No News Here, Folks: China’s Premier Li Conducts Yearly Boring Press Briefing

China's Premier Li Keqiang takes questions during a news conference, after the closing ceremony of the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing March 13, 2014 Kim Kyung-Hoon—Reuters

At the triumphal end of China’s annual legislative session, the elephant in the room that is Zhou Yongkang remains tightly under wraps

It was the one question the Chinese public (not to mention the Beijing press corps) was awaiting. The scene was the annual press conference with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Actually, the words “press conference” make the session that closes the National People’s Congress sound like a spontaneous event. Rest assured that the Q&A with the Chinese Premier is a meticulously scripted affair.

The journalists chosen to ask questions on the morning of March 13 were contacted beforehand. There’s negotiation — at least from some foreign reporters — about exactly how the queries will be phrased. But there are to be no surprises at the triumphal end of China’s annual legislative session. This pre-screening ensures that the Premier somehow has all the right facts and figures available to respond in great detail. There are even ringers brought in who are instructed to raise their hands with great enthusiasm. As Li slogged through his answers, journalists took bets on how long it would take for the news-making moment to arrive.

Li uttered disquisitions on the mystery surrounding Malaysia Airline Flight 370, which disappeared without a trace on March 8 with 153 Chinese passengers on board (Li: “families and friends [of passengers] are burning with anxiety” and “as long as there is a glimmer of hope,” China will not halt its search for the missing airliner) and the greatest challenge for China last year (Li: “increased downward pressure on China’s economic growth”). He vowed that “we need to loosen the straightjacket on businesses” and mentioned the hot term “rule of law” a couple times. Li acknowledged the severity of China’s air pollution problem, guaranteeing “a war on our own inefficient and unsustainable model of growth and way of life” and noting that the first thing many Chinese do upon waking is to check pollution-index aps on their cellphones.

But the question in question never came. For months now, a dragnet has appeared to tighten around Zhou Yongkang, who oversaw China’s massive surveillance state until his retirement in late 2012. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li, China has launched an anti-corruption crackdown that has netted hundreds of wayward officials. President Xi has promised to nab both lowly “flies” and high-ranking “tigers.” If Zhou, he of the Mafioso slicked-back hair and steely gaze, is indeed probed, he would be the mightiest tiger to be felled in decades. After all, he was a member of China’s elite ruling circle: the then nine (now seven) men of the party’s Standing Committee who determine the course of the People’s Republic.

Over the past year, a slew of officials high and low who worked under Zhou in three main spheres — the state-owned oil industry, the populous province of Sichuan and the Public Security Ministry — have been detained. His son and top aides have been implicated in nefarious financial dealings. Zhou himself may be under house arrest. All of which led some China-watchers to expect that Premier Li would use a pre-approved question at his press conference to at least indirectly refer to the state’s possible case against Zhou.

Li did not. In an annual press conference remarkably devoid of actual news, the Premier did take on a question about corruption; it was the third one asked of him and was lobbed Li’s way by a reporter from the online arm of People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece. Li’s voice took on a stern tone as he swore “zero tolerance” for corrupt cadres. He vowed that no matter “how senior his position is [corrupt officials] will be severely dealt with and punished to the full extent of the law.” Li promised that “everyone is equal before the law.” But, despite the People’s Daily reporter asking specifically whether there was anything systemic that could be changed, Li declined to tout an easy tool to combat corruption among party ranks: asset disclosure. Granted, releasing such financial information is a rather touchy subject in a political culture where profiting from power is almost expected.

More importantly, no names — certainly not Zhou’s — were named. Two years ago, at the final press conference by outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, he launched a not-so-oblique attack on Bo Xilai, the former party chief of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing and an aspirant to the Standing Committee. One day after Wen’s press conference, the Bo purge began. It was a dramatic downfall that involved a poisoned British businessman, a murderous wife and a cache of absconded public funds. Bo’s case turned into China’s biggest political scandal in decades. (Zhou was considered to have been Bo’s political patron.)

