Saturday, August 27, 2016

Remember Those Private Security Contractors?

ArmorGroup employees in action in Kabul

Earlier this week the U.S. Justice Department announced that a private security contractor called ArmorGroup North America Inc. had agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle a dispute with the government. The company got into hot water for a host of misdeeds committed while its employees were guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (If you want to see some rather gross pics of their antics, you can take a look here. Hat tip to Spencer Ackerman and the folks at Danger Room.)
Interestingly, this mess didn't prevent the State Department from recently signing another contract with the company to guard the embassy.
All of which raises an interesting point: What is the Obama administration's policy on private security contractors?
We heard a lot about this issue during the George W. Bush years. The dubious actions of companies like Blackwater (which ultimately saw fit to change its name because of the drumbeat of bad publicity) highlighted the drawbacks of using private companies to carry out tasks that had once been the exclusive preserve of the government. A series of books, ranging from the sober to the sensationalistic, turned over the pros and cons.
Some of the most vociferous critics of the use of private security contractors were the two leading Democratic candidates for president back during the 2008 campaign. New York Senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored a bill to outlaw the use of Blackwater and other "private mercenary firms" in the war in Iraq. "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due," she declared at one point.
Her rival, a certain senator from Illinois, struck some similar tones. "You've got young men and women signing up to serve, willing to spill blood for America. How could they be treated less well than private contractors?" candidate Obama told one crowd in 2007. "And these private contractors, they go out and they're spraying bullets and hitting civilians and that makes it more dangerous for our troops." As the campaign proceeded, Obama made it clear that he wasn't quite willing to ban the use of such firms, but insisted that he would aim for much greater "accountability" if he became president.
So how has the policy toward the use of private security companies changed since Obama entered the White House?
When I asked that question of David Isenberg, author of the book "Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq," the answer turned out to be "not much."
He says that, right now, there are still some 200,000 people working as private contractors in the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The popular image of buff ex-Special Forces cowboys bristling with guns and wearing wrap-around Ray-Bans isn't very helpful, though. As Isenberg notes, private contractors in war zones handle a vast range of tasks that encompasses, as he puts it, "protective security details, doing the laundry, driving the tanker trucks, setting up the Port-a-Potties, doing intelligence analysis, doing reconstruction work, doing cultural intelligence." And many of the people performing these jobs aren't American nationals but citizens of developing countries who are doing the work for low wages under the most forbidding of conditions.
The use of contractors is so widespread throughout many branches of the U.S. government that it's unrealistic to think you can just do away with them, Isenberg says. "It is physically impossible at this particular point in time to suddenly wave a wand and say, 'It's all in-house,'" he says, "because that means you now have to have hundreds of thousands of people more within government doing the work." And that means pension obligations, employee benefits, and a whole host of associated costs and bureaucratic liabilities -- though Isenberg hastens to point out that it is by no means clear that using private contractors always ends up being cheaper for the taxpayer in the end. (Fans of contractor use argue that they're more cost-efficient, but Isenberg says there's a notable absence of studies proving the point.)
As for the private contractors who carry guns, they clearly aren't going away. In fact, one industry report back in February noted that the number of armed security contractors for the Defense Department in Afghanistan had actually tripled since June 2009. (Note: that doesn't even include the contractors pulling security for the State Department, which makes extensive use of them.)
And what about candidate Obama's call for accountability? Not much has changed on that front either. There still isn't a coherent body of rules that applies equally to all the contractors on the government payroll, both at home and overseas. This shouldn't be that hard to change. Some people in Washington are pushing the idea of a single government-wide authority that would keep track of all the private contractors used by various departments and agencies. The hope is that this would at least provide for unified standards and greater transparency.
And then there's something called the Montreux Document. Drawn up by several dozen governments (and some security contractors) in 2008, it provides a code of conduct for contractor behavior in war zones. If the United States were to make compliance with that code a precondition for receiving U.S. government contracts, Isenberg says, that would at least impose a bit of order on the anarchic contractor universe.

Other experts, like Pratap Chatterjee at the Center for American Progress, say that isn't enough. They're urging the international community to come up with a set of binding regulations that would specify criminal punishments for contractors who break the rules.
Some sort of action would seem to be overdue -- especially when you consider that, as one study released earlier this week revealed, the worldwide use of contractors has been steadily increasing.

-- Christian Caryl

A Tale of Two Bailouts

Get those euros while you can

Greece and Belarus are two largely Orthodox Christian nations in Central Europe. Both have roughly the same populations. And both, according to international bond ratings agencies, are now virtually bankrupt.

