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Podgorica – impressions of a first-time visitor

Last week, I spent a couple of days in Podgorica; the capital city of Montenegro and Europe’s youngest country.   As it was my first time in Podgorica, I thought I’d note down some brief impressions on the city.

From the outset, nobody, least of all Montenegrins, would claim Podgorica was in line to win prizes for either its architecture or range of tourist facilities.  On several occasions, I was asked what I thought of the city, only for the person asking the question to quickly follow up with a pained expression and assurance that I should “feel free to be honest”.  So I will be.

view(A cropped and slightly retouched shot of the view when flying into the city)

Podgorica is what it is: a small city catapulted from relative obscurity inside a wider Yugoslavia to capital city of a sovereign state, a city comprehensively destroyed by fighting in World War Two and rebuilt in a Tito-era communist image and a place relatively lacking in tourist attractions.

That’s not to say it’s in any way unpleasant.  It isn’t.

For starters, the setting of the city is stunning.  While battered by rain and shrouded in mist for most of brief stay, the view of the snow-topped mountains and forest-covered hills surrounding Podgorica was undimmed.

In keeping with its Alpine setting, the city itself is incredibly green.  Even in the city centre area close to the mains square, Trg Republike, trees line the roads and mask some of the worst examples of communist architecture.  It is immaculately maintained with very little by means of graffiti or litter.

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Walking through Podgorica, you seem to stumble upon a public park every few hundred metres.  I chucked when I stumbled upon a pleasant, newly-refurbished park financed Azerbaijan; a country I had hitherto not thought had anything to do with Montenegro.  (From Montenegro to Mexico, the financing of public parks in foreign countries appears to be Azeri dictator Ilham Aliyev’s way of honouring his father, former dictator Heydar Aliyev).

The River Morača that runs through the middle the city is, almost uniquely for one at the heart of a settlement in the former Yugoslavia, not (too badly) clogged up with plastic bags, car tyres and unwanted pieces of furniture.  Walking along the river, I found an area of the city called Skaline (“the stairs”) which afforded probably the most historic and picturesque sites Podgorica has to offer.

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To find it, simply follow a path surrounded by slightly overgrown vegetation to the banks of the river.  From the riverbank, you have a terrific view of an ornate stone bridge, the remains of a fort, the confluence of the Ribnica and Morača Rivers and the larger Millennium Bridge looming overhead.

When I visited, the area around the bridge seemed quite unloved with many cracked paving stones, a fair amount of rubbish and several suspicious-looking characters lurking in rocky alcoves.  I sense that part of the reason for this feeling of dilapidation was that the city wasn’t yet geared up for summer, when a couple of bars set up shop on the concourses either side of the riverbank; cleaning it up in the process.

I could imagine, with the rubbish and broken glass swept away, restaurant canopies set up and the sound of Balkan Europop filling the air of a warm summer evening, it would have felt rather different.  Nevertheless, I spent a pleasant half hour looking at the crystal clear water and imagining the moustachioed merchants that plied their trade on the riverbanks during Ottoman rule.

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After crossing the bridge, you come to the rather sorry remains of the birthplace of Stefan Nemanja – the founder of the Serbian state. Nemanja’s memory is held in great esteem by the Serbian Orthodox Church, yet he appears to be a rather less important figure to Montenegrins – despite the instance of Orthodox Patriarch Irinej last year that “like Siamese twins, inseparable, one and the same nation.”

While the view from the top of the town’s ruins is worth the climb in itself, there is very little in terms of carvings or even semi-identifiable ruins to take in.  It would surely not a too much of a cost for either Podgorica City Council or the Montenegrin Government to spend a small amount of money renovating the fort or even erecting some basic signs to explain its historic significance.

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Following my visit to Skaline, I went in search of Stara Varoš, the Ottoman Old Town.  While I couldn’t find any signs to guide me there, I spotted the minaret of a mosque in the distance and walked in its general direction.

The Old Town itself isn’t particularly noteworthy and might come as somewhat of a disappointment if you’ve seen any of the hundreds of more notable Ottoman attractions littered across the Balkans.  The Ottoman clock tower, which is said to have been one of only a handful of buildings to survive World War Two, is worth spending a few minutes exploring, though – if only to soak up the atmosphere in the packed lanes.