As the minutes ticked by in Li’s presser, expectations rose. After all, former Premier Wen had dispatched his tirade aimed at Bo toward the end of his press conference. Before answering his penultimate question, Li noted that it was time for lunch. Journalists must be hungry. A question followed on China’s trading relations with Europe — specifically to do with high-speed rails, nuclear power and solar panels. Then came the last question, the subject of which I’ve frankly forgotten. Suffice it to say it was not about Mr. Zhou. Reporters were dismissed for lunch.

On Weibo, China’s lively although occasionally censored microblogging service, people digested the press conference. One popular strain of commentary wondered why no mention had been made of Zhou. Wrote one Weibo user: “I’m very puzzled, why did the journalists, especially the foreign journalists, not cherish their opportunity to ask questions? Don’t they know Master Kang is the most delicious one?” (Zhou’s name is blocked on Weibo searches so Chinese online use creative nicknames like Master Kang to evade the state censors.) Apparently the Weibo commenters were not aware of the scripted ritual. In fact, in a meeting with a senior Chinese official some weeks back, some of us in the foreign press community had already been warned that a question on Zhou was verboten.

Meanwhile, the day before Li’s press conference began, a bloodied man was found dead in the stairwell of a securities’ firm off Beijing’s Financial Street, one of the Chinese capital’s business areas. Police said the man had ended his own life with a knife. His will was discovered. The dead man, according to Chinese media reports, is related to a former secretary to a senior leader currently under investigation. The Chinese press did not name the disgraced politician but he appears to be none other than Zhou Yongkang.

with reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing


Australians and Canadians Detained for Stripping at Machu Picchu

The Machu Picchu ruins are one of Peru's most famed tourist destinations AP

Peru has vowed to counter growing trend of tourists getting naked at the ruins

Four men in their 20s, two Australians and two Canadians, have been detained in Peru after taking naked pictures of themselves at the famed Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.

Their arrests are part of a government crackdown on the growing trend of tourists stripping at the site and subsequently posting indecent photos and videos online.

Peru’s Ministry of Culture has stepped up surveillance and erected signs informing visitors that getting naked at the ruins is a crime.

Machu Picchu is widely revered as a sacred place for Peruvians and is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Stripping visitors will be expelled from the area and may face additional charges, say officials.



WATCH: Malaysian ‘Witch Doctor’ Attempts to Find Missing Jet

He divined that the plane was either still in the air or had crashed into the sea


After five days of futile search for flight MH370, supernatural efforts have even been enlisted to find the missing Boeing 777-200.

On Monday, a famous bomoh, a Malay term for a shaman, performed a prayer at the international airport in Kuala Lumpur. He was allegedly there at the invitation of one of the top leaders from the Malaysian government, reports the South China Morning Post.

Ibrahim Mat Zin, also known as Raja Bomoh Sedunia Nujum VIP, or “Shaman King of the World Fortune-Telling VIP,” used bamboo binoculars and a fish trap as spiritual tools. He divined that the Malaysia Airlines plane is either still in the air or has crashed into the sea.

Both the shaman and the Malaysian government were ridiculed on social media by Chinese and Malaysian netizens. A total of 239 people were aboard the plane when it disappeared without a distress call on Saturday morning.


TIME Malaysia Airlines

Malaysian Official Denies Report That Missing Jet Flew for Hours

Malaysian Air Forces search the water for signs of debris from the Malaysian airliner during a search and rescue mission flight on March 13, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Rahman Roslan—Getty Images

Malaysia's defense minister denies U.S. investigators' claims that missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 flew for hours after it left radar screens

Updated: 7:17 a.m. EST on Thursday

Malaysia’s defense minister denied reports Thursday that the Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 may have stayed airborne for as much as four hours after it was lost from radar screens, the Associated Press reports.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier Thursday that U.S. investigators and national-security officials believe that data automatically downloaded and sent to a maintenance-and-monitoring program from the aircraft’s two Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines indicated that the plane may have remained in the air for much longer than previously believed.

