Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sign of a Chill: E.U. Doesn’t Set Table for Putin - NYTimes

Ukrainian Prime Minister Resigns as Parliament Repeals Restrictive Laws

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KIEV, Ukraine — Mykola Azarov, the prime minister of Ukraine, resigned on Tuesday, hours before a planned vote of no confidence by Parliament that could have stripped him of his powers.
The pro-government Party of Regions also joined with opposition lawmakers on Tuesday to repeal most of the laws in a package of legislation restricting freedom of speech and assembly that had been enacted recently.
Together, the resignation and repeals were significant concessions by Ukraine’s embattled president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, as well as clear signs of the building momentum of opposition to his rule.
In a statement, Mr. Yanukovych said he had accepted Mr. Azarov’s resignation and signed a decree dismissing the rest of the cabinet as well. But he said Mr. Azarov and the ministers would stay on until Parliament approved a new cabinet.
Mr. Yanukovych has promised other concessions as well, including amnesty for arrested protesters and the formation of a committee to propose revisions of the Constitution to weaken presidential powers. Lawmakers were expected to take up those matters on Wednesday.
Mr. Azarov has been a staunch ally of Mr. Yanukovych throughout the two months of protests roiling Ukraine. But neither his resignation nor the repeal of the restrictive legislation, which the opposition calls the “dictatorship laws,” was seen as likely to appease the protesters.
The concessions would, though, pressure the parliamentary opposition leaders associated with the protest to answer with a de-escalation of their own, and potentially highlight their growing irrelevance if they are unable to deliver.
Multiple right-wing factions, splinter groups and newly formed associations are now active on the street without organized leadership and are not answering to the political parties.
In Independence Square, the central plaza that has been occupied since November by demonstrators, their tents, field kitchens and a stage, reactions to Tuesday’s developments were mixed.
One older woman in a kerchief giddily told the Ukrainian Channel 5 television network after Mr. Azarov’s resignation, “Thank God you heard us!”
But a young man wearing a metal helmet told the television station, “It’s not a victory yet.”
In a statement, Mr. Azarov wrote that he was resigning “for the sake of a peaceful resolution” to the civil unrest, which escalated sharply last week with the deaths of five protesters. Demonstrators occupied provincial administration buildings in at least 10 regions, sending the police fleeing through rear exits in some instances. One policeman was shot to death on a street in Kiev far from the protest site; a nationalist group calling itself the Ukrainian Partisan Army claimed responsibility in a Facebook post.
The relentless pressure on the riot police eased Tuesday in Kiev, the national capital, and provincial capitals. No new buildings were stormed, and a weeklong confrontation on a street in Kiev that is a few hundred yards from the Parliament building was mostly quiet. Protesters warmed themselves beside bonfires, and throughout the occupied center of the city they cheerily scooped fresh snow into nylon bags to heave onto already towering barricades, building them ever higher.
In Odessa, the authorities used a crane to lower concrete blocks onto a wall in front of the regional administration building, to prevent its storming. A similar wall of rough-hewed concrete blocks went up on a street in the government district in Kiev, a new tactic by the riot police.
Columns of buses escorted by police cars and special trains traveling on schedules not advertised in advance arrived in Kiev on Tuesday carrying government supporters from eastern and southern regions of Ukraine for a large pro-government rally.
In the ranks of the radical opposition, empowered now by its survival through a week of fierce street fighting with the police and security services in which scores of people were wounded and arrested, few believed that Mr. Azarov’s resignation was voluntary.
Oleg Tyagnibok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, said Mr. Azarov had been forced out to avoid the no-confidence vote in Parliament. “It’s clear they are looking for ways to avoid responsibility,” he said.
Mr. Yanukovych had previously signaled that he would be willing to dismiss Mr. Azarov, and over the weekend he offered the prime ministership to the parliamentary leader of the opposition Fatherland party, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, who declined the offer.
In the morning session of Parliament, lawmakers on Tuesday repealed nine of the 12 restrictive laws that had been passed on Jan. 16 by a show of hands, without debate. Outrage at the limits the laws imposed on free speech and assembly in the country set off the violence on Jan. 19. The repeal vote on Tuesday was conducted more formally, with 361 votes recorded in favor of repeal in the 450-seat chamber.
