For the first time in 8 years, Syria’s first lady Asma al Assad has given a rare interview with Russian state television. Intelligent, caring and elegant, Mrs Assad draws on Princess Diana’s humility and glamour as she talks of her devotion to the Syrian people.
But beyond the designer clothes and talk of citizens’ empowerment, Asma al Assad is the luxurious face of the despotic Syrian regime. With the click of her Louboutin heels, Syria’s Lady Macbeth has long courted the attention of the media in an effort to obscure the reality of life under her husband’s rule.
For Asma al Assad, it has been a short road from London schoolgirl to First Lady of a rogue Arab state. Born Asma Akhras in well-to-do West London, ambition ran in the Syrian immigrant family. Her father left Syria in the 1950s to chase his dream of a British education, while her mother served as the First Secretary in the Syrian embassy. At university, Asma took on the male-dominated computer science faculty and graduated with top marks. She later joined the cutthroat world of investment banking, and was well on her way to an MBA at Harvard before joining the Assad clan (a fact she is keen to publicise).
Unlike Asma, her future husband was anything but ambitious. As the awkward second son of the late dictator Hafez al Assad, Bashar al Assad lived in his elder brother Bassel’s shadow. Born shortly before his father gained control of the nation, Bashar was content studying medicine while his politically ambitious brother took charge. But that all changed in 1994, when Bassel was killed in a car accident and Bashar was thrust into the role of heir apparent.
At this point, the fortunes of the Akhras family changed. They had been friendly with the Assad clan for decades, and Asma’s friendship with the then-heir Bashar was the perfect opportunity for the middle-class West London family to climb the Syrian social ladder. Although their courtship was unpublicised, the pair married in 2000 shortly after Bashar ascended the throne. In Syria’s regal dictatorship, like medieval matchmakers, the Akhras family successfully cemented their position with a marriage.
Now the First Lady of a state sponsoring terrorism, Asma took it upon herself to charm the Western media. Characterising herself as a woman of the people, Asma employed international PR firms to promote her image as the moderniser of a country blighted with grinding poverty. Despite Asma’s lavish lifestyle akin to Marie Antoinette, Vogue wrote that the “rose in the desert” ran her household on “wildly democratic principles”, while The Guardian described her “not as the submissive consort […] but as an equal partner of her husband”.
Originally published on The Huffington Post [tinyurl.com/z7xp5oc ]
Last week Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos was granted the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the country’s decades-long conflict, just days after the people of Colombia rejected his agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. Although the much-feted award is granted with the best intentions, unfortunately, the prize will do little to further the peace process in the South American nation. Often, if anything, the Nobel Peace Prize is an omen for dark times ahead.
Take the 2015 recipients, for example. Although the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet were lauded for their efforts to create peace and stability in the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia remains in a state of emergency due to ongoing violence. Tourism had previously been a profitable industry for the North African nation, but that has almost completely evaporated in the wake of a string of militant attacks. The British government now warns that further attacks on foreigners are “highly likely” in the former tourist mecca.
Europe itself is not immune to the Nobel curse. In 2011 the European Union (EU) was awarded the prize for its “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights.” The selection was ironic, given that the Nobel Committee is based in a country that has staunchly rejected the idea of joining the union. Despite the praise for the EU’s alleged virtues, that didn’t stop British voters in the bloc’s second-largest economy from filing for divorce in the Brexit referendum.
President Obama accepted the prize in 2009, despite the fact that nominations for the award closed just 11 days after he took office. Although he was praised for the “new climate” of international relations he fostered, that was before he bungled America’s response to successive crises in Syria and Ukraine. The Nobel Committee applauded Mr. Obama, noting “never before has anyone been made a Peace Laureate so early into their term of office.” That inexperience manifested itself in a tepid response to Russian aggression and the Arab Spring, leaving 1.4 million Ukrainians displaced, and the Assad regime free to use chemical weapons on civilians with impunity. Ironically, the Nobel Committee has honored leaders who have fostered peace between Israel and Palestine, as well as one who incited hostility. With Russia deploying missiles in Europe and the Middle East, Mr. Obama’s “new climate” ended long before his approaching exit from the White House.