That would mean the plane may have traveled more than 2,000 additional nautical miles, reaching points as far as the Pakistani border or even the Arabian Sea, said the Journal.

Acting Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that Rolls-Royce and Boeing, the maker of the Boeing 777, had denied the report, according to the AP.

Erin Atan, Rolls-Royce head of Asia-Pacific and Middle East communications, was unable to confirm or deny the Wall Street Journal reporter earlier when contacted by TIME, citing the terms of sharing information relating to an official accident investigation.

“We are monitoring the situation, and we have offered Malaysia Airlines and related parties all cooperation from the outset,” she said, naturally raising questions as to why this information, if accurate, was not shared with passengers’ families earlier.

On Wednesday, U.S. officials told AFP that American spy satellites detected no sign of a mid-air explosion when the jet vanished. Heat signatures from exploding aircraft have been used as a clue in previous incidents but none was spotted in this case, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Wall Street Journal report appeared to widen rather than shrink the search for Flight 370, which has entered its sixth day. Debris spotted in the South China Sea by Chinese satellites on Sunday — but only released overnight — has since been dismissed by Vietnamese officials who claim the area had already been “searched thoroughly.”

India has also now agreed to help out with efforts. “Malaysia and India are in contact on this since yesterday and contact points are being discussed. These contact points will ascertain what assistance is required and what India can offer,” a spokesman at New Delhi’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.

India boasts a large military command in its territory in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and operates navy patrols in the busy shipping routes of the Malacca Strait.

Flight 370 took off from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. on Saturday, heading for Beijing, with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board. Contact with Malaysian air-traffic control was lost after some 40 minutes over the Gulf of Thailand, at a height of around 10,700 m.

Vietnamese air-traffic control says the plane never entered its airspace, and conflicting reports have emerged that it may have turned back and been spotted by military radar on the northeastern side of the Malay Peninsula by Pulau Perak. No distress call was received.

A dozen countries are taking part in the search, with 42 ships and 39 aircraft involved. But efforts have been plagued with confusion and contradictory reports, and complaints increasingly hurled at the Malaysian authorities.

At his end of Congress press conference on Thursday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang revealed that the superpower had eight boats and 10 satellites trying to locate the plane. “As long as there is a glimmer of hope, we will not stop searching for the plane,” he told reporters gathered at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Of the 239 people on board, 153 were Chinese.

TIME Emerging Markets

Forget the BRICs; Meet the PINEs

University student interns monitor trading at the Philippine Stock Exchange in Manila's Makati financial district
University interns monitor trading at the Philippine Stock Exchange in the financial district of Makati, Philippines, on Feb. 7, 2014 Erik de Castro—Reuters

While many emerging markets are taking a beating, a fantastic growth story in the developing world is widening and drawing in new countries

Emerging markets are taking a beating these days, most of all the famous BRIC economies ­— Brazil, Russia, India and China. These four once seemed poised to dominate a post-American world. Not anymore. Brazil and India are posting growth rates that are only a fraction of what they were a couple of years ago. Russia’s prospects, already hampered by an overbearing state, are unlikely to improve as its aggressive moves into Ukraine could force Europe and the U.S. to impose economic sanctions. Even mighty China, while still notching admirable growth, must confront rising debt and a distorted financial system. The supremacy of the emerging world suddenly seems very far off.

But look past these headline grabbers, and you’ll find other emerging economies continuing to show economic strength. So for now, forget the BRICs; take a look at the PINEs. The PINE economies are the Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria and Ethiopia. I have to confess I made up this acronym, and I fear it isn’t quite as catchy as BRIC. But I’m trying to make a point here. What the PINEs represent is something very important for the future of the global economy and quest to alleviate poverty. The PINEs are all performing very well right now, and that shows that the advance of emerging economies is far from over. In fact, the fantastic growth story in the developing world is widening and deepening, drawing in countries and regions that had previously been left out.

