserving those votes should the coalition fall apart. As a bone to the public, Prime Minister Vlad Filat announced -- without tongue in cheek it seems -- that these nine deputies would not, at least, be receiving two salaries. Even Chisinau Mayor Dorin Chirtoaca (who should know better) made only half-hearted efforts to relinquish his simultaneous mandates in the legislature and as the city's chief executive.

In parliament, certain AIE members have acted with an authoritarian air, shutting off the microphones when the Communists have the floor (just as the Communists did so often before to their opponents) and using earthy Voronin-esque language more expected in a locker room than a legislature. As well, the AIE has managed to postpone key parliamentary sessions on shaky pretexts, such as the presence of foreign guests in the country.

And now the prosecutions of Communist legislators are starting. It was recently announced that Communist deputies Iurie Muntean and Igor Dodon -- who also is the former minister of economy and trade -- are under investigation for an alleged scheme to monopolize the import of meat into Moldova.

Prosecuting opponents was a tactic used extensively and painfully by the Communists against certain members of the AIE. While corruption may be as widespread as ever in Moldova, great care needs to be taken with prosecutions having political overtones.

...Goes Around

Following all this comes the suggestion of a national referendum on direct popular presidential election as the "only way" out of the political stalemate. Given the Communists' seeming intransigence on Marian Lupu's candidacy and the AIE's insistence on it, such a referendum may be the magic-bullet solution that acting President Mihai Ghimpu has been hinting at for some time.

It should surprise no one, however, that the burning need for this approach only appeared publicly when, for the first time, Lupu's popularity surpassed that of Voronin. An opinion poll from November 5 showed Lupu as 7 percentage points more trusted by the Moldovan people than the Communist leader.

Lupu carefully suggested a week later that any changes to the constitution only need modify the voting procedure -- to get him elected and "end" the crisis -- and not the other gnarled provisions that continue to create headaches for politicians and constitutional experts alike.

The problem is that once you start hastily modifying the constitution, unexpected things can happen. The Alliance would do well to remember that it only takes a one-third vote of parliament to put a question to national referendum, and any question is fair game. That means that the Communists, still with the largest bloc of any party at 48 seats, could easily counter with their own referendum proposals. What those might be is constrained only by the limits of political imagination.

Ironically, the Moldovan Constitution has already been changed by referendum once -- to create the very parliamentary republic we know today, in which the president is elected (or, as the case may be, not elected) by the legislature. With the AIE's newly proposed referendum question on direct popular elections, the wheel will have come full circle.

No More Quick Fixes

Despite its heavy-handedness, the new Moldovan government is beginning to put into action the long-standing rhetoric of European integration and reform. The AIE has many well-wishers who are stepping up to support it. Germany just offered 8.5 million euros ($12.7 million) for social investments and technical assistance. Poland, itself now a donor nation in the Eastern Partnership area, is providing $15 million to cover Moldova's deficit and buy the AIE some breathing room.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will lend 15 millions euros for small and medium enterprises. The World Bank recently allotted $24 million for capital investments through commercial banks. And the International Monetary Fund is back in Moldova, signing memoranda with the provisional Filat government and revealing how clearly political was its refusal last year to deal with the equally provisional (but markedly less friendly) Voronin government.

Even the Russian Federation has telegraphed its preference for a stable Moldova under a Lupu presidency. Still, although Moscow finds in Lupu the most palatable option among the AIE leaders, it has yet to pony up any of the $500 million that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised Voronin last spring.

Serious changes to the Moldovan Constitution are sorely needed, but they should be undertaken with great care and deliberation, not as a quick fix. Even Lupu, who stands the most to gain from direct elections, has indicated that real constitutional reform could take years to do properly.

What is needed now is one last round of serious, responsible, mature, good-faith negotiations between the AIE and the Communists to elect a president under the existing system. Then, in an atmosphere of (relative) calm, Moldova's politicians, scholars, and advisers can undertake a comprehensive review of the constitution to create a better system for Moldova's people and its future leaders.

Otherwise, the country's politicians will just be perceived as moving, once again, to advance their own interests, and in reality will only be slapping a bandage on a dysfunctional system.

