Jonathan Fryer

A Night at the Opera

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th April, 2015

image imagePolling stations in Kazakhstan’s presidential election closed at 8pm last night, at which point I was installed in a full house at Astana’s Opera House for a performance of Mukan Tulebayev’s Birzhan and Sara, a sort of Central Asian Romeo and Juliet, with a cast of around 100 (including a full corps de ballet) and magnificent scenery, making full use of the theatre’s enormous and high tech stage. The music was an eclectic mix of Kazakh folk tunes and Russian romantic music, defiantly tonal and guaranteed to please the crowd, as were the sumptuous costumes and fine dancing. At the express wish of the omnipresent President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the opera house has maintained the old Soviet practice of keeping prices low, so that high culture is within everyone’s reach. My excellent stalls seat cost 2,000 tenge — the equivalent of €10. The national TV had its camera just above my head, broadcasting the opera live in keeping with the celebratory mood of Election Day. I was fascinated to see that selfies are all the rage among Kazakhs in the theatre, but I did scowl when the woman sitting next to me actually answered her mobile phone during the performance. The opera house itself is magnificent, brand new but classical in style, with a beautiful marble hall outside the main auditorium for interval drinks.

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President Nazarbayev Goes to Vote

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th April, 2015

imageThis morning I joined journalists and TV crews from around the world at Astana’s People’s Palace (a name so redolent of the former Soviet Union!) to watch voting in today’s presidential elections, for which voters of all ages were indeed streaming into the polls. In keeping with the holiday mood in Kazakhstan’s capital loud dance music was being played through loudspeakers outside and there was a large cut-out of the kind one used to see at British seaside resorts, with a hole for people to put their head through for photos. There was a brand new red carpet running up the steps from the square, along which people were proudly marching — many hand-in-hand with their small children — though I imagine it was mainly there for President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was due to come to cast his vote at 10am, but was fashionably late, being greeted with polite applause by the small queue of other voters that had built up. The voting process is identical to what happens in the UK, with officials checking off voters’ names from the electoral register before the voters go into a curtained booth to complete their ballot, which they then fold to put in a large ballot box (transparent Perspex here, unlike the black metal ones in Britain).

imageThe President turns 75 this year, but looks quite fit and not all that different from when I met him in London when he came to open independent Kazakhstan’s first embassy to the Court of St James’s, when Margaret Beckett was Labour Foreign Secretary. Mr Nazabayev has been Kazakhstan’s leader since independence and was Secretary General of the republic’s Communist Party for a short while in the Soviet twilight. He has his own party these days and one of the two candidates authorised to run against him is standing for the Communists. In stark contrast to Britain’s current general election, where no-one has a firm idea of the government that will emerge after 7 May, the result in Kazakhstan’s presidential poll is a foregone conclusion. Mr Nazarbayev usually gets over 90% of the vote and it would be astonishing if he didn’t this time as well.

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Astana, Out of the Blue

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th April, 2015

imageWhen I first came to Kazakhstan in the spring of 1994, the newly independent country was in a pretty sorry state. Travelling from Nanjing in China, by train, I’d had to shift from a comfortable Chinese train, with bizarre but usually palatable food to a Russian (i.e. ex-Soviet) alternative, on the opposite side of the platform at the border. The delay involved took hours, and I had been warned by the Chinese that the Kazakh “customs” were extortionate, thieves — so I hid everything if any value deep in my luggage and instead left a BBC-branded pen lying on the table. The ruse worked. The Kazakh officials entered my single compartment and with glee seized on the BBC pen, grinning broadly, their mouths all white and gold, and they then made sure I got another single cabin on the post-Soviet replacement train (which had a wider gauge), to the fury of a down-graded British couple nearby who had not been quite so savvy. Of course, speaking fluent Chinese (then) and rusty Russian (learnt at school) helped. As the train then shuddered across Kazakhstan westwards to Uzbekistan (with a long layover in Almaty, for refuelling) I got the opportunity to experience not only warm, generous Kazakh hospitality but also the reality of their economic desperation. Babushkas, both ethnic Russian and Kazakh, lined the railway track, insistingly trying to sell sweet Soviet “champagne” at $1 a bottle or anything else they had to hand. It was exhilarating, but also tragic. I have been back since, but returning now, 21 years later, to Kazakhstan, the difference is stunning. It’s not just that the per capita GDP has shy-rocketed over the intervening period; Kazakhstan with its oil and gas and mineral riches not unrealistically is aiming to become one if the workd’s top 30 developed nation by 2050 — an extraordinary ambition for a nation of just 17 million people, yet living in a territory bigger than Western Europe. This is a member of the nest generation of BRICS — which is why so many Western countries are investing heavily here. Astutely, the Kazakhs have lifted visa requirements for nationals of potential FDI countries such as the UK. The capital, Astana, developed out of almost nothing since 1997, is thrusting with globally significant buildings by Norman Foster and others. I shan’t say this is paradise, which no country is, least of all in Cental Asia, cann be, but goodness me, it is a place to watch!

