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Thursday, 31 January 2008

1 February 2008

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to the US, weather permitting, to taste for myself the full delights of the presidential election campaign as it enters what may well be its most crucial week.

But before I leave, winter woollies safely packed, I thought I should draw your attention to another election which may well have some impact on the way the rest of 2008 unfolds. On Sunday, the people of Serbia will be voting in the second round of their presidential election – and what they decide could have a profound influence on the future of the Balkans.

Remember the Balkans? The wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo? It was less than 15 years ago, when a corner of Europe was in flames – tens of thousands of people were killed, injured and traumatised, hundreds of thousands fled their homes in terror.

So on Sunday the people of Serbia have a choice, and as Serbia has long been the dominant power in this part of Europe, their neighbours are watching anxiously. The candidates are Boris Tadic, the incumbent (usually described as “pro-Western, liberal”, in other words the good guy), and Tomislav Nikolic (“pro-Russian nationalist”, in other words, the bad guy).

And if Mr Nikolic wins on Sunday, it’s more than likely that within just a few days, the province of Kosovo will unilaterally declare its independence from Serbia and mark the beginning of a new and dangerous chapter in Balkan history.

Remember Kosovo? To the Serbs, it is the cradle of their history and their culture, home to some of the most beautiful Serbian Orthodox medieval monasteries (I have visited some of them, and, believe me, they are very beautiful). But the vast majority of the people who live there now are ethnic Albanians, and to them Serbia is a menacing threat, an oppressor whose shackles were broken with the help of NATO back in 1999 and must now be hurled away once and for all.

The US, the UK and many other EU nations believe independence is the only answer for Kosovo. And if Mr Nikolic is to be the next Serbian president, they’ll see little point in pressuring Kosovo’s leaders to delay their declaration of independence. If it’s Mr Tadic, on the other hand, they may still try to slow things down a bit, in the hope that by continuing to dangle the prospect of eventual EU membership, they may be able to gain some extra leverage.

Here’s what might happen as soon as Kosovo declares independence: the Serb minority might pack their bags and either huddle in the few remaining Serb enclaves or flee into Serbia “proper”. The Serb authorities might halt all trade across the “frontier” with a territory they will regard as a secessionist province and maybe even cut off energy supplies. Moscow will react with fury against what it will call a Western plot to destabilise the region.

The US and some EU nations – the UK, France and Germany – will immediately recognise the new “nation”. Others – Greece, Romania, Slovakia – will wait a bit. Kosovo’s leaders will ask the UN to recognise them as a new member state; Russia will block the application.

And so the stage will be set for many months of tension, uncertainty, fear and anger. Not an enticing prospect.

I hope to be on air from the US next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – and I’ll try to blog as I go. If you haven’t found the blog yet, now’s a good time to look for it: it’s at www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight.

Friday, 25 January 2008

25 January 2008

What values do we share as British citizens? Or, let me rephrase the question: are there any values that we share? What does a 17-year-old Muslim in Bradford have in common with a 77-year-old Christian in Brighton? Or a 30-year-old single parent in Galloway with a 60-year-old grand-parent in Gosport?

A government discussion document published last year said: “There is common ground between British citizens, and many cultural traits and traditions that we can all recognise as distinctively British.”

So, what are those cultural traits and traditions? I ask because tonight (25 January) we’re going to be broadcasting a special edition of The World Tonight in which we try to answer some of these questions.

Here’s another quote from that government Green Paper: “It is important to be clearer about what it means to be British, what it means to be part of British society and, crucially, to be resolute in making the point that what comes with that is a set of values which have not just to be shared but also accepted. There is room to celebrate multiple and different identities, but none of these identities should take precedence over the core democratic values that define what it means to be British.”

I tackled some of these issues in one of the first pieces I wrote on my blog, back in October, when a government minister suggested that Britain and Saudi Arabia had many values in common. I quoted the dictionary definition of what “values” are: “the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard.”

We can list half a dozen such values which the vast majority of us would happily sign up to without much difficulty: democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, sexual equality. But suppose you’re a British citizen who doesn’t believe in democracy? Does that mean you’re not entitled to a British passport? Should being prepared to sign up to an agreed set of values be a requirement of citizenship?

What it comes down to is simply this: is there something that marks us out as British rather than French, or American, or Australian? I came across this definition just a few days ago: “Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way home, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all is suspicion of all things foreign.”

In Prospect magazine late last year, the writer Duncan Fallowell came up with this: “You should hate liars and cheats and those who won’t play the game. You should be able to take a joke. You should dislike extremes. You should be bad at dancing and sex and incapable of either without being drunk. You should resist invasion of your personal or national space. You should ignore what you dislike but give to charity. You should protect the countryside. You should respect the sovereign. You should say what you think. You should be classical on the outside and romantic within. You should put religion in the back seat and make sure it bloody well stays there. You should acknowledge your amazingly good fortune.”

Or how about this list of supposedly quintessential British traits, from the historian Timothy Garton Ash? “Tolerance, common decency, respect for the law, an instinct for fair play, good-neighbourliness, a tendency to support the underdog, a love of sport, much shared complaining about the weather and, last but not least, a highly developed national sense of humour.”

The government’s Green Paper says: “The Government believes that there is considerable merit in a fuller articulation of British values. Through an inclusive process of national debate it will work with the public to develop a British statement of values that will set out the ideals and principles that bind us together as a nation.”

So let’s have that debate. I hope you can listen to the programme, either tonight, or online via the website, where you’ll also be able to hear it for seven days after transmission by using the Listen Again facility. And do let me have your thoughts …

Friday, 18 January 2008

18 January 2008

I’m glad I’m not the hapless individual who has to prepare a digest of Middle East press comment for President Bush after his trip round the region. He wouldn’t like it much.

He’d like it even less if I pointed out to him that in most of the countries he visited, the newspapers are either controlled by, or are close to, those very same leaders who received him with such apparent warmth and showered him with gifts.

Just a couple of examples to give you a flavour: the Saudi Gazette, which undiplomatically contrasted Mr Bush’s visit with that of another guest dignitary – “It would be difficult to argue that French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to the Kingdom was not in almost every way a success … It's refreshing to see a Western leader come to the Kingdom speaking of peace rather than just issuing warnings …” Ouch.

And the Jeddah-based Arab News: "It is impossible to feel any excitement about Bush's words, because no Palestinian, no Arab, believes he will, or can, deliver.”

In Beirut, which was not on the President’s itinerary, a commentator in Al-Mustaqbal wrote: “No country in the world has been more successful than the United States in making itself hated by nations, especially among the poor classes, the marginalised, and the liberals …”

The bloggers were no kinder. In Bahrain, they complained bitterly about the disruption caused by the Presidential cavalcade. “Roads were blocked all over … George W simply screwed up our day. It’s amazing, just by being here he can screw things up! It's like he has an aura around him or something!”

In Israel, the complaint was exactly the same. “Jerusalem traffic has already slowed to about half its usual speed. Military choppers keep buzzing overhead in both Jerusalem and Ramallah ... People are avoiding making appointments for the next couple of days. This had better be good.”

The President had two priorities on this week-long tour: to persuade Arab leaders to take seriously his belief that there can be peace between Israelis and Palestinians before the end of the year, and to share his conviction that Iran remains the biggest threat in the region. He seems to have made little headway on either.

On Iran, the English-language Beirut-based Daily Star wrote: “Arab audiences still seem less worried today about the possibly nefarious aims of the Islamic Republic than they are about the US president's proven track record of stirring up chaos and instability in the region. Indeed, fears that another Iraq-style calamity will occur on their doorstep have prompted several Gulf Arab leaders to reach out to their Iranian neighbors like never before in a bid to ease regional tensions.”

As for his insistence that the US is promoting the spread of democracy in the region, critical commentators pointed to the countries he visited – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt – in all of which democracy is conspicuous mainly by its absence.

The New York Times, reporting on the President’s three-hour visit to Egypt, said: “President Bush lavished praise on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt … emphasising the country’s role in regional security and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while publicly avoiding mention of the government’s actions in jailing or exiling opposition leaders and its severe restrictions on opposition political activities.”

In a year from now, Mr Bush will be preparing to leave the White House at the end of his eight years in office. I have the distinct impression that those he met over the past week have already made a note in their diaries. “January 21, 2009: phone White House. Talk to new President.”

By the way, next Friday, the 25th, we’re planning a special programme in which we’ll be debating “British values”. As you may recall, Gordon Brown has said he wants to “engage people around the country in a discussion on citizenship and British values.” So that’s what we’re going to do, with the minister responsible, Michael Wills, and a panel of guests. If you have any thoughts that you’d like me to throw into the pot, drop me a line …

Friday, 11 January 2008

11 January 2007

Confused? Sorry, folks, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. So here, as a public service, is the Lustig cut-out-and-keep Survival Guide to US Elections 2008.

1. Disregard any report that contains the words “What these results show clearly is …” The results of the primaries won’t show anything clearly at least until February 5, Super Tuesday. After that, with voters in about half of the states having chosen their candidates, we may, repeat may, have a clearer idea of what’s in store.

2. Don’t say it’s boring. It’s not. Think of it as a TV drama: great characters, improbable story lines, unexpected twists. After Labor Day (September 1), you can start taking it seriously.

3. Ignore anyone who tells you it’s all about how nicely Barack Obama smiles. Or how vulnerable Hillary Clinton looked when she cried. It’s not. Or maybe it is. No one knows.

4. Don’t forget that the Republicans might win. Just because none of their candidates is a woman or black doesn’t mean they’re not interesting.

5. Memorise a couple of interesting little facts with which to impress your friends and neighbours. For example: This is the first Presidential campaign since 1928 in which neither a President nor a Vice-President will be a candidate.

Here’s another one: If the eventual winner is Obama, Clinton or McCain, it’ll be the first time a Senator has made it to the White House since John F Kennedy in 1961. (Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush had all been Vice-Presidents; Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush were all former State Governors.)

Or how about this one? If the eventual winner is boy wonder Barack Obama, who’ll be 47 on inauguration day, he’ll still be older than either JFK (43), or Bill Clinton (46).

6. Don’t believe anyone who says Barack Obama is doing better than any previous black Presidential candidate. In 1988, Jesse Jackson won seven primaries (Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Virginia) and four caucuses (Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina and Vermont). So far, Mr Obama has won one. But admittedly, 20 years ago, Jackson was never likely to win Iowa.

7. Keep an eye on the delegate count. Yes, it’s complicated, but it’s what matters. The winning candidate is whoever has most delegates at the party conventions in the summer. The current tally for the Democrats is: Clinton 183; Obama 78; Edwards 52. (Total needed: 2,025) On the Republican side it’s Romney 30; Huckabee 21; McCain 10. (Total needed: 1,191)

8. Don’t believe all this stuff about how for the first time, young voters are getting excited by the contest. Four years ago, they were going just as wild for Howard Dean (who?). And greybeards like me remember someone called Eugene McCarthy, who in 1968 was the hero of the young anti-Vietnam war generation. He didn’t win either.

See? Easy, isn’t it?

Friday, 4 January 2008

4 January 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot this week, for all the obvious reasons, about elections. Election caucuses in snowy Iowa; deferred elections in Pakistan; disputed elections in Kenya.

We can leave Iowa for another day. There’ll be plenty more opportunities between now and 4 November to talk about who’s going to be the next US President. In Pakistan and Kenya, however, people have been dying because of elections, or at least because of election-generated anger.

When I lived in Uganda 40 years ago, Nairobi, the capital of neighbouring Kenya, was where we went for weekends of glamour, bright lights and sophistication. It was a long and dusty drive – but worth it. Nairobi was, after Johannesburg, the most modern, vibrant capital city in Africa.

But even then, with independence hero Jomo Kenyatta as President, there was resentment at what was often seen as the domination by the Kikuyu. They may make up only a fifth of the population, but they have long been seen as the most powerful group in the country.

So anti-Kikuyu resentment is an important part of what has fuelled this week’s violence. President Mwai Kibaki is, like Kenyatta, a Kikuyu; the opposition leader Raila Odinga is, like his late father, Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president who fell out with Kenyatta, a Luo.

But it’s not the whole story. Many Kenyans thought that last week’s election would mark a watershed in the country’s political history, the moment when leadership passed to a new generation. They feel robbed by the old guard, the elite who have held on to power for so long. And the poorest feel that, once again, they have been robbed by the richest.

In Pakistan, it’s a different story – although dynastic politics play as important a role there as they do in Kenya. My reading of what is happening in Pakistan is that we’re witnessing a particularly brutal power play. On one side, the military and those allied with them (including some Islamist groups); on the other, the Bhutto clan whom the military have never trusted. (I am not suggesting that the military killed Benazir, although many Pakistanis are suggesting precisely that.)

Elections are, of course, an essential part of any democracy. But we must also recognise that they can deepen and sharpen divisions, sometimes, as we have seen over the past two weeks, with violent consequences. And elections alone are not enough: for a democracy to be worthy of the name, it needs to encompass a free media, an independent and impartial judiciary, and guaranteed freedom of association.

I have reported on elections in many different parts of the world over the years: in Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Usually, but not always, people vote in a spirit of hope: now, they say, perhaps things will get better.

In Kenya, at least for those who voted for opposition candidates, the hopes have been dashed, at least for now. In Pakistan, for Benazir Bhutto’s supporters, the hopes are on hold. In Iowa, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are, for now, the “hope” candidates. (Mr Huckabee, like Bill Clinton, even comes from a town called Hope.) In all three places, those who want change believe they can, or ought to be able to, achieve it at the ballot box. That’s democracy for you.