Winter Olympics inflame political and social tensions in Russia by Alice Speri December 31, 2013 5:00AM ET

Moscow’s aim to deliver ‘the safest games ever’ exacerbating troubles in the North Caucasus and rousing nationalism Sochi flame

To many, the Kremlin seems to be more focused on protecting the venues — and its reputation — than addressing the country’s social and political tensions.
Kirill Kudryavetsev/AFP/Getty

MOSCOW — With a 60-mile-long security zone, extensive identity checks, drones and Cossacks patrolling the streets around Sochi, the Russian government is determined to deliver on its promise that the Winter Olympics, opening in the Black Sea city in February, will be “the safest games ever,” according to Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi organizing committee.

But securing Sochi, which sits in the southern Krasnodar region next to the most active insurgency in Europe, is only possible through a monumental deployment of force that has already impacted the North Caucasus, where conflict with ethnic and religious minorities has flared for years.

This week, two bomb attacks in two days — on a bus and at a railway station — rocked the city of Volgograd, 420 miles northeast of Sochi, killing more than 30 people and injuring more than a hundred. While no group has claimed responsibility for the bombings, authorities believe them to be related and a warning sign as the games approach.

Moscow has geared up for the Olympics by running a repressive campaign in parts of the Caucasus region, particularly in Dagestan, leaving many to fear an escalation in the aftermath of the games.

“The perception of people on the ground is that they are waiting until the Olympics are over and then they’ll completely unleash some kind of a horrible campaign against everyone who is even remotely suspected of anything,” said Valeriy Dzutsev, a scholar of the region, who said the technology and manpower displayed at Sochi are there to stay.

Preparations for Sochi, where foreign laborers worked on most Olympic construction, also highlighted a separate set of problems: Russia’s treatment of immigrants and recent surges in nationalism and xenophobia.

While the issues differ in context and scale, the government has used similar tactics — including raids and arrests — to deal with both Russian minorities in the North Caucasus and foreigners.

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10 best political feuds of 2013 – By LUCY MCCALMONT | 12/30/13 2:58 PM EST Updated: 12/30/13 5:04 PM EST

(From left) Sean Hannity, Larry Klayman, Donald Trump and Bill O'Reilly are pictured in a composite image. | AP Photos

There were many high-profile feuds on television in 2013.


It was an epic year when it came to high-profile feuds. Whether it was politicians versus TV hosts over Obamacare, or journalists going after one another over scoops, everyone was duking it out on the airwaves in 2013 in front of viewers who hopefully had some popcorn close by. In case you missed any, POLITICO has rounded up the must-see rumbles of the year.

1. Larry Klayman vs. CNN

Following his court victory in December challenging NSA surveillance, conservative legal activist Larry Klayman appeared on CNN’s “Erin Burnett: OutFront,” but from the start argued with guest host Don Lemon and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Klayman immediately attacked Lemon for supporting President Barack Obama, calling the host an “ultra-leftist,” drawing protests from Lemon. Toobin tagged Klayman as a “lunatic” and said his court case was based on “tin-foil hat paranoia.”

Lemon and Klayman went back and forth until Lemon asked producers to cut Klayman from the screen, which led Klayman to hit back at the host, saying “you’re a charter member of the ACLU, you believe in free speech, right?” Lemon brought Klayman back on the air to give him the last word. That’s when Klayman ripped into the two men, comparing them to the recently resigned Martin Bashir of MSNBC.

(PHOTOS: Best quotes of the year)

“Let anybody watch this and see that CNN removes you from the screen when it doesn’t like what you think,” Klayman said, adding, “You have not acted in a respectful way, and it’s, in fact, disgraceful.”

2. Lawrence O’Donnell vs. Anthony Weiner

It’s fair to say when failed New York mayoral candidate and disgraced former Democrat Rep. Anthony Weiner appeared on MSNBC’s “Lawrence O’Donnell” show ahead of the primary in September, he wasn’t expecting a dressing down. But that’s exactly what he got from O’Donnell, who kicked off the segment by bluntly asking Weiner, “What is wrong with you?”

“What I find strange about your campaign is what seems to be your absolute desperate need for elective office and what seems to be your inability to live outside of it,” O’Donnell said, adding, “You are being driven by some kind of demons.”

(PHOTOS: 8 times Weiner lied about lewd pics)

“Dude, I don’t really need your psychiatric questions,” Weiner shot back.

3. Chris Cuomo vs. Rep. Darrell Issa

The blame game of the government shutdown engulfed much of Washington for a time in the fall. And CNN’s Chris Cuomo pointed an accusing finger at the Republicans and Rep. Darrell Issa when the California lawmaker appeared on “New Day” in October.