Ukrainian journalists covering the session rose during a televised news conference with the leader of the Party of Regions faction, Oleksandr Yefremov, and then stood behind him to hold photographs of the swollen and bloody faces of reporter colleagues beaten by the riot police during the fighting. Channel 5 television reported that 42 journalists had been injured.
In a compromise, members of Parliament, including those from opposition parties, also voted to approve more limited versions of some of the repealed restrictions. For example, a provision to make destroying monuments a criminal offense was reinstated, but with the specification that it covered only monuments to fighters against fascism, like the World War II statues that are ubiquitous in Ukraine.
It no longer applies to statues of Lenin, like the one toppled by protesters in Kiev in December; the Svoboda party has called for the dismantling of all of Ukraine’s Lenin statues.
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News Reviews and Opinions: NEWS ANALYSIS

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Sign of a Chill: E.U. Doesn’t Set Table for Putin

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BRUSSELS — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has for years trumpeted grand ambitions for Moscow’s relations with the European Union, pushing to break down visa barriers and urging the creation of what he calls a “harmonious economic community stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”
On a visit to the Brussels headquarters of the 28-nation bloc on Tuesday, however, Mr. Putin did not even get dinner. That customary courtesy was pulled from a sharply curtailed program — a small sign of the way escalating tensions over Ukraine have scrambled even basic rituals of diplomacy, chilled relations between Moscow and Brussels, and taken some of the shine off Mr. Putin’s image as a leader who can turn any crisis, even the mayhem in Syria, to his advantage.
As the European Union hosted the Russian leader for an “E.U.-Russia Summit” that lasted just three hours instead of the usual two days, the pillar of the Kremlin’s policy toward Ukraine, President Viktor F. Yanukovych, looked increasingly wobbly in the face of unrest that has spread to Russian-speaking areas previously rock solid in their support of him and his pro-Moscow tilt.
Early Tuesday, Mykola Azarov, the prime minister and a staunch ally of Mr. Yanukovych, resignedhours before the Parliament was due to hold a no-confidence vote that appeared likely to strip him of his powers. His departure was the latest sign of building momentum for the opposition, which first took to the streets in November after Mr. Yanukovych, under heavy pressure from Moscow, abruptly spurned a sweeping trade and political deal with the European Union.
“This is a crucial moment,” said Michael Emerson, the European Union’s former envoy to Moscow. “A few weeks ago it looked as if Putin was winning. Now Putin is losing. This should be the setting for a thorough rethink by both parties, particularly Russia.”
Russia, Mr. Emerson said, needs to show that “all its talk about a ‘common European house’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok is not just a slogan and that Ukraine can be comfortable with both the E.U. and Russia.”
The struggle over Ukraine is emblematic of the growing cleavages between Russia and Europe, as each has sought to extend its influence to the populations of the old Soviet Union.
Europe, economically downtrodden, has held forth its model of freedom, tolerance, justice and clean government. Russia, buoyed in recent years by fat energy prices, has been selling success, never mind the niceties of clean government, coupled with religion and conservative social policies.
Until the protesters took to the streets, first in Kiev and then in a host of other towns and cities, it seemed as if Mr. Putin’s way — reinforced with a $15 billion loan to Ukraine and discounted gas prices — would win the day.
But the situation in Ukraine now presents a potentially serious headache to Mr. Putin before the opening next month of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, an event that the Russian president hoped would crown an unbroken run of diplomatic and political successes for the Kremlin.
The sudden bout of turbulence has left some Russian officials speculating openly about the possibility of canceling the loan to Ukraine if a new government should fail to live up to promises made by the old.
But it has left other observers wondering whether Mr. Putin has lost his flair for turning adversity into victory — a talent that caught the world’s attention last year when he nimbly upended the Obama administration’s efforts to punish Syria over the use of chemical weapons.
Yet even the Syrian government has disappointed Mr. Putin recently, with its officials acting belligerent and unaccommodating at peace talks in Switzerland, against a surprisingly unified and professional performance by rebel opposition groups.
The crisis convulsing Ukraine has also left Mr. Putin looking less sure-footed, after he bet heavily on the Ukrainian president’s staying power against often unruly opposition forces.
