Thursday, November 06, 2014

Luxembourg Leaks

A consortium of journalists has published a list of 550 Luxemburgian tax laws: these 'Luxleaks' are now public on the site and told stories about how these are used by multinationals to evade taxes. See also this article in Dutch.

The destruction of banking

The site Follow The Money (FTM) has an article (in Dutch: "EEN BLIK ACHTER DE GORDIJNEN BIJ RABO’S BIJZONDER BEHEER") about the department for problematic customers of Rabo Bank, based on a number of interviews with former employees and customers of the bank.

In the past this department operated as you would expect such a department to operate: trying to get as much money from the customer as possible. Now things have changed and an important part in that has been played by the activism over the local oversight organisations.

Several former employees confirmed that they are judged on filing their reports on time and having checked all the points in the file and not on how much money they have saved for the bank. Rabobank is very afraid that its more than hundred semi-independent local branched don't have their files on order, among others because they got a fine a few years ago from the AFM (Authority for the Financial Markets) because there were problems in the mortgage files of some local branches. Oversight of the banks has also become much stricter since it was transferred to the European Central Bank. ‘Banks in Europa are under great pressure to make clear how many bad loans they have and whether they have enough provisions to cover them. That causes labor intensive administration that doesn't benefit the customer’, according to Sonja.

Nowadays the accent in the department is on "closing the files" and reporting. One employee describes spending five days to write a report on a client who went bankrupt a week later. Adapting a loan - reducing it or delaying the payment - has become a very burdensome bureaucratic process that needs several approvals.

The big question of course is to what an extent similar processes are happening at other banks. I am not optimistic.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

What game is the US playing in Iraq and Syria?

What strikes me about the role of the US air force in Iraq and Syria is that its role is so restricted. It only drops very expensive precision bombs. It never carpet bombs areas, it never strifes hostile forces from a plane with machine guns and it never drops supplies on allied forces that are surrounded. Coordination with allied forces seems to be minimal. The first days when the US air force operated in synch with the Kurds were an exception. Nowadays it seems to fulfil its own program of targets that has hardly any relationship with the needs of the allied troops on the ground.

Kobane's chances would much improve if the US supplied the Kurdish fighters there with anti-armor arms.

The Yazidi's are still fighting against the IS and complain that they hardly get any support from the US air force.

Soldiers from the fallen Iraqi base of Camp Saqlawiyah complained of lack of food and water - things that easily could have been supplied from the air.

The allies
Formally The Gulf States and Turkey are allies in our fight against ISIS. I don't believe it for a moment. They just have concluded that - as the US will attack anyway - they better be involved so that they can minimize the "harm" (as they see it) that the US is doing. Erdogan has gone as far as saying that he considers the PYD (the ruling Kurdish party in Kobane) equally harmful as ISIS.

There are lots of theories about what Turkey and the Arabs want to achieve. They keep pushing for more active US involvement against Assad. They might well believe that a massacre in Kobane would be beneficial to draw the US closer into the Syrian conflict.

Turkey wants now a buffer zone inside Syria that would give the rebels a home base. Conveniently it would also allow Turkey to crush the zones that are now controlled by the PYD. Predictably the Kurds oppose the idea.

One can only hope that one day Obama will realize that his whole Arab Spring project was madness disguised as policy. And that he finally will bring up the courage to say that regime change is not inside his job description. Unfortunately until now he is behaving like a servant to the belligerent anti-Assad rhetoric from the Gulf States and Turkey.

Many have noticed that Obama only became interested in attacking ISIS after it had killed some American journalists. This suggests that Obama is more influenced by opinion polls than by a clear vision in such an important issue - a devastating conclusion that suggests incompetence.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Israel's colonial repression

Anyone who has read about the fighting in Gaza will have noticed that Israel is defending the massive number of civilians killed by claiming that the Hamas fighters are hiding behind civilians.

That claim is right. However, hiding among civilians is standard guerrilla strategy. Yet most countries fighting a guerrilla uprising will not use the kind of methods Israel is using. A good example is how the US reacted to the guerrilla it faced in Iraq and Afghanistan: although it's behavior was far from perfect it took considerable effort to avoid civilian casualties. That was not totally altruistic: they were aware that winning "hearts and minds" is an important part of subduing a guerrilla war.