Take, for instance, the Philippines. When most of East Asia emerged from colonial rule after World War II, the Philippines was considered one of the new countries with the greatest potential for development. Sadly, things didn’t turn out that way. As much of the rest of East Asia zoomed ahead on its economic miracle, the Philippines got left behind. Millions of Filipinos were forced to search for jobs around the world, creating a diaspora from Hong Kong to Dubai. Now, though, the Philippines has become one of the region’s best performers. Even after getting smashed by Typhoon Haiyan last year, GDP still surged by 7.2%, and the IMF expects the country to post similar rates over the next several years.

(MORE: The BRICs Have Hit a Wall)

Indonesia has staged a comeback as well. Though the Southeast Asian giant had been a strong performer in the past (during the early 1990s, for instance), political upheaval and regional conflicts scared off investors, especially after its 1997 financial crisis. But now Indonesia has returned to the ranks of the world’s most desirable emerging economies, thanks to a stable democracy and a burgeoning consumer market. Foreign direct investment increased a hefty 17% last year. Though the stampede from emerging markets after the U.S. Federal Reserve signaled it would scale back its stimulus efforts pummeled the country’s currency, and growth dipped a bit last year, the economy is still forecast to growth at about 6% annually over the next several years.

The strong performances of Nigeria and Ethiopia are even more exciting. Africa generally stood on the sidelines while Asia and other parts of the developing world experienced giant gains in welfare over the past half-century, but now, finally, the continent seems to be joining the party. Nigeria is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and has long been seen as a potential economic heavyweight, and now that a more stable government is implementing some much needed reform, investors are flocking into the nation. Ethiopia may be even more exciting. Once synonymous with poverty, peace and strong economic management have turned the nation around. The International Monetary Fund sees growth in the 7% range in the coming years for both countries, and there’s even talk of a group of “lion economies” rising up in the same way the “tigers” of Asia did in the late 20th century.

There are, of course, risks that these countries will falter, if politics or corruption gets in the way. And though the advance of the PINEs may not have the same global impact as the BRICs —­ China and India are so big they’re in a class by themselves —­ the PINEs still represent a major opportunity for international companies to invest, expand and find new customers. The PINEs, after all, have a combined population of about 600 million people. So don’t be too quick to dismiss the emerging-markets story. The meek may yet inherit the world.

MORE: Viewpoint: How Elections Could Impact Five Emerging Economies

TIME Pope Franics

Pope Francis Celebrates a Year of Change at the Vatican

Pope Francis holds his weekly general audience on March 5, 2014 at St. Peter's square in Vatican City.
Pope Francis holds his weekly general audience on March 5, 2014 at St. Peter's square in Vatican City. Andreas Solara—AFP/Getty Images

A year after becoming the first non-European pope in more than a millennium, the Argentine pontiff continues to challenge the status quo. That's evident again in his choice to celebrate his first year, untraditionally, outside the walls of the Holy See

Pope Francis has spent his first year in office challenging Vatican custom and the he’ll celebrate the anniversary of his papacy in the same fashion, as the first pope in decades to mark the occasion outside the Vatican walls.

The first non-European pope in more than a millennium will spend the week of preaching and prayer at a retreat with the Roman Curia in a small town 15 miles from the Vatican. The decision to break with tradition by leading the Curia—the Vatican bureaucracy—outside the Holy See for his one-year anniversary evokes Francis’ efforts to reform a church he has criticized for being too insular.

The Vatican has also marked Francis’ first year in office with the release of an e-book that compiles quotations from the pope’s first year in office.

In the 12 months since he succeeded the conservative and tradition-bound Pope Benedict, Francis hasn’t shied from challenging Vatican rules and Catholic custom. He travels in a Ford Focus rather than the papal limousine; he lives in the Vatican hotel rather than the Vatican’s papal apartments; he raised traditionalist eyebrows when, on a flight after a visit to Brazil, he was asked his opinion on homosexuality and answered, “Who am I to judge?” The Argentine-born pope—and TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year—has imbued his office with rare rock star status. He has initiated a profound change in style—if not always in underlying substance—at the Vatican that many believe is reinvigorating the world’s largest religion.