At a news conference on Tuesday in Brussels, Mr. Putin insisted that “it isn’t important for us who’s in power” in Kiev, noting that he had previously worked with the jailed opposition leader Yulia V. Tymoshenko when she was prime minister. He said Russia would honor its loan commitments regardless of who ended up running Ukraine.
But he added, “We would like to be confident we will get this money back.”
Mr. Putin’s cooler than usual reception in Brussels does not signal a rupture in relations, and both European and Russian officials emphasized a determination to press on with what is officially known as their “strategic partnership.” Nor did the Russian president leave Brussels entirely empty-handed.
He secured a pledge from Europe to fight terrorism, a largely symbolic step but one that matters to Mr. Putin at a time of heightened fears of violence by Islamist militants seeking to disrupt the Olympics.
As expected, however, Mr. Putin got nowhere on winning easier visas for Russians who want to travel to Europe, a longstanding Russian demand.
“Putin is far less optimistic now, and he believes Russia has no chance of being taken seriously by Europeans,” said Dmitri Trenin, an authority on Russian foreign policy and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The idea is no longer Russia joining Europe as an associate.”
“It is now a binary construct that includes Eurasian Union and European Union,” he added, referring to the Kremlin’s own planned economic bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which is supposed to start up in 2015.
In an unusual recognition of problems by an institution that prefers to play up the positive, Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, the body that represents member states, said the “open and frank” meetings with Mr. Putin addressed “the convergences and divergences,” particularly regarding relations with Ukraine and other common neighbors such as Moldova, which has also been pressured by Moscow to step back from a trade accord with Europe.
Amanda Paul of the European Policy Center, a Brussels research body, said the modest slights and muffled criticisms directed at Mr. Putin only highlighted the European Union’s difficulty in forging a united and forceful position.
“Frankly, I doubt Mr. Putin cares at all whether he gets dinner or not. He has his own chef,” Ms. Paul said. European Union leaders, she added, “don’t know how to deal with Putin. They can’t deal with him: They are 28, and he is one.”
Russia and Europe have for weeks been trading accusations over Ukraine, with each claiming the other is meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state. Russia last week added to the tit-for-tat recriminations by issuing a lengthy report on what it said were human rights abuses in the European Union. The report scorned what it described as misguided European efforts to impose “an alien view of homosexuality and same-sex marriage as a norm of life and some kind of natural social phenomenon.”
Mr. Putin added his own characteristic twist on Tuesday, needling European Union officials for visiting an encampment of protesters in the center of Kiev. “Just imagine how our European partners would react during the crisis in, say, Greece or Cyprus if our foreign minister joined anti-European rallies there,” he said.
Instead of backing off, however, Europe has stepped up efforts to play a role in Ukraine, with a procession of senior officials from Brussels and European Parliament members traveling to Kiev this week to meet government and opposition leaders. Catherine Ashton, the union’s foreign policy chief, was scheduled to visit Kiev late in the week but moved the trip forward to Tuesday.
In previous trips to Ukraine, European officials focused on trying to nudge Mr. Yanukovych into reviving the agreement he rejected in November. This week, however, they are working instead to mediate a political settlement to calm escalating tensions.
The opposition insists that any such settlement include Mr. Yanukovych’s own departure from power. The European Union has avoided backing such demands but, in coded language, has indicated support for protesters.
Mr. Putin, Mr. Trenin said, certainly did not want to see Mr. Yanukovych lose power to the often anti-Moscow opposition.
But “this could also be a blessing in disguise for Russia. It can save $15 billion and leave Europe to pay,” Mr. Trenin said.
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False Claims in Afghan Accusations on U.S. Raid Add to Doubts on Karzai

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KABUL, Afghanistan — It was the kind of dossier that the Taliban often publish, purporting to show the carnage inflicted during a raid by American forces: photographs of shattered houses and bloodied, broken bodies, and video images of anguish at a village funeral, all with gut-churning impact and no proof of authenticity.
But this time, it was the government of President Hamid Karzai that was handing out the inflammatory dossier, the product of a commission’s investigation into airstrikes on Jan. 15 on a remote village and the supposed American cover-up that followed.
In an apparent effort to demonize their American backers, a coterie of Afghan officials appears to have crossed a line that deeply troubles Western officials here: They falsely represented at least some of the evidence in the dossier, and distributed other material whose provenance, at best, could not be determined.
