Monday, 31 March 2014

Guest post: Tony Benn: Myth and Reality

TONY BENN: MYTH AND REALITY 
A guest post by Phil Larkin
Introduction
Few can have missed the passing on of Anthony Neil Wedgewood-Benn (commonly known from around 1972 by his self-created title “Tony Benn”) last week. Over the last decade and beyond, ever since he stepped down as an MP in 2001, he had gained the reputation for himself as the kindly old sage of the British left, puffing his pipe, drinking large mugs of tea, appearing on stage at Glastonbury and providing stirring orations at ‘Stop the War’ Campaigns (in whatever corner of the world war happened to be taking place). He was sort of a sanitised, grandfatherly George Galloway, with far superior manners and courtesy. My main and abiding memory of him before his death was the very funny (and revealing) spoof interview which he did with Ali G: apparently he had jumped at the chance to explain the idea of socialism to young people when offered the interview (of which more below). I also recall him shepherding Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness around the Palace of Westminster, showing them the office and other facilities they would be entitled to although they did not sit as MPs. In sum, he had become a form of eccentric national treasure, welcome on many TV programmes to expound on his “convictions” and the great issues of the day. In addition, he was regarded (and he propagated this idea himself in no small measure) as someone who held steadfastly to his convictions and never wavered in his views. Yet, as one obituary rightly pointed out, this latter phase of his life was only the third in a long and complex career spanning over six decades. This aim of this piece is to cast a hopefully not uncritical eye over that career and some of the benign myths that have surrounded the man over the years. I would like him to be remembered for what he was, not for what he was not.

Genesis
Benn was the scion of the wealthy Benn publishing house, and both his grandparents were Liberal MPs. He could also trace his ancestry to the famous Wedgewood family, enlightened employers of the Victorian era whose pottery was, and is, famous throughout the world. His father, William Wedgewood-Benn, was originally a Liberal MP who crossed the Floor of the House of Commons to join the Labour Party in 1928, becoming Secretary of State for India in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Government of 1929 to 1931. He later was elevated to the peerage during World War II, becoming Viscount Stansgate in 1942. Born in 1925, Benn remembered meeting with Gandhi, Ramsay MacDonald, Lloyd George and a whole host of other political greats at a very young age. His mother Margaret, a theologian, was something of a radical feminist for the age, advocating the ordination of women years before this was accepted by the mainstream Anglican Church. It was within this rarefied atmosphere that Benn was to be brought up. He was educated at the exclusive Westminster School, where he appears to have been something of an unexceptional pupil who was, according to one of his schoolmasters, “a little too conscious of Anthony Wedgewood-Benn.” I would assert that throughout his life he was to carry traces of the public schoolboy mentality which manifested itself in his thought and behaviour, despite the efforts he made to disguise them. He later tried to expunge all reference to his public school education in his Who’s Who entry. A spell as a pilot officer during World War II and a PPE degree at Oxford (where he became President of the Union) followed. While at Oxford, he met Caroline Middleton de Camp, daughter of an American lawyer whose wealth matched that of his own background. They married in 1949 and were to have a very happy family life until her death in 2000.

Becoming an MP and Renouncing the Peerage
Although he worked for a while as a BBC Radio producer after World War II (he was to master this medium, as well as the later medium of television very expertly), politics was his main focus, given his family background. In November 1950 the opportunity to contest the Bristol South East constituency arose unexpectedly, which he duly won, and remained MP for this seat for the next 10 years. In those early days his position on the political spectrum was difficult to define: certainly he was not associated with the Bevanite hard left during this period, and was regarded as on the centre-right of the Labour Party. Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Party during the later 1950s, is reputed to have viewed Benn as over-pushy, bumptious, and too eager for office. His heroes and inspirations of this time appear to have been the prophets of the Bible and the great Parliamentary figures of the English Civil War. Denis (later Lord) Healey recalled him at this time as a “harmless but engaging eccentric”, while Roy Mason in his autobiography recalls being stopped by a very agitated Benn in Westminster Palace one day, and being asked when his birthday was. When Mason told Benn that he was a few months older than him, Benn walked away relieved and elated: Benn still retained the title of the youngest MP in the House of Commons. Mason (a former Barnsley coal miner) remarked caustically on this incident, regarding it as “schoolboy one-upmanship.” I am inclined to agree.

His real rise to public fame came on the death of his father, Viscount Stansgate, in 1960, when Benn automatically inherited his peerage, preventing him from sitting in the House of Commons. Benn wished to retain his seat in the Commons, maintaining his right to renounce his peerage. He stood again for election to his constituency, and won once more, even though still disqualified to take his seat. Outside Parliament he continued to campaign for the right to renounce the peerage, and the Conservative Government of the time accepted the need for a change in the law, with Benn being the first peer to take advantage of the Peerage Act 1963 and return to the Commons in 1963.
However, and not for the first time in his life, the fulfilment of one of his passionate obsessions carried consequences which he had not thought through, or could not foresee. The Peerage Act 1963 also allowed the Conservative peer Lord Home to renounce his place in the House of Lords and become Prime Minister in 1963 as Sir Alec Douglas-Home. This legislation was bound to assist the Conservative Party to a much greater degree than the Labour Party, with the former having a much higher proportion of hereditary peers. Another suspicion of mine is that this period in the public limelight gave him a profile which he would not ordinarily have had, and a taste for playing the rebel which he never really lost for the rest of his long life. This was to have near catastrophic consequences for the fortunes of the Labour Party in later years.
Postmaster General and Minister of Technology
With the coming to power of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1964, Benn reached ministerial level, first in the role of Postmaster General. Again, during this early period as a minister, his political position was not regarded as that of the hard left; rather, he came across more as a technocrat in his attitudes and a hardworking, generally successful minister more than a political partisan. However he was still prone to a little radical posturing on occasion: his plan to remove the Monarch’s profile from stamps in favour of the 17th Century Parliamentarians was thwarted by personal opposition from the Queen herself (one wonders what Benn’s Irish groupies in later years would have thought of his aim to put pictures of the likes of Oliver Cromwell on national stamps!). In the Cabinet itself he managed to get up the nose of certain colleagues with his eccentricities: for Roy Mason he tried too hard and too earnestly to be working class, without having the slightest clue how to do it. For instance, he would insist on pint pots of tea being served to him, believing it to be a proletarian habit. One is reminded irresistibly of George Orwell’s (another public schoolboy socialist) attempts to play at being working class in some of Benn’s antics.

As Postmaster General he presided over the opening of the Post Office tower, then the UK’s tallest building. He also thought that it would be a good idea to have a “rotating restaurant” at the top, where diners would sit at tables which revolved around concentric circles, meaning that the person who you were facing and speaking to would change as the circles rotated, allowing you to meet more people and ensuring, like King Arthur, that no-one could be at the head of the “round table.” A great idea in theory, but in practice the restaurant itself was so high up that diners would frequently suffer from travel sickness and queasy stomachs as the scenery of the city down below revolved before their eyes. Added to this was the fact that the restaurant menus were so expensive that only the very wealthy could afford them. The restaurant closed. Once more, Benn suffered from the law of unintended consequences.