Over the last year, European Union officials have labored to persuade Greece to accept a $161 billion aid package under International Monetary Fund (IMF) supervision. Greek politicians have hemmed and hawed. This month, as many as 500,000 Greeks at one time took to the streets to protest IMF conditions. (In Athens, a favorite anti-IMF rallying cry refers to the New York hotel incident: “The maid resisted. What do we do?”)

Contrast that to Belarus.

For almost a year, Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has asked for $8 billion in aid from Russia, his partner in a customs union.

Last week, the check finally arrived -- for $800 million.

And like any good banker, the Kremlin tied the loan to seizable property. In this case, the aid money is tied to Russian negotiations to take over 100 percent control of Soviet-era pipelines that carry Russian gas to Western Europe.

On June 24 in Minsk, Martin Raiser, the World Bank country director for Ukraine,
Belarus, and Moldova, saw no reason for hand-holding. At the conclusion of a three-day visit to Belarus, he told reporters: "Notwithstanding the social achievements of the past, Belarus's economic model has run out of steam."

The IMF is equally cool to Belarus.

In early June, Belarus asked the IMF for $8 billion in aid. This money would follow $3.5 billion that the fund provided in 2009-10. Many economists say President Lukashenka squandered most of this money on boosting salaries and pensions trying to buy the December 2010 presidential election.

Chris Jarvis, the head of the IMF team in Belarus, recently told reporters in Minsk that any new aid would be contingent upon "a strong program" to restructure  Belarus's state-dominated economy. He warned: "We would also have to be sure that all actors-- the president, government, and national bank -- are committed to that program."

This prompted Bloomberg to headline: "Lukashenka Must Choose Between Belarus Control or IMF Aid."

Hoping to prolong his 17-year stay in power, Lukashenka now is preparing to sell what many Belarusians call "the family silver" -- the rent-producing gas lines and Belaruskali, a state-owned potash giant that brings in about $1 billion a year in revenue to the treasury. In a recent rambling 5-hour "press conference," Lukashenka tried to soften up public opinion, saying that Belaruskali, the nation’s largest, should not be made “into a Holy Grail.”

If the Belarusian president meets his goal of selling this fertilizer giant for $30 billion, he could keep the “Belarus miracle” afloat for a few more years.

Given Belarus’s near-total isolation, this is the only route open to Lukashenka.
European taxpayers are prepared to lend Greece $14,250 for each Greek man, woman, and child. In contrast, Russia’s aid to Belarus amounts to $84 per person.
The difference boils down two intangibles that economists like to talk about: goodwill and brand.

Europe loves Greece because they love to go on vacation there. At last count, 16 million tourists visited Greece, the vast majority of them visa-free.

In contrast, a visa to Belarus costs around $200 and is only issued with an invitation from an accredited organization within Belarus. At last count, Belarus ranked in 161st place worldwide for receiving foreign visitors -- 91,000 in 2008.

When I came to Minsk in December, there were no taxis at the airport. I felt I had flown into a Slavic North Korea. Finally, after 45 minutes standing in the snow, I shared a cab into town with a nice young man from Lebanon who was here to meet his Internet bride.

Then there is the brand issue.

Ancient Greece, as everyone knows, was the cradle of democracy. Today, modern Greeks sing a national anthem called "Hymn to Liberty."

Belarus has a very different brand.

In April 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Moscow and Lithuania, sought to help reporters put neighboring Belarus into perspective. She said that under Lukashenka, Belarus "is really the last dictatorship in the center of Europe."

The Bush administration has come and gone. But "the last dictatorship in Europe" label has stuck to Lukashenka like a wet leaf to his shoe. He just can’t shake it.
Not that he tries very hard. On the evening of June 22, his black-shirted riot police were filmed physically throwing young men and women face down onto the steel floors of prison trucks.

Their crime: walking on sidewalks in downtown Minsk and clapping their hands.

Police also detained 16 journalists, breaking their equipment. The Swedish Foreign Ministry complained that police manhandled and briefly detained their charge d’affaires, who was observing the protest.

Only days earlier, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had appealed for European attention to the economic plight of Belarus.

"We are, of course, focusing on the situation in Greece. We are all worried about that," Bildt said. "But Belarus might be even worse in terms of financial collapse."

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Washington, Brussels, or Stockholm to approve an IMF bailout for Lukashenka’s Belarus.