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Aside from sight-seeing, Podgorica is a pleasant place for eating, drinking and shopping.  Hercegovačka Ulica (Street) in the city centre appears to double up as both the shopping and diplomatic quarter of the city, with clothes shops occupying the downstairs of most buildings while oversized flags flutter from Embassies based on the first and second floors.

Just around the corner from Hercegovačka Ulica, you find Njegoševa Ulica which is filled with a pleasant range of good restaurants which all appeared to serve a combination of steaks, seafood and pizza (which is generally the thin-base variety and probably the best I have tasted anywhere outside Italy).

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My abiding memory of Podgorica will, however, be its calm and relaxed atmosphere.  Recent history has had a lot to do with that.

Montenegro’s split from Serbia in 2006 came not as a result of a brutal struggle or even a particular aggressive war of words but a process more closely resembling the Velvet Resolution in Czechoslovakia.  The two sides talked, leaders debated, a referendum was held and, by the very closest of margins (0.5% over the agreed threshold), Montenegro opted to go its own way.

As such, the city is free of the atmosphere of arrogant and occasionally bitter defiance you find in many cities in the former Yugoslavia.  Montenegrins are proud of their independence; but don’t go about their days surrounded by public monuments to the “martyrs” of its independence struggle (because there aren’t really any) or the painful memories of lost fathers and sons.

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Instead, Montenegrins appear to spend their time basking in a contented, continental cafe culture more often characterised by pizza than burek, fresh seafood than ćevapčići and strong espressos than rakija, giving it a more Mediterranean than the country’s Slavic roots would at first suggest.

Podgorica isn’t ever going to be a tourist attraction in its own right.  It’s an administrative city that houses the bodies with responsibility for treading a quiet and uncontroversial path to EU and NATO membership.  It’s a stopping off point for visitors and place businesses are headquartered.

From the Bay of Kotor to Skadar Lake, Montenegro as whole has far more to offer visitors than its capital city does.  But, if you find yourself in Montenegro for work or play, it’s worth at least a few hours of your time.

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In praise of the Brussels Forum

bfI watch a lot of foreign policy debates and, for most part, they’re predictable, turgid and clichéd.

This year’s Brussels Forum was, however, totally compelling.

I’m quite certain that when the German Marshall Fund of the United States compiled an agenda with rather predictable sessions with titles such as “NATO in Transition” and “Europe in Transition”, they would not have predicted how constructive and contentious the debate would turn out to be.

The tensions in Ukraine, however, resulted in a depth and quality of debate I’ve rarely seen at a foreign policy forum of this type.

Politico.com has a terrific write-up of my favourite session of the conference, the Europe debate featuring Estonian President Toomas Ilves, Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini and former World Bank official Bob Zoellick:

“At a riveting session Friday before the annual Brussels Forum, the Russian ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, appalled the audience of international officials and national security specialists by brazenly spouting the Moscow line: Russia was compelled to annex Crimea because Ukraine was in danger of becoming a chaotic “failed state” — as though the audience was unaware how much Russia’s own manipulations helped bring about this very chaos.

“A few moments later, a top official with the Ukrainian ministry of foreign affairs, Vasyl Filipchuk, turned to the Russian. He allowed that “I sincerely respect you” as a “very skillful diplomat,” then got to the point: “Ambassador, dear, you are lying.”  “You are calling white as black and black as white,” the diplomat said.

“Next up at the gathering of transatlantic policymakers and intellectuals was the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili. Unlike his Ukrainian counterpart, he said, “I have no respect for Ambassador Chizhov. He reminds me of a character from ‘Dr. Strangelove.’”’

As far as debate in Brussels is concerned, this is as raucous and rumbustious as it gets. The FT’s Brussels Bureau Chief Peter Spiegel – who had been up all of the previous night covering the unfolding situation in Ukraine – should be congratulated for hosting such an interesting session.

If you have an hour to spare, I’d urge you to watch the debate from start to finish. It’s genuinely compelling. (The Chizhov exchanges start from 28 minutes in).

Transnistria: Putin’s next frontier?

imageEver since Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, the question being asked by many foreign policy watchers has been “who might be next?”.

The logical conclusion, given Putin’s desire to forcibly prevent former Soviet Union states from signing up to the European Union’s Eastern Partnership has been the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria – already an effective Russian military garrison with close ties to Moscow.

With this in mind, I thought it may be interesting to repost a copy of an article I wrote for the European Journal on the domestic situation in Transnistria.