Promoted to Minister of Technology in 1966, Benn’s most memorable achievement in this office was probably the development of the supersonic airline Concorde, which was partly manufactured in his Bristol constituency. Benn’s imagination was captured by the idea of Concorde to the point of obsession: there can be no denying that it was a magnificent technological achievement. However, the fact remains that the project was simply not commercially viable, since only very wealthy travellers, often with business expense accounts, could afford to fly the airline. Both the UK and French governments later came to regret persevering with Concorde, with it finally being removed in the early 2000s. Unintended consequences had reared their head again.
Interestingly, at this period of his career, Benn was an advocate of both the EEC (which later became the European Union) and of nuclear power. Given his later standpoints on these two subjects, especially his later championing of coal powered stations and the miners during the 1984/85 coal strike, it somewhat pulls the rug from out under his image of a man who never changed his convictions on anything. In reality, he was probably just as liable to make a complete volte-face as any of us.
Opposition, Cabinet, and Drift to the Hard Left
The defeat of Wilson’s Government in 1970 by Heath’s Conservatives took most people by surprise. Along with his colleagues Benn spent four years in opposition. His relative enthusiasm on the EEC having cooled by the early 1970s, with Heath’s bid to apply for membership, Benn campaigned for a referendum on this issue, and the shadow cabinet voted to support in March 1972, prompting Roy Jenkins to resign as Deputy Leader (a precursor to his later political direction a decade later). With Labour back in power in 1974, Benn returned to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Industry. The mid to late 1970s saw him move ever leftwards while in office, and as Industry Secretary he attempted to extend the principles of nationalisation into British economic life, setting up worker co-operatives to re-energise ailing industries in various parts of the UK. It appears that this policy initiative, together with his late discovery of the works of Marx, convinced him of the necessity of what he termed “collective” or “common” control over as much of national industry as possible, by which he meant nationalisation. Yet anyone who has ever been involved in any state-managed institution, even in a school or as a civil servant (and the public sector in Northern Ireland where I grew up is very large) will know the many possibilities/opportunities that exist for waste, poor management, inefficiency and nepotism there, as well as the problem of low productivity. None of Benn’s worker co-operatives lasted the distance, with the last of these, Triumph Motorcycles, folding in 1983. The massive problems associated with the imposition of a command economy, a strategy propounded by Benn, were shown up in a very sharp light with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, but, despite this, Benn continued to expound on the inherent wisdom of nationalising as much of the UK’s economy as possible right until the end of his life.

His successful campaign to hold a referendum on EEC membership also produced the opposite effect to that which he had envisaged. The British electorate voted in favour of maintaining membership by a margin of two to one. Once again, Benn had not thought through the consequences of his plans carefully enough. During the campaign the self-proclaimed socialist luminary found himself on the same side as such right-wing naysayers as Enoch Powell. It is said that during the 1975 referendum period, Harold Wilson’s hatred of him had become pathological, with Wilson remarking on Benn’s drift leftwards while in office: “Tony immatures with age.” Wilson took the opportunity of his unsuccessful “No” campaign to demote him to the lesser position of Energy Secretary, where he would have less influence on overall economic policy.
On Wilson’s resignation in 1976 Benn stood for the Labour Party leadership, coming fourth out of the six cabinet ministers who stood for election. On the second ballot he withdrew his candidature, throwing his support behind the veteran left-winger Michael Foot. Despite this, James Callaghan, who won the leadership contest, kept him in post as Energy Secretary. Perhaps Callaghan would have been better to have taken that opportunity to sack him from the Cabinet altogether, thereby removing the publicity which this position gave him. My guess is that Callaghan calculated that it would, in the words of President Johnson, be better to have Benn “inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.” Certainly Benn was always a great speaker with a silver tongue, and a new Prime Minister would have feared having such an opponent on his own backbenches. Until Labour lost power to Thatcher’s Conservatives in May 1979, Benn continued to move to the left of the political spectrum – his pronouncements always went down well with leftist delegates and Party activists at the annual conference, while figures such as Denis Healey and James Callaghan found themselves often being booed or shouted down. Benn was rapidly becoming both the mouthpiece and the tool of the new left within the Party.
The Destructive Phase
Labour’s loss of power in 1979 saw the beginning of the second phase of Benn’s career, of which in my view he had good reason to be the least proud. It is important to give a little political background to 1979/81 before proceeding further. It is easy to forget that in its first two years of office the first Thatcher Government was so unpopular that it was not expected to last beyond another election. With sky-rocketing unemployment and increasing social unrest (including very violent race riots Brixton and Toxteth), this should have provided a strong basis for a moderate Labour government to return to power relatively promptly. Thus some of the worst ravages of what later became known as Thatcherism could perhaps have been prevented. This was not to be, largely due to the actions of Tony Benn, (and those in the Labour Party who encouraged and supported his course of action), self-styled tribune of the people and champion of the poor and oppressed.

By the end of 1979/1980 Benn had come to a number of conclusions about the direction Labour should take, and the policies which it should adopt to gain the support of the British electorate. The first was that there should be more democracy within the Party, with members and activists deciding policies from the conference floor. The reality that this would have made any form of coherent Labour policy on any issue practically impossible did not seem to have occurred to him. He then launched into an attack on his former cabinet colleagues, accusing them of breaking promises which, in truth, they had not made, and of not adopting sufficiently leftist policies, despite the fact that the British electorate had roundly rejected such policies in the 1979 election. In addition, Benn never explained why he had at no time chosen to resign from the cabinet during the 1970s because of these alleged broken promises.

The second strand of his strategy was expressed in his keynote address to the Labour Party Conference in 1980, while Callaghan was still Party leader, where he stated that the next Labour government would, “within days”, gain the necessary powers to nationalise key industries, and impose capital control. Effectively this would have meant remodelling much of the British economy on the Soviet model, which even by the early 1980s was beginning to show signs of extreme fatigue. Within weeks, he continued, would all powers held by Brussels be returned to Westminster, signalling a withdrawal from the EEC (despite the fact that the UK electorate had already expressed their intentions on this subject in 1975, and he had fought for their right have the referendum in the first place!). Combined with a withdrawal from NATO, an avowedly anti-US foreign policy, unilateral disarmament, the creation of no less than 1,000 new peers to oversee the abolition of the House of Lords, and British withdrawal from Northern Ireland (amongst other schemes) was his grand vision for a UK political future to be fulfilled. Of course the right-wing press vilified him for these policies, and the entire Labour Party became badly tainted by association. Thatcher must have been rubbing her hands with glee.

By 1980 the procedure for electing the new Labour Party leader had changed to a position more in line with the Benn had fought for, but James Callaghan had shrewdly decided to resign before the new rules had come into effect, thus provoking a leadership election which Benn had little chance of winning. He was reluctantly persuaded not to stand. Michael Foot was to win the leadership election, an outcome bad enough for the fortunes of the Party, but even worse was Benn’s decision in 1981 to stand against the incumbent Denis Healey for Deputy Leadership, despite the impassioned appeals of Neil Kinnock and others, as well as Foot himself, not to stand and thereby preserve Party unity. This contest proved to be rancorous and was fought in full view of the public. As Healey later stated, Benn made a point of inviting groups which had no affiliation to the Labour Party along to his public meetings: one such group was the “Posadists”, which believed that socialism would be brought to earth by extra-terrestrial beings. Conversely, in one of Healey’s public addresses in Birmingham, he was shouted down by a large group of IRA supporters. All this occurred in the full, unforgiving glare of the media. By a margin of less than 1% did Healey eventually win the deputy leadership contest, but by then the damage was well and truly done in the eyes of the UK electorate. Healey notes that at least some of the MPs who voted for Benn in the contest were those right-wingers looking for an excuse to quit the Labour Party altogether – this they duly did later in 1981, with Roy Jenkins, Bill Rogers, Shirley Williams and David Owen forming the Social Democratic Party in another blaze of media publicity. Benn’s actions gave them the green light to leave. And there was even worse to come.
           
Benn’s general standing within the Labour Party, and his position within the National Executive Council meant that he was a leading light during the creation of the infamous Party Manifesto of 1983, described accurately by Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in political history.” The overall thrust of the Manifesto was for the Party to act as if the election defeat of 1979 had not taken place, and that a huge dose of renationalisation of (then crumbling) British manufacturing, swingeing controls on capital, withdrawal from NATO, the EEC, and Northern Ireland, an incoherent policy on nuclear disarmament, and an immediate end to the sale of council houses to long standing tenants, was just the medicine the nation needed to face the future. In June 1983 the UK electorate gave its verdict on the manifesto: a landslide victory for Thatcher and the Conservatives ensued, with them capturing 397 seats in the Commons, compared to a paltry 209 seats for Labour and 23 for the SDP/Liberal Alliance.

Growing up in a predominantly nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the received wisdom on Thatcher’s 1983 and 1987 election victories usually ran something like this: “Sure the English are that stupid/snobby/greedy etc. that they’d always vote for the Tories.” Yet even a cursory glance at the popular vote during the 1983 election does not support this wisdom: while the Tories gained just over 13 million votes, the combined votes of Labour and the SDP/Liberal Alliance totalled over 16 million, suggesting that a large majority of the UK electorate was really hankering for a return to moderate consensus politics rather than the divisiveness of Thatcherism. Instead, they were offered no viable alternative at all. Justly, in my view, Benn lost his own Bristol seat in the 1983 election.

Benn in later life was often breezily to state that he was a life-long learner, and that he had frequently learned from the mistakes that he had made. However, never once did he ever come close to admitting that his actions in running for deputy Party leadership in 1981, with all the resulting adverse publicity for Labour, was in any way mistaken. He preferred to dignify the wilful recklessness and stupidity of his own actions with platitudes about his decisions being based on “policies/issues and not personalities.” Largely because of him and his acolytes, the Labour Party was left with a reputation for crankiness, in-fighting, and fractiousness that it took well over a decade and the coming to power of Tony Blair to shake off. In fact, he and his supporters came damn close to destroying the Labour Party as a force in British politics. It is small wonder that Labour was not returned to government until 1997. He also was instrumental in providing an open goal mouth for the Tories to romp home in the 1987 election and win the 1992 election, and allowing Thatcher in particular to claim that her policies had received a ringing endorsement from the UK electorate, when, in reality, this was not the case. Who paid the price for Benn and his followers’ mistakes? Certainly not them. The people who paid were those tens of thousands of miners who lost their jobs in the pit closures of the 1980s and early 1990s, industrial workers who were thrown on the scrapheap of life due to the systematic destruction of the UK’s manufacturing base during the 1980s, 16 year old school leavers who were allowed to languish on the dole and not provided with proper skills and training for a fulfilling career, and the grim and depressing list goes on and on.

Anyone under 40 or so who wishes to gain a flavour of these times could do worse than have a look on Youtube at Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, set in a depressed Liverpool in the early/mid 1980s. While there undoubtedly needed to be some serious restructuring of the UK manufacturing base, and there was bound to be a vast scaling back of the coal industry, none of this had to take the abrupt and harsh form that it did under Thatcher and the Tories. Benn cannot, and should not, be singled out as the scapegoat for all these evils, but he does share in responsibility for permitting them to happen. For the remainder of his life he still insisted on referring to the 1983 election result for Labour as a “victory”, and his running for deputy leadership in 1981 as a “healing process.” What planet did this man live on?

It says a lot about the charitable nature of the Labour Party that it was prepared to allow Benn the earliest possible opportunity of standing for Parliament after he lost his Bristol seat in 1983. My own inclination would have been to keep him as far away as possible from any forum/platform from which he could have damaged the Labour Party any more than he had. Perhaps he would have then become the venerable old leftie sage he later morphed into at a much earlier date, or even have disappeared into obscurity. He won the Chesterfield by-election in March 1984, with Denis Healey coming to speak on his behalf during his campaign. Yet, after all the chaos he had already caused, what do you think “Saint Tony” did after the 1987 election? HE CHALLENGED NEIL KINNOCK FOR THE LABOUR PARTY LEADERSHIP IN 1988!!! Luckily by this stage he was too marginal a figure in the Parliamentary Party to be in with any real chance of victory, but it demonstrates to me that, like the French Bourbons, he had forgotten nothing and learned absolutely nothing from the events of previous years. Even his manifesto for the Party leadership had hardly changed one iota from the 1983 general election.

So why had Benn doggedly pursued the levers of control in the Labour Party, on foundations which almost definitely would have made it permanently unelectable? One reason is, as Denis Healey suggests, he did not understand the march of modern history and of the socio-economic changes at play during the last quarter of the 20th Century. Another reason was his undoubted self-obsession and unwavering belief in his own moral rectitude that amounted almost to a messianic complex. My own private theory is that there was still enough of the public schoolboy and aristocrat left in him to engender the belief that he had some sort of natural entitlement to leadership. Renouncing your peerage is one thing, junking ingrained attitudes is quite another.



TV Personality and National Treasure
Removed from the inner sanctums of power, and regarded by the later 1980s as a man whose opportunity had passed, TV producers (especially those of programmes on affairs of state) were keen to have him on their shows: he was never less than exciting and stimulating as a speaker, both in Parliament and outside, and always remained telegenic, knowing how to maintain a commanding television personality. His strongest gift always remained the power of persuasive speech, and, in his own words, he had become “harmless.” In the introduction to this article I mentioned the interview which he did with Ali G, describing it as “revealing.” What made it so funny for me was the gulf between the lofty plane that Benn inhabited, and the real nature of the interview. He simply did not grasp that the whole thing was a spoof and that he was being wound up, insisting on being as sincere and articulate as ever in his answers to Ali G’s blatantly ridiculous questions.

If respectability and public affection had come his way in the final quarter of life, sound political reasoning had not. His political standpoint had effectively petrified in around 1979, and he remained as wrongheaded as ever. He passionately detested Tony Blair, declaring him to be the worst Labour Party leader and PM ever. Yet Blair had led the Party to three election victories in a row, and presided over Labour’s longest ever period in power. Benn could still heap sincere praise on mass murderers like Mao Tse Tung, who he still described in his copious diaries as “the greatest man of the twentieth century”, and be supportive of dictators such as Colonel Gadaffi and Hafez Al Assad. As late as 1997 he sent fraternal greetings to the North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il despite the fact that this man and his regime were responsible for the complete absence in North Korea of the human rights/civil liberties and democratic values that Benn claimed to hold so dear, and who enforced his authority by putting families in concentration camps. He had words of praise for extreme Islamist groups such as Hamas, and compared the Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan to a sort of “Dad’s Army”/Home Guard, fighting against external occupation.  We’ve all seen Dads Army on TV, and I can tell you now that I can see no parallels between those people in Afghanistan and Captain Mainwaring or Corporal Jones. Perhaps his least edifying moment came in 2003, when, as chairman of the “Stop the War” campaign he was approached by an Iraqi woman whose family had been executed by Saddam Hussein as CIA spies: Benn dismissed this as American propaganda. To me, that is even worse than hurling a racial insult at the woman: he had both insulted the family’s memory and called her a liar.   

Benn claimed to have five questions that he would ask of anyone in power, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama:

1.      What power have you got?
2.      Where did you get it from?
3.      In whose interests do you exercise it?
4.      To whom are you accountable?
5.      How can we get rid of you?

Few would disagree with the underlying spirit of these sensible questions. However, in his 2003 pre-War interview with Saddam Hussein none of these questions were put to the Iraqi leader by him, and neither, to my knowledge, were they ever posed to Gadaffi or Assad. Could it be that Benn held the leaders of western democracies to a higher standard of ethics and behaviour than dictators?

Also revealing are the tributes heaped upon him after his death by people like George Galloway and Gerry Adams. Benn always dogmatically subscribed to the policy of a united Ireland and advocated complete British withdrawal from the region of the UK we know as Northern Ireland. However, he never provided any solution to the inter-communal bloodshed which would inevitably have resulted from this withdrawal, and showed a complete disregard for the position of the Irish government which would have to shoulder responsibility for what would have been a war zone. Gerry Adams hailed Benn as a true friend to Irish Republicanism: of course he did, because the latter told Republicans absolutely everything they wanted to hear! It would have been interesting to hear leading Republicans’ private conversations on what they really thought about him. Lenin’s term “useful idiot” springs immediately to mind.

Conclusion
It is my hope that I have not portrayed Benn as a monster in what I have written above. He certainly was no-one’s idea of a fiend. While I will hold firm to the belief that much, if not all of the political criticism which I have levelled at him is fully justified, it is said that in his personal life he was a lovely man, with stories abounding of his many acts of kindness to people who were often complete strangers to him. Unlike George Galloway, who is just a bully and thug with a hide like a rhino, Benn’s courtesy was unflinching. He held no personal bitterness or rancour towards those who were his political opponents, and to this extent his life was a shining example. If anything I have written above is too harsh on the man’s memory, then it reflects more about my own frequently uncharitable nature. A very loving husband, father, and grandfather, I will miss him on the TV and in the newspapers getting on my nerves with his weird and wacky views on the world in which we live. I would go so far as to say that none of the political damage he ever caused to the Labour Party was meant intentionally, but arose because of his miscalculation and wrongheadedness. Winston Churchill once said that the definition of success was “the ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”: by this definition Benn was a resounding success.

In one obituary I read last week, it said that Tony Benn wished his epitaph to be “He encouraged us.” In his own way he encouraged me. He encouraged me to think through more carefully the consequences of my actions, words, intentions and opinions, something which I have not always taken care to do. He has also taught me the necessity of facing up to the world as it is, warts and all, and not seeing it as I would like to be.


RIP Tony Benn

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ukraine - pulling at the seams of a fragile state

Lenin stands watch in central Simferopol

It’s been an unsettling experience watching the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea unfold, over the past few months. 

During the summer I visited some of the places which are now attracting headlines.  Independence Square in Kiev, or ‘Euromaidan’ as it has become known, was full of locals and tourists enjoying the sunshine; eating ice-cream, posing for sketch artists and splashing in the fountains.  More recently it resembled the set of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, with barricades, charred monuments and heaps of smouldering tyres.

Crimea was laid-back in the July heat.  Teenagers skateboarded beside the Crimean Rada in Simferopol, which appeared on TV screens a few weeks ago being ‘stormed’ by armed men.  The regional capital’s airport was busy with tourists heading to and from Russia or Kiev.  It was one of the first strategic targets to be seized by Russian troops, or local militia, depending upon whose word you rely, as the emergency deepened.

The Lonely Planet guide book says that Bakhchisaray, in central Crimea, has a Middle Eastern feel.  This baking hot, dusty town attracted coach trips from the coast during the summer, with its exotic atmosphere and ‘Khan’s Palace’.  This year it has become a magnet for journalists, who want to write stories about how pro-Russian feeling on the peninsula threatens Crimean Tatars.     

The ‘revolution’ or ‘putsch’ and its aftermath have been surrounded by propaganda and recriminations.  To add to the confusion, events have unfolded at disorientating speed.   For someone viewing from a distance, the blanket of fog which covered Kiev at the end of February was a neat metaphor. 

Media coverage has not in general reflected how complicated and unfortunate the situation in Ukraine has become.  A lot of it, especially the comment and analysis, seems to be informed more by pre-conceived ideas about Russia and the US, rather than genuine attempts to understand the story from different perspectives.

Admittedly, it’s hard to write about this crisis.  Many articles in newspapers are out of date by the time they’ve gone to print.  Information from Ukraine is confusing and often contradictory.  It is still not clear whether tensions in the east of the country could spark some sort of military confrontation.

Most articles in the UK media have plumped for the straightforward view that Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is an aggressive power, intent upon expanding toward the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.  Others have been a little more nuanced, suggesting that Putin’s actions during this crisis have been opportunistic, rather than planned.   The most accurate accounts point out that few, if any, of the key players acted honourably, as tensions increased after President Yanukovych postponed negotiations for an association agreement with the EU.

Ukraine has become the victim of a prolonged geo-political struggle between ‘the West’ and Russia.  Go back almost six years on this blog and you can read about the cultural and historical balancing act which Ukrainians continued to manage, more or less successfully, and the dangers of upsetting that equilibrium.      

Almost no-one now defends Yanukovych’s record in government.  Even his off and on ally, Vladimir Putin, has acknowledged that he was a greedy, corrupt and weak President.  There were ample grounds for Ukrainians to oppose and protest against his rule.  The fact remains, though, that he was elected  fairly.  Russia was understandably outraged when the US and the EU in particular urged protestors, in effect, to overthrow the government.

In the context of the protests at Euromaidan, it’s worth remembering that the opposition in Ukraine has continued to refuse to accept the outcome of the 2010 election.  Despite a clean bill of health from the Council of Europe, OSCE and the CIS, Yulia Tymoshenko disputed the results and her supporters were still camped on Kiev’s main street, Khreschatyk, during summer 2014, to protest.

Euromaidan harnessed popular disillusionment with the President, but it was driven, particularly in its latter stages, by an undercurrent of extreme nationalism and it did not represent accurately the spread of opinion in Ukraine about drawing closer to the EU.  Carl Thomson has written fairly about how Russian and eastern Ukrainian opinions were shaped by ‘Molotov cocktail throwing, firearm wielding young men who fought running battles with the police’.

Yankukovych was a rogue, but he was also a democratically elected President, who was driven from power by the threat of imminent violence.  Even so, the new government in Kiev had an opportunity to gain acceptance both from ‘the West’ and Russia.  

The basis of a compromise included a degree of power sharing with Russian leaning regions, official status for the Russian language and disarmament of armed paramilitary groups.  Instead, there were extreme nationalists from Svoboda (or ‘freedom’) in the administration, attempts to rescind liberal language laws and involvement of the far right Pravyi Sektor organisation in the police and military.

Russian descriptions of the new government as ‘neo-Nazi’ are certainly exaggerated.  The articulate young prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, for instance, is a moderate figure head, whose fluent English will endear him to western media.  However the involvement of an ultra-nationalist minority has made it much more difficult for Russian speaking Ukrainians to accept the new administration, and for the Kremlin to recognise its legitimacy.

It’s hard to see how the new government could have been constituted without involving extremists.  These far right groups were the ‘shock troops’ who drove the so-called ‘revolution’ as it became more violent.  Afterwards, in an attempt to claim legitimacy from ‘the people’, ministers were presented to Euromaidan for the crowd’s approval.  It was an odd, almost pre-modern ritual, with echoes of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  Viewed from Moscow, where the opposition to Putin comprises a similar coalition of liberals, extreme nationalists and ultra-leftists, it may have looked like a salutary warning.

With attitudes in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine hardening, particularly in Crimea, events gained momentum.  The initial Euromaidan protests were followed by counter-protests against the government in Kiev.  The presence of Russian troops on the peninsula and the relatively chaotic state of the Ukrainian government gave Russia a perfect opportunity to act under the pretext of maintaining order.

Putin moved quickly.   A groundswell of pro-Kremlin opinion in Crimea, the reality that pro-Russian militias and Russian troops were firmly in control and demands from the Crimean authorities for a referendum on becoming part of Russia, provided a chance to annex the region.  It wasn’t right, but it did reflect the will of a majority of people in Crimea and it occurred against the backdrop of serious concerns about the legality of the government in Kiev.   

The Russian President denies that his troops will now move into Ukraine proper.  Despite the military build-up at Russia’s western border, it is likely that he is speaking genuinely, for the moment. 

There are frequent pro-Russian protests in cities like Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk and there have been clashes..  If the Ukrainian authorities, whose interior ministry troops are reportedly coordinating their activities with Pravyi Sektor, were to attempt a crack-down on demonstrators, if there were bloodshed, Putin would still feel extreme pressure to defend people who are viewed in Russia as ethnic Russians. 

The President is certainly not prepared to appear weak.  It is quite possible that he will again find himself reacting to events and making a pragmatic effort to carve out the best result for Russia, from a volatile set of circumstances.

Rather than talking about a new Cold War and continuing to tug at the unravelling seams of independent Ukraine, ‘the West’ should now attempt to diffuse tensions.  If the country can remain stable up to and through the Presidential and Rada elections, its new government can at least claim a credible mandate. 

If Ukraine is to remain a viable state within its current borders, the new administration will have to reach an accommodation with Russian speakers and reflect its complex make-up in an amended constitution.  The future is bleak if the country continues to be a chessboard for the US, the EU and Russia to play out their rivalries.    

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Why Putin can accurately describe himself as a conservative.

What are the philosophies which underpin Vladimir Putin’s time at the pinnacle of political life in Russia?  ‘Sovereign democracy’, ‘managed democracy’, ‘the power vertical’ and ‘the dictatorship of law’ are all phrases that have been used to understand ‘Putinism’.  However, these all describe the methods which the President uses to exercise power, rather than the values which he believes in.

Some commentators have chosen to view Putin purely as a pragmatist and he has been largely disinclined to theorise about his beliefs.  In his ‘state of the nation’ address, during December, the President explicitly called himself a ‘conservative’, who wants to defend Russian ‘national traditions’. 

That might not please some people to the right of centre in areas of America or Europe, but in the classic sense, Putin’s conservatism is beyond doubt.  In the US, and to an extent in the UK, conservatism has become synonymous with economic liberalism and even, increasingly, with pushing a certain model of democracy around the globe.  It is important to remember, though, that unlike, for instance liberalism or socialism, conservatism is less an ideology and more a way of looking at the world.  It is characterised by scepticism about dramatic change, preference for gradual - rather than sudden - reform, suspicion of grand schemes and respect for customs, traditions and institutions which shape society.  Putin satisfies all these criteria and his actions in power have undoubtedly been consistent with a conservative outlook.

Throughout his tenure as President and Prime Minister, he has prioritised economic and political stability over wide-reaching reform or ideology.  All his state-building schemes have been aimed at creating a stronger, steadier Russia.  He centralised power, where it was previously dispersed unevenly across a huge country, comprising an array of republics and regions, all with their own constitutional arrangements.

Even Putin’s attempts to control democracy, by restricting the number of political parties, by regulating the competitive element of Russian politics and by providing opposition to United Russia, were aimed at staving off chaos and unpredictability.

That’s where liberal commentators, who can only view Russian affairs either as an advance towards liberal democracy and freer markets or backsliding away from that ideal, get stuck, when they’re trying to decode his aims and his regime’s relationship with the rest of the world.  They see, either hopeful signs that Russia can conform with the ‘western model’, sooner or later, or evidence that its leaders want to rebuild authoritarianism and distance themselves from the West. 

The President is not opposed to change but, as a Russian who witnessed the effects of the Soviet Union’s collapse, he is aware that it does not always signify progress.  His career represents an attempt to make sure that Russia changes in a way that fits the customs, traditions and manners (to paraphrase Edmund Burke) of its people.

Of course, this attitude can lead to disagreements with administrations who believe that there is a universal model of government and a universal set of attitudes to which all states must aspire.  His ‘state of the nation’ speech addressed that problem head on.  It is particularly difficult for ‘western’ observers to accept the position Putin sets out on homosexuality, which is not tolerant, but does reflect the influence of the Orthodox Church and the mood of a great many Russian people.

Attitudes to sexuality have changed at lightning pace over a relatively short period of time in many ‘western’ countries and there is a whiff of the ‘ex-smoker’ to much of the hectoring of Russia on this issue.  We seem to have forgotten, almost instantly, just how fiercely these matters were debated and just how much controversy they generated in the UK, the US and in many European countries, over the past number of years.   

Putin certainly won’t win friends by mentioning homosexuality in the same breath as paedophilia, but he is justified in pointing out that same sex relations are not criminalised in Russia, whereas they are in many other parts of the world.  He contends that the tone of hysteria, which has accompanied criticism of Russian attitudes, hasn’t extended to areas of Africa or much of the Islamic world.  And he probably recognises that the surest way to entrench these attitudes further among members of the public in Russia is for political leaders to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics.    

There are two other aspects of ‘Putinism’ which confound and appal his western critics and both stem from innate conservatism.  Firstly, there is his approach to the Soviet past.  The frequently quoted comment about the end of Soviet Union being a ‘geopolitical catastrophe’, and the occasionally ambivalent attitude to a figure like Stalin, tend to cause dark mutterings about Putin’s KGB career or allegations that he has ambitions to resurrect something resembling the USSR.  Secondly, there is a perception that the President has aligned Russia alongside rogue regimes, like Libya or Syria, as an affront to the US and its allies, or as a deliberate strategy to oppose American power.      

I suspect that both these analyses also stem from a need to see either progress toward, or backsliding from, liberal democracy.

It is not odd, in Russia, as it is to western ears, to hear a defence of aspects of the Soviet regime from a declared ‘conservative’.  Neither does it mean that Putin admires, specifically, the authoritarian aspects of the USSR.  His motives are to keep Russia stable and to allow it hold an important, respected place on the world stage.  It is the Soviet Union’s achievements in that regard that Putin wants to replicate, albeit through different methods. 

Likewise, the Kremlin views the so-called ‘Arab spring’ and western intervention in Libya and Syria as dangerous and destabilising.  Putin has argued very straightforwardly that he would rather see stable, secular regimes in place in the Middle East, even if they are unpleasant and oppressive, rather than chaotic, Islamist ones.  Moscow’s feelings on the issue are strong, because of the Islamist threat in southern parts of Russia, as well as the danger that mayhem could spread to parts of Central Asia, if leaders there are succeeded by Islamists.

The idea that VV Putin is ‘a Tory’ certainly caused a fairbit of anger in some quarters.  Conservatism, though, isn’t a fixed set of ideas, but a relative concept, which varies from country to country.  Putin’s policies have been consistently conservative, with a small ‘c’. He has attempted to manage change, insisted that stability comes before ideology and refused to jettison the customs, traditions and history of his country.

You might not agree with his actions, but it’s impossible to deny that he fulfils every criteria to call himself a Russian conservative.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Exciting or overhyped? Transfer deadline day is here.

Are the transfer deadline days (because there are two of them every season) the most gripping moments in football’s calendar or the most overhyped? 

Last January the transfer window, if we’re honest, was a colossal bore.  The BBC commissioned a special programme to capture the ‘drama’ approaching 12 midnight, while clubs responded by negotiating deals like Everton’s successful attempt to secure the signature of John Stones.

The latest deadline shows more promise.  There isn’t much surprise as regards the most valuable transfer of the year.  It’s long been apparent that Gareth Bale will play for Real Madrid this season, particularly as Tottenham had already revamped their squad with the expected proceeds.

Still, Arsenal fans will be excited that Arsene Wenger has finally dipped into the club’s reserves to buy a quality player like Mesut Ozil.  The London club may not stop there, with the Daily Telegraph predicting something of a spree.

Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, had also attracted criticism for not making new signings before the new season.  The club had refused to outbid its opponents for the Armenian midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or the Brazilian winger, Willian.  Those players ended up at Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea. 

Today, two new central defenders, the French international, Sakho, and the young Portuguese, Tiago Ilori, have arrived at Anfield.  The Nigerian forward, Victor Moses, has also joined, on a season long loan from Chelsea. 

Whether these players can improve, substantially, on the personnel already at Liverpool, remains open to question.  However, coming quickly after a 1-0 victory against the Champions of England, Manchester 
United, they add to a sense of optimism that was not evident previously.

Earlier, the Guardian suggested, on its deadline day timeline, that Brendan Rodgers had tabled a £30 million bid for Juan Mata.  If that transfer came to fruition, then Liverpool fans genuinely would be excited. 

Meanwhile, we’ll have to see whether the next few hours bring further excitement or anti-climax.   

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Luis Suarez: Football players and expectations of loyalty

Although there is stiff competition from the sagas around Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney, by far the most protracted, boring transfer epic over the close season has involved Luis Suarez.  Will Arsenal’s cheeky £40 million + £1 bid release him from his contract at Anfield?  Does he owe Liverpool a debt of loyalty, after the club stuck by him when he was accused of racism, and again, when he took a bite out of a Chelsea defender’s ear?

In the absence of an actual transfer, the newspapers have reported each minute nuance of Suarez’s relationship with his employers.  And for those of us with social media, it’s been possible to follow every scrap of gossip, every facial expression captured at every training session and every comment from every conceivable journalist or pundit, 24 hours a day, across hundreds of thousands of tweets, stretching back, it seems, beyond the dawn of time itself

When will the Uruguayan’s future ever be resolved?

The answer is by September 2nd,,when the window for clubs to buy new players closes.  By which point a number of competitive football matches will have taken place, forming a welcome distraction to endless dissection of the transfer market.  My personal contribution to the current tedium is that I believe Suarez will leave Liverpool before then.  But, it's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, as it were, in fact it's scarcely even the point any more.

Whatever odds bookmakers are offering on the striker getting the transfer he has so publicly asked for, you can take two things to the bank right now.  If Suarez joins Arsenal the tide of disillusionment which is currently building among Liverpool supporters will become a tsunami of outright loathing and, should he stay put and keep scoring goals, it will subside completely and the fans, however much they might deny it now, will love him more than ever.

Why on earth do we, football supporters that is, do this to ourselves?  Why do we never learn?

Why are we so ready to buy into the collective illusion that yet another player, probably with no prior family, geographical or emotional connection to the team, has bought in exclusively to the culture, traditions and aspirations of our chosen football club?  We have repeated experiences which prove otherwise. 

Fernando Torres was a classic example and, let’s face it, it wasn’t so very long ago.  “His armband said he was a Red, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ it said”, Liverpool fans sang about their talismanic striker.  This boy from a Spanish barrio, we told ourselves, had signalled his undying loyalty, before he even arrived at Anfield.  Then he moved to Chelsea, and expressed bemusement at the mass delusion that he was a fierce Kopite as well as a Liverpool player.  “But I come from Madrid”, he protested, not unreasonably, “I’m an Athletico fan”. 

Indeed, and you left your boyhood heroes to seek money and trophies at Liverpool, a club where you felt your prospects were brighter.  That’s what (most) players do.  Even Steven Gerrard, the epitome of a one-club man, the Scouser who will see out his career playing for his local team, came so close to joining Chelsea that a fan famously burnt his shirt outside the Melwood training ground in disgust.  Not an episode which will have been recounted too frequently in the pubs around Anfield, before or after Gerrard received deserved acclaim, at his testimonial match last Saturday.   

Yes, there probably is an argument that Liverpool deserves more loyalty from Suarez, after the club attracted opprobrium for sticking by him, when he allegedly used a racial epithet about an opposition player and when hebit another’s ear.  You have to ask, though, was there anything in the Uruguayan’s past behaviour or in his character which suggested he would see it that way?

Supporters would certainly prefer to see their prize asset join a club elsewhere then Europe, rather than sign for Arsenal, whose Champions League spot Liverpool covet.  But then, why, at this stage of the close-season, is the only firm offer, for a player considered one of the world’s best, about £20 million under his employers’ valuation?  The truth is that Suarez’s reputation and his antics precede him.  That’s why Liverpool hasn’t been fending off bids from other Champions’ League teams and it’s why Suarez is keen to make do with signing for Arsenal.  Liverpool’s loyalty to Suarez appears likely to cost the club an arguable £20 million in transfer fees and a major boost to one of its rivals.  Many people would argue it also cost Kenny Dalglish his job.

There’s no point in castigating Arsenal, whom Brendan Rodgers accused earlier this week of ‘lacking class’, either.  Were the roles reversed, were Liverpool attempting to lure a player away from the Emirates with the promise of European football, arguments about loyalty or propriety would cut little ice at Anfield.  In fact, we’ve been quick to accuse transfer targets of ‘lacking ambition’ in the past, when they’ve shown a bit of loyalty to their current club.             

Liverpool didn’t worry about Torres’s loyalty, as they lured him away from his boyhood team, Athletico Madrid, or Suarez’s readiness to leave Ajax.  Yet, at their new club, we expect that it will all be different and that they will buy into its aims so completely that they will only leave when their usefulness has been exhausted. 

Players often understand this delusion, play up to it and feed it.  Supporters are entitled to their myopia and it is part of what binds us together and makes football special. 

A note of caution though, if Suarez is sold and his replacement becomes just as successful, be a little sceptical about his undying commitment to Liverpool.  Daniel Aggers, in the world of football, are few and far between …….
    

Friday, 2 August 2013

Fragile Empire by Ben Judah - a review of the latest book about Putin

‘If you read twenty five books about foreign policy this year, make one of them Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire’.  Not exactly the words of Foreign Policy magazine, and the book, subtitled How Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin, has attracted praise from a number of reviewers.

The author’s central thesis isn’t quite the re-tread of worn-out clichés about the Russian president as manipulative, all-powerful dictator, that you’ll find in Masha Gessen’s Man Without a Face or countless other works.  In fact Judah believes that Putin has failed to build a strong, centralised system and, as a result, both his personal political authority and the integrity of the state he rules are under threat. 

I didn’t expect to accept this argument wholesale, and nor did I, but the book was far from irredeemable.  It forms a reasonable account of the protests which developed in Moscow and other large cities last winter, and, although Judah clearly has sympathy with the demonstrators, he describes fairly why the movement did not amount to a credible opposition to Putin.

Unfortunately, while Fragile Empire gives a diverting, if contestable, account of the President’s rise and some absorbing reporting from a country growing disillusioned with United Russia, it does not treat seriously enough Putin’s achievements, preferring to write them off as luck, and it does not credit his political project with any underlying philosophy.  Actually, the book is rather flabby around the middle and it could have done with better editing and proof reading, as there are plenty of typos, repetitions and confusing sentences.

Judah’s portrait of the young Putin is more believable and briefer than Gessen’s, although it is similar.  He at least bothers to track down the future president’s teacher, to offer some fond but hazy memories of her former pupil.  The broad outline is familiar- the tough childhood in post-war St Petersburg, the schoolyard brawling and a precocious attempt to join the KGB as a teenager.

Fragile Empire doesn’t quite subscribe to the conspiracy theories which depict Putin’s career as the outcome of a Machiavellian, Chekist plot.  Indeed the author is more inclined to portray a hapless, though resilient, opportunist, who was slow to grasp the opportunities offered by post-Soviet Russia, but managed eventually to drag himself back from a ruined career.

Rather than strength, he describes weakness, rather than a hunger for power, he describes fear of the consequences of losing it and rather than an authoritarian state, he describes a leader who cannot control his subordinates.  In this telling of the Vladimir Putin story, the President is not a powerful tyrant who menaces the West, but an insecure thief, who cannot step aside because he is terrified of getting his comeuppance. 

While Judah might be good at picking holes in the network of patronage represented by United Russia, he is unconvincingly dismissive of the regime’s successes.  He is willing to accord some of the economic success in Putin’s Russia to ‘liberalisation’, but he largely puts stabilising the world’s largest country down to being in the right place at the right time.

Neither does he offer a serious critique of the political thinking behind ‘Putinism’, unlike, for instance, Richard Sakwa in The Crisis of Russian Democracy.   In Judah’s assessment, the President is simply at the apex of a kleptocracy, whose concepts of ‘managed democracy’, ‘the dictatorship of the law’ and ‘the power vertical’ are just hollow phrases, designed to keep assets flowing in his direction. 

That bleak cynicism might reflect recent disillusionment with United Russia, but it can’t explain why Putin, as an individual, is still supported by a majority of Russians, after 14 years at the top of public life.  There is no serious reflection in Fragile Empire on the President’s attempts to rebuild sovereignty, after inheriting a state where it had been strewn, haphazardly across countless regions and republics.  Judah doesn’t try to fit some of Putin’s more draconian policies – appointing governors, requiring a minimum threshold of support for political parties - into any type of context.

Certainly, he is entitled to argue that the President failed in his projects, but he doesn’t really bother to investigate whether there was any rationale behind these actions in the first place.   And he doesn't sufficiently acknowledge that, even if the grand larceny he alleges did take place, enough money was left over to build up enormous reserves, raise living standards substantially and leave Russia the least indebted country in the G20.

Fragile Empire becomes most interesting when it starts to deal with Putin’s opponents and the protests which gained momentum after the State Duma elections in 2011.  Judah interviews opposition figures from Berezovsky to Navalny and he even corresponds with the gaoled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Although the author is clearly sympathetic to the opposition, he doesn’t make excuses for its leaders.  He portrays Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky as wealthy manipulators, eager to use their riches to warp the political process, he paints Boris Nemtsov as an unappealing fop, who cannot connect with the wider public and he describes Navlny’s past, with all its inflammatory rhetoric and fire-arms incidents.

Indeed, while Judah enthuses about the mood which brought demonstrators to the streets, he acknowledges that there is no common purpose or viable leadership in the opposition movement.  The Moscow liberals, whom he says formed the back-bone of the demonstrations in the capital, had little in common with, or interest in, less cosmopolitan Russians beyond the Garden Ring.  They rubbed shoulders at these events with nationalists demanding the reinstatement of Tsarist autocracy, quasi-fascists and communists.  There were no coherent demands, no leaders who could capture attention beyond the capital and no electoral vehicle to harness anti-United Russia feeling.

Even the movement's brightest star, Navlny, was an obscure figure outside Moscow, attracting the derision of regional protesters, who alleged that he didn't care about them.      

A major flaw with the book, is that it appears to overstate Putin’s decline.  The latest polls from the Levada Centre show that he has a 65% approval rating, which is a small improvement on last month and largely in line with figures from this time last year.  Those are numbers which most politicians would kill for.  The idea that there is no longer a ‘Putin consensus’ is not sustainable, even though the argument that the President’s popularity relies on the absence of a viable opposition is stronger.