-- James Brooke (Voice of America)

House Sends Obama A Message On Libya (UPDATED)

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 24.06.2011 18:43

The U.S. House of Representatives sent President Barack Obama a mixed message today by voting to deny symbolic congressional authorization to U.S. military operations in the NATO mission in Libya but defeating an attempt to cut off funding.

The anger many in Congress feel over Obama's unilateral decision to use military force against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi peaked with a vote of 295-123 to defeat a resolution authorizing U.S. military involvement in the campaign for one year. Most Republicans and 70 members of Obama's own Democratic Party voted against the resolution, sending a strong signal to the White House that the president does not have the full support of Congress for his decision to use U.S. military force in what many are calling a civil war.

But just moments later, lawmakers voted 238-180 to defeat a second resolution that sought to cut off funding for operations like drone attacks and bombings in the North African country. The measure, which had the support of Republican House leaders, would have only allowed Washington to continue to participate in NATO operations like search and rescue, intelligence and surveillance, reconnaissance, aerial refueling, and operational planning.

In other words, it was aimed at keeping Washington's toe in the NATO mission, but nothing more.

Many members of Congress believe the White House is in violation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires the president to ask Congress for the authority to send U.S. military forces into foreign operations within 60 days of doing so.

Such a timetable would have required Obama to send a request to Congress by May 20. Instead, in mid-June, the White House sent a 38-page report to lawmakers defending the president's right to continue U.S. operations without their consent.

The White House position is that Obama does not need congressional authorization because the NATO mission to protect Libyan civilians and push Qaddafi from power "[does] not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor [does it] involve U.S. ground troops."

In a joint interview with "The New York Times," State Department legal advisor Harold H. Koh and White House counsel Robert Bauer said the administration is "acting lawfully."

That same story reported that in making his decision, Obama had overruled some of his legal advisers -- a detail that reportedly deepened the anger in Congress. As a rule, Congress doesn't like it when the president doesn't seek its authority for foreign military operations.

So it wasn't surprising that multiple resolutions were introduced in the House and Senate seeking to impose authority over the White House. There's also bipartisan support for a lawsuit filed by Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) that says Obama acted illegally.

The White House has acknowledged that the first two months of U.S. operations in Libya cost $716 million and that, by September, that tab will have risen to $1.1 billion.

With budget negotiations at an impasse and Republican members under intense pressure from voters to cut billions in spending, the defunding measure had the support of Republican Party leadership, including House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), who said this week: "I just believe that because of the president's failure to consult with the Congress, failure to outline for the American people why we were doing this before we engaged in this puts us in the position where we have to defend our responsibility under the Constitution."

The White House was concerned enough to send U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Hill on June 23 to try to convince House Democrats not to vote to defund U.S. operations. Reports said several lawmakers did not attend the meeting, either over their opposition to U.S. involvement in Libya or because of scheduling conflicts.

(On June 22, Clinton briefly addressed the anger in Congress when she asked of members who would end U.S. involvement, "Are you on Qaddafi's side, or are you on the side on the aspirations of the Libyan people and the international coalition that has been bringing them support?")

One of the meeting's participants, Representative Tim Walz (Minnesota), said Clinton had apologized for not meeting with Congress earlier but warned lawmakers not to vote for the defunding measure.

"The secretary expressed her deep concern that you're probably not on the right track when Qaddafi supports your efforts," he said.

--Heather Maher

Turkmenistan Gas Gets Washington's Attention

Turkmen gas: a cause for celebration

In May the British energy consulting firm Gaffney, Cline and Associates made an announcement that generated a lot of attention in the oil and gas business – and beyond. Turkmenistan, the company concluded, has some 20 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in its Yoloten fields. That would give the Central Asian republic the world’s second-largest reserves, behind only Iran.

That’s big news for investors in Turkmenistan’s energy market as well as for gas-hungry Europeans, who are desperately in need of alternative energy sources to ease their dependency on Russian gas and have been knocking on the doors of Turkmenistan for some time to get it.

Though the U.S. is not a direct beneficiary of the find, since it gets much of its energy from the Americas or the Persian Gulf, Washington appears to be excited about the find – so much so, in fact, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special envoy on Eurasian Energy, Ambassador Richard L. Morningstar, paid a visit to the Turkmen capital in the second week of June, soon after Gaffney Cline’s announcement.

According to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat, Ambassador Morningstar’s agenda included meetings with the top Turkmen leadership, including President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. It's safe to say that energy was the key topic on the agenda.