An examination of the dossier by The New York Times also revealed that much of the same material was posted on a Taliban website last week, a rare instance of the militant group’s political speech matching that of the government it is fighting to topple.
Mr. Karzai’s growing antipathy toward the United States is no secret, and civilian casualties have proved to be one of the most corrosive issues between the allies. Yet the photographs and the video, handed out by Mr. Karzai’s office last week, have injected a new level of vitriol into the relationship and shown how the Karzai government’s political speech has been increasingly mirroring that of the Taliban — including the insurgents’ habit of twisting facts, or simply making them up when necessary.
The purpose of the dossier, according to other Afghan officials, was to justify Mr. Karzai’s stalling on signing a long-term security agreement with the United States and to improve the chances for peace talks with the Taliban by showing that he is no American stooge, as the insurgents have often derided him.
For American and European officials, the episode has reinforced a growing sense that for all the talk of securing an enduring partnership, Mr. Karzai may have no intention of ever signing the security agreement. Without an agreement, the Obama administration has said, it will pull American forces from Afghanistan when the NATO combat mission here ends this year.
“There is no overall partnership,” a European diplomat said. “We have some Afghan partners, and we have a lot of Afghans in the government who want us to leave. I think we’re all beginning to realize that.”
The troubled relationship with Mr. Karzai has worsened to a point where the Afghan leader, in his public statements, seems to blame the United States for the war with the Taliban. He often portrays American intransigence as the main obstacle to peace, not the Taliban’s unwillingness. The sentiment underpinned a statement Mr. Karzai made on Jan. 18 after the insurgents attacked a restaurant in Kabul popular with Western civilians, killing 21 people. He drew equivalence between the restaurant attack and the latest airstrikes, using the opportunity as a chance to castigate the United States along with the Taliban.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Mr. Karzai implied that Americans wanted the security deal to keep the war here going. He could not agree to any deal, he said, if Americans “expect Afghanistan to continue as a semi-war zone for many years to come.”
He cited the dossier to drive home his point. “Did you see the video?” he said. “Did you see the woman whose face was missing? She was a member of this nation.”
Mr. Karzai’s remarks seemed in line with what Afghan officials close to the president say is his current habit of seeking out negative information about the Americans, and often disregarding more neutral or positive reports. One official said he has told advisers that the United States is ultimately responsible for all Afghan deaths, even though the vast majority of civilian casualties come in Taliban attacks, according to the United Nations.
Western officials and some Afghan have begun to push back. On Jan. 17, after the lead Afghan investigator looking into the airstrikes said at least 14 civilians had been killed, Abdul Basir Salangi, the governor of Parwan Province, where the strikes took place, offered a blunt retort. He said the death toll was in the single digits and those claiming higher deaths tolls were “supporters of the Taliban.”
No one disputes that civilians died in the airstrikes, which hit Wazghar, a remote village in a valley thick with Taliban fighters. But more than a week after the raid, the death tolls offered by the American-led coalition and the Afghan government differ starkly, as do their accounts of how the civilians died.
The operation was planned and led by the Afghan Army, American officials have repeatedly emphasized. They said the airstrikes were necessary to save dozens of Afghan commandos and a handful of American advisers who were pinned down by heavy Taliban fire; an American and an Afghan had already been killed in the action.
The airstrikes destroyed the two compounds producing the heaviest Taliban fire, and two children were killed in one of the houses, they said.
By contrast, the Afghan commission appointed by Mr. Karzai to investigate the raid described the action as primarily American, with roughly eight hours of indiscriminate and unprovoked bombing followed by a house-to-house rampage by American soldiers. The commission has said that it can prove that 12 civilians were killed, and that there were indications of two to five additional civilian deaths.
“Villagers on the streets and even inside their houses were shot,” said Abdul Satar Khawasi, a member of Parliament from the area who led the investigation. “Ten houses were destroyed.”
He said the bulk of the evidence came from two sources: accounts given by villagers, and the photographs and video that were distributed last Sunday by Mr. Karzai’s office.
No commission members appear to have actually visited Wazghar. Instead, Mr. Khawasi sent his driver and a bodyguard to conduct the interviews and take photographs and video, according to Mr. Salangi, the provincial governor.
