Global Notebook 6/98

Russia Faces a Crime Revolution

MOSCOW – Big money is a major factor in Russian politics as the newly – sometimes illicitly – rich gain control over democratic institutions. A recent example was the April mayoral victory of a controversial businessman with a criminal record in Nizhny Novgorod, the country’s third largest city. Afterwards, the winner, Andrei Klimentiev, was arrested for bribing voters and violating an earlier court order to leave town.

Fearing a criminal takeover, President Yeltsin has backed legislation to prevent criminals from being elected or getting government jobs. The Interior ministry estimates there are now 12,000 criminal organizations in Russia, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies warns that the country "is on the verge of becoming a crime-dominated oligarchy." Russian bureaucracy is a perfect playground for corruption: Salaries are low, and many officials accept bribes.

In 1982, Klimentiev was jailed for distributing adult videos. When the economy opened up in the 1990s, however, he launched a successful new career. That led to another conviction for embezzlement. But by this time, he had $100 million, more than enough to win an election.

Yeltsin has called for a crackdown. A handful of the culprits have been successfully prosecuted, mainly for embezzling government funds.

Still, many voters aren’t concerned, electing shady entrepreneurs despite their criminal backgrounds to protest Yelstin’s leadership. And some human rights groups see the central government’s tactics as a disrespect for voting rights, a trend that could worsen when Russia holds national elections next year.

Outrage Over Sexy Pen Pals

ACCRA – Less than one percent of Ghanaians have access to the Internet, but everyone talks about it. Or at least about pen pal websites featuring photos of nude Ghanaian women and provocative captions. "I am looking for a man who is prepared to exchange with me nude photos and is able to make real love as well as the writing of hot letters," says one.

The Australian company that set up the site says it’s not a marriage agency, but rather a service offering romance and friendship. For $60, you receive a list of 300 names and addresses of African, Asian, and Russian women.

One member of Ghana’s Council of State calls the development a deadly moral and spiritual threat. Women’s media groups have condemned the ad service and demanded a government inquiry. There has also been astonishment that Ghanaian women agreed to pose for the photos.

Until now, the Internet was viewed as a desirable tool for education and communication. But the new service raises questions about the disruption of indigenous culture.

Disney Does Krishna

NEW DELHI – Bye-bye flowers, hello high-tech. The Hare Krishnas no longer dance and chant while giving out flowers and religious tracts. They’ve let go of what one leader called their "over-zealous" past, and live more mainstream lives today. And to bring Krishna’s message to a wider audience, a $6 million temple funded by East Indian donors opened in New Delhi on April 5, complete with robots made by Disneyland and Hollywood experts which enact the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures. "I am all in favor of globalization of the message of Gita,” said Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the opening ceremonies.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness was founded in the 1960s by Srila Prabhupada as a vehicle for teaching about Krishna, who taught about karma, life after death, and Dharma. These lessons are familiar to most Hindus, but the three million Hare Krishnas follow the interpretations of Guru Prabhupada, who believed it was his Dharma to spread Krishna’s word.

Invisible Guerrillas

KATMANDU – Nepal’s police vow to step up operations against a illusive Maoist guerrilla movement operating in rural areas. Pointing to widespread poverty, the group has emerged as an invisible pressure group, providing food and help with farming while intimidating politicians who refuse to support their cause. In April, it played a key role in a nationwide strike without an overt show of force.

In response, parliament is considering tough anti-terrorism laws, including up to 10-year sentences for "treasonous" acts such as possession of "people’s war" propaganda. But some human rights activists claim that, in fighting the guerrillas, police have killed innocent people. They also point to false arrests and dire prison conditions. Many prisoners arrested as Maoists have been spuriously charged with theft, arson, and drug trafficking when no other evidence was available. Some don’t even know why they’re in jail.

"Peace is severely disturbed in the rural areas now," says Daman Nath Dhungana, former speaker of parliament and Nepal chair of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group. "But when the government gives neither protection nor relief, then the people have no choice but to turn to those who promise them both."

Spooks Exposed

MEXICO CITY – Labor unions here have long complained about government spying, but recent revelations indicate the true size and sophistication of the surveillance system. Mexico has been covered for years by a web of informants, supplemented by government agents using advanced electronic equipment to spy on labor organizations.

According to Procesco magazine, former Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis created the new intelligence apparatus in 1993. Although he was subsequently expelled from the country’s ruling party and formed his own political organization, his system continued throughout the administrations of two successors. It was used extensively by Route-100, the municipal bus company, which monitored the company’s union activities.

A network of 80 spies reported on political and labor union organizations to the higher-ups in the Federal District government, according to Carlos Imaz, a city official with the recently elected administration of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The PRD says it has dismantled all surveillance systems and spy networks.

Leaving with Grace

MISSOURI – Diana Nomad, whose activism against the Gulf War won everyone the right to drum in Lafayette (Peace) Park, is on her deathbed at her home in Missouri. According to one of her caregivers, R. Thomas Cloud, "She has a massive brain tumor, lung and probably liver cancer as well."

In January 1991, Nomad drummed on her prayer drum and chanted "Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo (All life is Sacred)," alone and with others who came to drum against the war. Nomad was among those arrested and convicted for violating noise regulations. The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, helping to establish the precedent that drumming is a legitimate form of political protest.

Formula-makers Play for Time

LONDON – Manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes continue to flout the 17-year-old international code barring unethical marketing, according to a new report by Save the Children. "Anyone who works in pediatrics sees children harmed by these products, says Dr. John Seaman, a former medical official of the group. "Yet the companies go on with this monumental intransigence."

In developing countries, the main dangers of formula stem from use of dirty water, poor hygiene in handling bottles, and improper dilution. But, manufacturers, who’ve never liked the World Health Organization’s (WHO) marketing code, refuse to yield this lucrative market. Some offer free supplies to clinics, a practice UNICEF describes as the biggest inducement to stop breastfeeding. According to the report, corporations also threaten libel actions, conceal information, bribe professionals, and create front groups to push their position.

Dialogue may not be the best way to solve the problem, says Judith Richter, the report’s author. It can remove the debate from the public arena and blur the issues. The Inter-agency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring, for example, won’t negotiate with infant-formula makers until they accept the WHO code as a point of reference. Without this commitment, they argue, the industry is just playing for time.

Ultimate Protest

COLOMBIA – Occidental Petroleum Co. is meeting fierce resistance to its efforts to drill for oil in northeastern Colombia. This is the land of the U’wa, whose leader, Berita Kuwar U’wa, was awarded an $100,000 Goldman Environmental Prize on April 20 for his activism.

"The U’wa territory is sacred,” U’wa says. "The U’wa culture has no price.” If the tribe is unable to stop the drilling, they have decided to commit suicide by jumping off a 1400-foot cliff.

Save the Trout

SUTCLIFFE, NV – The Lake Pyramid Piaute Tribe is helping to restore the Lahontan cutthroat trout, North America’s largest, to the Truckee River in Nevada. Old refrigerators are the egg incubators for the species which used to grow to 60 pounds. That was before a 1905 dam downstream from Reno interfered with the cutthroat’s migration to its spawning area in Lake Tahoe. The dam also contributed to the loss of a dozen Western trout species.

Tribal leaders, volunteers, and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt participated in the hatchery opening near Wadsworth on April 18. The tribe’s previous efforts to restore the fish to Pyramid Lake resulted in trout up to 15 pounds. It’s hoped that the river incubation will produce better results. "It will benefit not only the fish but the people who live here," said tribal chairman Mervin Wright, Jr. "We are historically a fishery tribe.”

US Waffles on Criminal Court

WASHINGTON – Although the Clinton administration publicly endorses a new International Criminal Court (ICC), the Pentagon is already warning militaries from other countries about the risks of prosecution. The object is to weaken the treaty, scheduled to be signed in June. The US, France, and China "want to make sure they can veto any initiative they find inconvenient or threatening," explains Jose Stork, author of a report from the Interhemispheric Resource Center. But if the strategy succeeds, the whole idea could be sidelined.

The proposed ICC would prosecute those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes when domestic courts fail to act. The UN’s International Criminal Court can only hear cases involving governments, not individuals.

Stork argues that the US should back a truly independent court, "not a marginal and meaningless entity tailored to win the support of the most conservative US Senators."