It’s still unclear Morningstar's visit was pre-planned or scheduled only after the gas field announcement. Nor do we know much about the specifics of his discussion with the Turkmen leadership. Both the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat and Morningstar’s own office at the State Department are mum about the details of his visit.

That coyness is tantalizing. Analysts say that even if some of the gas recently discovered in Turkmenistan could be brought to Europe, it would offer a serious alternative to Russia’s near-monopoly on European energy supplies. Helping Europe to diversify its energy imports has been one of the key elements of American foreign policy in the region.

For years the U.S. and its allies have been pushing for the construction of a pipeline be built under the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. The Trans-Caspian pipeline would bring Turkmen gas from there to Europe without crossing Russian territory. Needless to say, the Russians are not keen on the project. And making it a reality would also require Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to overcome their differences about the pipeline. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon.

The sensitivity of the interests involved may provide a clue about why the Americans are so reluctant to talk about the specifics of Morningstar's discussion with the Turkmens.

The Russian position has been clear on this subject for a long time. Just in case anybody in Washington had doubts, the Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Vladimir Dorokhin, repeated Moscow’s opposition to the project as Morningstar was preparing for his visit to Turkmenistan.

Speaking to the press in Baku on June 8, the ambassador said, “Russia, as a Caspian country, is against the laying of pipelines and gas lines along the bed of this unique body of water, which could harm the ecological state of the Caspian Sea.”
Referring to the draft convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, he added that “any project like this would require consensus among neighboring states of the Caspian Sea. Russia and Iran certainly oppose such a project which could have a negative impact on its ecology.”

Both sides may deny it, but at this point Russia and the United States could well be on a collision course over the Trans-Caspian pipeline, since the discovery of new gas fields in Turkmenistan has dramatically raised the stakes.
- Muhammad Tahir

The 'I' Word Spooks Washington

See you back home

You've got to give President Barack Obama credit on one count: he's been paying attention. His big policy speech tonight on the war in Afghanistan was finely tuned to the national mood.
Take the evening's headline quote:
America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.
That was the coda of a section that included this remarkable passage:
Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource -- our people.
A couple of years ago this was the sort of thing you would have heard from antiwar activists on the pretty-far-over left -- and also from Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican congressman from Texas whose emphatic small-government philosophy entails a rejection of just about any sort of overseas military involvement.
But now the argument is cropping up everywhere. A good piece in "The New York Times" today mentioned the intriguing case of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has just issued a statement calling upon the government to start spending money on American cities rather than Baghdad or Kabul. The "Times" pointed out that this was the first time since the Vietnam War that the mayors -- whose ranks, it should be said, include quite a few Republicans -- have seen fit to take a stand on U.S. foreign policy. The article went on to quote from a speech on June 21 by a young Democratic senator, Joe Manchin III (Democrat-West Virginia):
We can no longer, in good conscience, cut services and programs at home, raise taxes or -- and this is very important -- lift the debt ceiling in order to fund nation-building in Afghanistan. The question the president faces -- we all face -- is quite simple: Will we choose to rebuild America or Afghanistan? In light of our nation's fiscal peril, we cannot do both.
Former presidential candidate John McCain (Republican-Arizona) thereupon took to the Senate floor to denounce Manchin's "isolationist-withdrawal-lack-of-knowledge-of-history attitude that seems to be on the rise."

If the past few days were any indication, McCain, a classic Republican internationalist who believes that the United States remains the world's main force for good, has some busy weeks ahead of him. For it turns out that the bacillus of Manchin-style noninterventionism is no longer exclusive to historically challenged Democrats. Last weekend McCain found himself compelled to scold several members of his own party -- and presidential candidates, at that -- for flirting with isolationist sentiment. Jon Huntsman, previously Obama's ambassador to China, had said that
the very expensive boots on the ground may be something that is not critical for our national-security needs, nor is it something we can afford this point in our economic history.
And there was this from Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts:
I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban.
Let's get real, though. Viewed in historical context, these remarks scarcely constitute the sort of full-blown "isolationism" denounced by McCain and a number of other neo-conservative critics. This cautious edging-toward-the-door is hardly a repeat of the sort of aggressive "America First" noninterventionism that dominated U.S. politics in the interwar period right up to Pearl Harbor. (For that matter, let's not forget that it was 2000 Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush who promised voters that he was about to break with the obsessive "nation-building" of Bill Clinton. No one accused Bush of "isolationism" back then.)
Yet the urgency with which McCain and his colleagues have turned up the rhetorical heat on their colleagues suggests that something has them spooked. You can't blame them. The past decade of war has taken thousands of lives and shattered tens of thousands of American families, not to mention consuming $1.3 trillion of taxpayer money. Osama bin Laden is dead. The U.S. pullout from Iraq is well under way, and the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan, as the president repeated tonight, is merely a matter of timing.