TIME Turkey

Protests Rock Turkey as Thousands Attend Teenager’s Istanbul Funeral

The coffin of Berkin Elvan is carried on March 11, 2014, in Istanbul. Berkin Elvan, who has been in a coma since June 2013 after being struck in the head by a gas canister during a police crackdown on protesters, died earlier on the day.
The coffin of Berkin Elvan is carried on March 11, 2014, in Istanbul. Berkin Elvan, who has been in a coma since June 2013 after being struck in the head by a gas canister during a police crackdown on protesters, died earlier on the day. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrations erupted across the country after Berkin Elvan, 15, the boy who fell into a coma after being struck by a police tear gas canister fired at close range, died following a 269-day battle to stay alive

Barricades smoldered. Stones and debris littered the streets. Protesters stumbled into shops, cafés and private apartments to flee clouds of tear gas, while parts of Istanbul’s city center resonated with the sound of pitched battles between demonstrators and riot police. The scenes that played out in Turkey’s biggest city on Wednesday didn’t just remind its residents of last summer’s anti-government protests; they also reminded many of them that the grievances that fueled those protests, far from fading away, had since multiplied.

Technically speaking, the unrest that erupted last June, which began in downtown Istanbul and spread across Turkey, had never come to a complete halt. Over the past months, neighborhoods in a number of western Turkish cities, including Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, have seen demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a regular basis, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The event that sparked Wednesday’s protests, the latest and biggest since last summer, was the death of a boy.

On June 16, at the height of the Gezi Park clashes, Berkin Elvan, 14 at the time, stepped out of his house in Istanbul’s Okmeydani district to buy bread from a nearby store. Moments later, he was struck in the head by a police tear gas canister fired at close range.

This Tuesday, after 269 days in a coma, having withered away, he died. His bodyweight had dropped to 35 pounds.

On Wednesday, the day of his funeral, tens of thousands of people swarmed a wide avenue in Istanbul’s Sisli district to accompany the young man’s coffin to a nearby cemetery. Some of the mourners carried carnations, others brought along pictures of the smiling, unibrowed Elvan. A few carried loaves of bread: one man had inserted a tear gas canister into his.

Last summer’s chants mixed in with those borne of a more recent political crisis. “Killer police,” yelled some protesters. “Thief,” others shouted, alluding to a corruption scandal that first boiled to the surface in mid-December, ensnaring Erdogan and a number of government ministers in the process.

As the cortège moved through Sisli, a stronghold of the main opposition party, en route to the cemetery, women leaned out of neighboring buildings, banging on pots and pans. Passersby applauded. Banners of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), prepared ahead of the coming local elections, lay on the ground, some of them set aflame.

On the side of the road, surrounded by a flock of photographers, stood Sirri Sureyya Onder. A politician from a small leftist party, Onder had become one of the leading figures in last year’s protests after standing his ground against a bulldozer dispatched to clear trees from Gezi Park. He had come, he said, to proclaim “the savage killing of a defenseless child cannot go unpunished.” Of Erdogan, he simply said, “He will be judged.”

In recent days, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and a number of government ministers had expressed their condolences to the Elvan family. Erdogan has yet to do so.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said an investigation had been launched into the young boy’s death. “Whoever is responsible for the young boy’s death or whoever was negligent in the series of events that led to his death will be revealed,” he said. But a statement issued on Tuesday by Human Rights Watch complained that “no effective investigation” had been carried out into Elvan’s killing “or for the serious head injuries incurred by dozens of others.”

The Wednesday protests were to claim their own victims. Late at night Turkish media reported that Ahmet Kucuktag, a police officer, had died of a heart attack induced by tear gas at another protest in the eastern province of Tunceli. Another man was killed in armed clashes between residents and protesters in Kurtulus, an Istanbul neighborhood.