“No, Chris, I’m not going to let you have a pass on that,” Issa responded to Cuomo’s claim that the GOP shut down the government.

Cuomo, the younger brother of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, responded, “You’re not letting me have a pass? You just said a shutdown isn’t worth it, but you shut down the government.”

(QUIZ: How well do you know Darrell Issa?)

Issa struck back, “Well, you can’t accuse me of beating my wife and then turn around and tell me, isn’t that true?”

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It’s Time to Close New York’s School-to-Prison Pipeline – Mychal Denzel Smith December 26, 2013

Students raise hands during a Global Studies class at Bedford Academy High School on Tuesday, December 3, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Incoming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio does not lack for issues demanding his immediate attention. Among them are the historic levels of income inequality and homelessness, as well as the matter of a militarized police force and its abuse of power, particularly with regard to communities of color. So he certainly has his work cut out for him. But if he wishes to address many of these urgent issues at the same time while also tackling something of great importance in its own right, a major priority for his administration should be closing the school-to-prison pipeline—the name given to a set of regressive, “zero tolerance” policies that frequently end up pushing students into the criminal justice system instead of through school.

In May of last year, the New York Times editorial board described the situation as follows: “School officials across the country responded to a surge in juvenile crime during the 1980s and the Columbine High School shootings a decade later by tightening disciplinary policies and increasing the number of police patrolling public schools. One unfortunate result has been the creation of a repressive environment in which young people are suspended, expelled or even arrested over minor misbehaviors—like talking back or disrupting class—that would once have been handled by the principal.”

In fact, the results of these policies are more than just “unfortunate”; they’re racist. The stats bear this out. As Molly Knefel reported in Rolling Stone, half of the New York City students suspended during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure were black, even though black students made up around one-third of the student population. And this is on top of the overpolicing they face in their daily lives, namely as a result of the controversial practice of stop-and-frisk.

In the same article, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), noted that students living in neighborhoods with high rates of stop-and-frisk are also more likely to be suspended than their peers from neighborhoods with lower rates.

The result, according to the NYCLU, is that kids with criminal records consisting mostly of minor infractions that could have been resolved in school face further discrimination when applying for college, scholarships and jobs. This can also have an effect on whether their families are eligible to live in public housing, since people with criminal records are barred from many government assistance programs. And this doesn’t even take into account the psychological toll that coming into contact with the criminal justice system can have on students who are still wading through the thickets of childhood development. Whether in school or out, these children are being subjected to state use of a police force to address social issues that governments have failed to tackle. This practice is ruining lives, mostly of black children, before they even get a chance to start.

In order to begin closing the school-to-prison pipeline, the NYCLU report provides solutions, starting with investing more money in education than in the correctional system—but also using methods such as peer mediation, guidance counseling and mentoring in order to reduce conflicts. The report suggests allowing “students to have a role in designing school discipline codes,” the rationale being that when students understand the rules, they are more likely to comport themselves according to those rules.

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New York could follow the example set in Meridian, Mississippi, where in March of last year the Department of Justice and the Meridian Public School District agreed to what was called a “landmark consent decree.” The result of a two-year investigation by the DOJ, the consent decree was aimed at ensuring that Meridian, which is notorious for its excessive punishment of minor infractions, “administers student discipline in a fair and non-discriminatory manner, reduces the disproportionate assignment of exclusionary sanctions to black students, and provides all students with an equal opportunity to learn in a safe, orderly, and supportive environment.” It’s a fantastic start to reducing the amount 
of interaction children have 
with the criminal justice system and moving toward educating 
them instead.

De Blasio understands that New York helps to set a precedent for policy across the nation. By closing the school-to-prison pipeline and recommitting the city to educating its young people rather than policing them, he could send a message that America’s youth deserves better. And he could help stem the tide of fear-based policy-making that does more harm than good to our children’s future.

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9 questions about South Sudan you were too embarrassed to ask – BY MAX FISHER December 30 at 3:36 pm

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South Sudan’s crisis began just two weeks ago, on Dec. 15, and it already has observers warning that it could lead to civil war. Fighting has killed an estimated 1,000 people and sent 121,600 fleeing from their homes. International peacekeepers are preparing for the worst; some have been killed and a number of them, including four U.S. troops, have been injured.

What’s happening in South Sudan is complicated and can be difficult to follow; understanding how it got to be this way can be even tougher. Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive or definitive account of South Sudan and its history — just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

1. What is South Sudan?

South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It’s located in Central Africa, is about the size of Texas and has about as many people as Ohio (11 million). South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world, has a 27 percent literacy rate and is so underdeveloped that it has only about 35 miles of paved road. Its economy is driven by oil exports.

