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Friday, 30 April 2010

30 April 2010

I imagine you’ve had better things to do over the past few days than keep a beady eye on what Russsia has been up to. After all, that’s what I’m here for.

(And if you promise to read to the end, I’ll tell you what I think is going to happen in the UK general election next Thursday.)

But first Russia – which may be but a shadow of its former self, but is still a major power, one of the world’s biggest energy suppliers, nuclear-armed, and with a clear determination not to be taken for granted.

So here are three recent developments which I think are worth bearing in mind.

First, Kyrgyzstan. You’ll remember I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago. Small, poor, but strategically important ex-Soviet republic in central Asia, where the autocratic president was overthrown and driven into exile by an uprising/revolution/coup d’etat (delete according to taste).

I suggested two weeks ago that super-power rivalry may have played a part in events there. Certainly, both the US and Russia have a close interest in what happens – and it is now becoming increasingly clear that the new regime in Bishkek is much more to Moscow’s liking than its ousted predecessor. Some analysts in Washington believe Russia has scored a significant diplomatic coup, leaving US influence in the region markedly weaker.

Second, Ukraine. You may have seen some extraordinary scenes on TV earlier in the week, when members of the Ukrainian parliament came to blows. According to The Economist: “Eggs flew at the speaker, who sheltered under umbrellas. Flares filled the chamber with stinking smoke. Fisticuffs broke out beside a giant national flag stretched over the seats.”

What had upset some opposition MPs was a deal negotiated with Moscow by the newly elected president, Viktor Yanukovich, under which Ukraine agreed to allow the Russian navy to retain its Black Sea fleet base in the Crimea until 2042, in return for a 30 per cent discount on Russian gas prices.

It means, of course, that Russia retains its military presence in Ukraine. It also means, by extension, that Ukraine will not be joining NATO any time soon. So, you could argue, another success for Moscow in its continuing power game with Washington.

Alternatively, you could say Ukraine is simply buying itself a bit more time to learn to live with less Russian gas. Either way, the Russian navy stays in its Black Sea base, which matters to Moscow.

The third development to which I would draw your attention arises out of the death in a plane crash on 10 April of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski on his way to mark the 70th anniversary of the murders of 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviets in Katyn in 1940.

For decades, Moscow denied that the massacre had anything to do with them. More recently it has owned up, and two days ago, it posted official documents about the murders on a government website. One Polish historian was quoted as saying the decision was a “breakthough” in relations between the two countries.

So, what does this all add up to? Three countries, all of them of substantial interest to Washington and its allies, all now on the receiving end of what could be seen as a Russian charm offensive. Nothing wrong with charm, of course, which is certainly preferable to the deployment of columns of tanks, which used to be Moscow’s favoured way of exerting influence on its neighbours.

Nor would I suggest that we’re witnessing a return to the bad old days of the Cold War. What we may be witnessing, however, is evidence that Moscow has learned how to make friends and influence people by using carrots rather than sticks. And that it is perfectly prepared to distribute those carrots wherever it seems to be in the Russian national interest.

It’s not the only country that does this, of course. China, for example, is using trade and investment as a way of winning new friends – and Western nations have been doing much the same for aeons.

Does it matter? I think it does – remember how we saw at the climate change conference in Copenhagen last December that newly-emerging power blocs can play a major role in international diplomacy. That’s why I thought it was worth bringing to your attention.

Ah yes, the election. After last night’s final leaders’ debate, my forecast is that the Conservatives will win next week with a small overall majority. Which just happens to be exactly what I forecast in my New Year predictions on 1 January: “The UK general election will be on 6 May; Gordon Brown will still be Prime Minister; the entire campaign will be dominated by discussion and dissection of the TV leaders' debates, which in the end will make little difference to the outcome: a Conservative victory with a slim Commons majority of 15-30.”

If I was wrong then, I’m wrong again now. By this time next week, we should know.

Friday, 23 April 2010

23 April 2010

A friend of mine complained a couple of days ago that the only news she'd heard all week was either about the election or volcanic ash. "What I want to know," she said, "is what's been happening in the rest of the world."

So I shall keep my promise to steer clear of election news on this blog (you have no idea how hard it is) - and this week I'll try to bring you up to date with developments in Thailand.