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Europe and the UK Election

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th April, 2015

imageOne of the striking characteristics of Britain’s current general election has been how very domestic the agenda has been: the NHS, job creation, the cost of living and so forth. Perhaps it is because I live in London, one of the world’s truly global cities, and write and broadcast about international affairs that I find so much of what the politicians are saying or putting in their leaflets dreadfully parochial. Of course local issues matter, but they need to be discussed in the wider context of what is happening globally, not just in economics but regarding the environment, migration, demographic trends and so forth. Moreover, despite UKIP’s higher profile than ever before in a British General election there has been remarkably little discussion about Britain’s role in the SU and the EU’s role in the world either, other than some very basic UKIP’s “we want to leave” and Labour and the Liberal Democrats saying “we should stay” (what the Tories say on the issue depends on which Conservative candidate you speak to). So it was a very welcome initiative on the part of the London branch of the European Movement, London4Europe, the other evening to put on a hustings for candidates from the five main parties at Europe House in Westminster. Interestingly, Mike Gapes for Labour and Dominic Grieve for the Conservatives were both more enthusiastically pro-EU and better informed than their national parties appear on the matter. Anuja Prashar for the Liberal Democrats (incidentally the only woman and only BAME candidate on the panel) not only stood up for the LibDems’ championing of our EU membership but was the only person really to contextualise the debate in 21st century global trends, not least the rise of the BRICS. Hugh Small spoke very competently from the Greens, whereas poor Robert Stephenson for UKIP was very much a fish out of water in this essentially pro-EU environment.

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Diplomat of the Year Awards

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th April, 2015

imageEvery year Diplomat magazine hosts an awards ceremony championing the work of members of the huge diplomatic corps in London, recently at the Langham Hotel in Portland Place, just opposite the BBC. What makes these awards special is that nominations for the awards — most of which are allocated on a geographical region basis — come from fellow diplomats. Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that the winners tend to receive enthusiastic congratulations from their assembled peers. This week’s awards were no exception. Though the full number is too great to mention individually, it was noticeable how warmly the European laureate, the High Commissioner of Cyprus, was applauded, as was the Ambassador of Honduras (Americas) and the overall winner for the night the multilingual Princess who represents the Kingdom of a Morocco. The only slightly tense moment came when the Ukrainian Embassy winner in the Press category chided Russia for recent events in her country. The Ambassador of Russia, who himself won the Eurasia award was, however, fortunately or diplomatically not present.

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Human Rights in Iraq

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th April, 2015

Iraq human rightsThis week I have been in Istanbul attending the inaugural conference of the International Human Rights Coalition for Iraq (IHRCI), which aims to not only publicise human rights abuses on all sides in Iraq but even more importantly to document them assiduously so that prosecutions can be brought against the perpetrators. The late Saddam Hussein was a gross human rights violator, but the situation since he was overthrown by the illegal US-led invasion of 2003 has been far from perfect. Violations by both the US and British occupying forces have been widely reported, as have the savage practices of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) that has emerged in both Iraq and Syria. But far less well-known are the killings, kidnappings, torture and other outrages carried out not only by Iraqi government security forces (especially while Nouri Al-Maliki was Prime Minister) but also by Shia militia groups and others. There was some distressing testimony, including chilling videos, from Iraqis at the Istanbul conference, including details of the vicious treatment of some of the inhabitants of Tikrit since it’s liberation from ISIS. IHRCI intends to use legal channels to bring well-documented cases against human rights violators, initially inside Iraq where possible but also internationally where not.

