This Europe trip was already on the agenda anyway, what with nuclear and trade issues and the new pope. Then Ukraine happened. Here’s what Obama’s week looks like now.
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Catch up on the whirlwind of events that happened in Crimea, Kyiv, Europe, Russia, and the United States today:
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SUKHUMI, Georgia — With lush, rugged terrain and a refreshing subtropical breeze, this sunny swath of mountainous territory on the eastern Black Sea coast is an adventure tourist’s paradise.
Welcome to Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian region just south of Sochi, the Russian resort where the Olympic Games begin on Thursday.
But while Sochi may be bustling with frenetic last-minute preparations for a huge influx of athletes and fans, less than 100 miles away the potholed streets of Abkhazia’s capital city are often deserted.
Many buildings are bombed out and hollow. In the off-season, an eerie silence hangs over rows of palm trees, broken only by the dull murmur of the sea.
Once the Soviet Union’s top vacation spot, Abkhazia’s crumbling seaside resorts provide a unique window into a past that has long since faded.
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Activist Dmytro Bulatov went missing around the time that a few other prominent activists were apparently kidnapped during the Ukraine protests.
Bulatov proved more fortunate than one of the activists who was found dead in a forest, but he emerged bruised and bloody, with an account of being tortured and hung up by his wrists.
"My hands… they crucified me, nailed me, cut my ear off, cut my face," Bulatov told Channel 5 television on Friday. “Thank God I am alive.”
"I can’t see well now, because I sat in darkness the whole time," he said, through a swollen face and bruised body, still covered in blood.
Bulatov is a member of the activist Avtomaidan group, which helped ferry protesters and supplies during the ongoing protests in Kyiv.
The situation in Ukraine remained tense on Friday, with the army calling on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to take “urgent steps” to ease the crisis.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet Ukraine’s opposition leaders over the weekend in Munich.
The latest from Dan Peleschuk in Kyiv:
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LVIV, Ukraine — For Andriy Sadovyy, last Wednesday was the darkest of days.
The mayor of western Ukraine’s largest city was taking part in a local ceremony commemorating Unity Day when violent clashes broke out in the capital Kyiv between police and protesters, leaving at least two demonstrators dead on the spot.
“I never thought we’d receive news about bloodshed on that very day,” he said.
His pain intensified after a Lviv native who participated in the protests was kidnapped from a state hospital in Kyiv and beaten to death.
He says that prompted him to give his tacit blessing to the occupation of the regional administration building in Lviv.
Photos by Dan Peleschuk
SOFADES, Greece — Dimitris Triantafyllou’s cellphone rings as he drinks Greek coffee at his home in this small, central town.
A local student is on the line asking to talk about an incident on a school bus.
A new driver is refusing to take more than 40 children home from a school for Roma, the traditionally marginalized ethnic community still often described as gypsies.
As president of the local Roma community, Triantafyllou is used to dealing with such incidents. Earlier in the day, he tried to convince the national power company to send a technician to restore electricity to Roma neighborhoods after three days of outages.
"The racism Roma face is not only personal but institutional," he said. "We’ve seen many similar attitudes from the local authorities over the past few months. But we’ve learned to live with the burden and fight for change.”
Prejudice against Roma appears to have been on the rise since October, when police took custody of a blonde, white-skinned 5-year-old named Maria in Farsala — a small town just 24 miles away — because she didn’t resemble the dark-skinned family caring for her.
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Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk captured some of the increasingly dystopian-looking scenes in Kyiv, Ukraine Friday.
He shot this incredible 360-degree view from the epicenter of the protests in Kyiv.
And took these 9 gritty photos of life as a Kyiv protester
KYIV, Ukraine — Ivan Moroz says he’s always considered himself a peaceful man, but there’s only so much he can take.
After the death of at least three protesters amid violent clashes with police in Kyiv this week — on top of widespread reports of police abuse against activists — the soft-spoken 40-year-old construction worker says he left his two children at home in western Ukraine to man the barricades in the capital.
And he’s not leaving anytime soon.
“If I could, I’d hire hit men to take care of [President Viktor] Yanukovych,” he says.
Similar sentiments are growing among protesters here since their two-month-long demonstrations erupted into unprecedented violence last week, initially fueled by the passage of a sweeping anti-protest law.
More recently, the shooting deaths of two protesters by police and the apparent abduction and murder of another have consolidated the popular rage and forged a stronger resolve, increasingly radicalizing even once moderate protesters.
Little surprise, then, that after Yanukovych announced a batch of planned concessions on Friday — including reshuffling his government — many here said they’d settle for nothing less than a wholesale change of power.
“When two gentlemen come together, that’s a compromise,” said Petro Turchyn, a 72-year-old pensioner from Kyiv. “But if it’s a criminal versus normal people, what kind of compromise is that?”