Yet Israel's strategy is not new. It was often used in colonial wars. It was also how the US dealt with insurgent Indians in the 19th century. It shows an attitude where the other side is seen as subhuman.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Israel's futile battle against Hamas

Israel cannot eradicate Hamas. In fact every Palestinian it kills now in Gaza is a justification for the existence of Hamas and will drive more Palestinians to support Hamas.

If Israel wants to be seen by the Palestinians as a reliable partner that is prepared to let them live and prosper it should behave as such. It should stop stealing Palestinian houses and land. It should stop suffocation the Palestinian economy and it should take a murdered Palestinian just as serious as a murdered Jew.

Just as the English in Northern Ireland they will still have to suffer terrorism for a while. But that will gradually decrease and in the end stop when it follows an appropriate policy.

Problem is that Israel is in the same position as the whites in the US in the 19th century when they largely exterminated the Indians. They too have a large lobby that is growing rich by stealing land. They too have politicians who know that there is a group against which they can safely indulge in hate mongering. And they too are largely left off the hook by the world public opinion.

But given Israel's geographical position among a sea of Arabs it is a dangerous strategy that well may go wrong in the long term.

Obama makes it hard not to believe conspiracy theories

Sometimes Obama makes it hard not to believe conspiracy theories.

If he really cared about the MH17 he would long ago have released his satellite data and pressured Kiev to release conversations of the plane with the control tower. Instead he hides data and evades questions about why the plane followed an alternative route and was forced to fly lower and whether there was an Ukrainian fighter jet near the plane.

If he really cared about Ukraine he would have pressed for real negotiations. Putin could live with the Orange revolution. He won't ask too much now. Instead the US is pressuring Kiev not to negotiate at all.

Putin is fully aware that sanctions are a kind of blackmail and that ceding to them will only result in more blackmail. So if Obama wants him to change his behavior he will have to negotiate and make concessions.

So my guess would be that Obama is playing for two audiences:
- for the neocons he is going to extremes to look how far he can humiliate Russia. Obviously he doesn't care about the casualties.
- for the oil lobby he doing what he can to raise the oil price.

Once I hoped Obama would be a capable president. Nowadays I consider him a fool who very well might start World War III.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Questions remaining about the MH17 disaster in Ukraine

As the US seems to jump to the conclusion that the pro-Russian rebels were responsible for the downing of the MH-17 there are still quite a few questions that should be answered:
- the Ukrainian government initially claimed that the plane had been shot down by Russian fighter jets. Where did that come from?
- According to Russia the Ukrainian Army had recently sent some Buk units to the East. Russia claims it caught their radar signal when the plane was downed. Given that the rebels have no air force this raises the question: why? The investigation should have a look at this subject. Russia has suggested that Ukraine should provide an inventory of its Buk missiles.
- the communication between the control tower and the MH17 should be published - as was the communication between the MH370 and its control tower.
- Radar images of the last minutes/hours of the plane should be published by the Ukrainian government.
- the Ukrainian government published some fragments from telephone conversations of the rebels that should prove their guilt. These were fragments that were carefully selected by the Ukrainian secret service. It may very well be that none of those involved was aware whether their side had shot some missiles and that they were just assuming. So we should have access to the full conversations and other conversations that have been intercepted. And of course they should be checked by experts: Russian experts claim they were falsified. See also this audio analysis.
- On previous flights on the same route Malaysian Airlines used a more southern route over the Sea of Azov. This raises the question why this time it followed a more northern route that went straight over a war zone. Where they ordered by Air Control? It has also been claimed that Air Control ordered them to fly at the lowest allowed height instead of 1 km higher as they wanted. Another point for investigation. Russia has also claimed that the war zone is not completely covered by radar.
- A Buk is normally operated together with a guiding radar installation that is on a separate truck. Without such an installation it is of limited use. One commenter I saw on internet who claimed that he had operated a Buk claimed that the missile is only self directing for the last kilometer. With a good operator such a standalone missile might be useful against military planes who fly low and typically fly not faster than 500 à 600 km/hour. But hitting a civilian plane flying at 10 km height with a velocity of over 900 km/hour looks almost impossible. In addition there is the question of how they could see the plane: it was a clouded day.
- The Ukrainian government has solved the targeting problem by claiming that is was not lonely missile truck that the rebels had captured from the rebels but that it were the Russians who had sent a complete Buk installation including a radar truck. To match this with their prior declarations they claim that the radar truck was at a few km distance. They have many different versions on the why. One version claims that they were targeting an IL76 "Candid" transport plane that flew a few km away and was supplying Ukrainian troops that were encircled.
- A Buk that is fired creates a trail of smoke and vapor that lasts for considerable time. Yet no one has reported to see such a trail. Interpretermag claims that the plane may have been shot from a location between Snizhne and Pervomaisk (a village south of Snizhne). They offer a picture of a weak vapor trail.
- If it was a Buk there is considerable confusion about from where it was shot. Kiev has named different places. Rebels have claimed that some of those places were out of range from the location where the plane was hit.
- immediately after the disaster Ukraine started a military offensive in the direction of the crash site from both the north and the southwest. In this offensive they evaded the rebel troops in order to advance fast to the crash site. Note that the distance between Luhansk and Donetsk is about 150 km and that there are only 10,000 rebel fighters who are mostly stationed around the big cities. So it was not hard to find an unguarded road to enter rebel territory. Normally this would have entailed the risk of being encircled, but in this case that was not the case as two days after the crash the Security Council adopted an armistice for the region with a radius of 20 or 40 km (this was disputed) around the disaster site. The big question is why Ukraine took this risk: where they looking to find or remove evidence?
- Then there is the case of the claims of a respectless treatment of the remains by the rebels. Both the claim of stealing and the claim that the rebels made fun of the victims were later retorted by showing videos from which the incriminating pictures had been grabbed ny the Ukrainian secret service. The question is why they need this kind of low propaganda trick if they have the truth on their side.
- where The Guardian claimed that a Buk truck had been seen in Torez the Independent went to Torez and could not find a single person who had seen the Buk. The BBC claimed to have found witnesses who claimed to have seen a Buk installation with what looked to be a Russian crew.

Of course there are also some less probable theories:
- there is "Carlos", who claims to be a Spanish air operator working in Kiev who claims there was a kind panic within air control after the crash and all foreigners were asked to leave. Ukraine claims not to employ foreigners and not to know the guy.
- there is also the Alexander Khodakovsky, rebel commander of the Vostok Battalion who was claimed to have admitted that the rebels possessed a Buk and that it may have come from Russia. Later he denied to have said that to Reuters.
- This video from a weather satellite claims to show the firing of a Buk from territory controlled by Ukrainian oligarch Kolomoyski.
- This article claims that something went wrong during an Ukrainian military exercise.
- Newsweek claimed that a pro-Russian soldier had admitted to the Italian Newspaper Corriere della Sera that his unit shot down the MH17, mistaking it for a military one.
- Ukrainians claimed that the Russians shot down the wrong plane because they went to the wrong Pervomaisk village.

Other interesting sites:
- this is a rather slow site and its conspiracy level is high. But it is an extensive article and it contains many useful links.
- Interpretermag gave on 15 september an overview of the facts from the pro-Kiev point of view. This includes a reconstructed time table.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Who enabled ISIS to capture Mosul?

Most news reports bring the fall of Mosul to ISIS as something sudden and unexpected. My interest was triggered by a (Dutch language) report from some people with local connections. The report paints a landscape of were most people are against the government, the army is seen as an occupational army and the police isn't very popular either. The sectarian politics of Maliki, widespread unemployment and the army attack on the protest camp in Hawija have led to a broad coalition where local tribes, the (underground) Baath Party and ISIS all work together against the government.

The big question is whether this is only local. The protest camp in Hawija showed the kind of color revolution tactics that suggest foreign involvement. It is well known that the Saudi's would love to turn Iraq back into a Sunni dictatorship. It is also well known that ISIS is well funded and rumored to be supported from the Gulf States. So I suspect that the Saudi secret service has a hand in what is now happening in Mosul. And very likely at this very moment Saudi diplomats are active in Washington to prevent US support for the Iraqi government in its fight against ISIS.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reaction to the ICG on Ukraine

The International Crisis Group has published a report ("Ukraine: Running out of Time") on the Ukraine crisis. I found it rather lacking so below you will find a refutal of some of the claims and recommendations they make. Quotes from their report are in italic.

The first thing that strikes the attention is the selective history. Victoria Nuland isn't mentioned once. Neither is the controversy on who did the Maidan shooting.

The report talks about the protests as if the Maidan protests were a single thing. In fact the forever changing subject of the protests (first the treaty with the EU, then new legislation regulating protests, then violence by the government and finally - mainly after the takeover - corruption and economic mismanagement) lends support to the claim that the desire to topple Yanukovich - probably funded by the US - was the real motive.

