Archives for January 2008

Election special: but no, not that one ...

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Robin Lustig | 15:39 UK time, Thursday, 31 January 2008

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I shall shortly be on my way to the US, weather permitting, to taste for myself the full delights of the presidential election campaign as it enters what may well be its most crucial week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope to be on air from the US next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – and I’ll try to blog as I go.

US election latest: keeping it simple

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Robin Lustig | 12:41 UK time, Tuesday, 29 January 2008

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Here's the latest instalment of the Lustig Survival Guide: just concentrate on the numbers.

According to the most recent opinion polls, if it's John McCain for the Republicans against Hillary Clinton in November, it'll be a dead heat.

If it's McCain against Barack Obama, it'll be a dead heat.

If it's any other Republican against either Clinton or Obama, the Democrats will win easily.

Like I said, keep it simple. Unless Mitt Romney wins the Republican primary in Florida tonight ...

The Gaza break-out

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Robin Lustig | 19:37 UK time, Saturday, 26 January 2008

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The biggest prison break-out in history is how many Gazans have been describing the events of the past few days – and if it hadn’t been for the turmoil in the world of finance, the resignation of a top British Cabinet minister, and the “oops sorry, I seem to have lost 7 billion dollars of your money” in Paris, we would probably have been paying a lot more attention to that teeming, over-crowded sliver of land between Israel and Egypt.

For nearly a year now, for the vast majority of the 1.5 million people of Gaza, it’s been impossible to leave. To the north and the east, Israel, which has been closed to all but the most essential freight traffic and the most urgent humanitarian cases. To the south, Egypt, which has similarly been closed. To the west, the sea, patrolled round the clock by Israeli naval vessels.

Then, last week, on the border with Egypt, someone blew a huge hole in the fence. The effect was not unlike breaching the Berlin wall. Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streamed across, desperate to buy anything they could lay their hands on: everything from petrol to livestock, from TVs to motor-cycles.

So now what? Israel wants the hole in the fence repaired pronto. It doesn’t like the idea of weapons and ammunition being smuggled into Gaza from Egypt and nor does Washington. (Egypt is the biggest recipient of US aid after Israel. That gives Washington quite a lot of clout in Cairo.)

Egypt isn’t too keen on the border remaining open either: it doesn’t like all those Hamas fighters making common cause with their fellow-Islamists in Egypt. But Hamas? This is the best thing to have happened to Hamas since it seized power in Gaza last summer – which is why many suspect it was Hamas who blew up the fence in the first place.

There’s talk now of Egypt trying to get Hamas and the rival Palestinian faction Fatah to sit down and discuss a plan for the future. Might Hamas be prepared to allow Fatah, in the guise of the Palestinian Authority, to take control of the border crossings? It’s possible, I suppose, but for now, and not for the first time, Hamas seem to have most of the cards.

Israel has legitimate security concerns. Hundreds of home-made “Qassam” rockets are launched from Gaza into Israel – one recently killed a kibbutz volunteer from Ecuador. In the border town of Sderot, people live in constant fear of the rockets, although only a tiny number have done any real damage.

As for the people of Gaza, they are in a state of constant anger and despair. Dozens have been killed in recent weeks, most of them fighters. But Israeli air attacks sometimes kill civilians as well as fighters, and Israel’s decision to cut off fuel supplies briefly, thus starving Gazans of any electricity, seems to have been the final straw.

Some Israeli officials have been suggesting that Israel would like to give up any responsibility for Gaza, now that its troops and settlers are long gone – but my understanding is that under international law Israel is still regarded as the “occupying power” because it retains control over Gaza's airspace and coastline, and controls the flow of goods, including fuel and energy supplies, in and out of the territory. That means it has continuing responsibilities, whether it wants them or not.

It’s going to take some nimble diplomacy to resolve all this … and my hunch is it won’t be quick. Egypt really doesn’t want to be seen locking the people of Gaza back into their prison – or even worse, opening fire on them. But neither the US nor Israel will want things to stay as they are. Headaches all round.

The values debate: the transcript

Robin Lustig | 00:38 UK time, Saturday, 26 January 2008

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You can read a transcript of our debate on British values HERE. Or listen to it HERE.