BERLIN, Germany — When the Croatian soccer player Josip Simunic celebrated his team’s victory over Iceland last month with a nationalist slogan from the country’s World War II pro-Nazi puppet regime, thousands of fans roared in approval.
It sent a deafening wake-up call directly to the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels.
When the European Union expanded to include former Soviet bloc countries in Central Europe a decade ago, one of the motives was to speed the march of free Europe’s ideas on citizens’ fundamental rights into formerly repressive states once trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Veronika Szente Goldston, of Human Rights Watch, says the accession process was the “single most important engine for change in those countries” at the time.
But a gathering storm of racial discrimination and ethnic nationalism suggests it may be failing.
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LISBON, Portugal — The protesters braving police batons and freezing temperatures in Kyiv’s Independence Square have been a timely reminder for jaded Westerners of the European Union’s original ideals.
But while the Ukrainian demonstrators strive to defend their right to share the peace, democracy and free movement enshrined in the EU’s treaties, leaders of the Union’s 28 member nations gather for their year-end summit this week to discuss more arcane matters.
"Banking union now!" is unlikely to become a rallying cry that would ignite political passions.
For the presidents and prime ministers gathering in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, however, the complex package of “bank supervisory mechanisms” and “common resolution funds” on the table is crucial for preventing any repeat of crisis that’s bedeviled European economies for the past five years.
"For the general public, this is perhaps the least sexy theme around," Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta acknowledged last week.
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LONDON, UK — On Friday, Britain assessed the damage of a storm that killed two people, forced thousands from their homes and threatened the nation with the biggest tidal surge in 60 years before moving on to Europe.
Severe floods wreaked havoc on the UK’s east coast. Waves several stories high smashed against seaside barriers. In the seaside town of Hemsby, homes tumbled downhill and were carried away by the sea like children’s toys.
Winds killed one man in northern England and another in Scotland.
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Last month Greek and Irish authorities did something truly ironic. In three separate incidents, they took blond, blue-eyed children away from their Roma families and put them in state care. Why? They saw their light skin and assumed the kids must have been — wait for it — stolen from their families.
The Roma are a linguistically and culturally diverse group of people who originated from northern India about 1,500 years ago. They make up Europe’s largest ethnic minority, with at least 10 to 12 million members. Most Roma are European Union citizens. But even though they’ve lived in Europe for more than 700 years, they’re still treated with suspicion and hostility.
Meanwhile, France was busy deporting a 15-year-old Roma teenager to Kosovo — part of alongstanding policy of expelling Roma residents. Thousands of French high school students took to the streets in protest. Arresting her in the middle of a field trip? Not cool. Escorting her immediately to the airport? Not cool. Sending her “back” to a country she’s never been to? Not cool.
But here’s the thing — despite all the international news coverage, October wasn’t unusual.Anti-Roma racism happens all over Europe, pretty much all of the time. It ranges from everyday intolerance, to deeply embedded discrimination in education, employment, healthcare and housing, to open hate speech and hate crimes.
Know your enemies, know your friends, and know which is which. The 35 world leaders who now suspect that they had their phones monitored by the United States fear that Washington has got itself a little confused over who’s out to harm, and who’s out to help.
Some of the US government’s closest foreign allies, the members of the European Union — whose redoubtable Angela Merkel is thought to be among the Wiretap 35 — today say that being treated like suspects by US intelligence agencies has left them feeling, well, suspicious. And if the US doesn’t work hard to restore their trust, an official EU statement declares, “the necessary cooperation in the field of intelligence-gathering” could suffer. (That’s EU-speak for: “If you don’t show us yours, we won’t show you ours.”) None of which looks too good for the global effort to fight terrorism. Unless the US can carry off some pretty extensive confidence-building exercises: France and Germany have proposed holding talks with the US, open to other European nations, to resolve the issue by the end of the year. Somehow we imagine trust falls won’t cut it.
The end of the road for Bo Xilai. A court in China has, to no one’s surprise, rejected the disgraced politician’s appeal against his conviction and sentence for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. After the provincial court’s ruling, there is no further recourse; Bo is due to serve life in jail.
The former Communist Party princeling has already been taken to the same prison where his father saw out some of his multiple terms. Bo Senior, of course, was jailed repeatedly and yet came back — an achievement his son has already vowed to repeat. Perhaps where one cell door closes, a window opens; but probably not for another political generation at least.
Madagascar votes. Finally. It’s fair to say today’s Madagascan election is the biggest in years. That’s because it’s the only Madagascan election in years: the country’s voters haven’t picked a president since 2006, and the one they chose then was overthrown in a 2009 coup.
Since then, the collapsing state and slumping economy have dramatically worsened the fragile humanitarian situation in the impoverished island nation. Foreign donors suspended aid; foreign investors were scared off. Such was the political crisis that that even getting to today’s vote was an achievement: it has already been postponed three time this year. Get there they did, however — and now polls are open, will elections finally get Madagascar back on track?