The separatists’ objective seems to be to provoke sufficient disruption and bloodshed so that President Vladimir Putin can assert, if he chooses, what he says is Moscow’s right to protect Russian speakers anywhere.
Most of the bloodshed came from the government. Putin doesn't seem very enthusiastic about annexation. It looks like he will only take that step if government repression from Kiev becomes so fierce that there is wide demand for it among the population.

President Putin appears to consider that a West-leaning Ukraine government born of mass protests would set a dangerous example at home and thwart his ambition of establishing dominant Russian influence over as much of the former Soviet republics as possible.
This is a standard claim from State Department propaganda. There is not a shred of evidence for this claim. It seems designed to divert the attention from the demands that Putin did make: no NATO on his doorsteps, continuation of the economic ties between East Ukraine and Russia, decent treatment of Ukraine's Russian speakers and reduction of the influence of right extremists.
In fact it is the US that has destabilized Ukraine by sponsoring two "revolutions".

A mid-April four-party – Russia, Kyiv, U.S., EU – Geneva agreement to calm the situation was ignored by the separatist forces, so is a dead letter.
In the report it is mentioned that this agreement should also cover end of occupations by Right Sektor. However, it fails to mention how the Kiev government has tried to circumvent the agreement, enlisting Right Sektor fighters in the National Guard and "legalizing" the occupation of buildings in Kiev. In the recommendations it is suggested that only the "separatist forces" were at fault. It is a common problem in ICG reports, where the summary and recommendations often look like they were censored by the State Department.

So too [high on the governments agenda] should preparing the population for the inevitable pain of deep reforms required to save an economy wrecked by two decades of endemic corruption and incompetence.
This is mixing things up. Under Yanukovich the country lived beyond its means, so it now needs urgent budget cuts. The Maidan revolution didn't help either: unrest is bad for the economy. But these are all recent problems, not 20 years old.
Other reforms are needed too but that is another story.

Although conditions for the election are far from ideal, it is vital it takes place as planned and nationwide. The polls are needed, above all, to produce a new leader with enough public support to steer the country through a process of national reconciliation and painful economic reform.
Turchynov has turned out to be a divisive president, so replacing him could turn out to be beneficial. However, any look at the threats and violence directed at those parliamentarians and presidential candiadtes who don't agree with the Maidan revolution should be enough to destroy any doubt that these will not really free elections.
There is also the problem that the main candidates are all oligarchs. The fact that some see Tyahnybok as the only serious politician says enough.

The government inherited security, police and defence structures that had by accident or design almost ceased to exist under the deposed president.
Again a myth enthusiastically spread by Kerry and Yatsenyuk. It ignores the demonization of the police by the Maidan protesters. It ignores the dissolution of Berkut. It ignores that the government is asking the police to use much more violence against protesters than they did under Yanukovich.
As for the army, according to the constitution it can only be employed against civilians under a state of emergency. The government has tried to circumvent this rule by painting the protesters in the East as "terrorists".
What doesn't help is that the government refuses to negotiate with the protesters in the East and instead has sent Right Sektor thugs to impose "order".

Right Sector emerged directly from the Maidan demonstrations
This claim is simply wrong. Right Sektor is primarily a confederation of existing right extremist organizations. That this was connected to the Maidan protests is only of secondary importance.

The most recent polls do not indicate widespread fear among the majority of Russian-speakers or ethnic Russians.
This selective quotation of opinion polls ignores the main problem for the government in Kiev: that most people in the South and East consider the Turchynov administration illegal.

10. Express support for a post-election government of national unity
This is one of the recommendations. Interestingly the report mentions that the West of the country is overrepresented in the government but fails to mention that as a problem. I think it is. Before the takeover a national unity government had been promised. It is also usual rather usual in situations like the present one.

4. Distance itself publicly and as rapidly as possible from the extremist and anti-democratic ideology of the Svoboda (Freedom) Party and Right Sector.
This recommendation suggests a light disconnection from reality:
- the government is increasingly relying on Right Sektor fighters
- the report completely ignores the militia of Kolomoysky that has been accused to have played a major role in the violence in Odessa and Mariupol.
- Western leaders are meeting with those guys and lending them credibility.

A successful, democratic Ukraine, substantially integrated economically in the West, but outside military alliances and a close cultural, linguistic and trading partner mindful of Russian interests would benefit all.
It is not clear what the ICG really wants. At one moment they ask for economic integration with the West while at another they talk about a bridge function between Russia and the West.