(Obama, it should be noted, tiptoed carefully around the open-ended engagement in Libya, which is rapidly becoming a lightning rod for war-fatigued U.S. voters. He gave it only a sentence -- and that mainly so that he could describe it as the place "where we do not have a single soldier on the ground.")

Of course, it could even be that those frantic neo-conservatives have simply been reading the polls. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center on June 10 showed that the number of Americans who favor removing forces from Afghanistan has spiked. For the first time, a majority of them (56 percent) say that U.S. troops should be brought home as soon as possible.
Isolationism this is not. But neither is it business as usual. And maybe that's a good thing.

-- Christian Caryl

The Reset Hits a Pothole

Looking for an intercept

For a while now, well out of the limelight, Russia and NATO have been negotiating about how to cooperate on missile defense. On Wednesday we got the announcement that the talks have broken down. For good? Hard to say. But the atmospherics don’t sound promising.
There is, potentially, a lot at stake. The Russians have been dropping hints that they might pull out of New START, the much-ballyhooed treaty on nuclear arsenals that went into force earlier this year, if a deal can’t be reached. Even President Dmitry Medvedev, not usually known as a saber-rattler, has allowed himself a few dire predictions. In May he warned about the possibility of a “new Cold War” if talks on missile defense were to fail. (This actually shouldn’t come as such a surprise. It was Medvedev, after all, who vowed to shift Russian short-range missiles to Kaliningrad a few years back in order to deter construction of the European missile shield.)
If the Russians were to make good on this threat, it would effectively scupper the signal foreign policy achievement of the Obama Administration – the “reset” in Russian-American relations that followed a few years of cool in the later stages of George W. Bush’s term in office. New START, signed by both presidents last year in Prague, is the centerpiece of this rapprochement. Judging by some of President Obama’s statements in recent months, a positive outcome on missile defense talks with the Russians was going to be the next big take-away.
The irony is that the current White House managed to get to this point in part by watering down the Bush Administration’s more ambitious missile defense system plans. Soon after he came into office, President Obama declared that the U.S. would opt for a system based on shorter-range mobile missiles rather than fixed-site interceptors. The Russians (and many Europeans) initially reacted with relief. But the mood has soured since then.
It’s hard to know precisely what NATO was offering the Russians to make them feel better about the missile defense project. The Russians don’t like the idea of a European missile defense system at all, since they fear that it undercuts their own nuclear deterrent. They want NATO to give them pledges that the system won’t be used against their own missiles – essentially giving them a veto over the defense system's operation. Plus they want a whole host of other reassurances:

Russia wants a treaty on the matter to include information on the total number and the kinds of missile interceptors that would be deployed in the shield as well as their speed and deployment locations, Kommersant reported.

Moscow also wants a joint “sectoral” defense with both NATO and Russia at the controls, giving the Kremlin a “finger on the trigger,” as it were. But it’s extremely hard to imagine any NATO countries signing up for that. NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly stated that that’s not what NATO wants:

What we have in mind is cooperation between two independent missile defense systems. If we achieve this, if will be a tangible demonstration that NATO and Russia can build security together, rather than against each other.

The Americans and their allies have talked about giving the Russians a role as a “stakeholder” in the existing system (whatever that means). But what these negotiations actually seem to have done in practice is to expose just how deep the gulf between the two sides remains.
Some experts also wonder whether the Russians are really ready to make good on their threats to pull out of New START. Carol Saivetz, a Russia expert at the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that Moscow needs the treaty more than Washington does since so much of Russian nuclear arsenal is either outdated or under-maintained. Meanwhile, the restart has benefited the Russians by effectively taking NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia “off the table.” She notes that the collapse of the missile defense talks has gone largely unmentioned in the Russian media.
Still, you can’t help but wonder whether the premise of these negotiations was flawed from the start. How do you design an effective European missile defense that the Russians would really be willing to swallow? Sure, I understand the argument that a system designed to protect against a small number of missiles from Iran won’t be effective against a large-scale attack from the Russians – meaning that the proposed NATO missile defense doesn’t really undermine Moscow’s strategic deterrent. But it’s also easy to imagine all sorts of political and strategic reasons why the Kremlin would never want to be seen accepting such a thing without getting a whole lot in return. Europe needs a missile defense system. Russia will probably have to find a way to live with it.
So let’s see what happens when Robert Gates meets his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, for talks today. Perhaps there will be more news then.