Louis O'Neill was OSCE ambassador and head of mission to Moldova from 2006-08. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Eastern Europe Since 1989

By Vladimir Tismaneanu
Since 1989, Eastern Europe has made the transition from Leninist pseudo-modernity to the real thing.

That transition entailed overcoming both the absence of a long-standing domestic democratic tradition, and traumatic political memories in most, if not all, countries of the former Soviet bloc. Indeed, most of those countries had experienced both right- and left-wing totalitarianism in the course of the 20th century.

At the beginning of the 1990s, I underlined that the most important cause, and a critical consequence, of the extinction of Leninism was the resurgence and development of civil society, without which the former communist regimes would have morphed into "enlightened despotism."

Civil society was at the heart of the East European dissident movement, whose representatives realized that the only way to defeat "state socialism" was by means of "a long war against its institutions" and by establishing a cultural counter hegemony. The fundamental concept of this strategy was that a state cannot claim to be democratic as long as it does not respect and protect basic human rights.

Therefore, one of the main conclusions of the postcommunist years is that the main driving force of the transition process is the re-creation of the social cohesion so necessary for these societies in the struggle against the widespread corruption in which they were bogged down. I fully agree with the American political scientist Ken Jowitt, who argued that communism was a form of misdevelopment.

In the first decade after 1989, I argued that the most serious challenges for Eastern Europe were containing the resurgence of nationalism, the democratization of political culture (the varying pace of progress in this sphere being one of the explanations for their unequal development), and the transition from a planned to a market economy (shock therapy vs. neo-socialist paternalism). The revival of nationalism was obviously discussed against the backdrop of the secessionist wars in Yugoslavia.

The epilogue of my volume "Reinventing Politics" underscored the fact that ethnocracy was, at the time, a real possibility for postcommunist polities. During the second decade after 1989, however, the pathology of primordialism was gradually neutralized and banished to the realm of political ridicule.

Moreover, no analysis of the evolution of nationalism in Eastern Europe can ignore the factor that played a fundamental role in the acceleration of democratization in these societies: integration into NATO and accession to the European Union.

A Crucial Choice

The seemingly grim and unpromising political circumstances of the early 1990s gave way to an extremely favorable situation in which supragovernmental actors were almost more important than domestic ones in the process of a successful exit from communism. Jowitt rightly stated a couple of years ago that accession to the EU was the best news for the former communist countries in the last 500 years.

Immediately after 1989, we didn't anticipate this development. We fought for it, but we did so hoping against hope.

I should add that such a scenario would have been very difficult to imagine if it were not for the shock caused by the violence and anarchy of former Yugoslavia. The unfortunate example of the peoples of that federation ultimately convinced the EU and NATO of the possible disastrous outcomes for the region of continued rejection of the idea of enlargement eastward.

Today, 20 years after the demise of Leninism, the crucial choice remains that between personalities, parties, and movements that emphasize individualism, accountability, and risk in an open society, on the one hand, and those that promise safety and social security within the confines of a culturally, socially, and politically homogeneous ethnic community, on the other. To paraphrase the eminent political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf, who died earlier this year, the citizens of Eastern and Central Europe are still in search of a meaning.

Charismatic politics and particracy have staged a momentous comeback over the past two decades.

In order to prevent such phenomena taking root permanently, the region must overcome the two most grievous legacies of the communist past: anomy (which led to fragmentation, neo-traditionalism, and the total lack of civility that Romanian philosopher Andrei Pleu dubbed public obscenity); and a culture of lies (which generated dissimulation, the undermining of consensus, and the omnipresence of what one Russian sociologist called homo prevaricatus, the heir of homo sovieticus).

The lesson of the revolutions of 1989 is therefore multifaceted. It encompasses both the rebirth of citizenship (practically abolished under both fascism and communism) and the revival of the truth.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, director of the University's Center for Study of Postcommunist Societies, and the author of numerous books including "Stalinism for All Seasons: A Political History of Romanian Communism" (University of California Press, 2003). In 2006 he served as chair of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL