Thursday 19 December 2013

A letter from Sochi

 I’m writing this from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is the warmest city in Russia and will also be the venue for the Winter Olympics next February.
Crazy, huh? Why choose a place that even in December boasts bright sunshine and temperatures well above zero? Well, if you turn your back on the Black Sea, you’ll find yourself gazing up at the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus mountains – and that’s where the skiers and jumpers will be heading in just seven weeks’ time.

So not so crazy, after all. Except for the price tag: something around $50 billion, which will make the Sochi Games the most expensive Olympics ever held. By comparison, the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing – and the summer Games are always much bigger than the Winter ones -- cost a mere $43 billion, the 2012 London games came in at a paltry $14 billion, and the 2010 winter Games in Vancouver cost a bargain basement $9 billion.
In other words, like for like, Sochi 2014 will be more than five times as expensive as Vancouver 2010. According to the Russian government, it’s because the money has been used for massive investment in new infrastructure projects. According to critics, it’s because more than half of the eye-watering total cost has gone in bribes and kick-backs.
Sochi has been a popular Russian summer holiday resort ever since Stalin built vast State-owned sanitoriums for Soviet workers here back in the 1930s. Now, President Putin wants to turn it into a winter resort as well – and what Mr Putin wants, Mr Putin tends to get.
Make no mistake: the Sochi Games are Project Putin. The president is a keen skier and he has long been a fan of the Sochi slopes. He has invested a huge amount of personal prestige in these Games, which is why everyone expects that they’ll be a huge success. If they fail, Mr Putin fails. And the Russian president doesn’t do failure.
A couple of days ago, I was taken on a tour of some of the Olympic venues. They are truly impressive, not least the vast new winter sports centre at Krasnaya Polyana, where giant hotels and apartment complexes have sprung up almost overnight to host the Olympic visitors.
But who will use them once the Games are over? It’s the legacy question again, as it is after every Olympic event – and the Russians insist that Sochi is about to become a major international winter sports resort, competing with Switzerland, France and Italy for high-spending guests.
We shall see. Meanwhile, down on the Black Sea shoreline, 76-year-old Alla Nikolaichik says the Olympics have ruined her life. The modest, Soviet-era home she’s lived in for the past 50 years was ear-marked for demolition to make way for an Olympic-related housing complex – and although the plans have since been abandoned, she says the continuing uncertainty has made her life a misery. When I asked her to describe her feelings about the Games, she exploded in anger.
Maria Reniova of the National Geographic Society is angry too. She says the Olympic planners have ignored the concerns of environmentalists, and destroyed valuable habitats for rare species of birds and plants. The organisers, on the other hand, insist that they have gone out of their way to safeguard the environment. Andrei Markov of the Sochi 2014 organising committee, who runs the biathlon centre up in the mountains, told me that for every tree they cut down, they planted another one.
Nothing in Russia is uncontroversial. Can Russia afford the $50 billion price tag? Are the Sochi Games the most extreme example to date of Presidential vanity? Or are they an ambitious attempt to create a genuine new winter sports attraction, which long after the 2014 Games have faded away will act as a magnet for both domestic and international investment?
My report from Sochi is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at the end of January. I hope you'll tune in.

Friday 13 December 2013

An execution in Pyongyang

Perhaps Shakespeare isn't the most obvious place to look when trying to make sense of the latest dramatic events in North Korea, but when I heard last night of the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, my thoughts immediately turned to Hamlet.

Shakespeare's play ends with Hamlet murdering his uncle the king, a man he calls "incestuous, murderous, and damned." Last night, the North Korean news agency called Jang Song-thaek "despicable human scum … worse than a dog, [who] perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery." In its way, it was almost Shakespearean in its fury.

Jang was considered the power behind the throne in Pyongyang (he was married to the sister of Kim's father), and his power stretched back to long before the young and untested Kim Jong-un came to power two years ago. He was regarded as one of the most powerful men in the country since the time of Kim's grandfather Kim Il-sung -- and when the grandson inherited the crown from his father, it was thought that Jang would probably be the man really in charge.

Now, he's dead, for reasons that we can only guess at. North Korea remains the most secretive place on the planet, and even in countries like South Korea and Japan, which have good reason to want to know exactly what's going on in Pyongyang, analysts usually have very little hard information on which to base their assessments. 

So for now, we have just the overblown reporting of the State news agency to go on: "The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state by all sorts of intrigues and despicable methods with a wild ambition to grab the supreme power of our party and state.

"The accused is a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system … Jang committed such an unpardonable thrice-cursed treason as overtly and covertly standing in the way of settling the issue of succession to the leadership …

"In a bid to rally a group of reactionaries to be used by him for toppling the leadership of the party and state, he let the undesirable and alien elements including those who had been dismissed and relieved of their posts after being severely punished for disobeying the instructions of Kim Jong-il."