Fragile Empire is an interesting book, occasionally let down by sloppy writing, but it is certainly not the tired, anti-Putin hackery that Edward Lucas or Luke Harding pump out.  It’s a pity that Judah didn’t concentrate on writing about the opposition and sharing snapshots of ordinary people’s lives from some of Russia’s farthest flung corners.  These passages form the most insightful material in the book rather than the second hand, cynical commentary of Putin’s years in the Kremlin.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Ukraine ten years on

In 2003 I travelled to Ukraine with supporters of the Northern Ireland football team, a trip that cemented a long-standing interest in the countries of the former Soviet Union.  I was with a group of fans who visited Kiev, before taking an overnight train to Donetsk - the capital of the Donbass coal-mining region - where the match was played. 

I found the country hospitable and fascinating, although, at times, it could be a little rough around the edges. 

I remember the pitiful brown trickle which emerged from the shower in our first hotel room and being startled by lumps of falling masonry, which crashed into the pavement beside buildings undergoing refurbishment.   Only a short distance from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s main square, we had to stumble along unlit streets when we made our way back to the hotel at night and, in a bar in Donetsk, a drinker took out a gun and waved it about, after a dispute over an arm-wrestling match.  Whether it was the real thing or a replica, no-one was quite sure.

A couple of weeks ago, I returned to Ukraine, staying in the capital again for a number of days, before heading east, this time to Crimea.  Without attempting to be too analytical or drawing any sweeping conclusions, it’s fair to say that a lot appeared to have changed, but a lot of things about the country also felt rather familiar. 

Certainly the authorities in Kiev have sorted out the dodgy street lighting and any building work now seems to take the health and safety of pedestrians into consideration.  It’s hardly surprising that many areas of the city centre look like they’ve recently been spruced up, given that the final of last year’s European 2012 tournament took place in the Olympic Stadium. 

There are more 4*4s crowding the roads in central Kiev, the people look even more stylish and the streets are lined with fashionable restaurants and boutiques.  You still get glimpses of crushing poverty, although it's hard for a casual visitor to tell how deep this runs.  In nearly every large city you see homeless and addicted people in the scruffier corners.

What few people could have anticipated back in 2003 was how ubiquitous mobile technology would become over the next ten years.  I remember being rather proud when I used my first digital camera in Ukraine and I may have taken a mobile phone, for emergencies.  Now it seems that every child in Kiev clutches a tablet computer and commuters on the metro rarely glance up from the games of Angry Birds they’re playing on their smart-phones.

Of course Kiev is the capital city.  It is expensive, comparatively speaking, and much of Ukraine’s prosperity is concentrated there.   On the twelve hour train journey to Crimea we passed through villages which looked desperately poor.  Statistically, Ukraine is still one of Europe’s poorest countries.  A large amount of this poverty is in sleepy rural areas, which younger people often leave to live in towns and cities.

I remember discovering, in Donetsk, that many people considered themselves Russian rather than Ukrainian and that, for example, much of the television they watched was from Russia rather than Ukraine.  If anything Crimea is even more firmly Russian in its orientation. 

Ten years ago, I’m afraid I couldn’t have reported accurately whether the people of Ukraine were speaking Ukrainian, Russian or Esperanto.  While my language skills have improved only a little, this time I noticed that people in both Kiev and Crimea frequently spoke Russian.  However, in Crimea, many of the signs were also in Russian, there were plenty of Russian tricolours on display and a high proportion of cars had Russian number plates. 

It would be terribly unfair to draw any other comparisons between Donetsk, which was, back in 2003, a grimy, industrial town, with slagheaps on its outskirts, and Crimea, which has a sunny, hilly interior and a craggy coast with azure seas. 

The Donbass was a great deal of fun though.  At that time, before Euro 2012 and the arrival of hordes of England football supporters, Donetsk was not a common destination for English speaking travellers and people were curious about our group and keen to talk.

Crimea is a popular holiday destination, but the tourists are mainly Russian and Ukrainian there too.  We didn’t hear a single, native English speaker from the moment we left Kiev, until we touched down again briefly at Borispol Airport on the way home.  Although its attractions are thronged with visitors, a holiday to Crimea feels refreshingly like you’re getting off the beaten track.

We visited Bakchisaray, a dusty town, set in a rocky valley in the mountains, which is synonymous with the Crimean Tatars.  This Muslim people was exiled to Central Asia in 1944, but since 1989 they’ve returned to Ukraine in large numbers.  The centre of their culture is the Khan’s Palace, where coach loads of day-trippers arrive each afternoon, to enjoy shady rose gardens and tour the Ottoman harem.  Bakhchisaray is also an ideal centre for hiking the surrounding hills, and in particular the ‘cave cities’, where monks, Jews and others took refuge on remote mountain-tops.

In Alushta, on the southern coast, we enjoyed the Russian / Ukrainian take on the seaside resort.  Crimea’s climate and the warm seas made it enormously enjoyable.


Two casual trips to any country, over a space of ten years, can hardly sustain any serious insight.  It is possible to say that Ukraine is still a great place to visit, though, and, although it has become more popular, it’s still a relatively unusual destination.  Some of the rougher edges have been smoothed down a little since 2003 and, best of all, British citizens can now travel without a visa.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Gaol term for Navalny will be counterproductive

The media’s reaction to the 5 year prison sentence handed to Russian opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, after his trial for embezzling timber, is familiar.  The editorials read very much like any number of columns written after Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s multiple appearances in court, or the outcry after members of ‘Pussy Riot’ were sent to prison.  However this verdict is different and has more regrettable implications.   

Firstly, even staunchly pro-Russia commentators acknowledge that the case against Navalny is not strong.  At Da Russophile Anatoly Karlin argues that the trial is ‘further delegitimizing’ the Russian legal system.

When the state previously used legal methods or the threat of proceedings to sweep aside political challenges from Gusinsky, Berezovsky and, famously, Khodorkovsky, it was acting against men who were determined to use their wealth and influence to manipulate the democratic process.  The nature of the oligarchs’ asset grab in the 1990s provided ample grounds to act and there were both legal and moral arguments to do so.

Navalny does not have immense wealth at his disposal, he does not own a television station and he is not sponsoring political opposition for personal gain.  He became prominent through the very modern methods of blogging and Tweeting.  His opinions, which are strongly nationalist, may be unpleasant, but that doesn’t entitle the authorities to remove him from the electoral scene or to stop him from protesting, if those are the pretexts behind the case.

The strategic puzzle is that Navalny’s trial has made him more prominent.  From a relatively obscure figure he could become a serious contender in Moscow’s mayoral race, should he be permitted to take part.  There are suggestions that, from a standing start, he could command up to 30% of the vote. 

Khodorkovsky is an odious character and he had become one of the wealthiest, most influential men in the world, through highly dubious methods.  His apparent conversion in gaol to a benevolent, freedom-loving champion of the Russian people was unconvincing and as the owner of Russia’s biggest company, Yukos, he posed a credible threat to the rejuvenated country which Vladimir Putin was struggling to build.


In contrast Alexei Navalny is a minor figure and, should the 5 year sentence he has received be upheld on appeal, the result will be to create another dubious, high-profile martyr and a rallying point for opposition in Russia.