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Showing posts from April, 2008

10 Famous.... Ukrainians

As another of these occasional lists of the heroes of different countries, I move now to Ukraine. Ihor Sikorsky - Inventor of the helicopter. Milla Jovovic- Model and Actress Serhei Bondarchuk- Film Director Taras Shevchenko- First national poet in Ukrainian Ivan Franko- Poet Bohdan Khmelnytsky - National Hetman Andriy Shevchenko- outstanding footballer Stepan Bandera- defender of Ukrainian state murdered by the KGB Serhei Bubka- Legendary Olympic pole vaulter Serhei Korolyov- Rocket designer

Tallinn: One year on

The anniversary of the Bronze Soldier Night in Tallinn is coming up. Worth reminding oneself about what really happened . The disgraceful way that the Kremlin directly interfered in the issue has ended up backfiring very badly on Russia. The cyber-attacks that were launched from Russia , indeed from the very servers of the Russian Government will be remembered as the first war fought in cyberspace- and one that is still continuing. Tallinn is now to be the centre for the co-ordination of NATO defence against such attacks , and of course the way the attacks were launched, though they broke the Estonian systems for several days, also gave away a lot of information about the shape of the Russian network. In the meantime, Estonia has faced a co-ordinated, but unofficial boycott by its large neighbour, and continuing pressure and attempted interference. The unmistakable message that Putin sent out, however, seems to have only convinced world opinion that Russia is not merely a prickly and u

BAA Monopoly may not be a good thing. No... Really??

The Privatisation model adopted by the Conservatives was, well, conservative. Although they talked a lot about the value of the free market, in practice they tended to privatise monopolies intact. British Gas for example was privatised as a single business despite the very obvious conflicts of being a supplier, a distributor and a maintenance company in one. This was certainly noticed at the time- indeed the then Alliance spokesman on energy is mentioned by name in the enabling bill as advocating the break up of the business- which is, I think unique in the annals of British legislation. In the end, what the government chose not to do, the market forced on the company, and eventually the sheer unwieldiness of the integrated gas business forced its break up into separate entities for each of the basic underlying businesses: transit, end-user supplier, maintenance etc. Another monopoly that was privatised intact was the British Airports Authority: privatised as BAA PLC. Why anyone cou

What is the point of Trevor Phillips ?

As so often before Trevor Phillips gets into the news with a scare story- this time that we may be on the brink of a "cold war between the races" . Now far be it from me to suggest Mr. Phillips has a vested interest: but it is hard to avoid the fact that if there were no problems of inter-racial tension then his job as head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) would not be needed. Frankly, if one raises the dead horse of Enoch Powell's "Rivers blood" speech forty years after the event, then it is hard to claim that one is bringing new thinking to the debate. In fact I find that most of Trevor Phillips ideas are very backward looking and defensive to the point of paranoia. I suppose that it is not too surprising from a former head of the National Union of Students though- a rogue's gallery of new Labour lackeys that includes: Jack Straw, Phil Woollas, Stephen Twigg, Charles Clarke, David Aaronovitch, Lorna Fitzsimmons and Jim Murphy. All are pr

10 Famous.... Albanians

Continuing the occasional theme of finding well known people from different places, my current trip to Albania has inspired me. Although Albania surely has its fair share of villains, especially the evil dictator Enver Hoxha, nonetheless I think I can find some heroes too: Mother Teresa- humanitarian Ismail Kadare- Great European novelist Fan Noli- Poet and founder of the Albanian autocephelous Orthodox church George Kastriot-Skanderbeg- determined opponent of the Ottoman advance into Europe King Zog- romantic rascal Ali Pasha- friend and inspiration to Byron Muhammed Ali- founder of modern Egypt and progenitor of the Royal family there Ibrahim Rugova- advocate of non-violence in Kosova Sinan Pasha- Five times Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire at its height John Belushi - Comic genius (though born in the US, both parents were Albanian)

The past is another country...

Albania is a country that tries, quite exuberantly, to live in the present. The youngest country in Europe in terms of demographics also has a special reason to ignore history. In Albania history is too unspeakable and too near to be discussed objectively. Take this morning, I was taking some potentially significant Western investors to visit various companies, and as we broke up a meeting, we adjourned to the nearest coffee bar. That coffee bar was in a rather ugly 1960's house that, unusually for that part of Tirana , sits in its own grounds. When I first visited the country 16 years ago, it stood alone and heavily guarded. Now it stands surrounded by new office buildings. It was once the house of the dictator, Enver Hoxha . It was with frankly rather mixed feelings that I sat nursing an espresso in Hoxha's parlour, for the dictator was one of the most evil humans to have walked the planet. That his crimes have been dwarfed by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or Kim Jong Il was only

Dateline: Tirana

Back again in the Albanian capital, which inevitably limits the opportunities to blog, since Internet access can be rather sporadic. Things continue to improve in this country, though as always the bad cars and bad roads leave your heart in your mouth when travelling more than a few miles from Tirana. Even in the few months since I was last here, there is visible progress, with new construction proceeding at a breakneck pace. There is, despite the general poverty, a certain optimism, after all where else would someone build a hotel underneath a large electricity pylon and simply call it "The Hotel Eiffel"? Even two years ago local entrepreneurs struggled to find capital for even the most basic investments, now it is clear that a tipping point has been reached and there is certainly the beginnings of large scale investment in tourism. Albania may have a frankly scary reputation, but in general, the population is well educated and thinking, and this gives hope that they will fo

Zimbabwe: Mbeki plays Hamlet- Harare burns

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the 84 year old despot of Zimbabwe, has lead his country to ruin. Yet despite his obvious and complete failure he is sustained in office by two things: the first is his own belief that he is not just the administrator of Zimbabwe, but is some real sense its owner. His sense of entitlement is rooted in his own measure of the struggle that brought majority rule to the country in 1980. No matter that the portly Joshua Nkomo was a better known figure internationally; he was an Ndebele and Mugabe- who loathed Nkomo with a passion- always knew that the larger Shona , of which he was himself a part, would have the decisive influence in the new state. Just to make sure, of course Mugabe unleashed his death squads in Matebeleland - crushing any resistance from Nkomo's ZIPRA , the armed wing of his ZAPU party, which had been the partner of Mugabe's own ZANU in the Patriotic Front. Nkomo died in 1999 having been forced to merge his own party into ZANU to for

Fixed, non optional costs

I don't fly Ryanair anymore. I flew to Stockholm once with them and the flight landed- six hours late- at Vesteras, which is about as far from Stockholm as Bristol is from London. I did not actually arrive in the centre of the Swedish capital until 3 AM. But apart from terrible service, uncomfortable planes and the sense that the ONLY thing that matters is the price, it has always been hard to avoid the idea that Ryanair is a massive rip-off. Although advertised as a flight for a Pound, or Ten Pounds or whatever, the fact is that this is never the amount that you pay. Taxes, Landing fees, etc always add several Pounds, and these are of course fixed and non-optional costs. So it strikes me that Ryanair are misleading the public; or to use the preferred idiom of the company, they are liars. Therefore I am not surprised to see the ASA are investigating the company , yet again. As usual, the company shrilly attacks its detractors in the most robust language. But let us go through this

10 Famous Belgians

The other day I was thinking about the old chestnut about how difficult it is to name 10 famous Belgians. I came up- eventually- with 10 at least significant Belgians: Magritte - Painter Georges Simenon -Writer Herge -Creator of Tintin Rubens - Painter Adolphe Saxe -Inventor of the Saxephone Breughel - Painter Mercator- Geographer Jacques Brel -Singer/Songwriter Godfrey of Bouillon -Inspirer of the Crusades Jean-Claude van Damme - Actor Then I thought, that this is a game that any country could play, How about 1o Finnish heroes: Sibelius - Composer CGE Mannerheim - General Tove Jannson - Creator of the Moomins Miika Hakkinen - Racing Driver Alvar Aalto - Designer Paavo Nurmi - Olympian Runner Aki Kaurismaki - Film maker Akseli Kallela - Artist Linus Thorvalds - Developer of Linux Elias Lonnrot - Poet & Author of Kalevala 10 Portuguese heroes, anyone? Henry the Navigator - initiator of the age of discovery Vasco da Gama - First captain to Round the cape of Good Hope Christiano Rona

The Dunkirk Spirit

I don't know whether it is the weather; I don't know if it is the government or the economy; I do know that I can hardly remember a time when the atmosphere in Britain has been so defeatist. The terminal five fiasco perhaps brings home the fact that the UK tends to see its mistakes in apocalyptic terms: not "this was a pretty unacceptable failure of planning", but instead "we can't get anything right". This self laceration that is often the hallmark of the whingeing poms seems to be growing worse- there seems a general sense of frustration and even of failure. It would be politically convenient to blame this atmosphere on the government, and to be honest the malaise is at least partly the sense that the Labour government can not be held to account-that important things- like the Iraq war- have taken place despite the strongly expressed opposition of the majority of the British people. However I would also say that simply changing Brown for Blue and gett

Do-or-die in Zimbabwe

"In Zimbabwe, people really do believe this is a general election - because the generals decide who gets elected." - Comrade Fatso, Harare Zim is facing an end game of sorts- whatever the 84 year old dictator Robert Gabriel Mugabe may try to do to avoid it. It has been clear for at least a decade that the population of the once prosperous land between the Zambezi and the Limpopo were tiring of their incompetent, corrupt and brutal ruler. The massacre of the Ndebele in the mid-1980's which may have killed 10,000 people and which certainly ended the idea of Zimbabwe as a pluralist democracy was simply the first step in the dreadful decline of the country. Perhaps, symbolically the leader of the group most involved in the death squads of the time, North Korean trained Fifth Brigade- Col. Perence Shiri- is rumoured to have attempted suicide as it became clear that Zanu-PF might lose power. Now the rampant corruption has brought the country to its knees and the regime now face

New Money

New coins for the UK. As is traditional on these sorts of occasions there is a load of whinging hot air- in this case complaints that the Coat of Arms has no place for Wales- yes, true, so? Or that the coat of arms is the version used in England- also true, so? I was thinking the other day how stodgy much of our national iconography now looks: comparing the British passport: with the Swedish I just think the cleaner Swedish design looks better. So despite the whinging and demands that the (to my mind rather paltry) fee of 35,000 is some kind of national disgrace and should not by paid. I find I rather like these clean, cool and elegant designs. I hope the whinging stops soon...

Moving on from Comrade Bob

Well, we still don't know the results of the elections in Zimbabwe. Admittedly there are rather a lot of them on the same day: Presidential, Parliamentary and Local. However the incredibly slow release of the figures can only reinforce the fear that -as so often in the past- Comrade Bob and his stooges in Zanu-PF are busy stealing the election. However, there is also the growing possibility that the scale of the victory of the MDC is so crushing that despite all of the efforts of the ruling party it is going to be impossible to hide. The fact that so many of the more egregiously nasty members of Zanu-PF seem to be trying to talk to the Movement for Democratic Change suggests that the game could well be up for the increasingly deranged Mugabe. The general disgust at the ruin of the nation must be obvious even to those who have played the strongest part in it. In the next few hours we will know whether the decrepit Mugabe and his equally decrepit and incompetent government are to be