But Mr. Obama is in less-than-admirable company. In 2005 the director general of the International Atomic Agency, Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, was granted the prize for his efforts in limiting nuclear proliferation. Little did the committee know, Mr. ElBaradei had political ambitions of his own. In 2013, as Egypt’s elected government was being overthrown by the military, Mr. ElBaradei seized the limelight and was installed as vice president. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize the military junta was predisposed to heavy-handed crackdowns on protesters. He left the post after he suddenly rediscovered his conscience.
And of course, how could one forget the much-celebrated Aung San Suu Kyi? Long the darling of the West, Ms. Suu Kyi was awarded the prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” That struggle was not extended to the benefit of minorities in her native Burma. The politician has refused to condemn the mistreatment and massacre of Muslims in Burma, and was even caught making derogatory slurs about them during a television interview.
The reason why so many Peace Laureates fail to maintain the high standards of the award can be put down to a lack of transparency in selecting both the committee and the prize. The composition of the Nobel Committee is determined by the Norwegian Parliament, and is often vulnerable to political influence. For such an influential international award, the committee is surprisingly parochial. Although there are no restrictions on membership, every member of the committee has been a Norwegian citizen. Instead of awarding those who promote disarmament and peace, as Alfred Nobel had hoped, the prize is now doled out to whomever does “good” in the eyes of the committee. As illustrated by the selection of Mr. Obama, the Laureates aren’t even required to have achieved anything substantial. They can be peacemakers with training wheels or with just wishful thinking.
Although Juan Manuel Santos‘ drive for peace is commendable, it’s a pity the Colombian people can’t reject the Peace Prize much like how they rejected Mr. Santos‘ peace agreement. For what often begins as a blessing, the Nobel Peace Prize can become a curse.
Originally published in The Washington Times
5 questions about the push for an Australian head of state.
What’s wrong with the Queen?
Queen Elizabeth II is the only reigning monarch to have visited Australia, and many Australians hold her in high regard for her service to the nation.
Some republicans, like former-Prime Minister Julia Gillard, even support the idea that Australia should become a republic once the Queen leaves the throne.
But the issue isn’t about the Queen, nor the prospect of Charles and Camilla. It’s about the highest office in Australia being occupied by an Australian rather than an unelected figure on the other side of the world.
Didn’t you already have a referendum on this?
Yes, in 1999.
Support for a republic was high then, but disagreement over how the head of state would be selected saw the movement splinter. Faced with the prospect of a President who would be selected by parliament rather than public vote, Australia voted against what many described as an undemocratic model.
But like the British referendum on EC membership in 1975, a single vote rarely puts to rest such a contentious issue. What was right for Australia (and Britain) then is not necessarily right now.
Support is once again climbing, with the Prime Minister, Opposition Leader and almost every state and territory leader supporting the notion of a republic. But consensus on a republican model will be needed before change can happen.
Isn’t Australia loyal to the UK?
The republican movement isn’t about loyalty to Britain, but one of Australia growing as a nation.
Australia and Britain share many political and legal similarities, but our cultural differences can be profound.
In 2014, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott was ridiculed for resurrecting the distinctly-foreign honours of knights and dames almost 30 years after they were abolished.
The derision was only surpassed when Mr Abbott awarded a knighthood to Prince Philip without consulting his peers – an act that would eventually cost him his job as PM.
An Australian head of state would be exactly that – Australian. Not an unelected foreign aristocrat, nor the product of a haphazard attempt to apply foreign titles in a far-off context.
Why leave the Commonwealth?
Australia is firmly placed in the Commonwealth, with no plans to leave.
The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of countries who share common values. Although the Queen is the head of the group, she has no official title within the member states due to her position.
India is a republic, Tonga has its own monarch (Tupou VI) and Mozambique was never a British colony, and yet they all come together as members of the Commonwealth.
Because symbols matter.
Australia is slowly but surely coming to terms with the fact that our country has more than 40,000 years of history, most of it indigenous.
As we recognize both the treasures of our history and the suffering of so many Indigenous Australians over the past 228 years, it’s little surprise that the symbols we created for white Australia are coming into question.
From singing the national anthem in indigenous languages to slowly recognising the National Day as a day of pain for many, Australia is taking baby steps to ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’ of equality and fairness.
It’s about choosing symbols that reflect us as a diverse but unified nation, and with a head of state who represents our unique values.
Originally published by The Huffington Post “A British Guide to an Australian Republic”
Songs about hardship are timeless phenomena. Whether it be unrequited love or a personal struggle, songs about the trials we face between the crib and grave are popular around the globe. A good example is Psalm: 137, as although less than 2% of the UK population now attends church on a weekly basis, a surprising number of people will be familiar with the song that begins, “By the rivers of Babylon…“.
Despite often incorporating themes of struggle and survival, rap music can be a little more contentious than the spiritual Psalm. From ostentatious displays of wealth to misogyny and recreational drug use, rap has its die-hard followers as well as its staunch critics.
It was one of the latter that I found teaching a Russian language course at the University of Cambridge.
“He’s not really Russian“, she said, in reference to the Russian rap artist I’d mentioned.
“No decent pop music has been produced in the past 10 years in Russia“.
One could say that the issue is merely generational, that it’s no surprise ageing academics don’t connect with an incredibly modern cultural phenomenon. But the repercussions of that attitude are much more persistent.
The world of academia is small and parochial, where the professors of today are responsible for anointing their successors. Creating an environment that shuns a certain genre will often give rise to another generation who follow in the same blinkered footsteps.
Like a scene from Orwell’s 1984 (or a certain Apple commercial in 1984), PhD students were nodding in agreement. “It’s just disguised American culture” one chimed.
Despite its gaudy façade, post-Soviet rap, and popular music as a whole, can provide a profound insight into the region.
Just like their American and European counterparts, disillusioned young men immortalise their everyday urban struggles through music. Neither oligarchs nor the literary intelligentsia, their interests, hopes and dreams are expressed through an accessible medium such as rap or hip-hop.
This disillusion is often political, like that found in the songs of protest on both sides of the simmering Ukrainian conflict. Surrounded by arms-laden militiamen, a pro-Russian rapper-turned-militant ‘Rapper Donskoy‘ sings about the struggle to ‘liberate’ Donbass. Meanwhile for those leading the pro-European revolution, the Belarusian rock song “Warriors of Light” became the anthem of the Maidan movement. Shortly after the revolution that song would silence nightclubs in Kiev and elicit a single unified chorus.
Popular music also provides an insight into how post-Soviet societies see themselves. Central Asian nationalism has spawned a collection of “Straight Outta Kazakhstan”-style Russian-language patriotic would-be P-Diddies. Even President Putin’s sky-high ratings have generated mainstream rap songs of praise, with grassroots parodies springing up overnight to mock them.
From a spornosexual obsession for bodybuilding to combatting corruption, across the Soviet Union a generation of young men (and increasingly women) are expressing their dreams and realities through rap.
Oxbridge elitism has hindered generations of working-class British students, but it also hinders our diplomatic efforts. By dismissing the stories of young, urban working class Russians in academia, we fail to recognise that it is Putin and his supporters we have to engage with, rather than Pushkin.
The fact that they’re shunned in the hallowed halls of Cambridge is no surprise; if they weren’t they may not rap.
First published on The Huffington Post UK Young Voices.
Bishkek is often described as ‘just’ an entry point to Central Asia, but the city is filled with hidden gems. Look a little closer and you’ll see why the тихо (quiet) Kyrgyz capital has so much to offer.
1. Soviet art and monuments
Scattered around the city are Soviet street murals and statues to heroes of the past. They may be vein attempts to brighten the concrete structures that make up the city, but they’re a piece of history none the less. You may even come across the first name Melis, which is an acronym for:
2. Bazaars – Osh and Dordoi
Filled with souvenirs (like the ever practical Kalpaks) and everything you’ve never wanted to buy, the bazaars of Bishkek are a sight to behold. Dordoi (Дордой) is the largest in Central Asia, and well worth at least half a day to get lost and find your way out again.
A trip to the former Soviet Union isn’t complete without a visit to the communal sweatbox. Complete with swimming pools and kalpak-ed old men (see #2), a trip to the oven-like banya will make the 45 degree heat outside seem chilly.
4. Sierra Coffee
Easily the chic-est hangout for Bishkek’s young and beautiful, Sierra boasts great coffee, friendly staff and strong wifi. Ideal for escaping the heat or cold of the street, Sierra’s 4 locations across the city are a popular place for those who want to be seen and coffee lovers alike.
5. The food from across the former Soviet Union
When you think you can’t bear the thought of another spoonful of plov, Bishkek’s array of cuisine from across the former Soviet Union has you covered. The Georgian and Armenian restaurants in particular offer mouthwatering servings and are not to be missed.
6. Ala Archa National Park
This spectacular alpine reserve is less than an hour from the centre of the city and makes for a perfect day trip. With pristine waters charging through lush valleys, you’ll forget you’re just a stone’s throw from the smoggy city.
7. Kymyz, Shoro and Kvass
Drink venders line the streets of the city for those times when the heat of a Central Asian summer becomes too much. But beware, foreign traveller! One of these drinks is fermented horse milk, another is fermented wheat with animal fat, and the third is fermented bread water. Are you feeling lucky?
8. The nightlife
Imagine a shisha pipe…filled with either milk or cognac…and then taken onto the dance floor. Welcome to Bishkek. For a sleepy little city, Bishkek punches well above its weight when it comes to nightlife. There seems to be a steady rotation of bars, pubs and clubs closing down and re-opening, which makes every weekend a new experience.
When Bishkek’s cognac shisha pipes have left you in need of a recharge, why not head over the 10th largest lake in the world? Issyk-Kul is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the capital, and is just a few hours away. There are also beach parties is you’re pining for more of the madness.
Bishkek’s bigger, richer and cleaner brother. With its wide boulevards and clean air, Almaty at times can be mistaken for any European city. Many of the Soviet buildings have been torn down, and the fashion (and prices) is very Western. A few days in Almaty will have you pining for the big Soviet village that is Bishkek.
For more information on planning a trip to Abkhazia and making it across the border, check out this article.
Abkhazia is fiercely independent. It may seem an obvious and rather simplistic characterization, but the notion of independence in Abkhazia is fundamental to understanding day-to-day life in the breakaway region/republic.
Weapons were fundamental to Abkhazia’s independence. They were the first thing I noticed on that tepid May morn when I arrived at the breakaway republic’s doorstep. Guns, big and small, in the holsters of border guards patrolling the only land border with its nemesis neighbor, Georgia. The early 90s war devolved into a stalemate, whereby Tbilisi lost effective control of the region and Abkhazia fortified its outer perimeter. Almost 20 years passed before Russia recognized the barb wired territory,
leading a string of 3 other countries to allegedly follow Moscow’s orders (or wallet). Aside from the armory, the outermost border guard’s post also housed a tired fishing rod and rusty knife. It takes significant manpower to maintain an unrecognized border – human manpower that gets bored with the banality of a frozen conflict. Far away from Moscow’s corridors of geopolitical power, fresh-faced Abkhaz recruits sneak out to drop a line into the river running through no-man’s-land.
