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The Week Ahead: Syria festers, Cuba connects, China's Xi tours

June 03, 2013|By Carol J. Williams

No escaping the conundrum of Syria's war

Monday-Tuesday, June 3-4 – Russian and European leaders face an agenda packed with economic and political issues at their two-day summit in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg.  But as with most diplomatic gatherings these days, the debate and discussion are expected to be dominated by the protracted tragedy of Syria.

Russia, a longtime ally and key weapons supplier to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has on one hand been working with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry to bring the embattled Syrian leadership and rebels to peace talks expected to be held in Geneva. On the other hand, Moscow has made clear it will go through with delivery of sophisticated S-300 antiaircraft missiles ordered by Assad three years ago, inciting Western complaints that advanced weapons would encourage Assad’s forces to fight on rather than negotiate.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will host European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso in the provincial city best known in the West as the scene of the last czar’s killing. 

“We will discuss urgent global issues, such as measures to stimulate economic growth and jobs, and international issues, in particular Syria and Iran,” the European Union said in a statement last week outlining the summit agenda.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also will be on hand for the talks with the EU’s 27 member states. But he will be headed for Geneva immediately afterward, for another session with Kerry on when and how to get Assad’s allies and the rebels to sit down together and talk peace.

 Internet coming to Cuba, for those who can afford it

Tuesday, June 4 – In a pragmatic acceptance of reality, the Communist government in Cuba will offer citizens full access to the World Wide Web when it opens 118 Internet connection points at offices of the state-owned telecom monopoly ETECSA.

Less than 10% of Cubans have Internet access, and most can go online only through their government office computers or surreptitiously at tourist facilities where they or trusted friends work. About 1 in 5 Cubans has some ability to go online at kiosks that provide access to a limited “intranet” of websites vetted for political and other undesirable content.

In announcing the expanded access, a government decree last week warned users against visiting sites that "endanger or prejudice public security, or the integrity and sovereignty of the nation," making clear that state censors would be on the lookout for those viewing "counter-revolutionary" content.

Cost will now be the biggest obstacle to unfettered surfing. An hour of online access will go for $4.50, or nearly a quarter of the average Cuban’s monthly wage, probably limiting the new service to those who receive remittances from relatives aboard.

The government appeared to be taking a calculated risk that it would succeed in maintaining control over the sources of information and public discourse for most of Cuba’s 11.2 million citizens while tapping the remittance dollars.

For new Pakistani premier, it’s twice burned, once shy

Wednesday, June 5 -- Incoming Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must be hoping the third time is the charm.

Forced out of office early by corruption allegations the first time he served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993, Sharif’s second stint as government chief was abruptly ended midway through the four-year term by the military coup in 1999 led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League faction posted a convincing victory in May 11 elections, and on Wednesday the assembly, newly sworn in on Saturday, will cast their votes for the next prime minister -- probably Sharif, as his party has a majority of seats. Sharif would then take the oath of office for a third time.

The incoming government chief's control of the legislature this time could allow him to maintain a stable leadership, although he faces daunting economic and security challenges.

Sharif, who in the past often displayed a confrontational posture toward Washington, had signaled since the election his interest in a more cooperative relationship this time. However, last week’s U.S. drone strike that killed the Pakistani Taliban’s second-in-command, Waliur Rehman, provoked expressions of “serious concern and deep disappointment” from Sharif on Friday. The apparent targeted killing also prompted the Pakistani Taliban to withdraw their offer of peace talks, dealing a blow to hopes that Sharif might usher in a respite from years of deadly attacks by the fundamentalist militants.

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