On the way back from Elvan’s funeral, with police squadrons blocking the road leading to the main city square on which the mourners intended to march, clashes broke out. Amidst a hail of tear gas and rubber bullets, people scrambled to find shelter in shops and apartment buildings. A young woman ran into the lobby of a residential building, reeling from the effects of the tear gas, and passed out. On the other side of the street, a group of people huddled inside a kebab shop. Outside, men wearing gas masks lobbed stones at the riot police. Flames rose from behind barricades.

About a mile south, police trucks mounted with water cannons roared up and down Istiklal Avenue, the city’s main promenade, sending protesters and dazed tourists alike scurrying into the side streets. Every once in a while, the police came under a hail of rocks, bottles and fireworks. A waiter, his eyes red from the tear gas, commiserated with the mourners, he said, but complained that a new wave of protests threatened to ruin his restaurant and other businesses in the neighborhood.

Yildiray Yilmaz, a shopkeeper in his 40s, a white surgical mask dangling from his left ear, stormed down the street, stopping in front of every group of riot police he encountered. “Don’t be the AKP’s police, you’re supposed to be the people’s police,” he yelled at them. “They may be gone one day, but we’re here to stay.”

TIME diplomacy

U.S. Judge Dismisses Charges Against Indian Diplomat

Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, center, accompanied by her father Uttam Khobragade, arrives at the domestic airport in Mumbai on Jan. 14, 2014. Punit Paranjpe—AFP/Getty Images

A federal judge dismisses charges against Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade after her strip search sparked an international uproar against the U.S.

A U.S. federal judge on Wednesday dismissed charges against an Indian diplomat whose arrest and strip-search sparked public outcry in India.

In the original indictment, prosecutors alleged Devyani Khobragade fraudulently obtained a work visa for her maid and lied on an official document about how much the maid was paid, the Associated Press reports. Prosecutors allege the maid was compensated less than $3 per hour.

“The judge did what the law required, and that is: that a criminal proceeding against an individual with immunity must be dismissed,” the diplomat’s attorney said. “She’s (Khobragade’s) hugely frustrated by what has occurred. She is heartened that the rule of law prevailed.”

After her arrest Khobragade complied with an order from the State Department that she leave the U.S. A U.S. diplomat was subsequently withdrawn from India at that country’s request.



Satellite Images Point to Possible Crash Site for Missing Jet

A satellite image of what the Chinese government said is a possible crash site near the Gulf of Thailand for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished on Saturday CCRSD—AFP / Getty Images

A series of satellite images released by the Chinese government may offer the first solid leads in the 5-day hunt for a vanished Malaysia Airlines 777

The Chinese government released satellite images Wednesday that it said might show the location where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 crashed, according to state media, a potential but unconfirmed clue of happened to the jet five days after it vanished without a trace.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the images released by China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense show “a suspected plane crash at sea,” CNN reports. The agency announced it discovered “three suspected floating objects and their sizes” on Sunday but waited until Wednesday to release the information, the Associated Press reports. The location —near the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea—coincides with the presumed flight path the Boeing 777 was taking from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing before it disappeared from radar on Saturday with 239 people on board.

The days-long search effort has yielded little in the way of clues so far, and it was impossible to immediately verify if the Chinese images are of the actual crash site. Though the site is near the presumed flight path, the Malaysian military said Tuesday that the jet had veered wildly off course. The objects discovered at sea are 13 meters by 18 meters, 14 meters by 19 meters, and 24, meters by 22 meters, according to state media.

The Malaysian military in a Wednesday press conference confirmed reports it recorded but disregarded radar data over the weekend that may be related to the missing jet. While those readings showing a potential unidentified aircraft could’ve triggered a sortie to identity the source of the signals, the Malaysian military took no such action, per the New York Times.

The flight never sent out a distress signal before it went missing. Apart from the possible evidence in the Chinese satellite images, a massive and still-growing international search effort has thus far found no concrete trace of the airliner. Families of the passengers have been stuck in a painful limbo since the disappearance.

Update: This story was updated at 9:24 p.m. ET to include a reference to the Malaysian military’s unconfirmed radar sightings.

TIME Ukraine

Armed Cossacks Flock to Crimea to Help Russian Annexation Bid

Cossacks guard the local parliament building in Crimea's capital Simferopol, March 6, 2014.
Cossacks guard the local parliament building in Crimea's capital Simferopol on March 6, 2014 Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Armed groups of Cossacks from across the area are flocking to the disputed region to help Moscow wrest it from Ukraine in hopes they'll be rewarded by being integrated into Russia's primary security apparatus after the takeover is complete

On Monday morning, about 150 Cossack officers got together in Crimea, the breakaway region of Ukraine, and lined up in formation on the central square of the regional capital Simferopol. Bundled up against the winds that blew in that day from the Black Sea, they made for a sorry sight, disheveled and grumpy, like a reunion of elderly veterans kitted out in old, mismatching camouflage gear. But their commander, Vladimir Cherkashin, stood before them in a leather jacket and military cap to say their fortunes were about to change.

Next week, a referendum on Crimea’s independence from Ukraine will open the door for Russia to annex the entire Crimean Peninsula, and for the local Cossack paramilitary groups, that marks the opportunity of a lifetime. It would mean a chance to be integrated into the Russian security forces — just like their Cossack brothers to the east have been under Russian President Vladimir Putin. “That means state recognition, it means training for our cadets,” Cherkashin explained to his Cossack commanders, who are known as atamans. “It’s status. You understand? It’s all about finances!” At this, the group of men looked around at one another and grumbled in approval. Then, at Cherkashin’s command, they shouted the celebratory Cossack salute — “Lyubo!”

For the past two weeks, the Cossacks — a caste of warriors who have guarded the borders of the Russian empire for centuries — have played a key role in the Russian occupation of Crimea. They have manned checkpoints on its highways, guarded the headquarters of its separatist government, patrolled the streets with their ceremonial whips in hand and are now helping build and defend fortifications on the de facto Crimean border with Ukraine. Through it all, they have had ample help from Russia’s professional and state-sponsored Cossack forces, who have come by the thousands to defend what they see as historically Russian lands.

“Cossacks have no borders,” said Nikolai Pervakov, the first deputy commander of Russia’s Kuban Cossack legion, who is leading their mission to Crimea from his usual base of operations in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar. Appearing on the square alongside Cherkashin on Monday, he told TIME that a few thousand of his men have come to Crimea from Russia, all with the express approval of the Kremlin. After inspecting the bedraggled ranks of his Crimean comrades, Pervakov gave a short speech on their fraternal ties. “We are a united people, people of the same faith, traditions, customs. Our lives are linked,” he told them. “So we need to be like a clenched and monolithic fist. Only then will we have victory.”

The links that bind Cossacks around the world can be mystifying for outsiders and hard to pin down. They are largely Slavic but come from many other ethnic groups as well, and they speak various languages. Some are born Cossacks while others are initiated into their martial traditions. Their zealous devotion to the Orthodox Christian religion tends to unite them, although different Cossack groups follow different denominations of that faith. Through history, they have rebelled against the Russian empire and marched alongside its armies to fight common enemies, including the Turks, the British and the Khans of Central Asia. Conflicts and upheavals have scattered them for centuries around the world, and there are vibrant communities of Cossacks as far afield as New Jersey, where their ancestors wound up after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 tried to purge them from the Soviet Union. But what unites the Cossacks in Crimea with their allies in Russia today is a common belief that Moscow should command the Slavic world, most crucially including eastern and southern Ukraine.

For the Cossacks of Crimea, that victory could mark a total transformation. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s succession of leaders, regardless of whether they leaned toward Russia or the West, have treated the local Crimean Cossacks with great suspicion. Their commanders in Crimea have spread militant notions of Slavic unity among their young cadets. All of that has attracted scrutiny from Ukraine’s security services in recent years. Under the rule of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russia-leaning leader who was deposed in a revolution last month, Crimea’s leading Cossacks were investigated for training paramilitary groups and speaking out in support of separatism, both of which are illegal in Ukraine. Some of them have had their Cossack training camps raided by police in search of weapons. Others have been deported to Russia on charges of inciting ethnic hatred.

All of that stands in stark contrast to the lives of their fellow Cossacks in Russia. In 2005, Putin signed a law called “On the State Service of the Russian Cossacks,” which gave them the status of a state-backed militia, complete with government paychecks. Under that law, Putin, in his role as commander in chief, is the only one who can assign someone the rank of Cossack general. Other officer ranks in the Cossack hierarchy, which is distinct from the rest of the Russian military’s pecking order, must be approved by the Kremlin Council for Cossack Affairs. That law also granted more than 600,000 officially registered Cossacks in Russia the rights to fulfill various functions usually controlled by the state. This includes the right to defend border regions, guard national forests, organize military training for young cadets, fight terrorism, protect local government buildings and administrative sites and provide the vague service of “defending social order.”

It seemed to be in the latter capacity that they patrolled the streets of Sochi during last month’s Winter Olympic Games, even greeting arrivals in the airport terminal dressed in their signature lambskin hats and knee-high leather boots. Vladimir Davydov, a local Cossack officer and a member of the Sochi city council, saw the Games as a historic chance to demonstrate the usefulness of Cossacks to the Kremlin. “Our entire history we have served the sovereign, the motherland,” he told TIME a few weeks before the Games began. “Now that role is restored.” If the Kremlin calls on them, he said, the Cossacks can field a force of 50,000 armed irregulars in the region surrounding Sochi. “The Olympics will be our chance to prove our worth.”

Throughout the Games, they seemed to do that with flying colors, though not without one appalling show of force. On Feb. 19, a few days before the closing ceremony of the Games, a group of activists from the protest group Pussy Riot tried to film an anti-Putin music video in Sochi. But just as the young women pulled on their colorful balaclavas and started dancing around, a group of uniformed Cossacks ran up to them, sprayed them in the face with pepper spray, hit them with whips, yanked them by the hair and dragged them away kicking and screaming. Under current Ukrainian law, that kind of attack would have gotten the Cossacks arrested for battery. In Russia, even during the Olympics, it was part of their paid service to the state.

The allure of becoming a formally recognized militia force seems to have made Crimea’s Cossacks even more gung ho about the Russian annexation of their peninsula. “Our priority right now is to make sure the referendum goes as planned,” Cherkashin told me on March 9, just after he held a meeting with the new de facto leader of Crimea, the separatist prime minister Sergei Aksyonov. Watching Russian state TV in a waiting area outside Aksyonov’s office that afternoon, Cherkashin said Cossack volunteers from across Russia and the former Soviet Union have been offering to come help Crimea break away from Ukraine. “These two Cossacks in Armenia called me on Skype the other day,” he said. “They held two Kalashnikovs in front of the camera and said they’re ready to ride.”

But Cherkashin, who is also a member of the Crimean parliament, has had to decline most of these offers. Flooding the peninsula with various Cossack vigilantes would not be good for “keeping order,” he said, and besides, they have enough support from Pervakov and the Kuban Cossack legion as it is. After the morning lineup on the square in Simferopol, the highest-ranking commanders walked over to a nearby church — The Cathedral of Holy Mary Magdalene, Equal to the Apostles — for a private powwow. It began with a blessing from a local priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, Vitali Liskevich, who prayed for the Lord to defend the righteous mission of the Cossacks in Crimea. After that, Pervakov, the Cossack envoy from Russia, walked into the hall with a sheaf of papers, and this reporter was asked to leave the room.

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