Perhaps you've been there on holiday or on business. You may have wandered through the vast shopping malls of Bangkok, or marvelled at the seediness of the Patpong red-light district. But if you'd been there this week, you would have found yourself in the middle of what could be a revolution-in-the-making.

Last night, at least one person was reported killed and dozens were injured when grenades were thrown in the centre of Bangkok's business district. It was the latest incident during six weeks of protests by thousands of anti-government protesters who are demanding immediate elections.

Who are these protesters? Allow me to introduce the "red shirts", largely poor and from the country's rural areas, supporters of the former prime minister, billionaire and one-time owner of Manchester City football club, Thaksin Shinawatra.

He was ousted in a military coup in 2006, has since been convicted of corruption, and is now living in exile in London and Dubai. Earlier this month, 25 people were killed on the streets of Bangkok when the security forces tried unsuccessfully to clear the streets of protesters.

Perhaps you remember the "yellow shirts". They too were anti-government protesters, but they were protesting two years ago against the previous government, which was closely allied to Thaksin. They were mainly royalists, businesspeople and members of the urban middle class - and they won their battle by occupying Bangkok's main international airport and threatening to throttle Thailand's economic lifeline, tourism.

So now the tables are turned and the crisis has escalated dangerously. Yesterday it was reported that the protesters had seized a military supply train in the north-east of the country and captured hundreds of troops.

Meanwhile, what of the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 82 years old and in frail health? He's been on the throne since 1946 and is the world's longest-serving head of state. Traditionally, at times of crisis, he has acted behind the scenes to defuse tensions.

But not this time. Thailand's draconian laws prevent open discussion of the king or his role in public affairs, but just last week, speaking in Washington, the Thai foreign minister broke the taboo.

Kasit Piromya said: "I think we have to talk about the institution of the monarchy, how it would have to reform itself to the modern globalised world. Everything is now becoming in the open. Let's have a discussion: what type of democratic society would we like to be?"

The country is on the brink. It is deeply split between the privileged urban elite and the rural poor, and now the army is warning of a crack-down unless the protesters disperse. But the protesters are reported to be fortifying their encampment in the centre of Bangkok with barricades made out of bamboo poles and car tyres.

The current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva (pronounced Apisit Wetchacheewa), was born in Newcastle and educated at Eton and Oxford. He has declared a state of emergency and ordered the army to shut down TV and radio stations.

But now, after last night's grenade attacks, which the authorities blame on the "red shirts", there are fears that the violence could escalate sharply. Thailand is one of south-east Asia's most pivotal nations - and the next few days could be decisive.

Friday, 16 April 2010

16 April 2010

I promised last week that I would steer clear of the UK election in these newsletters for the duration of the campaign and help you to keep abreast of developments elsewhere on our planet.

I intend to keep that promise, even though I am sorely tempted to break it after last night’s historic TV election debate. (Yes, since you ask, I really did find it fascinating.)

So on the off-chance that you haven’t been devouring all the latest snippets of news from Kyrgyzstan, allow me to bring you up to date – and explain why I think it matters.

(I’ll leave the Icelandic ash cloud for another day, although I’m pretty confident we’ll be talking about it on tonight’s programme. It can’t be true, can it, that after Iceland’s bank melt-down, Gordon Brown said he wanted them to send over some cash, but they misheard?)

Anyway, Kyrgyzstan. I mentioned it briefly in last week’s newsletter, but things have moved on since then. The most important development is that yesterday President Bakiyev – he’s the one who was deposed last week – fled the country and has gone into exile in Kazakhstan.

Sighs of relief all round, you might think. President Bakiyev wasn’t exactly a great advertisement for the virtues of liberal democracy – he himself originally came to power after a coup-cum-uprising-cum-revolution five years ago, and had become increasingly authoritarian in office. His brothers, sons, and brothers’ sons all got jobs in his administration, and were all rumoured to have made substantial amounts of money as a result.

But the key reason why this matters to those of us who don’t live in Kyrgyzstan – or even anywhere near it – is that it is hugely sensitive strategically. For one thing, it used to be part of the Soviet Union, which means Moscow still regards it as within its own sphere of influence.