But at least two of the images distributed in the dossier could not have shown casualties from the Wazghar strikes, because the photos are more than three years old.
One was taken at the funeral of victims of a NATO airstrike in northern Afghanistan in 2009, which killed at least 70 civilians. It was distributed by Agence France-Presse and Getty Images andpublished in The Times on Sept. 5, 2009, along with an article about the airstrike.
The origins of the second misrepresented photograph are murkier. It shows the bodies of two boys wrapped in burial shrouds, and has been used for years on websites assailing civilian deaths in American drone strikes in Pakistan.
Now both the Afghan government and the Taliban are using it: It was posted on the Taliban’s website two days before the government began handing out a CD-ROM with images said to be from Wazghar.
Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai, said the commission assembled the dossier and a reporter’s query was “the first time I am hearing” that some of the material was misrepresented.
American officials would say only that they thought the doubts about the dossier spoke for themselves.
The CD-ROM contains nine other photographs, all of which appear to be frames from a video clip on the disk. The video purports to show the funeral of villagers who were killed in the airstrikes and houses that were destroyed. The graphic images include some of a woman whose face is gone.
The Times’ examination found no physical clues in the video that would help determine where or when it was shot. The file’s creation date is Dec. 18, nearly a month before the raid, though it may not be accurate; digital time stamps on the accompanying photos say they were created in April 2014, and the video’s embedded data could be similarly unreliable.
Even if the video is actually of a funeral in Wazghar, some Afghan and Western officials said there was no way to tell from it whether an airstrike or some other gunfire or explosion had killed the people seen being buried, or who was responsible.
“There wasn’t an investigation,” said one commission member, who requested anonymity to avoid being seen to publicly challenge Mr. Karzai.
The commissioner said some officials complained to Mr. Karzai about the inquiry’s conduct and conclusions, but he dismissed their objections in favor of Mr. Khawasi’s account. “The president himself knows who is biased,” the commissioner said.
He was referring to Mr. Khawasi’s well-documented anti-American sentiments. In a video recorded two years ago, for instance, Mr. Khawasi is heard urging a crowd of angry Afghans to wage a holy war against Americans, saying, “Anyone who sits silent is a traitor.”
Briefing reporters last week about his investigation, Mr. Khawasi called the airstrikes “cowardly bombardment.” Americans, he said, “are heartless people.”
The Taliban have since posted the purported funeral video on their website. The civilians were “killed mercilessly,” the narrator says, and the images of the bodies show “actions that have documented American savagery.”
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President Karzai’s Perfidies -

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President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan seems to have decided that there is nothing lost, and maybe something to be gained, in destroying his relationship with the United States. While such behavior may serve his interests, it does not serve that of his long-suffering country.
Mr. Karzai has long been at odds with the United States. In the last week, his government distributed an inflammatory, falsified dossier, including graphic photographs, to try to document accusations that the American-led NATO coalition had caused great carnage, including civilian deaths, when it conducted airstrikes in Afghanistan on Jan. 15. The Times found that much of the same material had been posted on a Taliban website and that at least two of the photos were more than three years old. No one disputes that civilians died in the attack, which hit Wazghar, a village in a valley with Taliban fighters, but coalition and Afghan officials differ on the death toll. The coalition says two children were killed when two compounds producing the heaviest Taliban fire were destroyed; the Afghans say 12 to 17 civilians were killed.
Mr. Karzai — like most citizens of his country — is fed up with airstrikes and especially civilian deaths, an understandable frustration after a dozen war-torn years. But, according to the United Nations, most civilians are killed by the Taliban. Instead of dealing with the issue honestly, Mr. Karzai is increasingly using it to demonize the United States. Over American protests, he is said to be pushing forward with plans to release 37 detainees, who are regarded by the coalition as dangerous insurgents. He has refused to sign a security agreement that would allow some residual American troops to remain in Afghanistan after the bulk of the forces withdraw by the end of this year.
Some Afghans have pushed back against Mr. Karzai’s conspiracies and destructive ways but not enough. The candidates running to succeed him owe voters a vision of how they will improve governance and work more productively with the United States and its allies, who have spent billions of dollars to underwrite Afghanistan’s economy and will be asked to do more in the years to come.

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