Which I take to mean that he and the younger Kim fell out. The question is: over what? Most likely, according to the first analysts' assessments, is that the issue that led to Jang's death was relations with China. And that is sending the alarm bells ringing across the region.

North Korea needs China in order to survive. It needs China for fuel, for food, and for military and diplomatic cover. But over the last few years, there have been growing signs of impatience in Beijing with the often wayward behaviour of its desperately impoverished and unpredictable neighbour.

Earlier this year, the North Koreans ratcheted up tensions in the region with first an underground nuclear test and then a series of blood-curdling threats to unleash nuclear weapons against the United States. At the time, the threats were seen as a way for Kim Jong-un to bolster his position with the country's military leaders, to reassure them that he was made of the same stern stuff as his father and grandfather. China did not approve.

So was the execution of his uncle a similar attempt to burnish his "I'm-as-tough-as-they-were" credentials? Some analysts suggest that Jang might have become too vocal an advocate of China-style economic reforms. Perhaps Kim simply needed to show, in the most brutal way imaginable, who was boss.

So North Korea now enters a new, dangerous phase of its history. Will the anti-Jang purge stop with him, or will there be more casualties as Kim moves against others thought to have been close to him? How much support is there for Jang among the senior leadership? How secure is Kim's own position?

One way for him to show that he is firmly in charge is to engineer another regional crisis. Three and a half years ago, a South Korean warship sank with the loss of 46 lives -- the North Koreans were accused of firing a torpedo against it, a charge it has always denied. Eight months later, it launched an artillery attack on a South Korean military base, killing two civilians and two marines.

And just 10 days ago, before the arrest and execution of Jang Song-thaek, a report from Seoul suggested "It may only be a matter of time before North Korea launches a sudden, deadly attack on the South."

In Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, governments will be watching carefully for the latest move from Pyongyang. Further afield, in Washington and other NATO capitals, policy-makers will also be waiting nervously to see what happens next. The US has a major strategic interest in the region, to say nothing of its defence agreements with some of the countries now feeling most threatened.

It may all sound like a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing -- but as Neville Chamberlain found out to his cost, after broadcasting those words in 1938, such quarrels can sometimes explode into global cataclysms. Let's hope history isn't about to repeat itself.

Monday 9 December 2013

My dream: our own Mandela to fight poverty

It's absurd, I know, but wouldn't it be nice to think that one day another Mandela figure will emerge, someone with the same burning sense of justice, unquenchable courage and personal integrity? Absurd, yes, but we can dream, can't we?

After all, is it inevitable that today's politicians will always cut such miserable, unimpressive figures? Where are the latter-day Churchills, Abraham Lincolns, Nelson Mandelas?

Ah, the sages will say, but now there are no great causes. No slavery to be ended, no Fascism to be vanquished, no apartheid to be dismantled. Great leaders, they will say, are forged in mighty battles against injustice -- and where today are the great causes likely to produce a new Mandela or a new Churchill?

Well, I have an answer to that, and it lies in Mandela's own words, in that famous proclamation from the dock when he was facing the hangman's noose at the Rivonia trial in 1964. He ended his three-hour speech by defining the ideal for which he was preared to die: "a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

With equal opportunities. Three words that are so often forgotten, or ignored, or wilfully misunderstood. (Boris Johnson, are you listening?) What cause could be greater, what injustice more worth confronting, than the obscenity that condemns millions of children to a life that denies them what Nelson Mandela was prepared to die for?

Equal opportunities. Not equality of wealth, or intelligence, or happiness or health. Even Cuba and the Israeli kibbutz movement have given up on the idea that everyone should earn the same.  Simply the promise of a society in which the playing field is level (all right, I'm a realist: I'll settle for a playing field that is more level than it is now) -- in which to be born poor does not mean being born with little or no chance of fulfilling whatever promise your genes and your talents may have endowed you with.

Where is the British Mandela prepared to fight -- really fight -- for equal opportunities?  To rail against the same injustices that galvanised Mandela: poverty and lack of human dignity? To argue that there is something intrinsically evil about a society in which (again, the words come from his Rivonia speech) some "enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst [others] live in poverty and misery."

No, I'm not saying that Britain in 2013 is the same as South Africa was in 1964. I'm not that daft. But the alleviation of poverty is a cause every bit as worth fighting for as apartheid was 50 years ago -- and if a new Mandela is looking for a battle worth waging, it's right there, in the nation's maternity wards, where you could go from new-born babe to new-born babe and, simply by asking about their family circumstances, mark on their brow in indelible ink: this one will do well, this one will not.

According to one recent study, one quarter of all children in the UK live in poverty – that's more than in many other European countries including Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Slovenia, Cyprus, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic. And only half those children reach what is defined as "a good level of development" by the age of five.

Too often, to be born into poverty means to be denied even the most basic chance to lead a fulfilled life. Too often, it means to live in sub-standard housing, to be educated in a sub-standard school, to suffer from sub-standard health, and to be at greater risk of being a victim of violent crime. Not because of a lack of intelligence, or laziness, or wickedness. Simply because of poverty.

There are some exceptions, of course, those fortunate few who do break free from this relentless cycle of deprivation, just as Nelson Mandela was an exception as a black South African living in an apartheid state. So it is from among those who live in poverty that perhaps we should hope one day to see emerge an effective, passionate, determined fighter, someone who will speak not for the "squeezed middle" -- every politician seems only too keen to speak for them -- but for the "crushed bottom", the people who had the least to start with but then had the most taken away as post-crash austerity mania swept the land.

It will be someone who, like Mandela, will first confront the evil and then engage with it, who will attack those who insist on retaining their unfair privileges, and then sit down with them and talk to them, to persuade them by sheer force of argument that to live in a more just society benefits all equally, those who have the most as much as those who have nothing.

A disproportionate number of the UK's have nots are women, and a disproportionate number don't have white skins. Perhaps that gives us a clue where to look as we wait for the emergence of an anti-poverty Mandela.

It's no more absurd, surely, than imagining that apartheid South Africa would one day be replaced by a multi-racial democracy without the country first having been plunged into a bloodbath.  That, too, was a dream once …

Friday 6 December 2013

He changed the course of history

A man died yesterday. He was 95 years old and had been seriously ill for several months. Not an unusual occurrence, yet his death is reported this morning on the front pages of just about every newspaper on earth.

That man was Nelson Mandela, one of the few men of whom it can truthfully be said that he personally changed the course of history.

In a piece I wrote last June, when it became clear that his life was drawing to a close, I recalled the febrile days leading up to the crucial South African elections in 1994, when Mandela was elected as the country's first black president in its first genuinely free and multi-racial elections.

I remarked that it had become easy to forget, after nearly 20 years, how deep were the fears as voters prepared to go to the polls. In the run-up to the election, weapons were reported stolen from an air force base; 21 prisoners were killed in a jail riot; 30 people were killed during violent protests by Zulus in Johannesburg; a state of emergency was declared in Kwa-Zulu Natal; and nine people were killed and more than 90 injured when a car bomb exploded in central Johannesburg.

Wherever you went, I recalled -- and I was in South Africa at the time -- there were predictions of a bloodbath to come. The white minority would launch a coup; the armed forces would mutiny; tribal tensions would explode into an orgy of violence and killing.

None of it happened. Was it all because of one man: Nelson Mandela?

One of the most commonly asked questions by historians is this: How much difference can one leader make? Mahatma Gandhi? Abraham Lincoln? Winston Churchill?

The right man, at the right time, in the right circumstances. When Mandela emerged from jail in 1990 and revealed himself to be almost super-naturally free of anger or bitterness, he set an example that enough of his fellow South Africans were prepared to follow. Few could match his apparent serenity and deep belief in reconciliation -- but by the power of his rhetoric and his example, yes, he did make a real difference.

I apologise for repeating myself, but in my piece last June I wrote: "I'm not a great fan of 'What if …?' questions -- but I've always been intrigued by the relationship between the individual and the sweep of history. We all have our faults, even the greatest of leaders -- perhaps especially the greatest of leaders -- and when the time comes to draw up the balance sheet, it is right that there should always be two columns, one for the pluses, and another for the minuses."

Nelson Mandela was no saint. He wasn't the best of fathers, nor was he the best of husbands. As president, he had a blind spot for far too long about HIV and AIDS, and he probably should have done much more to ensure that there were enough skilled  leaders to take over from him after he left office.

Yet the balance sheet remains overwhelmingly a positive one. When I had the privilege of meeting him in 2001, I was struck -- as was everyone who met him -- by his inner calmness, his humility and charm, and by the most extraordinary twinkle in his eyes when something amused him.

I remember his reaction when he was asked where he bought his famous multi-coloured shirts. His eyes lit up and he laughed: "Buy them? I don't buy them. I can't remember when I last bought a shirt. People send them to me, and I'm very grateful."

The death of a 95-year-old man is not a tragedy, it's simply the way of things. South Africa entered a post-Mandela reality many years ago, as the former President became ever more frail and ever less visible to the people of South Africa and the world.

For many months now we have known that he was dying, and we have known that we would be saddened when the moment came. We were ready.

As for the verdict of history, there will be many and various in the years and decades ahead. For now, as I said six months ago, my own verdict is just this: Yes, of course, South Africa could, and should, be so much better than it is. But it also could have been so much worse. And for that, we do have one man to thank.