It comes as little surprise that some of the guards at the border were Russian. They wore Russian uniforms, drove Russian vehicles and spoke
with Muscovite accents. Although Russia bankrolls Abkhazia through aid, trade and tourism, bilateral relations are at times tense. Moscow’s patronage affords it significant control over the Abkhaz economy – in effect a cost to the Abkhaz independence. Many of the local people I met were eager to welcome Russian tourists and their business, but expressed concern over Moscow’s tightening grip on their homeland. Faced with a trade-off between further poverty or Putin’s grasp, the nation is stuck between Russia and a hard place.
Abkhaz independence has come at an economic cost. The initial cost of the war was crippling – both in a financial and infrastructural sense. Almost 20 years off the map equate to stalled investment, stagnant growth and sluggish reconstruction. Organized crime is a significant challenge for the local authorities, and there are occasional reports of Wild-West style
shootouts. A walk through the proclaimed-capital, Sukhumi, reveals street after street of crumbling uninhabited buildings. In many instances I struggled to tell whether the disintegrating edifices were half-built but abandoned, war damaged or both. The temperate climate of the region carries the lush green forests from the rolling mountains into the city’s decaying structures. Mother nature slowly brings life back to the bullet-lined concrete walls. For other parts of the city that survived the war, life today is a silhouette of the past’s luster. The primate research centre served as a training ground for monkeys to be used in the Soviet space program, but also the site of gruesome cross breeding experiments. Although scientists who worked at the park admit to cross-fertilizing female monkeys, they deny ever trying the reverse.
Finally, Abkhazia’s independence has come at the cost of others’. Undocumented immigrants from the former Soviet Union (particularly Central Asia) have been lured into Abkhazia on the promise of higher wages. With memories of the Black Sea lapping the Soviet shores of Abkhazia they cross into the region, only to discover that they can’t reenter Russia due to having overstayed their visa and can’t enter Georgia due to having crossed what Tbilisi considers an illegal entry point. With no functioning international airport, the undocumented migrants are the latest victims of the victor-less political stalemate.
I’m aware that this article has taken a somber, and some may argue pessimistic, mood. In a state with a shortage of so much, delusion is a scarce luxury. Life in Abkhazia is tough. It is a beautiful region with a rich history and vibrant culture, but one only needs a glimpse of life in the break away republic to see that the harsh reality.
Below is a fairly general walkthrough for planning a trip to the (mostly) unrecognized breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. For specifics on the route I took from Tbilisi to Sukhumi, check out this video. For a 10 point checklist summary of this article, scroll to the end (but where’s the fun it that?).
Disclaimer: Visiting Abkhazia is both complicated and controversial. 20 years of international
isolation have decimated the Abkhaz economy, with visible affects on the lives and livelihoods of those in the region. Using the tourist dollar to support everyday entrepreneurs who have fallen victim to transnational politics is, in my eyes, a legitimate cause. Undeniably, supporting a separatist regime that gained its independence through alleged war crimes and ethnic cleansing is far from venerable. This article is neither an endorsement of Abkhaz independence, nor of Georgian sovereignty over the region. Caveat visitor…
For most passport holders, a visa application prior to visiting Abkhazia is required. It’s a simple process, but it requires a hotel reservation to complete the application and a decision on how you’ll enter Abkhazia.
The later first – entering Abkhazia. There are 2 possible routes – via Russia (most common for CIS passport holders) and via Georgia. Most
visitors come via Russia, but most visitors are Russian and don’t require the elusive Russian double entry visa. Russia considers Abkhazia a separate country, and thus to re-enter Russia you’ll need that double entry visa. Onward travel to Georgia is reportedly impossible, and Georgia considers the Russian-Abkhaz border crossing illegal. You’ll run the risk of being detained and possibly deported if you do try to exit Abkhazia to the south after entering from Russia.
For most Western passport holders, visiting from Georgia will pose no trouble. To watch me do it, check out this video I made tracing my journey from Tbilisi to Sukhumi.
Next you’ll need to sort out accommodation. Despite spending almost 20 years of international isolation with minimal international
recognition, booking accommodation is relatively straightforward. Hotels are listed on major accommodation websites, although expect the region to be listed under ‘Georgia’. Given the alleged lawlessness of the region, many people might hesitate to pay a deposit for an Abkhaz hotel. Rest assured, many don’t require a deposit – and bookings through major accommodation websites do often carry guarantees to protect visitors in these sorts of situations.
With these two vital details in hand, it’s time to download and complete the visa application form from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. Send it back to email@example.com and, by all accounts, you should have a very courteous email from the Consular Service in 3 working days.
A note on money – Abkhazia unsurprisingly uses the Russian Ruble as opposed to the Georgian Lari. We came across several long queues at ATMs across Sukhumi, and later found those ATMs to be empty when we were strapped for cash. There are moneychangers about the city, and we did eventually find several Russian ATMs to withdraw Rubles using Visas and Mastercards, but a bit of hard cash goes a long way (quite literally – it’s an affordable trip!).
There are a few stories of people having their visa application rejected from the start, and so it’s probably best to wait until this point to purchase train tickets if you’re planning to travel from Tbilisi. Georgian rail tickets can be bought online here.
Crossing into separatist territory
For those who long for the USSR, crossing from Georgia into Abkhazia will be a refreshing throwback to the halcyon days of Soviet bureaucracy. Expect to wait. And wait some more. Leaving Georgia involves a quick passport check and usually the classic line “You speak Russian?”. Crossing
into a separatist territory is not the time to become ostentatious. The answer is no. No you don’t. The mantra ‘Nothing to see here’ will serve you well, as anyone with a non-Georgian or Russian passport will be an oddity.
Once on the Abkhaz side, the first guard will take your passport and a copy of your visa letter – one of the several you printed out, right? Keep a couple of these deep in your bag, as often you won’t get them back. You’ll then progress to the next stop to get your documents checked again. No, you don’t speak Russian. Tourist, on holidays. Beach! A little bit of mime and a ‘happy go lucky attitude’ will see you through quickly. That, or cigarettes. If you’re really lucky (ie. American), you may be pulled aside by the Russian guards. I thought they were military, but more informed people tell me they’re FSA agents. Again…No, only English. Tourist, on holidays. The likelihood of finding an English speaker at the border is next to nil, which works in your favour for breezing past the guards with feigned blissful ignorance.
Eventually you’ll get past the border and back onto the road!
Off the map
Before you head off into the depths of Abkhazia, a trip to the ‘capital’ Sukhumi is mandatory for visa purposes. Head to the Consular Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, located in the center of town at 33 Sakharova Street, or opposite the Maestro Restaurant. There are many near-identical government buildings and so ‘Res-ta-ran Mae-stro’ (in Russian) is the easier landmark to identify. There you’ll find several fluent, albeit stern, English speaking employees who will direct you to the nearby bank and give you details on how to pay the visa fee. Take the slip the bank clerk gives you back to the Consular Service and you’re legal!
In the deep end
Now you’re in the proud republic or separatist territory, depending on
your allegiance, there is plenty to see and do. There’s the usual Russian-style beach experience and promenade, and plenty of quaint little “ma ‘n pa” style restaurants just off the main drag. Older people asked for souvenirs, like coins from the UK. A worrying number of children try to sell cigarettes. Locals in Sukhumi were
welcoming and chatty, once the ice was broken.
For a more somber experience in Sukhumi, check out what I call the Dacha of Dr Moreau. Stalin allegedly ordered his scientists to try to cross breed humans and apes at a research center in Sukhumi. His space monkeys were also trained at the institute, and their descendants still inhabit the grim facility.
The old parliament building can’t be missed, along with the abandoned train station. Both fell victim to the brutal war, and are a stark reminder of the city’s more recent tragic history.
1. Decide entry point
2. Determine if you need a Russian or Georgian visa
3. Book accommodation
4. Complete and return visa forms
5. Print off returned visa form (!!!!)
6. Buy Rubles
7. Book trains in/out
8. Visit Foreign Ministry building (within 3 days)
9. Pay visa fee at local bank
10. Return bank slip to get a visa!