The Global Note: Athens, We Have A Problem…Drinking Fukushima Water…the Babushka Contest

By Tom Nagorski

Nov 1, 2011 1:50pm

ATHENS, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

-GREEK BOMBSHELL = GLOBAL JITTER$…Just when we thought the Euro-mess had been dealt with, or at least contained after last week’s deal on a Euro-bailout, now comes a thunderbolt from Athens. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced he will hold a referendum on that just-approved bailout for his country. That will put deeply unpopular austerity measures to a popular vote for the first time, threatening Greece’s financial future and the fate of the euro. The stakes are incredibly high. A ‘no’ vote could break the deal between Greece and the EU, ensuring Greece will default on his debt, sending shock waves through the euro zone and the world economy. On the other hand, a ‘yes’ vote would shift the responsibility for painful budget cuts from Papandreou onto the public, likely deflating the massive street protests and strikes that have paralyzed Greece recently. The referendum will likely be held in January. As the Wall Street Journal writes, this development makes “the outcome of Europe’s debt crisis more uncertain than ever.” And of course it keeps us all waiting until January.

-GOVERNMENT CRISIS, TOO?…Since our morning meetings, the Greek government has plunged into chaos over that referendum. Lawmakers have called for a no-confidence vote Friday. Which means not only would we have to wait for the Greeks to vote on that bailout plan in January…but now we may have a whole new government in Greece, likely less disposed to support the bailout measures. Again — no bailout means default for Greece; default there means the debt “contagion” spreads; and that spread spooks investors everywhere, and sends your 401K into the tank.

-MARKETS HATE THIS…The news has markets on edge this morning. The Dow is off roughly 250 points. Earlier, the Athens stock exchange was down 6.8 percent, while Britain’s FTSE 100 tumbled 2.6 percent, Germany’s DAX dived 3.8 percent and France’s CAC-40 lost 3.3 percent at the open. Japan’s Nikkei 225 index retreated 1.7 percent, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 2.5 percent and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 shed 1.5 percent. Benchmarks in Singapore, India, Indonesia and Thailand were also down.           

-PROTESTS AHEAD…In the meantime, protesters are already massing on the French Riviera ahead of the G-20 meetings in Cannes Thursday and Friday. They’re angry over a sundry list of bailouts worldwide. This news is sure to add fuel to their fire.

-TOO MANY PORSCHES, NOT ENOUGH TAXPAYERS…And then — back to Greece — Simon MCGREGOR-WOOD notes a “staggering statistic on Greeks and their fondness for fast cars versus their reluctance to pay tax. Headline – there are more Porsche Cayennes in Greece than there are registered tax payers earning more than $70,000 a year. Think about it. We look forward to their referendum.” 

LONDON TO “OCCUPY” PROTESTERS: ENOUGH

The City of London Corporation has issued a letter to the Occupy protesters camped out at St. Paul’s Cathedral today to ask them to remove their tents. If they refuse, the Corporation will go to court to get an injunction to clear the camp. Already, a chaplain, a senior priest and its dean have stepped down over the protests.

SYRIA: NUCLEAR FACILITY

Amid all the unrest roiling Syria, now an AP story alleging that U.N. investigators have identified a previously unknown complex in Syria that may have been part of a nuclear weapons project. According to the AP: The site bolsters suspicions that the Syrian government worked with A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, to acquire technology that could make nuclear arms. The buildings in northwest Syria closely match the design of a uranium enrichment plant provided to Libya when Moammar Gadhafi was trying to build nuclear weapons under Khan’s guidance, officials told The Associated Press. The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency also has obtained correspondence between Khan and a Syrian government official, Muhidin Issa, who proposed scientific cooperation and a visit to Khan’s laboratories following Pakistan’s successful nuclear test in 1998. Today, however, the complex, in the city of Al-Hasakah, appears to be a cotton-spinning plant, and investigators have found no sign that it was ever used for nuclear production. But the AP report says that given that Israeli warplanes destroyed a suspected plutonium production reactor in Syria in 2007, the unlikely coincidence in design suggests Syria may have been pursuing two routes to an atomic bomb: uranium as well as plutonium. No comment from the IAEA – their examination of Syria’s programs has slowed as world powers focus on a popular uprising in the country and the government’s violent crackdown.

U.S. SETS ITS SIGHTS ON QAEDA BOMBMAKER

The Wall Street Journal reports the U.S. has set its sights on the top bombmaker of al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri. Al-Asiri has been identified as a central figure in at least three new potential terror threats and has been involved in all of the group’s major plots over the past two years. U.S. officials investigating Mr. Asiri say he has been scouting out U.S. airline and other domestic targets on the Internet, researching the security measures taken and devising ways to circumvent them.

STUDY: NO PROOF FOR LINK BETWEEN WAR ZONE DUST AND TROOP ILLNESS

A new Institute of Medicine study finds insufficient data to conclude that dust and pollution in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan could cause long-term health problems in troops. But the study did not rule out the possibility that the fine dust and particle matter found in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the smoke from burn pits, could cause serious illnesses or lung injuries in troops. It recommended that the government undertake a long-term study of deployed troops to determine whether they develop respiratory problems, heart diseases or cancers that might be related to air quality in the war zones.

LIBYA: LOOKING FOR AN ARMY

With yesterday’s end to NATO’s mission in Libya, today marks the first day Libya has full responsibility for its own security. As the country’s new leaders assume that responsibility, the  Washington Post highlights the challenge Libya faces is uniting more than 300 militias into a national army. Reining in the militias is crucial to restoring order after the fighting between NATO-backed revolutionaries and loyalists of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi, diplomats say.

TOYOTA HEALTH CARE PLAN: ROBOTS FOR THE ELDERLY

Toyota today unveiled robots that help the sick and elderly walk, along with another machine that helps health care workers lift disabled patients from their beds. Toyota is seeking to position itself in an industry with great potential in Japan which is one of the world’s most rapidly aging nations. That might be good business sense because their car business has been hammered this year. The  Wall Street Journal has a good read on Toyota’s (and Honda’s) declining fortunes, after a year in which they’ve been beset by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a strong Japanese yen and their own strategic missteps.

JAPAN: OFFICIAL DRINKS FROM RADIOACTIVE PUDDLE

From the BBC and Akiko FUJITA: A Japanese official has drunk water collected from the quake-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, after reporters challenged him to prove it was safe. Yasuhiro Sonoda appeared nervous and his hands shook as he downed a glass during a televised news conference. The water he drank was taken from puddles under two reactor buildings. It is decontaminated before being used for tasks such as watering plants. Journalists have repeatedly questioned the safety of the procedure. Mr. Sonoda, who serves as the cabinet office’s parliamentary spokesman, told the news conference: “Just drinking [decontaminated water] doesn’t mean safety has been confirmed. Presenting data to the public is the best way.” In another sign of the government’s growing confidence over the plant’s safety, officials said they would allow journalists on to the site on 12 November. It will be the first time journalists have toured the area since the March 11th earthquake and tsunami wrecked the plant, causing partial meltdowns in three of its reactors. The government has a target of the end of the year to bring the plant to a cold shutdown, when the reactors are stable and the water inside them is no longer boiling. However, a preliminary report by a panel of nuclear experts says fully decommissioning the power station could take 30 years.

CHINA: DISSIDENT ARTIST HIT WITH $2.3 MILLION TAX BILL

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been hit with a $2.3 million bill from the Chinese government for back taxes and fines. Chinese authorities say he confessed to tax evasion while in prison, but his family denies the allegations and instead contend he is being targeted for his opposition to communism.  Ai says he won’t pay the charge.

MEXICO CITY MAN CHARGED IN U.S. FLIGHT ATTENDANT’S DEATH

A 20-year-old Mexican man has been arrested for killing a U.S. Airways flight attendant in his Mexico City hotel room and stealing his belongings and safe deposit box. Jose Manuel Ramirez is thought to have beaten flight attendant Nick Aaronson and then strangled him with a belt after Aaronson invited him to his hotel room. Ramirez was just released from a Mexico City prison in June.

WOMEN IN THE WORLD

-EGYPTIAN WOMEN AMONG THE MOST OVERWEIGHT…The Los Angeles Times reports on Egyptian women, 75 percent of whom are overweight, making them among the most overweight in the world. Some Egyptian women are overweight thanks to rich foods and pampered lifestyles, but most have cheap, unhealthy food to blame in a country where as many as 40 percent of people live on less than $2 a day. Gym memberships are reserved for the elite and Cairo’s crowded streets make jogging or walking nearly impossible. 

-BABUSHKA CONTEST…From Alexandra NADEZHDINA in Moscow: Moscow’s Social Welfare Department has announced a competition for the title of Moscow’s most stylish, modernelegant, business-minded, creative, artistic, and cheerful granny. Around 105 ladies aged over 50 are competing so far. Traditionally in Russia, the grandmother is revered, playing an important role in Russian society.

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