The values debate

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Robin Lustig | 11:20 UK time, Thursday, 24 January 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it the "bulldog spirit", a deeply felt sense that you don't kick the Brits around? Or the "Dunkirk spirit", the ability to celebrate triumph in adversity? In Prospect magazine late last year, the writer Duncan Fallowell came up with this:

"You should hate liars and cheats and those who won't play the game. You should be able to take a joke. You should dislike extremes. You should be bad at dancing and sex and incapable of either without being drunk. You should resist invasion of your personal or national space. You should ignore what you dislike but give to charity. You should protect the countryside. You should respect the sovereign. You should say what you think. You should be classical on the outside and romantic within. You should put religion in the back seat and make sure it bloody well stays there. You should acknowledge your amazingly good fortune."

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

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

So let's have that debate. I hope you can listen to the programme, 10pm on Radio 4 on Friday, 25 January, or online here.

The shape of Iraq's political future

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Robin Lustig | 10:42 UK time, Friday, 18 January 2008

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There's an interesting piece in today's Washington Post by the National Security Adviser to the Iraqi government, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, in which he outlines a quasi-federal future for the country. There's a lot of talk around these days about devolving power away from the unimpressive bunch of politicians in Baghdad ... this is a useful contribution to the debate.

Bush in the Middle East: mission accomplished?

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Robin Lustig | 16:42 UK time, Thursday, 17 January 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eagleburger: Why independence for Kosovo is a mistake.

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Robin Lustig | 14:44 UK time, Thursday, 17 January 2008

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The former US secretary of state Laurence Eagleburger, who served under the first President Bush, thinks the second President Bush is making a serious mistake by backing independence for Kosovo. And he doesn't mind saying so. You can hear him telling me why by clicking here.

Fareed Zakaria on Pakistan

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Robin Lustig | 15:09 UK time, Sunday, 13 January 2008

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Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and one of the US's most interesting foreign policy commentators, is just back from Pakistan. You can read his excellent analysis here.

The tiny Tata Nano

Robin Lustig | 00:07 UK time, Friday, 11 January 2008

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The Indian Tata group have unveiled what they say is the world's cheapest car: the Nano, on sale at a mere 2,500 US dollars. If they sell a million of them in the first year, which they say they will, what will that do to pollution, congestion, and global warming? Some interesting thoughts from Indian bloggers -- and a picture of the little beast -- on the Global Voices website here.

Lustig's Survival Guide to US Elections 2008

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Robin Lustig | 11:08 UK time, Thursday, 10 January 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

(UPDATE: In fact, as has been pointed out to me, the same was true in 1952, although then the Democratic Party candidate Adlai Stevenson had the public approval of President Truman -- so it was still less wide open than this year's race. In the event, of course, the 1952 election was won by General Dwight Eisenhower.)

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

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

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

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

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

See? Easy, isn’t it?

Obama and Odinga are related!

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Robin Lustig | 21:08 UK time, Tuesday, 8 January 2008

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According to Raila Odinga, the Kenyan opposition leader who claims he was cheated out of the presidency in a rigged election, Barack Obama's Kenyan father was not only a member of the same Luo tribe (which we knew) but was, in fact, his maternal uncle (which we didn't know). At least, that's what he told Newshour's Roger Hearing on the BBC World Service today. And Obama has apparently phoned him twice over the past day to express his concern at the post-election crisis.

Mr & Mrs Clinton: The End?

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Robin Lustig | 08:24 UK time, Tuesday, 8 January 2008

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I know it's probably not in the best taste to speculate about these things, but am I the only one wondering about the fate of the Clintons' marriage if Hillary's presidential campaign ends in failure? I can't help but ask whether one of the things that has kept them together has been her determination to try to get back to the White House in her own right -- and even if voters had been prepared to elect a female president, I doubt that a divorced female president would have been considered a viable option.

But it's early days, of course, and whatever happens in New Hampshire tonight, I doubt that she's ready to quit just yet.

Of Iowa, Kenya, and Pakistan ...

Robin Lustig | 11:32 UK time, Friday, 4 January 2008

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(this week's newsletter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenya latest: Odinga says "I'll talk to Kibaki."

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Robin Lustig | 17:55 UK time, Wednesday, 2 January 2008

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I've just interviewed Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga's director of communications, Salim Lone. He told me that Odinga has dropped his insistence that Kibaki must acknowledge that he did not win the election before he'll start negotiations. His only condition now is that there must be international mediation -- but apparently Kibaki is saying No to President Kufuor of Ghana who's chairman of the African Union. Full coverage on The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 at 2200 GMT and online.

Baghdad: A Day in the Life

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Robin Lustig | 10:30 UK time, Tuesday, 1 January 2008

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Here's a poignant snapshot of life in Baghdad as we enter 2008. It's written by one of the Iraqi journalists who work for the US McClatchy group of newspapers, who consistently provide fascinating insights into daily life in Baghdad.

Happy New Year.

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