For another thing, it has a long border with China. The two countries are linked by trade, and there is a significant Kyrgyz minority in China. So China too has a clear interest in who’s in charge in the capital, Bishkek.

As does Washington. The huge US air base at Manas is a crucially important way station for flying troops and supplies into Afghanistan. When Moscow tried to persuade President Bakiyev to shut the base down, Washington had to offer a substantial increase in rental payments to keep it open.

President Bakiyev decided to accept Washington’s kind offer, much to Moscow’s fury. In the words of former US ambassador John O’Keefe, speaking on the programme on Wednesday, it looked as if he had sold the same carpet twice, once to Moscow and once to Washington.

You can see where this is leading. As in Ukraine and Georgia, two other former Soviet republics, Moscow and Washington are jockeying for influence. The Kremlin remains deeply suspicious of what it sees as US attempts to buy off its neighbours.

Washington insists it’s doing no such thing. And true, the two governments have just signed a new nuclear arms reduction treaty – and they’re cooperating over the drafting of a new UN sanctions resolution against Iran.

So it’s not Washington and Moscow, eyeball to eyeball. But Kyrgyztan, a small, impoverished country with a total population of barely five million, could be on the way to becoming another former Soviet flashpoint. Its people want a better life and a better government – the world’s major powers want political stability in a region where instability can lead to big trouble.

Remember the Great Game, played for most of the 19th century by Russia and Britain, rivals for power in central Asia? Think what happened to Afghanistan and you can see where the dangers lie.

That’s why, UK election debates notwithstanding, I thought you might like to know a bit more about the country with the unspellable name. But if you’re interested in the debates as well, you may like to know that I’ll be presenting next week’s Radio 4 election debate special, at 7.45pm on Thursday.

Friday, 9 April 2010

9 April 2010

I see it as my duty on this blog over the coming weeks to help you remember that there’s still a big wide world out there, UK election or no UK election. I somehow doubt that you’re feeling under-provided with election news or analysis.

(Having said which, there will be some election news at the end of this post, so do read to the bottom …)

In fact, there’s been no shortage of non-election news over the past few days: an uprising-cum-revolution in Kyrgyzstan – of which more in a moment; a major nuclear arms control deal signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev; and some most peculiar goings-on in Afghanistan.

Let’s start in Kabul, where President Karzai has been sounding off about Western powers having been responsible for a “vast fraud” in last year’s presidential election. (The Western powers, you’ll recall, are of the view that the fraud was perpetrated by Mr Karzai’s lot – and President Obama has not been backward in saying so publicly.)

Mr Karzai is also reported to have said that if he comes under any more pressure, he might think of joining the Taliban himself. The former UN diplomat Peter Galbraith calls him “unhinged” and suggests he may be on drugs.

It is not pretty, and it is potentially a serious problem. After all, how can the US, Britain and many other governments send their armed forces to Afghanistan to fight on behalf of a political leader whom they regard as seriously flaky?

On the other hand, Mr Karzai is presumably calculating that his supposed allies are so deeply committed to their current strategy that they can’t cut loose. He may be right – but I was struck by a suggestion the other day from a former US assistant defence secretary, Bing West, who served under President Reagan.

He wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Karzai should be treated as a symbolic president and given the organizational ‘mushroom treatment’ … [Mushroom treatment: kept in the dark and covered in … you get the idea.]

“President Ronald Reagan did something similar with another erratic ally, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. In February 1986, Reagan warned Marcos that if government troops attacked opposition forces holed up on the outskirts of Manila, it would cause “untold damage” to his relations with the United States — meaning the aid spigot would be turned off. When his countrymen saw that he was stripped of prestige and support, they forced Marcos into exile.”

Afghanistan is not the Philippines, but the signs are that President Obama is seriously displeased about Mr Karzai’s antics. So I suspect Washington may well now be looking for ways to isolate him and starve him of cash, much as Bing West suggested.

A quick word about Kyrgyzstan. Look at a map if you can and see where it is. Just to the west of China, south of Kazakhstan, and separated from Afghanistan only by Tajikistan. (Yes, I know, too many “…stans”. Sorry.) It’s a sensitive part of the world, with lots of strategic interests at stake.

