Global News Journal
Beyond the World news headlines
There is something a bit bizarre, yet fascinating, about the way Berlin and the local media mark the anniversaries of the Berlin Wall’s construction on Aug. 13, 1961 and the anniversaries of its collapse on Nov. 9, 1989.
There are many of the same things each time: sombre speeches, fancy ceremonies, countless thousands of stories in the print and TV media and a general consensus that A) the Wall was a horrible thing B) the Communists who built it were loathsome liars C) its collapse was a glorious moment in German history and D) its memory should serve as a global symbol of the yearning for freedom.
Yet like Berlin itself, which has gone through what are probably the most dynamic changes of any big city in Europe in the last two decades, elements of the commemorations have been shifting over the years and the city’s view of the wall has also been transformed. Incredibly enough, some Germans now miss the Wall – a few diehards both east and west who feel their standing of living has gone down since 1989 want it back the most (about 10 percent, according to a recent poll) . But many others, especially those too young to remember it, lament that there is so little left of it to see and feel.
Indeed, almost all of the Wall is gone. Yet 10 million tourists still come to Berlin each year looking for it. “Where’s the Wall?” is probably one of the most commonly asked questions by visitors. The answer – unfortunate or fortunate, depending on your point of view – is that there’s almost nothing left.
It was all torn down in a rush to obliterate the hated barrier in late 1989 and early 1990. Only a few small segments were saved – one 80 metre-long section, for instance, behind the Finance Ministry that was saved thanks to one Greens politician who declared it to under “Denkmalschutz” – a listed monument. That enraged many Berliners at the time.
Despite the lack of Berlin Wall to look at and touch, a thriving cottage industry has grown up at some of the places where it once stood. You can get a “DDR” stamp in your passport if you want from a menacing looking soldier in an authentic East German border guard uniform (who appreciates tips) at Checkpoint Charlie or have your picture taken with others wearing Russian army uniforms. You can buy Wall souvenirs at many of the points where the Wall once stood.
Some leaders such as Mayor Klaus Wowereit now admit it might have been a mistake, from today’s point of view, to so hastily tear down all but a few tiny bits of the Wall in 1989. “There’s a general complaint that the demolition of the Wall was a bit too extensive,” he told me recently. “That’s understandable from today’s point of view and it would probably have been better for tourists if more of it could have been preserved. But at the time we were all just so happy to see the Wall gone.”
Wowereit added, interestingly enough, the biggest divisions in Berlin today are in the media and in the political parties: Easterners still read east Berlin newspapers and west Berliners stick to west Berliner dailies while the Left party is often the strongest in the east and the conservative Christian Democrats are stronger in the west while his Social Democrats do fairly well in both halves of the city. “The typical Kurier reader is from the east and won’t set a foot in the west and the B.Z. reader won’t set foot in the east. The Berliner Zeitung is more in the east and the Tagesspiegel is more in the west. To keep sales up, they obviously have different focusses. It’s rare that they have the same topics on their front pages and I think that’s a bad thing. They play up the east-west differences. What’s typical Berlin and what unites this city is, however, that everyone gets worked up about everything that in the end isn’t anything very important. If there’s talk about tearing down the ICC (conference centre in west Berlin), then they applaud in the east and say ‘Our Palace of the Republic’ (an East Berlin government building) was torn down — it’s sort of like eye for eye. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s Berlin. It’s only a problem when people try to whip up those differences.”
Berlin has taken some steps in the last few years to restore some of the Wall for posterity and the all-important tourists, who bring a lot of badly revenue into the fiscally strapped city. A whole cottage industry of books about the bits of the Wall that are still left has also emerged — inlcuding “The Berlin Wall Today, Ruins, Remnants, Remembrances.” One of my favourite ways to see at least where the Wall was and small bits of it is the Berlin Wall Trail, a 160-km bike path that follows the route of the Wall and offers a fascinating glimpse into the city’s Cold War history.
It’s hard to find a delegate to the United Nations who despises U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. But it’s even harder to find someone who thinks he has the gravitas and charisma of his Nobel Peace Prize-winning predecessor Kofi Annan, who invoked the wrath of the previous U.S. administration when he called the 2003 invasion of Iraq “illegal.” As one senior Western official, who declined to be identified, said about Ban: “It’s not as if he’s lightning in a bottle, but we can live with him.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has dismissed suggestions that her diplomats are part-time spies, as suggested by the latest batch of documents released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.
“Let me be very clear — our diplomats are just that, they’re diplomats,” Rice told reporters at the United Nations where she was peppered with questions about the latest chapter in the WikiLeaks scandal. “Our diplomats are doing what diplomats do around the world every day, which is build relationships, negotiate, advance our interests and work to find common solutions to complex problems.”
She didn’t exactly deny the charges of espionage. But the top U.S. diplomat in New York did reject the idea that there would be any diplomatic fallout from the release of thousands of documents obtained by WikiLeaks, some of which have been published by The Guardian and other newspapers.
One U.S. diplomatic cable published by The Guardian shows how the State Department instructed diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere around the world to collect credit card and frequent flyer numbers, work schedules and biometric data for U.N. officials and diplomats. Among the personalities of interest was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as were the ambassadors of the other 14 Security Council member states.
There is nothing new about espionage at the United Nations, but it’s always embarrassing when classified documents proving it happens surface in the media.
Most Security Council envoys declined to comment on the WikiLeaks documents as they headed into the council chambers on Monday for a meeting on North Korea. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, however, told reporters, “Surprise, surprise.”
Churkin should know. One of the diplomats in his charge was implicated earlier this year in a high-profile Russian espionage case in the United States in which nearly a dozen people were accused of being part of a Russian spy ring that carried out deep-cover work in the United States to recruit political sources and gather information for Moscow. The U.S. Justice Department said that an unnamed diplomat at the Russian mission to the United Nations had delivered payments to the spy ring.
And then there was the man known as “Comrade J”, a Russian spy based in New York from 1995 to 2000. Working out of Russia’s U.N. mission, Comrade J directed Russian espionage activity in New York City and personally oversaw all covert operations against the United States and its allies in the United Nations. According to a book about his exploits, Comrade J eventually became a double agent for the FBI.
Nor does the history of U.N. espionage end there. In 2004, a former British cabinet minister revealed that British intelligence agents had spied on Ban Ki-moon’s predecessor Kofi Annan, who fell afoul of Washington and London by opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was also the victim of a phone-bugging operation, according to media reports from 2004. He had also opposed the invasion of Iraq and angered the United States by saying that their intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s alleged revival of his nuclear arms program was not only incorrect but partly based on falsified evidence. U.S. officials pored over transcripts of ElBaradei’s telephone intercepts in an attempt to secure evidence of mistakes that could be used to oust him from his post, the reports said. Not only did they fail to unseat him, he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Russia’s ban on grain exports as a heat wave parches crops in the world’s third biggest wheat exporter has raised questions whether such export curbs break World Trade Organization rules. Russia is not a member of the WTO, and it remains to be seen how its new grain policy will affect its 17-year-old bid to join. But other grain exporters, such as Ukraine, which is also considering export curbs, are part of the global trade referee.
WTO rules are quite clear that members cannot interfere with imports and exports in a way that disrupts trade or discriminates against other members. But in practice most WTO rules aim to stop countries blocking imports – shutting out competitor’s goods to give their own domestic producers an unfair advantage.
from Tales from the Trail:
When it comes to ratifying President Obama's nuclear arms reduction treaty with the Russians, Senate Republicans say: don't rush us.
Obama has said he would like to see the Senate ratify the new START treaty with Moscow this year. But he will need some Republican support to get the 67 votes required for ratification. And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says Republicans don't yet have the answers to their questions about the agreement and related concerns about how much money will be spent modernizing U.S. nuclear forces.
from Tales from the Trail:
There appears to be no rush among Senate Republicans to finish what President Barack Obama STARTed when he signed the new arms reduction treaty recently with Russia's Dmitry Medvedev.
At a closed-door meeting Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans listened to arms experts and leaders in their caucus discuss the deal, a follow-on to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The United States, Russia and China are quietly backing moves to exclude “unnecessary” elements from closed meetings of the U.N. Security Council to prevent leaks to the media on sensitive issues like Iran and North Korea, U.N. officials and diplomats told Reuters. They also support moves to reduce reporters’ contact with delegates outside the council chamber. But the new measures have sparked a furor among journalists and less powerful members of the United Nations, who argue that the steps are discriminatory and will make what they say is a secretive Security Council even less transparent.
The measures were suddenly implemented this week after the council moved to a temporary new space, to allow for a $1.9 billion renovation of the 40-story U.N. secretariat building overlooking New York City’s East River. Unless they get special permission to attend, note-takers from the office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, will no longer be allowed into closed-door consultations. Peacekeeping officials and other departments in the U.N. secretariat will also be shut out due to what U.S. and other diplomats say is limited space in the new chamber. Non-council members suspect other motives.
Last weekend, Finland’s foreign minister gathered six of his colleagues and the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, in the frozen far reaches of Lapland for two days of talks on the future of European foreign policy.
As informal ministerial gatherings go, it was a rather jolly (if cold) affair, complete with a ‘family photo’ taken with a pair of nervous reindeer, a chance to see the northern lights and activities such as skiing, sledging and snow-mobiling. Some of the ministers even brought along their families.
When it comes to further sanctions on Iran, the clock is ticking relentlessly, even if those leading the drive – the United States, Britain, Germany and France — are giving little away in terms of timing or what might be targeted under any new, U.N.-agreed package.
Still, companies that do business with Iran appear to be getting the message that time is running out.
Western responses to President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for a new European-Atlantic security body that stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok have ranged from dismissive to lukewarm. None have been enthusiastic.
But some inside and outside Russia argue it would be unwise for Europe and the United States to reject the proposal out of hand, not least because, as one Russian official put it, this is one of the few occasions where Russia isn’t disagreeing but coming up with something constructive.