Driving Saudi Arabia forward. Take to the kingdom’s roads tomorrow and you’ll notice something different. Something more modern. Something more fair. Something less… segregation-y.
That’s because Saudi women are planning to launch an on-road protest on Saturday to prove that banning them from driving is as ridiculous as saying sitting behind a steering wheel will deform their anatomy — which hasn’t stopped the country’s powerful religious conservatives from doing both. The government, having quietly made the campaign’s website inaccessible from within the country, has pledged to “deal with” anyone who either rallies in the protesters’ support or drives without permission. We say: if driving’s a crime — ladies, put your foot down.
Another week, another death by clown. You may have thought this week’s gangland killing of a Mexican drug lord by gunmen dressed as clowns was the weirdest assassination plot you’d ever heard. You’d be wrong.
As long as there have been people, there have been people conniving to kill those people. Cain started out with just a stone, but even by Nero’s time murder had evolved to include mechanical ceilings and self-sinking ships. Since then generations of imaginative killers have built on their legacy to find new and ever more far-fetched ways to do someone in. From exploding cigars to axe-wielding bears, here are the most insane assassination plots in history. Some worked; some just left their inventors with poison-laced egg on their face.
You messed with the wrong Merkel. The German government this morning summoned the American ambassador to Germany after reports that the United States may have monitored Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. This, after Die Merkel called President Barack Obama personally to condemn such practices as “completely unacceptable.” (What we wouldn’t give to have overheard that conversation! Oh… right.)
These are busy days for the US diplomatic corps: just Monday the ambassador to France got a summoning himself, in that case over allegations that the National Security Agency had recorded millions of phone calls by French citizens and spied on French diplomats for good measure (allegations, we should add, that the US intelligence chief says are not entirely true — but not entirely false, either). “Enough is enough,” one senior EU official is quoted as saying today. But is “enough” enough to push Europe into action against its ally across the pond? France wants the issue tabled at today’s EU summit in Brussels; if it’s not discussed on the record, you can bet it will be off it. Either way, we’re sure the NSA will know exactly what they’re saying.
Drones and their secrets. Pakistan’s politicians have spent many months and much energy decrying covert US drone strikes. But was the outrage — at least partly — feigned? According to classified documents obtained by The Washington Post, Islamabad’s top officials have for years not only known all about the strikes, but secretly endorsed them.
The papers — a mixture of CIA files and Pakistani diplomatic memos — would seem to confirm what many have long suspected: that Pakistan’s government assures its citizens it’s trying to stop the strikes in public, while tacitly approving them in private. The report is particularly embarrassing for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, coming as it does one day after he announced he had asked President Obama to halt the bombardments at a one-on-one meeting in Washington. Unless, you know, he didn’t.
Memo to Europe: sometimes, Roma are blond. Ever since a fair-haired moppet was found living without her parents in a Roma camp in Greece, it seems certain authorities have deemed it acceptable to ask Roma to prove that their children really are their own, seemingly on the basis of little more than coloring. Two young children have just been returned to their families in Ireland after police removed them when members of the public reported that they didn’t look enough like their dark-haired Roma parents.
DNA tests confirmed that the kids were, indeed, related, but the two families are understandably upset by what they say constitutes racial profiling. Ireland’s justice minister says he has requested a report on how each incident happened; but Roma rights activists, who have long complained that the minority is the most discriminated-against in Europe, say they could answer that question right now — and it wouldn’t sound good.
Bob Dylan, for one, likes to spend some time in Mozambique. But its sunny skies are looking less than aqua blue, after the former rebel group that fought a 15-year civil war against the party which now runs the country declared this week that it would no longer hold by their 1992 peace deal.
In the 21 years since that agreement was signed, Mozambique has developed one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, chiefly thanks to selling foreign firms the rights to its massive reserves of coal and gas. Now, as the rebel-turned-opposition movement Renamo threatens to challenge the governing Frelimo Party’s rule, will Mozambique’s investors get spooked? Here’s what could stop them wanting to spend any time — or money — in Mozambique.
Warning: These cigarettes may cause casual racism. South Korean tobacco giant KT&G has agreed to pull promotional materials for its ‘This Africa’ cigarettes after realizing that maybe — just maybe — pictures of monkeys dressed as humans wasn’t the best way to advertise the brand. You think?
While the rest of us may be palm-to-forehead right now, KT&G seems surprised to learn that some may have seen the campaign — which featured simian news reporters excitedly declaring “Africa is coming” — could be a source of offense. “The negative reactions were totally unexpected as nobody raised the racism issue during the design process,” said one particularly awareness-free company rep. “We absolutely had no intention to offend anyone and only chose monkeys because they are delightful animals that remind people of Africa.” Let us stop you there, really, just — stop. While you’re only a few miles and, oh, 60 odd years behind.