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Monday, June 08, 2009

Michael's Morning 7 - 8 June

When Georgia went into its would-be breakaway province of South Ossetia last year, and Russia swiftly counter-attacked in a rout that left the Georgian forces decimated and the province – along with its Georgia neighbor, Abkhazia, now in Russian hands – it caused more than concern at the Council of Europe, because both are members and it was the first time two had gone to war. It wasn’t the only example of how the European Union and its other neighbours in Europe who are members of the council have left a lot of holes in the map: there’s the question of what to do about Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia and declared its independence, riling Russia and creating a dilemma of whether the new country should be recognised, a delicate affair indeed for the Council, which keeps an arms-length distance from intrusive politics. And there’s Cyprus, where the Turkish army still occupies the northern third of that European Union member, even while Turkey wants to join the club, but won’t recognize Cyprus or allow its ships or planes to enter Turkey. And there’s Belarus, ruled by a repressive leader whose authority is so heavy-handed, it’s the only Council member to be suspended, but where entreaties are always being made to push for democracy and to meet the Council’s standards. 

The 13th Games of Small States of Europe (GSSE) closed in Nicosia on Saturday night, with the host country Cyprus clinching the most medals during the week-long event. Cyprus won 139 medals, of which 59 gold, 47 silver and 33 bronze. Iceland was in second place with a total of 81 medals, while Luxembourg finished third with 62 medals. In the past week, over 1,000 athletes from Andorra, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Malta, San Marino and Cyprus competed in 12 sports, including track and field athletics, basketball, volleyball, beach volleyball, gymnastics, judo, mountain bike, sailing, shooting, swimming, tennis and table tennis.

As an exercise in nation-building, Macedonia's latest effort is pretty audacious — an eight-story-high statue of Alexander the Great on horseback, in the center of the capital. Some Macedonians are aghast, saying the planned statue will ruin Skopje's skyline, cost more than this poor country can afford, anger a powerful neighbor, even revive communal tensions in a country that suffered an insurgency by militants among the ethnic Albanian minority eight years ago. The ripples spill across the border into Greece, which lays historical claim to the ancient warrior and empire-builder and even refuses to let Macedonia call itself by that name. It sees the statue as the latest in a series of Macedonian nationalist taunts. The European Union has also weighed in, calling the project "not helpful." The tiny country feels that its identity has been under attack from all sides since its independence in 1991: Not just from Greece but from Bulgaria, which considers its language little more than a dialect of its own, and from Serbia, which disputes the independence of its Christian Orthodox church. Most of its 2 million people are Macedonian Slavs, while one-quarter are ethnic Albanian, many of whom feel discriminated against. Thessaloniki, capital of Greece's province of Macedonia, has long had a statue of Alexander, and in January the Greek and Iraqi governments agreed to put up a statue of the conqueror near the port city of Mosul, at the battlefield where he crushed the Persian army in 331 B.C.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said Sunday she will run for president in elections early next year after coalition talks collapsed with her more popular pro-Russian rival. "I am going to run for president and I will win," Tymoshenko said. The popularity of Tymoshenko's government has been badly hit by the downturn in Ukraine's economy, which is still heavily dependent on exports and is expected to enter a deep recession this year. The former Soviet republic has been further scarred by recurring problems with Russia about payments for gas -- much of which is destined for European Union clients. Reports last week that a coalition deal was imminent had sent shockwaves through Ukrainian politics.Tymoshenko -- a former businesswoman once known as the "gas princess" -- has been seen as the champion of the pro-Western cause in Ukraine but has repeatedly shown readiness to embrace old foes.

The Kremlin is playing down hopes of a breakthrough on reducing nuclear arsenals ahead of a visit to Moscow by the U.S. president, linking arms cuts with U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe. The United States and Russia are negotiating a nuclear disarmament treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which is due to expire on Dec. 5. "We are pragmatic. We do not have high expectations of the outcome of the visit," the Kremlin statement said. "The process of improving relations will take time and honest effort on both sides," it said, acknowledging that the United States was trying to improve relations. But Moscow will not reduce its own nuclear potential until there is clarity on Washington's plans for a missile defense system in Central Europe. "So long as the situation in the world is not clear, including on the missile defense system, we will not touch our nuclear potential." A U.S. administration official declined to comment. On a conference call with reporters after Obama held talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the official said he had just read the report and said it would not be prudent to say anything.

Georgia has fully rearmed its military following last year's war with Russia and now has even more weaponry than before the war, General Nikolai Makarov said Friday. "Events in Georgia have seriously changed the situation to the south of our country and in many aspects of world politics," said Makarov, chief of the military's General Staff. "Today, the Georgian military has a greater amount of arms and equipment than it did on the moment of the beginning of the aggression last August." In Tbilisi, military officials refused to immediately comment on the report because Georgian Defense Minister Vasil Sikharulidze was traveling in the United States. Makarov also said Friday that Russia's armed forces would hold their largest military exercises in the North Caucasus since September -- a move that will alarm Georgian officials.

On the fiftieth day after the Easter, known as Pascha in the Eastern Orthodox World, the Orthodox Christian community is marking the Day of the Holy Trinity -- the Pentecost. Canons of the Orthodox Church suggest that the feast of the Pentecost is the last event in the annual liturgical circle that is linked to the Pascha. The feast of the Pentecost focuses on the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, which according to the New Testament occurred in the Zion Tabernacle when the Apostles had gotten together for a religious celebration. As the Book of Acts describes it, “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with diverse tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.” The Eastern Orthodox canon traditionally considers Trinity Day as the birthday of the Christian Church. Since Christian Pentecost is closely linked to the Old Testament Pentecost, the believers have a tradition of decorating church buildings festively with birch-trees, herbs and flowers of every colour. This should resemble the blossoming in the areas adjoining Mount Sinai when Moses received the tablets with the text of the Covenant from the Lord.