Monday, 30 July 2007

Random email conversation today

From: [Red Exile]
Sent: 30 July 2007 08:22
To: [UK political mate #2]
Subject: Good grief...

Kitty Usher is a UK Government minister?!?!? She’s a sweetie but, really, is that the best New Labour can do now (is this the same mousey little girl who was a member of the ‘Floral Street gang’* in 1998 and who then hung out at Britain in Europe?) Gosh.

FT flash extract
‘Hassle of Heathrow’ takes toll on City
By Christopher Adams, Political Correspondent
Published: July 29 2007 22:03 Last updated: July 29 2007 22:03
London’s status as one of the world’s leading financial centres risks being undermined by excessive delays at Heathrow and the airport’s sprawling layout, the new City minister warns on Monday.
In her first interview in the role, Kitty Ussher has told the Financial Times that the government shares business concerns about queues at passport control, the effect of security measures and the airport’s set-up...

[The Floral Street gang, by the way, was a group of about 10 of us that met in an apartment in the London street of the same name. Lobbyists, a civil servant or two, a BBC political journalist, the poltical editor of a major national newspaper and some senior Tories from the City of London, we started a grouping that became the later somewhat doomed 'Britain in Europe'. This - oh burn out my eyes - planned to be...the 'yes' campaign for the UK to join the Euro...

...I will remember the night well because I arrived late having been at a Labour party fundraising drinks party at the swish home of a UK celebrity and where Cherie Blair was guest of honour (she and I discussed the nude portrait of our host...Somewhat socially odd. Halcyon days...]

From: [UK political mate #2]
Sent: Monday, July 30, 2007 1:15 PM
To: [Red Exile]
Subject: RE: Good grief...

The very same. She was Pat Hewitt's Special Adviser for a while 2001 - 2005ish, then became MP for Burnley in 05; became Hewitt's PPS, and now the heady heights of the Treasury. I think she is actually quite bright, and hopefully none of Hewitt's character will have rubbed off on her.

From: [Red Exile]
Sent: Monday, July 30, 2007 1:17 PM
To: [UK political mate #2]
Subject: RE: Good grief...

But she is ‘here kitty, kitty…’ sweet.

The City will at best ignore her; at worst eat her alive.

Poor wee thing.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Cargo plane crash kills seven at Moscow airport

"The plane, which belonged to the cargo airline Atran, was built in 1964..."

It was 43 years old.

Full report here and here.

End of the 2006/2007 Bolshoi Season

Last week, having scored a front row seat from my usual dealer, I watched the fantastic end to the 2006/2007 Bolshoi season: the gala concert "all the stars of the Bolshoi ballet". It was an incredible show and a very high note on which to end a great more Bolshoi Ballet now until October (!) - but they will be on tour in London and, I think, Berlin.

An orgy of YouTube discoveries follows [although, in truth, I am...ahem...unable to make any claims as that the permission of the copyright holders was always obtained, by the people who made these vids...oh well].

In the First Half, Maria Allash wowed us with her Aegina from Spartacus; while the prima ballerina goddess that is Svetlana Zakharova gave us her extraordinary solo piece, 'Revelation'

[taken from Russian TV, I think, sound quality not terribly good]

[choreography by Mitoso Hiroyama; to music by John Williams]

In the Second Half we were treated to a performance of Middle Duet, a fantastic piece choreographed by Bolshoi Artistic Director, Alexei Ratmansky (who I think is really coming into his own now and nudging the Bolshoi to do some really edgy, raw and wonderful pieces):

[piece taken from Kultura TV]

This is an extraordinarily beautiful piece I think (music by Yuri Khanon). The duet is between the sublime Natalia Osipova and Andrei Merkuriev; who is, IMHO, featured as a soloist not nearly enough by the Bolshoi. You can see almost the full Middle Duet here (performed in this version I think in Seoul, by St Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet). BTW, the staging is supposed to start very dark, very dimly through the shadows...

That gay old trouper, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and the dramatic Ilze Liepa, gave us their La Dame de Pique which I am coming to like (nothing on YouTube yet, sorry), although I find Tsiskaridze a little too hammy a performer for my taste...

The finale was Zhakharova and Denis Matvienko, and the full company, performing the Grand Pas from Don Quixote:

[an illicit recording of a 2006 performance by Matvienko]

But since I am show-casing ballet on YouTube, I offer these two discoveries.

The first is a piece that captures Carlos Acosta, whom I mentioned recently, as he performed the lead role in Spartacus:

As well as a fantastic segment of Twlya Tharp's In the Upper Room (music by Philip Glass), which I watched again on 14th July, with I think the best cast rotation for this piece (including Denis Savin, Alexander Smoliyaninov, Natalia Osipova and Andrei Merkuriev):

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Flatlining: the near-term outlook for Russo-British relations

I am really surprised – and a little disappointed that I have not posted in over three weeks – it has been quite a time. We go through these…phases…of being hugely overworked; then I get tired…and then ill. I have had a cold-fluey thing for over a week.

The Litvinenko saga has now, of course, segued into the Lugovoi saga and over the last week I was surprised to find myself in demand as a pundit for the BBC; commenting on the state of Russo-British relations. This had come about after I wrote a piece for one of the Moscow papers profiling Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, which appeared just as it became clear the UK government was about to deliver its response to Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrey Lugovoi.

So, over the last few days I have been on BBC TV 2’s ‘Daily Politics’ and BBC Radio 5’s “Wake up to Money”; interviewed twice by Rupert Wingfield-Hayes – very nice bloke – for BBC Radio’s ‘World Tonight’ and BBC TV 1’s ‘Six o’clock news’; as well as a live – and feisty appearance – on BBC World TV; just after the Russian foreign ministry bounced back their response to Britain’s response, as-it-were. [although a London friend sniffed: "well you've not done 'Newsnight' dear, so I should tone down the puppy-dog enthusiasm until you make it there...]

The BBC World presenter was, I could tell – remotely from the Moscow bureau where I could hear him but not, of course, see him – angry that I wasn’t towing the British line. Quite the contrary, I said, Russia’s behavior was “very restrained in the face of Britain’s provocation…and this restraint shows that President Putin’s Russia is committed to international partnership…but Britain must treat Russia with respect…”. Even I was slightly surprised I kept a straight face while saying this, it just tumbled out, albeit entirely on-message with the line I wanted to take.

These are the first times I have done TV or radio about Russia; but at another time in my career I did a lot of TV and radio. I reckon around 100 interviews by now, mostly live: I prefer live to pre-recorded, just because – and this is purely luck rather than skill – I can normally deliver answer the question and then pivot—to-message before most interviewers have thought what they want the next question to be…that extra 5 seconds+ or so they end up giving me, making all the difference. I love live broadcast (and secretly have a hankering to do more of it).

My mother – who only has a patchy grasp on current affairs at the best of times – telephoned me from rural France where she spends half the year, her husband having watched BBC World: “darling, I saw you on television. You’ve lost weight! Well done dear…”

So now each side has satisfied Sovereign honour, it that now it? Are we all back to normal in Russo-British relations? No. I think not. A hint of this was to be found in a report filed Friday on the RIA Novosti newswire, with comments from the president of Russia's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Alexander Shokhin.

“Shokhin warned that British companies in Russia may now face difficulties with tax authorities and regulators, and that inspections may become more frequent. "Perhaps, under broadly equal conditions, some companies may fail to win tenders," he said.

“He said that U.K.'s decision to refuse entry visas to Russian officials could be easily applied to the executives of Russia's state-owned enterprises.”

A very sage observation, I would say. In contrast the Brits seem to believe that theirs is an inalienable right that all Russian IPOs, for instance, will go to London. Most of these British politicos are so arrogant and so out-of-touch. And the present government pretty clueless; not helped by the fact that the Russian Desk at the Foreign Office, IMHO, is still intellectually wedded in a 1990s-Atlantacist view of what Russia is, will become and how it should be treated.

In today’s UK media, the Sunday Times has it that, actually, the Brits believe the Litvinenko murder was the FSB. Balls.

- Lugovoi is not the person the FSB would use for this (still less the SVR), but he is the person you would hire for a rogue attack if you weren’t a state entity
- His past in the KGB 9th (Directorate; handles nuclear facility security and VIP protection) means he knows just who exactly to go to both to acquire the material and how to handle it so as not to kill himself
- A multi-million op is no problem for any of the super-rich to fund
There was no reason for the Russian state to kill Litvinenko (his allegations were old and tired and no longer passing the ‘so what’ test), but…
- …increasingly impoverished Litvinenko was rumoured to be for hire to peddle Kompromat on Russia’s new plutocracy. A fairly fatal error in anyone’s book.
- This was an oligarch-ordered killing. 50% likely to be one close to the Siloviki (which is a tad embarrassing for VVP and all) or 50% likely to be one of the diaspora, wanting a ‘false flag’ with which to condemn VVP in the eyes of the world: it was never a Government black op.

I watched – miracle of the Net – the British Foreign Secretary’s statement on Russia streamed live on the Internet. In amongst the toadies, in the subsequent Parliamentary Q&A there was some very good stuff. Sir Malcolm Rifkind – himself a Foreign Secretary – talked about using a Lockerbie trial-type solution. This is something I have written about elsewhere: judicious use of third countries for spying/terrorism trials. Prime Minister Brown disses this idea – “This was a serious crime in Britain…the murder of a British citizen…Britain is the only place for a trial” – one hears the Ministry of Justice doesn’t like a precedent being set that suggests extra-jurisdictional trials are acceptable. Hmm…Do the British actually want a trial or not? They're not being very imaginative about getting one.

In secret bilateral talks, I have cautious optimism that the Russians could agree to an English-law trial taking place in Russia. The British prebuttal of this – our law wouldn’t allow this* - seemed to me extraordinary. How can the UK expect Russia to change its constitution to accommodate London, when not itself prepared to amend its own Administrative law.

* The situation was different for the Lockerbie trial, because that was taking place under the the separate system of law that Scotland enjoys.

In the last few days, I have had some interesting feedback. The expat community in Moscow thinks the British have engaged into a course of action that, while never seriously likely to bring forward a trial (almost as if they don’t really want one), does make the new Prime Minister and his government look ‘tough and strong’ to the British people.

Some Russian contacts, however, say that the eventual, highly moderate response of the Russians only just came about. In truth there was a lot of anger in the Kremlin and several blocks sought a much, much tougher and asymmetric response. One of those most angry, indeed, was VVP himself (he has a very thin skin, actually, people forget and is quick to take offense). Foreign Minister Lavrov and also, I heard, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin made a sustained and successful argument persuading more moderation by way of response.

A quick catch-up on the last three weeks

29th June – last flight?

By now you must have figured I have become very scared of flying. This is despite the fact that I estimate that I have easily done over 300 international flights since moving to Moscow in Spring 2004 and; in my lifetime? Easily over 1,000 (I was an ex-pat brat).

Anyway, something snapped when I took the afternoon AeroSvit from Kyiv to Moscow. We landed in the immediate prelude to a huge thunder storm. On landing the plane was wildly erratic and at less than 50 metres I would judge the engines roared and we did a go around. Having landed on the second attempt, and exiting the plane there was this huge downward gust of pressure – wind shear: the invisible plane killer.

Wind shear scares me silly out here: CIS airports almost never have, I’m told, wind shear radar on the ground and these twenty-five year old Boeings and the Soviet planes don’t have on-board wind shear detectors.

So, suddenly, dust and rubbish shot up into the end before a squal of blackness crossed across the runway. As we bussed into Terminal 1c you couldn't actually see terminal 2 – just straight across the runway – because visibility sank to nothing as a huge storm crack overhead and the heavens opened…

…and I have not been on a plane since. A whole month without flight (when I normally do three flights a week). I have to do something about this, because soon my bosses will notice…I recently asked my Chief of Staff to look into taking the Moscow-Budapest-Moscow train for a Board conference in September: madness! But might be kind of fun…there’s something sexy and glamorous about Eastern European train travel (well not if you’re not in first class, granted), which air travel these days can’t match (except on those long, epicurean and pampering transcontinental flights to the Middle East).

I have done three trips to Kyiv. Each by train. Train #1 out of Moscow (dep 23.20, arr. 08.30) and Train #2 out of Kyiv on the way back (dep. 20.17, arr. 06.39). I always book a twin-person carriage for myself and usually now take a small night-time picnic,

Customs and immigration out of Russia, in Souzemka, and Khoutir-Mikhailivskiy in Ukraine are a pain (the towns are 20 minutes apart and the Russian side is very slow, but at least they come on board to your carriage). They wake you up at around 1.00am back into Russia, but I get back to sleep afterwards; on the way in, the wake up is 4.00am (finishing around 5.00am) and so I watch dawn in Ukraine, not bothering to go back to sleep.

The Ukrainian side also now have PDAs (which is why they are faster than the Russians) so are able to do onboard registration on my entry (whereas the Russians have to alight from the train and call in my visa details for clearance).

6th July – weird things

I had been in Kyiv again (actually I have dropped by the office for a couple of days every week over the last month) and had a very interesting meeting with a future force in Ukrainian politics, now launching his own NGO: he’s a very high-powered local lawyer.

The Ambassador of a small Central European country and I share the same taste in whiskey…and bars. He’s become quite my regular drinking/talking global politics buddy. For some reason I think this very cool...

At 1.30am – waiting to enter Russia, I am awake on the train and a journalist friend calls from Doha, in Qatar. And we’re chatting – via satellites bouncing a signal Lord knows where – me being all George Smiley on my post-Soviet overnight train and yet, also, chatting to a mate at a party in the Middle East…

…who then worried me because he was heading out on a trip with Hezbollah into Southern Lebanon. Now this is a patch I know (and if you know Lebanon well, Hezbollah is all part of the scene) and I say: “Dude, down to Sidon, you’ll be fine, just stay north of Sidon” “er…” he replies, “I am going well South of Sidon”.

So we chat and I point out that while his employer might be an Arabic TV station, he’s a blonde English guy and the Hezbs in Southern Lebanon aren’t the diplomatic dandies in Beirut we know, but are ‘the real thing’ and might not welcome a Brit. That and the Israelis have been shooting at TV cars across the borderline (because sometimes Hezb pretends to be TV). So I was kind of worried for my friend…

We spoke a week later, he partying in Damascus – damn I love that City – and he clearly has some good war-stories: being shoved into a cell overnight with armed guards for instance: “but we got some great shots and broadcast live way farther South than the BBC or CNN would ever dare”…which is what passes for delivering understanding into global living rooms apparently.

8th July Spartak!

A one-night only special starring the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta. There is a good piece about this on Russia Today (LOL – that’s a sentence hardly ever used!).

Acosta was quite extraordinary and, as I was chatting with a friend afterwards in post-performance dinner at café des Artistes, sitting outside, we agreed it was one of the highlights of the Bolshoi this season…and then Acosta comes to the restaurant with a small entourage. He’s charming and has excellent English (he’s danced with the English National and the Royal). He’ll be guest-starring with the Bolshoi this Summer at Covent Garden in London. Mug or steal yourself a ticket if you’ll be in town…

Tonight – 22nd July – I am going to the Close of Season Gala Concert, with all the leading Bolshoi Ballet stars. It should be a wonderful night…but then no Bolshoi until October 5th…

…I must travel abroad – the summer ballets put on at the country estates outside Moscow are very bourgeois and ‘chocolate box-y’.

Now then, how to get from Moscow to London, without flying, by train…