- Christian Caryl

They Didn't Eat Cake

Happy Journalists' Day

In Washington, journalists are a kind of royalty. They pretty much have the run of the place. In today’s Ukraine, on the other hand, journalists mostly do what they’re told. The telling is usually done by an oligarch owner or by a scared and servile editor. If that fails, self-censorship kicks in.
Although Ukraine is far from being the servile, stodgy Soviet republic it once was, you can’t really say that the country’s journalists call the shots. They basically earn money. Sometimes they break big stories, and sometimes they get killed.
While the average journalist probably doesn’t have much of a chance at getting a one-on-one conversation with the U.S. president, if you’re accredited with the White House you do have a good chance of asking him a question during the many briefings and press conferences that he holds regularly.
If you work for a big journalism outfit (or if you happen to be a celebrity or a famous comedian), you can get even closer to the President during the annual White House Correspondents dinner. That’s a glittering political soiree to which – see Matthew 22:14 – many are called, though few are chosen.
And even if you don’t want to hang around near Obama’s office, you can still get plenty of insight into the highs and lows of a presidential day by following the reports posted regularly by members of the media pool that travels with him. You’ll learn whom he hugged at the Chrysler plant in Toledo and how he scoffed down two chili dogs with fries at Rudy’s Hot Dog.
In America, in a word, you can get to know all the intimate details of the daily routine of the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. You can travel with him vicariously and watch him eat the same junk food that his wife is warning the rest of his fellow Americans about. And, if you have a bit of talent and perseverance, you can even challenge him during an open press conference or briefing.
Not so in Ukraine. The daily schedule of the president there is often as closely guarded as a state secret. There is no tradition of the kind of pool reporting that gives the office and its holder a human dimension.
And, to be frank, the attitude of many of these post-communist presidents towards journalists leaves a lot to be desired. Just take the cat-and-mouse-game played out between the president and reporters in Kyiv this week. It’s a good example of the dysfunctional relationship between the press and the powers-that-be.
When Viktor Yanukovych took over as Ukraine’s president last year, he promised that he would open his Mezhyhiria residence to the journalists and invite them all over for “tea and conversation.” But try as they might, no invitation has followed, and the president continues to elude their efforts to hold him to his word. So this week they decided to take him at his word.
Every year, on June 6, Ukraine marks “Journalists’ Day,” and this time around a couple of reporters decided to use it to give the president a chance to make good on his promise. They decamped outside the grounds of the residence early in the morning – only to be met by the mayor of the local town, who tried to shoo them away for disturbing the peace of the local residents. The journalists persevered, but it seemed that the president once again had no time for them – even on this, their official holiday. The president sped off to work in a five-car motorcade.
Then Yanukovych’s press secretary, Darka Chepak, drove up to the assembled reporters in a small car and emerged with a giant bouquet of red and white roses. She greeted everyone and attempted to pass out the long-stemmed blossoms. But no one took the flowers.
The flowers were followed by a huge blue and white cake in the shape of an open book that emerged from the trunk of the car. It was decorated with the inscription “Happy Journalists’ Day” in blue icing. No takers for the cake, either. Poor Chepak was forced to answer uncomfortable questions about the president’s refusal to speak to the press. The roses ended up wilting under a tree. A bunch of construction workers nearby were happy to eat the cake.
A year ago, on Journalists’ Day 2010, Chepak was taking part in a campaign to stop censorship in Ukraine. Together with other journalists she was distributing pamphlets on the streets of Kyiv that warned of the dangers of rising authoritarianism. This year, however, she was on the other side, performing a ritual that perfectly sums up the contempt in which Ukraine’s elected leader holds the press.
The Ukrainian president, meanwhile, met later in the day with a select group of journalists who have spent most of their careers saying nice things about the government. He passed out state awards that bring a nice dollop of extra pension money and provide access to a multitude of state perks, including free vacations in government sanatoria and resorts. Some journalists in Ukraine get state awards, while others get cake and flowers. If there’s a good side to all of this, it’s that not all of them take what they’re offered.

- Irena Chalupa

About This Blog

"Outpost Washington" looks at what's happening in the U.S. capital through the eyes of Washington-based RFE/RL journalists. Tired of hearing Washingtonians tell you about the rest of the world? It's our job to turn the telescope around and scrutinize events in Washington from a uniquely global perspective. 

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