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The Great European Disaster Movie

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th April, 2015

Bill Emmott and Annalisa PirasThe Great European Disaster MovieThanks to UKIP there has been a lot of discussion in Britain over the past year about a possible Brexit from the European Union. But there has been little realistic scenario-building about what would happen if the UK did leave (presumably after an IN/OUT referendum in which a majority vote OUT). However, the Italian film director Annalisa Piras has made a film imagining the fallout if a Brexit caused the EU to break up and be dissolved. The film was shown on BBC Four on 1 March (followed by a Newsnight discussion), but last night, at my lovely local Genesis Cinema in Stepney, and in conjunction with Cinema Italia UK and the NGO New Europeans, the full director’s cut was shown, followed by a debate including Ms Piras, the film’s executive producer, Bill Emmott (a former editor of the Economist) and others. The film itself mixes a fictional narrative centring on a British academic (played by Angus Deayton) explaining to a young girl sitting beside him on a plane going through a thunderstorm what the (now defunct) EU was all about. But most of the film is made up of news-reel material and interviews with politicians, journalists and others from a wide range of EU member states from France to Croatia. What happened in the Balkans in the 1990s reminds us that the possibility of War in Europe did not end completely in 1945, even if it is now unthinkable between EU member states. Indeed, footage from Kiev in Ukraine in the film underlined the point about the current dangers in the European neighbourhood; to confront them, Europe needs to be strong and united. Similarly, though the financial crisis nearly brought about the destruction of the euro and set back many member states’ economies only in solidarity can the 28 meet the challenges of global economic forces. Because there are so many interviews in the film the effect is kaleidoscopic, but my favourite without a doubt is one with a German lady of a certain age who proudly displays the iron crosses awarded to her ancestors over a century of conflicts, but who celebrates the fact that her children and grandchildren will never add to that collection by having to fight in a European war. The film’s ending is apocalyptic, as the plane is turned away from various airports and crashes (though the little girl parachutes out), which will doubtless reinforce criticism from Euro-sceptics that the movie is didactic and over the top. Despite that, it is in fact thought-provoking and deserves to be seen by a wider audience, not least students and other youth. They “get” the European project much more than their elders tend to do, and it is their future which is at stake.

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Postcards from the Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th April, 2015

Postcards from the Middle Eastwetlands LebanonThe British naturalist and Christian missionary, Chris Naylor, has spent much of his working life so far in Arab lands, and like many others before him he was seduced by the difference from Britain. He and his wife’s first appointment in 1989 was to Kuwait, which is not the easiest or most interesting place in the Gulf for an expatriate to live, though they managed to make a visit by car the following year to see some of the great historical sites in Iraq, Mercifully, they were on leave in the UK  that summer when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, though they had to fret about colleagues and friends (and all their belongings) left behind. Four years later, by now with two small children, they moved to Amman in Jordan, before settling in the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon and later Beirut for well over a decade. Accordingly, Naylor’s paperback book of memories, Postcards from the Middle East (Lion, £8.99), is really a selection of postcards from the Gulf and the neighbourhood plus a very long letter from Lebanon, to which the family became deeply attached. Initially working as a teacher, Naylor switched to being a conservation activist and administrator and much of the book is about the wetlands in Lebanon where he did much of his work, but seen against the counterpoint of political developments, including the Syrian occupation, 9/11, Rafik Hariri’s assassination and the Israeli-Hezbollah war. Family unity (a third child now having materialised) clearly kept the Naylors grounded through stressful times, as did the fellowship of Lebanon’s large Christian community. But the author clearly felt an empathy with the Lebanese in particular that transcended ethnic and religious boundaries and which inevitably left him feeling a sense of loss when eventually he and his family decided to relocate back to England. This book therefore has many threads and while specialists in the Middle East may not find much of great import in it, though the conservation material may well be new to them, as an account of cross-cultural accommodation and acceptance as well as of the learning process needed to live in a wildly different society it certainly has its pertinence and charm.

Link: https://www.facebook.com/PostcardsMiddleEast

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The Leaders Debate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd April, 2015

Leaders Debate 1I was worried that last night’s leaders debate on ITV would be a fiasco, with seven contending figures, but in fact it held well together under the firm but fair chairmanship of Julie Etchingham. I thought Prime Minister David Cameron looked rather pained for much of the time, but then we all knew he did not really want to be there, though he carried on manfully. Ed Miliband was more persuasive than I have seen him on previous occasions, though he failed really to brush aside the embarrassing legacy of the last Labour government or to rebut the recent accusations about Labour and zero hours contracts. Nick Clegg had none of the novelty he enjoyed in 2010, but robustly differentiated the LibDems from the Conservatives while taking justifiable credit for certain LibDem wins in government. Nigel Farage was like a stuck gramaphone record, blaming everything on the EU and “uncontrolled immigration”, but he knows his corny old tune is popular with a dismayingly significant proportion of the electorate, not least the elderly, who are more likely to vote. However, it was the women who really gave new vigour to the event. Nicola Sturgeon was deeply impressive — even if some of what she said I find alarming, as it shows how far the SNP will be prepared to push should there be a hung parliament in which they are the power-brokers. Natalie Bennett did not wilt, as she had done in earlier car-crash radio interviews, though her great list of idealistic wishes — free education, eye and dental care, care for the elderly, 1% of GDP as overseas aid etc — would bankrupt the country if implemented. Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru was the one politician who was new to me and although she was the weakest of the pack she did get in the one killer remark of the evening, when she rounded on Nigel Farage, who had just said non-UK nationals should not qualify for free anti-HIV treatment, by sternly telling him he should be ashamed of himself, to warm applause from the audience. I wonder how many TV viewers hung in there for all two hours, however; was it just political nerds like me?

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Unity in Diversity, Newham Style

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st April, 2015

Gandhi statueThe London borough of Newham is the most diverse community in the United Kingdom, which made the holding of most of the 2012 Olympics there particularly apt. In the streets one is likely to hear every language of the globe and a majority of the people are either brown or black. So it’s not surprising therefore that Britain’s largest single ethnic minority, those of Indian origin, are well represented. Last night the Indian High Commissioner, Ranjan Mathai, was the guest of honour at a dinner for several hundred people at East Ham town hall put on by the Indian Muslim Federation (UK), with the theme Unity in Diversity. The poor High Commissioner had to wait for two hours of preliminaries and other speeches before he was able to deliver his delicately crafted text — with inevitable and appropriate references to the Mahatma Gandhi — which struck a more harmonious note than some of the previous homilies, including one from an American pastor from Forest Gate who, in the manner of evangelicals, rhapsodised about his wife and the love of Jesus, neither of which seemed especially apt to an overwhelmingly Muslim audience.

Robin WalesHowever, for all its diversity, Newham is a one party state, and for all the kind hospitality of our IMF hosts, that could not have been more obvious. All 60 local councillors in Newham are Labour (many were present and several spoke) and the borough has a Labour mayor, Sir Robin Wales (who sent his apologies for the dinner). Among the speakers before the High Commissioner were Lyn Brown, who until this week was Labour MP for West Ham, and Stephen Timms, similarly until this week Labour MP for East Ham. Despite the fact that Parliament has been dissolved and we are now in a general election, both were introduced as being the current MPs (and neither corrected that mistake). Moreover, a couple of the IMF speakers openly urged everyone in the room to vote Labour. No representative of any other party was invited to speak, though there were some present. So in effect it was a big rally for the Labour Party. So will it apear in Ms Brown and Mr Timms’ election expenses?

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