Sunday, February 24, 2008

Some Of My Least Favourite Things

My more regular readers (both of you) know that there are certain things that really get me angry. The most common (because it happens so often - see my last post for instance) is political double-standards, hypocrisy and just plain lying. An example of which came up on Thursday after the British government admitted, after strenuously denying it for some two years, that American secret rendition flights had passed through British territory. I partly blame our government for not being more forceful in demanding this information from our supposed allies, but most of my ire is reserved for the renditions themselves and the extra-judicial nature of the war on terror. Apparently the bare-faced lie coming out of the administration to explain this lack of communication when they broke international as well as British law was due to an "administrative error". And that is, apparently, meant to suffice. Unfortunately that seems to be the case as, what should have turned into a huge diplomatic falling out has just been swept under the carpet. I may have said this before, but I feel so strongly about it that I will mention it again, the ends do not justify the means in a democracy that purports to uphold the rule of law. Because the end is to live by, and defend, the rule of law. By carrying out such practices you are destroying what you are fighting for. George Bush himself said that "these people hate the very things we stand for" (I might be paraphrasing here). But by locking people up without due process and recourse to lawyers or the ability to dispute the reasons for their detention for 6 years (and counting) then the moral credit the Americans once had has dropped way into the red.

But that is not really what prompted today's post. The trigger was, instead, the film Kingdom of Heaven, which I saw on TV on Wednesday. The film takes place during the Crusades and centres on a young, noble (in the moral sense of the word) knight who goes to the Holy Land to help the Crusade and ends up discovering that the Christian rulers there are worse than the Muslims they are fighting. I was vaguely aware of the film when it came out (I was already on my trip) but it didn't interest me then, but now, having travelled through the Holy Land where the film is set, and knowing more of the history, I was curious to see how it would be portrayed and whether it would live up to my pedantic standards. The general historical events and background are true enough - the Crusades, Saladin, the battles and so on. I don't even mind that the hero is very different from the real life personage (I accept artistic licence) as the real history is very complicated and full of double-crossings, intrigues, marriages, divorces and shady deals (far too much for your average American moviegoer to comprehend in a single sitting). Anyway, none of the historical accounts can be 100% relied upon. No, what really annoyed me was the blatant disregard of geography. The film shows Orlando Bloom's noble toiling in the desert on his lands at Ibelin, completely oblivious to the fact that Ibelin is situated in rather green, lush countryside less than 10km from the Mediterranean. Similarly the castle of Kerak is shown as rising up on a low mound surrounded by flat desert on all sides, when in fact its on a spur with canyons on three sides and a dense little town below it. And Jerusalem? what a joke. In the film the hero goes to Golgotha to be alone with god, and proceeds to climb a small, secluded hill off in the countryside. In fact Golgotha would have been within Jerusalem's city walls at that time and there had been a giant cathedral on the site since the 4th century. I could go on, but you get the picture. I find it exasperating that they would put so much effort into recreating the clothes, weapons and other paraphernalia of the time and yet they couldn't be bothered to actually go out to the places they were supposedly filming to get a feel for the landscape and topography (maybe special effects computers can't deal with hills?). It just killed the film for me (not that it was any good to begin with).

If there are any aspiring film-makers out there I hope you read this and take note and do some proper research when you shoot your films.

P.S. Just to show you what an anal pedant I am I've trawled the net to find pictures of Kerak castle from the film and the real life castle. See if you can tell the difference.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Thoughts On Independence

Western Europe and the States are the cradle of modern democracy and the rule (and respect) of law and so I find it particularly shameful that I am having to agree with the Russian government (experts in corruption, extortion, bullying, blackmail and oppression) when it comes to its stance on what looks like the newest country in the world: Kosovo. On Sunday the Kosovar parliament, minus its Serb deputies, unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia - a move which has already been recognised by America, rejected by Russia and on which the EU is dithering as always. That doesn't mean that I am against self-determination of peoples, but the ham-fisted and myopic way in which this was handled by the NATO powers (i.e. America with the UK in tow) causes far more problems than it solves and displays the hypocrisy that is rampant among our political rulers in matters of foreign policy.

From the very start of the West's involvement in this sorry saga (which is by no means the start of the dispute, and is indeed akin to turning up at a football match at the 85th minute) sides were taken that reflected the political situation at the time: not only was Slobodan Milosevic the man the West loved to hate in ex-Yugoslavia, but the Serbs had also temporarily gained the ascendancy in the province. NATO were then duly sent in to help save the plucky Kosovars (most ethnic Albanians of Kosovo prefer to be called Kosovars rather than Albanian to distinguish themselves from their western cousins, who they often feel aren't as cultured as they are). And it is true that the help was indeed needed as the Serb paramilitaries, as well as, to a lesser extent, official Serb forces, were carrying out atrocities against the Kosovar population in response to KLA guerrilla attacks, with the mass killings of civilians, desecration of mosques and Catholic churches (some Kosovars are Catholic whereas Serbs are almost exclusively Orthodox) and rape occurring throughout the region. Such violence seems to characterise the periods of transition when ascendancy in Kosovo switches from one group to the other (during the Tito years the Kosovars were in control). It also seems ironic to me that the Serb authorities were calling the KLA a terrorist orgnisation, a moniker which didn't catch on at the time, although had the events unfolded post 9/11 I'm sure that the Western reponse would have been more firmly behind the Serbs.