South Sudan declared independence from the rest of Sudan on July 9, 2011. At the time, it was considered a huge success for the world. But its 2½ years as a sovereign state have been disastrous. This latest crisis is just another part of the country’s struggle to stand on its own.

2. Why are people in South Sudan killing each other?

The violence started on Dec. 15, when troops in the presidential guard started fighting against one another, in what is a depressingly accurate metaphor for South Sudan’s problems. That fighting quickly spread and is now engulfing entire swaths of the country.

If that seems like a strange way for a potential civil war to start, it will make more sense once you hear the backstory. In July, the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, fired his vice president, Riek Machar. The two were more rivals than partners; Kiir thought that Machar was gunning for his job. Here’s the really important thing: Kiir and Machar are from different ethnic groups, and in South Sudan ethnic groups are really important. Kiir is ethnic Dinka, the largest of South Sudan’s many ethnic groups. Machar is Nuer, the country’s second-largest group.

Tension between the Dinka and the Nuer goes way back in South Sudan, and the political rivalry between the groups’ two most powerful members, Kiir and Machar, always had the potential to become an ethnic conflict. It did on Dec. 15, when members of the presidential guard who are Dinka tried to disarm members of the guard who are Nuer, maybe because they feared the Nuer would try to stage a coup. (Kiir later said the fighting had started because Machar had tried to stage a coup, although evidence for this is thin.)

The fighting between Dinka and Nuer presidential guards very quickly spread across the country. The main antagonists are rebels, often ethnic Nuer, including a group called the White Army. (Some reports say the group got its name because fighters smeared themselves with white ash to protect themselves from insects.) The rebels have seized territory, including some oil-producing land, and may or may not be marching on the city of Bor.

Read the rest of the list here:

Face It: You Can’t Have a Baby Whenever You Want – BY VANESSA GRIGORIADIS Dec 30 2013 at 12:41 PM

On the spectrum of self-actualized lives, Tanya Selvaratnam, a Sri Lankan-American performer, writer, producer (primarily of advocacy films like Catherine Gund’s What’s On Your Plate? and Chiara Clemente’s Our City Dreams), and executive at the Rubell Family Collection, ranks fairly high. Selvaratnam, 42, has now poured her considerable energy into a book detailing her experience with infertility, called The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock (out January 7).

It’s a bold title. It may bother you. It may even seem disingenuous: After all, only 10 to 20 percent of women over 35 will be unable to get pregnant after six months of trying to conceive. (I know there are a lot of statistics on this issue floating around, but this is the one the medical community uses).

But Selvaratnam’s intention is to provoke. What happened to her while trying to conceive around 40 was horrific. After three miscarriages, she turned to a fertility clinic for IVF, but basic testing during the treatment admissions process revealed life-threatening cancerous cysts. They were removed successfully, but her marriage did not survive her medical issues, and she has not pursued motherhood on her own. The experience motivated her to look more closely at the way modern women think about planning for a family, the emotional and financial cost of reproductive medicine, and the complicated mess of shame and guilt around infertility.

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Report: 2012 Grads Have Highest-Ever Student Debt – Allison Kilkenny on December 30, 2013 – 9:38 AM ET

The Institute for College Access & Success, an independent nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, recently released its eighth annular report on average student loan debt in the United States, and its findings are dire. College graduates who borrowed for bachelor’s degrees granted in 2012 have an average student loan debt of $29,400, the highest average student loan debt ever on record.

Overall, seventy percent of college seniors graduated with debt in 2012.

“The graduates of 2012 left school and entered repayment at a time of high unemployment,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the institute. “In many ways, these graduates were hit from both sides.”

“They went to college during a recession when their family’s ability to pay for college was likely reduced. Now they are graduating from college and may be experiencing substantial challenges getting a job to repay the loans.”

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, an expert on college issues, says the trend isn’t likely to reverse itself anytime soon because the price of higher education continues to rise, while incomes remain flat.

“College costs have always gone up higher than inflation, but the problem we face now is that family incomes are stagnant and they can’t afford it anymore, if they ever did,” said O’Shaughnessy, author of the book The College Solution and a blog of the same name. “It used to be much more affordable.”

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Students in certain states are hit particularly hard. For example, average debt is higher for graduates from Pennsylvania ($31,675). Seventy percent of graduatesfrom Pennsylvania public and nonprofit colleges have student loan debt, compared to 41 percent of students graduating from Nevada colleges. The average student debt in New Mexico is just under $18,000.

The year of moving sideways: The Americas in a nutshell – The Economist Nov 18th 2013

Immortal Fidel, touched by the hand of Maradona

After a mediocre economic performance in 2013, Latin America faces another year of treading water. So watch the street—slow-burning social dissatisfaction could turn to conflagration in sudden mass protests almost anywhere, but Argentina, Venezuela and Peru are the likeliest places. The left will remain dominant in the region. The biggest threat to that lies in Brazil, where a possible -centre-right victory would change the mood across Latin America.