The US has a substantial air base there, which it uses as a supply point for its troops in Afghanistan. Moscow isn’t thrilled, and there are some suggestions that the uprising/revolution/coup this week may have received a nod and a wink from Moscow on the understanding that the new government in Bishkek might once again put the squeeze on Washington.

Watch for some heavy-duty envoy-sending in the coming days, as both Washington and Moscow try to make their mark with the new government. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn of generous offers of aid coming from both capitals.

And so back to the UK election. Next Thursday, we’ll be mounting the first of three special programmes on Radio 4 to bring you live coverage of the Prime Ministerial debates. We’ll be on air from 8pm with commentary and analysis from experts and politicians – we’ll broadcast the debate in its entirety, and then once it’s over, Ritula will get live reaction from a panel of voters in a marginal constituency, and I’ll chew over who said what and why with our studio guests. The debates, of course, are the first such encounters ever to be staged in the UK, so they will be history in the making.

I can’t wait …

Friday, 2 April 2010

2 April 2010

A 40th birthday is always worth celebrating, and next week, The World Tonight will be 40.

By one of those weird mathematical coincidences, I was 40 when I started presenting the programme, so I do feel an especially close arithmetical bond to the occasion.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been playing little snippets from the programme archives, spanning four decades during which the world has changed almost beyond recognition. No more Cold War, no more Soviet Union, a globalised economy, a capitalist-communist China, the internet, mobile phones … the list is endless.

(By the way, if you’ve missed any of the archive clips, or if you want to hear again some of the key voices from the programme’s past, they’re all available on the website.)

We also asked some of the people who have been associated with the programme over the years for their memories, and I thought it might be fun to share them with you.

First, Douglas Stuart, the programme’s first presenter back in 1970 and still going strong. He told us: “We agreed that The World Tonight should concentrate on reflecting the interviewee so I made my questions very short. This made the interviewee the centre of the listener's attention, which is why I signed off as ‘Douglas Stuart reporting’. Nothing could ever have been achieved without the producers and engineers, who were first class.

“Almost at the beginning, when The World Tonight was first broadcast, the President of Egypt, Nasser, died. We dedicated almost an entire programme to it. I interviewed the foreign secretary George Brown, who agreed to contribute from a distant studio. Unfortunately he had had too much to drink, and my first question was answered by a gigantic sneeze, and then silence.

“My favourite headline on the programme was when the Romanian communist dictator, Ceausescu, came to Britain on a state visit. He and his entourage stayed at Buckingham Palace, so I said: 'In tonight's programme, there are reds in the beds at Buckingham Palace'.”

There’ll be a wonderful interview with Douglas on our special birthday programme on Monday.

Christiane Amanpour, who went on to become a star correspondent on CNN and has now been given her own show on the US ABC network, told us: “In the summer of 1980, home from university in the USA and on holiday in London, (then editor) Alastair Osborne walked into my life -- or rather I barged into his! Somehow I had managed to squeeze my toe into the door at the BBC and landed on his watch at The World Tonight.

“On my first day, he stunned me by saying he was going to pay me for the work I did. I think it was about £100 a week, which was a fortune for me. It was especially welcome since I was (gladly) doing it for love as I assumed interns were not paid. Then, when I asked him whether he was absolutely sure he wanted to pay me, he earned my undying gratitude, affection and admiration by uttering the following words: “Look, Christiane, it’s just a summer internship. If you’re no good, when it’s over we never have to see you again. And if you are any good, I can always take the credit.”

“I loved him for that, and I can safely say I owe it all to him. It actually makes me quite emotional as I write this brief note, remembering all the experience and opportunities that internship gave me: during the Brixton riots I was sent out to do my first vox pops. In the studio I worked for brilliant editors, producers, presenters -- and fellow interns (the chess-mad Dominic Lawson for instance).

“Then one day, as my time on the programme was coming to an end, the editor in charge let me be control-room producer for the night: I was beside myself with excitement and anxiety. Charles Wheeler was the presenter. I managed not to completely mess things up and he remained my friend, my example and my fellow traveller throughout his illustrious life.

“Most importantly, that night, my proud parents and siblings sat around the radio on the kitchen table and heard my name being credited on the BBC. It was the first time … it was the best time!”