Obviously something needed to be done to stop the violence that had led to an exodus of around 800,000 Kosovars to neighbouring countries, but the aerial bombing campaign adopted by NATO was the worst possible response. Instead of getting "boots on the ground" the risk-averse bombing strategy only made matters worse: massacres increased after the bombing started as enraged Serbs took their frustrations out on Kosovar civilians; there was a good deal of "collateral damage" affecting civilians as the NATO forces quickly ran out of military targets and started bombing civilian structures instead (with lethal cluster bombs no less), such as TV stations, electricity stations and ordinary bridges in Vojvodina province some 500km away from Kosovo. When the Serbian forces finally withdrew and NATO forces finally arrived they just stood by as the Kosovar retaliatory attacks escalated (although you didn't need to be a genius military tactician to see that reprisals were a certainty NATO forces had no plans in place on how to deal with them) and forced 164,000 Serbs to flee. Demographics, as any expert in international conflicts will tell you, is a vital plank in territorial claims. The Serbs have been losing that battle for quite some time now: immediately prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia they constituted 10% of Kosovo's population, post WWII they formed 25%, and at the end of the 19th century there was parity between the Serb and Kosovar populations. Prior to the Turkish conquest of the Balkans Kosovo was not only exclusively Serb but also the heart of their empire, and that is one of the main sticking points in the dispute and why Serbs are so loathe to give up Kosovo (so what is the statute of limitations when considering such cases?). Entwined with the historical aspect is the cultural one - the most important work in classical Serb literature is a series of epic poems known as the Kosovo Cycle, it's stories and heroes a part of the national psyche and an indivisible part of Serb culture. To lose Kosovo would be, for the Serbs, like depriving the French of wine or the Greeks of the Parthenon.

But the thing that worries me most about the situation is the precedent that is being set whereby international law is being trampled in the dust. When NATO intervened in 1999 it was to protect a minority from the violence whipped up by a dictator going far too far in responding to a separatist movement. A laudable goal in anyone's book. But because of the West's antipathy to Milosevic they became fixated with the idea of independence for Kosovo, even after Milosevic was ousted. This emboldened the Kosovars to hold out for independence and precluded any possibility of a negotiated settlement. And so, after 9 years of not putting much effort into negotiations and understandably not coming up with an agreement from both sides, we now have this unilateral declaration of independence which goes against the tenets of international law which require a consensus agreement to the drawing of new borders. First of all 9 years is a pitifully short time in which to hold up your hands and say "we tried as hard as we could but it just didn't work". There have been border disputes and sovereignty arguments that have been going on for many decades, and though they may seem intractable that has not caused one side to unilaterally declare independence. Secondly this sets a very dodgy precedent whereby any crackpot secessionist movement can now be justified in claiming its independence. And trust me, there are over 250 such separatist movements (more than one for every official country) ranging from the borderline loonies to the well-organised regimes that run de facto states such as Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, the Tamil Tigers, Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Kurdistan, Transnistria and Taiwan (the latter being so state-like that most people don't realise that it isn't one). Apologists claim that Kosovo is a unique case, but I cannot see how it is more deserving than Tibet, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, Somaliland, Khalistan or a host of other worthy causes. Indeed in most cases the policy of the Western powers is to call for the maintenance of the status quo and the sovereign rights of nations. The only difference is that Kosovo was close, small, and controlled by a relatively weak power that would be easy to beat (as a friend of mine put it, "they had probably made too many bombs and needed to get rid of them"), so that "liberating" it would be quick, easy and relatively painless. And it is this hypocrisy which is unbearable to me. If NATO cared about the humanitarian aspect and the suffering of minorities why do they not invade China to help the poor Uighurs, or Israel to protect the Palestinians, or India to help the Nagas, or Russia to help the Chechens? As always politics has been dressed up in the language of altruism to disguise its baseness and lack of scruples and ordinary people ultimately suffer. In the end this can very easily come back and haunt us as it will embolden the separatists in places where unrest will have much more widespread consequences.

Personally I would have liked to have seen a solution that granted a great deal of autonomy for the region within a Serb federation - a solution that is possible because it already exists in Serbia's northern region of Vojvodina with its large Hungarian minority and 26 separate ethnic groups that manage to live together in peace. Because this solution does not actually resolve the fundamental problem which was the animosity between the two communities, and despite the eloquent statements and grand ideas of equal rights for all ethnic groups in the independence speech, I don't think anything will change. At the moment Serb monuments and churches have to be protected around the clock by international troops, public transport doesn't stop in Serb towns and villages and there is no contact between the communities. This is no basis for a properly functioning state with the trust of all its citizens. I don't blame the Kosovars for the situation as they were just trying to get the most out of situation in which they started off with the weaker hand, but ultimately I believe the blame rests with America and its NATO allies who once again have shown their inability to comprehend the ramifications of their actions on world politics. Now that the genie has been let out of the bottle I don't think it will be possible to "undo" the declaration, but to defuse the situation the West ought to be ready to give one mother of a sweetener to the Serbs to stop the rancour from spreading and also keep a close eye on the Kosovars to ensure that they hold true to their promises of equality. I'm afraid we may not have heard the last of this particular saga.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Train Set

My peacenik, traveller's lifestyle is getting chipped away bit by bit every week nowadays as I am drawn inexorably to become part of the "establishment". This week I got my own personalised business cards. It's a far cry from my travels when I was toying with the idea of getting a card printed for myself then: it would have said "Erik - Travel Bum", and then given my website. Of course it never came to pass as I was always thinking that my trip would be over soon and that anyway, cards were far too pretentious. Now I'm going to join in the oh-so formal ritual of the-exchange-of-cards every time I meet someone for work. In some ways I feel a bit like an intruder in this corporate world - like I don't really belong and that sooner or later someone will find out and set off the alarm.

I used to be quite jealous of my brother and his jet-set job that would send him to far-flung exotic locations (such as Borneo, California, Norway and the unfortunately named Dutch town of Ahs) for work projects and get put up in swanky hotels (although, to be fair, to be classified as a swanky hotel in my book all you need is hot running water). But all that changed this Monday when I got sent on my first business trip. I was sent to Tetbury, where our company has an office, to do some training on some of our computer programmes. As soon as I heard about the opportunity I immediately went for my atlas (or, to be more precise, Google Maps) to find out where exactly Tetbury is. I was a bit disappointed to find that it was a small, rural market town about 100 miles west of London on the edge of the Cotswolds, but you have to start somewhere I suppose. Some things I still cannot bring myself to do, most notably with expenses. So, on the way back to London, instead of getting the taxi to the bus station in the next village I got the last bus to the station and waited an hour until it arrived. The taxi would have been, to my mind, too profligate and wasteful (both financially and environmentally) that I couldn't justify it to myself, despite the discomfort of having to wait. My colleagues tell me it won't last, but I feel that if we, who are better educated about the environment and our impact upon it, can't make the conscious effort to mend our ways then we're doomed to failure.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

On The Piste

Sorry for not writing for a while but last week I went skiing with my brother and my father (it's funny how, even though I snowboard rather than ski, I still find it more natural to say that I went skiing). It was my first time on the pistes in 8 years and I was naturally initially rather apprehensive and worried that I would fall flat on my face and make a fool of myself. I was, however, surprised to discover that I hadn't lost any of my (limited) ability and was not only able to get down the mountain without falling, but also to control my descent and enjoy myself. And no matter how cautious or sedate we may be there is something visceral about speed that gets the adrenaline rushing. And although some things don't change others very clearly do. Now it would be a great stretch of the imagination to say that I am old, but this holiday certainly did make me realise that the arrow of time, unfortunately, goes only one way. I remember the halcyon days of my youth when I didn't understand the point of warming up for exercise as my young body was immune to the painful after-effects of physical exertion. Not so any more as after (not even a full) day on the piste my calves were letting me know that they had earned their keep and then some. As my (elder) brother keeps assuring me, "it's all downhill from here".

We were staying at the (relatively) small Italian resort of Livigno, just over the border from the swanky Swiss resorts of St Moritz and Davos. Though unlike the exclusive clientele attracted by the latter Livigno's duty free status (and subsequent cheap booze and fags) made it a magnet for eastern Europeans: Poles, Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians especially. Although I'm not particularly enthused by apres ski shenanigans I did apperciate the local cocktail called a Bombardino, composed of equal parts of egg liqueur, whiskey and milk, heated up and served with a generous topping of whipped cream. It may sound rather sickly but is in fact the perfect drink for warming you up in the chill winter nights. There was enough snow but no soft powder so beloved of us boarders - just hard-packed groomed pistes. Then, as if to rub our noses in it, the morning of our departure it started to snow heavily, big, fat flakes, soft as eider down. But we couldn't stay as Mark and I had a plane to catch. And this is where Livigno stabbed us in the back. We left early with plenty of time to spare (we Jelinek's are notorious and managing to create delays out of nothing when travelling) and headed for the tunnel that connects the Livigno valley to Switzerland. Because it's quite a remote corner of the country far from the main roads the tunnel linking the countries here has only a single lane, and so cars have to be let through from one side at a time requiring coordination from both sides. Apparently there had been a falling out between the Italians and the Swiss who jointly administer the tunnel and when we were wanting to pass the Swiss let a huge convoy through the tunnel causing traffic on the Italian side to snarl up and come to a complete standstill. In the end it took over 3 hours to inch our way 4km to the other side of the tunnel, by which time our chances of catching our plane were laughable. And so, sure enough, we stumbled into Munich airport forced to buy ourselves new tickets to get back home. I certainly was not amused.