Economic growth will be around 3%, the region’s new normal. In some ways, that is not bad. Most of the larger economies have solid defences against storms elsewhere. But it is a far cry from the 5.4% of 2004-08, the rate the region needs if it is to eliminate the poverty that 30% of Latin Americans still suffer. Growth will become a bit more uniform, thanks to a pre-election fiscal stimulus in Brazil and a splurge on infrastructure in Mexico. After years of faster growth, Chile and Peru face a slowdown. Argentina and Venezuela will struggle, the payback for a decade of populist extravagance.

Revolting voters: Democracy is under threat, warns Philip Coggan. Time to reform it Nov 18th 2013

A huge year for democracy lies ahead: in 2014 voters will go to the polls in some of the biggest countries of the developing world, including India, Indonesia and Brazil, as well as in the United States (for mid-terms) and across the 28 countries of the European Union (to elect the European Parliament). But voter turnout in the rich world has been falling slowly since the 1970s, from more than 80% to less than 70% by 2011 (see chart). And around the world disillusionment with politicians and elections is running deep. In the coming year alarming numbers of voters will flirt with political extremes.

The financial crisis has eroded the deal that underpinned democracy: that voters support politicians in return for greater prosperity. It is not the first time. European democracy faltered in the 1930s in the face of the Great Depression. South America slipped back into autocracy in the 1970s and 1980s.

The parties that were in charge at the start of the crisis have mostly been turfed out and replaced by the mainstream opposition. But policy has hardly changed: voters are still being fed a diet of austerity, are still suffering from high unemployment and can see little prospect of a dramatic improvement. Politicians have no goodies to promise electors; indeed they are cutting the services and benefits on which they depended. So voters have been turning away from the mainstream—to Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece, to Beppe Grillo in Italy and to the UK Independence Party in Britain. Even in America, where the two big parties still dominate, there has been a decline of bipartisanship and political debate is increasingly rancorous, making it harder to do the kind of deals on which democracy depends. The mid-terms in November will only add to the anger.

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Expiring tax credit sets off a scramble in Hollywood – By Evan Halper December 30, 2013, 9:31 p.m.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at Dec 31, 2013 5.16

WASHINGTON — Jennifer Tadlock doesn’t yet have all the talent lined up for the small-budget dramatic action feature she hopes to film next year, let alone a full crew. But she does have a tax break, and it’s expiring, which was enough to get her behind the camera last month.

Tadlock spent about $500 to hire a skeletal crew and nonunion talent to film just one scene near her home in Fresno. “We did the makeup ourselves,” she said.

The scene, involving teenagers plotting to harass an elderly woman, may never appear in the final cut. But by shooting this year, Tadlock hopes to lock in place the tax break that was key for investors who put up the $6 million she’ll need to shoot “Shades of Grace” for real next year.

“This is the biggest budget I have been able to secure, and that tax credit is why,” she said. “The risk of film these days is so high. There is no guarantee whatsoever your film will make back any money.… This guarantees investors they can write it off on their taxes. If it makes back money, that is just a bonus for them.”

The number and value of tax breaks for the film industry has soared in the last decade. States and the federal government together provide about $1.5 billion in tax benefits, according to estimates by the Tax Foundation and the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

As a result, Hollywood films, often seen as a risky place to invest money, can be anything but chancy for wealthy investors who have learned that some of those tax breaks can be packaged to generate cash from even mediocre box office results.

This month’s scheduled expiration of just one of those breaks — a federal credit for production costs that the Treasury says will cost about $430 million over 2013 and 2014 — has set off a scramble. Some financial planners who package the deals have pushed producers like Tadlock to start shooting in hopes of keeping their projects eligible for the write-off even after it passes from the scene.

One attorney says he is trying to lock it in for his clients on 62 different projects.

Experts have argued for years about whether the generosity that cities, states and the federal government have shown Hollywood actually helps the wider economy. But there’s little argument that some tax incentives and subsidies have been a boon to a cottage industry of financial planners who have found ways to package them into windfalls for clients.

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13 Badass Women of 2013 —By H.H. Bhojani | Mon Dec. 30, 2013 3:00 AM GMT

From staging filibusters and hunger strikes, to protesting drones and driving bans, women have been up to some pretty incredible things this year. This unranked list is by no means exhaustive, and behind every one of these women there are many other women and men, unsung warriors, heroes and feminists who deserve our recognition.

Here they are, in no particular order, some of the women who rocked it in 2013.

Read the list here: