St. Petersburg, Russia
Putin finds his thrill: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became a YouTube sensation this week with his pop performance at a fundraiser for a children’s charity. Putin, who has been taking piano lessons, painstakingly plunked out a Soviet patriotic song on the piano, then grabbed a microphone and launched into a heavily accented rendition of Fats Domino’s hit “Blueberry Hill.” At the end of the four-minute routine, the crowd, which included American film stars Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner, and others, gave him a standing ovation. The display was a departure for the prime minister, who tends to favor macho stunts like sparring with the national judo team or piloting fire-fighting planes.
Open for tours: The Ukrainian government is transforming Chernobyl, the site of a 1986 nuclear accident, into a tourist site. A 20-mile zone around the nuclear power plant has been closed to most visitors since the plant exploded, killing 32 workers and spewing a radioactive cloud across Eastern Europe. In the decades since, the deserted area has become a wildlife haven as animals and plants took over abandoned buildings. “It is very moving and interesting and a beautiful monument to technology gone awry,” said Mary Mycio, author of a book on Chernobyl. Ukrainian authorities say they will lift travel restrictions next year and start tours. Radiation levels at the site are still higher than normal but not dangerous; they are comparable to the radiation a passenger is exposed to on a trans-Atlantic flight.
Duck and cover: Shaken by last month’s North Korean attack, South Korea this week held its biggest nationwide civil-defense drill ever. As air-raid sirens blared throughout the country and fighter jets roared overhead, schoolchildren filed into subway stations and police fanned across the streets, halting traffic and directing people to bomb shelters. In some cities near the border with North Korea, residents practiced putting on gas masks. South Korea used to hold drills monthly, but in recent years the exercise has been confined to testing sirens. The North’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island, which killed four South Koreans, was its first assault on South Korean territory since the Korean War. “The Yeonpyeong attack was a wake-up call,” said defense specialist Ahn Cheol Hyun. “Bolstering civil-defense drills will be one way of raising people’s awareness of the real threat.”
Fake stories planted: Pakistan’s most-respected newspapers were duped last week into publishing false front-page stories saying that WikiLeaks cables revealed outrageous acts by India. The stories, sourced to news agency Online, said U.S. diplomatic cables accused the Indian government of “Bosnia-like genocide” against Muslims in the disputed province of Kashmir and of supporting rebels in Pakistan’s tribal areas. One Indian general was described as “incompetent,” another “genocidal,” and another “self-obsessed and petulant.” An editor at Online was fired for concocting the stories and posting them on the agency’s wire service. Newspapers printed apologies and retractions.
Foreign minister booted: Conservative mullahs criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week for the “insulting” dismissal of his longtime foreign minister. Manouchehr Mottaki was fired without warning while he was in the middle of a diplomatic mission to Senegal; nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi was appointed in his place. Mottaki is reputed to be close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has criticized Ahmadinejad, while Salehi is an ally of the president. The change signals a rift in Iran’s leadership just as Tehran has reopened talks with world powers on its disputed nuclear program.
Peace talks dead? U.S. envoy George Mitchell shuttled between the West Bank and Israel this week in an effort to restart peace talks in the wake of the U.S. State Department’s admission that it had given up trying to press Israel to freeze settlement construction. An end to settlement construction in the West Bank is a main condition for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to talks. In an effort to persuade Israel to agree to a 90-day moratorium on settlements, the U.S. had offered huge incentives, including a squadron of fighter jets and a pledge to veto at the U.N. any unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned down the U.S. offer last week. Mitchell said the U.S. would now focus on indirect talks on “core issues” such as borders, security, the future of Jerusalem, settlements, and refugees.