Former presenter Sir John Tusa, who went on to run the BBC World Service and then the Barbican, wrote: “What remains, 30 years after presenting The World Tonight? A different world, of course, journalistically, politically and above all technically. What made the programme special? An atmosphere of deep trust between the long-serving editor, Alastair Osborne, and his presenters, reporters and producers. This was not just an editorial style; I believe it generated a wide range of ideas for the programme to cover, far wider and more searching than the conventional news agenda of the day.

“The World Tonight was about ideas and, above all, analysis. To deliver this analysis it needed the highest level of contributor -- Alan Budd and Terry Burns, later Treasury knights; Alan Greenspan, later Chairman of the US Federal Reserve; Giscard d’Estaing, later French President. Dan Rather was a contributor; so was the great Sinologist, Roderick MacFarquhar; and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who began her journalism on the programme. And scores more of this calibre. It was a programme of its time. But its values have stood the test of broadcasting time.”

Henry Kelly was a reporter on the programme in the early days, before he became a TV game show host and presenter on Classic FM. He wrote: “I loved working on The World Tonight. For me it was made by the then editor, the late Alastair Osborne, and the team of producers and reporters he had with him. He recruited me from Ireland for an initial six months. I stayed five years. In 40 years in broadcasting I have rarely, if ever, been happier. What made Alastair simply the best was that he recruited those he wanted, and trusted them, gave them every opportunity - but also expected good work in return. It was the happiest of times.

“The World Tonight in my time was like having a big blank page on which we were encouraged to write, covering international and domestic stories in equal measure. I look back on those years with great pleasure and deep affection for everyone I worked with. Every generation of journalists believes their “old days” were the best. Thing is, I know ours were!

The distinguished journalist and broadcaster Isabel Hilton was my co-presenter during the 1990s. She told us: “I have many memories of The World Tonight: the comical moments when things went wrong and were only rescued by the quick thinking of the team – like the night the studio developed a technical fault just after we went on air and we all had to sprint to a new studio, papers flapping, while a pre-recorded interview was playing. We picked up right on cue.

“And the tragic moment when the news became personal. In August 1995, we heard that our colleague John Schofield had been fatally shot in Croatia while reporting for the programme. He was just 29 years old, a good colleague and a fine journalist.”

And so to the present day. Ritula will be presenting our birthday programme -- she says: “My memories of listening to the World Tonight are rather longer than of presenting it. Even now, as the red light goes on and I hear myself say the words “It's ten o'clock, you're listening to The World Tonight ...”, there is a moment when I imagine what everyone is doing as they listen – making a cup of tea, doing the ironing, getting ready for bed – all of which I might be doing if I were at home.

“My personal highlights include a trip to India last year for the elections. We travelled to a village on election day, where the birds were flitting in and out of the polling station with its electronic voting machine. The scene was deceptively beautiful, masking the poverty that inevitably lay behind it. But the villagers were positive and determined to improve their lives, and I couldn't help thinking there was a lot to be learned to from them.”

And a couple of memories from listeners as well. Trevor Parsons wrote: “I first became a listener to The World Tonight in 1975 at the age of 10, when I made myself a radio, following instructions in the Ladybird book 'Making a Transistor Radio.'

“I never saw the point of moving on from the first project, a simple crystal set which needed no batteries and yet let me hear Radio 4 loud and clear on a pair of bakelite WWII RAF headphones. I was supposed to be long asleep by 10 o'clock, so hearing Douglas Stuart read the headlines was a bit of a thrill, as well as an education.

“There being no off switch on my radio, and no battery to run out, I just hung the headphones up on the corner of the headboard, and drifted off to whispers of the fall of Saigon, the murder of Ross McWhirter, and the launch of Viking 1.”

And finally, Arnold Root wrote: “I would like to hear again Douglas Stuart recounting his family’s favourite saying -- 'You keep your eyes on the road; I’ll look out for the monster' -- said to him by his wife as he scanned Loch Lomond looking for the
monster as he drove beside the loch. Am pretty sure it was him, and that that was the saying, though it was a long time ago!”

So thanks from all of us, past and present, to all of you. Without you, our listeners, we wouldn’t be able to do what we love doing. Our editor, Alistair Burnett, will be writing about our anniversary on the BBC Editors blog on Monday – you’ll find it at bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors. And don’t forget our special programme on Monday evening.