Fundamentally, the article remains relevant today; albeit the Party of the Regions and Viktor Yanukovych have long since disavowed their interest in closer links with the EU, as seemed the case in the early part of 2011.

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Wednesday 22 June 2011
Daniel Hamilton: Solving the Transnistrian problem

“Most people”, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’s burlesque propaganda website admits, “don’t know Transnistria exists”. For the sake of the survival of the Transnistrian regime, that’s probably a good thing.

Located on the left-bank of the River Dniester between Moldova to the west and the Ukraine to the east, the Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica is one of the few remaining scars the Soviet Union left on South East Europe – a province suspended in a frozen conflict and stuck in a time warp where grand statues of Stalin and Lenin still dominate the skyline.

The province of Transnistria, much like the rest of the Republic of Moldova, is typical of many countries in South Eastern Europe for its rich ethnic mix, being home to diverse groups of Moldovans, Romanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Gagauz, ethnic Jews, Poles, Bulgarians and Roma. Across sovereign Moldova, Moldovans comprise around three quarters of the country’s 4.3 million citizens with ethnic Ukrainians and Russians making up much of the remainder – the bulk of who live in Transnistria.

Since 1956, Transnistria has been home to Russia’s 14th Army who has capitalized on its convenient strategic geographic position to garrison troops and stockpile munitions. The collapse of Soviet rule in Moldova had inspired hopes that such troops would depart the state’s newly-liberated territory. On August 27th 1991 the Moldovan Parliament – comprised of MPs from across the country’s territory – passed a declaration calling on Russia to “to terminate the illegal state of occupation and annexation and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from its national territory”.

Despite a binding agreement between Moldova’s Prime Minister Andrejz Sangheli and Russia’s Viktor Chernomyrdin signed on 21st October 1994 in which the Russian Federation pledged to “relocate troops to other sites” and guarantee “the political settlement of the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova”, the 14th Army remains in situ today.

It appears unlikely that Russian Government ever had any intention of honouring their word. More than two thousand troops Russian remain on Transnistrian soil; all but guaranteeing the survival of Smirnov’s government against all enemies, external or internal.

All Moldovan attempts to reclaim their sovereign territory have failed; the most notable being the littleknown ‘War of Transnistria’ between March and July 1992 where the 14th Army strongly backed the attempts of local ethnic Russian militias in their attempts to prevent the territory from integrating with the newly-sovereign Republic of Moldova.

Since August 27th 1991, Transnistria has operated separately from Moldova as the Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica – and as personal property of the family and friends of “President” Igor Smirnov. Smirnov (of which more later), who first came to Transnistria a few years before taking office as President in order to manage a large manufacturing firm on behalf of the USSR, is exactly the kind of jolly and cuddly-looking figurehead one has come to expect from authoritarian regimes over the years.

Today, the Russian Federation’s influence and grip on life in Transnistria is plain to see.

Only one a third of Transnistria’s forty-three Members of Parliament were actually born inside the province’s territory – the remainder originating from other disparate parts of the former USSR. President Smirnov himself hails from the town of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in Russian province of Kamchatka Krai, some 7,500 kilometres from the Presidential residence in Tiraspol. Tellingly, of the seventeen members of Transnistria’s government banned by the Council of Ministers from entering the European Union under Council Decision 2006/96/CFSP only three appear to be Moldovan citizens while fourteen are Russian nationals, many of whom are former KGB agents and Red Army commanders.

Clearly not untouched by Western public relations techniques, the Smirnov regime’s interactions with the outside world are largely limited to, an at times hilarious website lauding the province’s “free and fair” elections, the “rule of law” and a commitment to “minority ethnic rights”.

The reality is somewhat different.

In July 2004 the Transnistrian authorities forcibly closed four of the six schools in the province teaching the Moldovan language (a dialect of Romanian) using the Latin rather than Cyrillic alphabet. While these schools have now reopened, teachers and parents of children attending the schools have been subjected to continued harassment from the security services. Latin-script schools have no recourse to state education funding and qualifications obtained from them are not recognised by Transnistrian universities.

On an economic level, the overwhelming majority of Transnistria’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the Sheriff Company, a sinister outfit headed by a cabal of former special services chiefs and President Smirnov’s favourite sons which has been directly linked to smuggling, people trafficking and money laundering.

The Smirnov/Sheriff cabal takes full advantage of Transnistria’s status as a land-locked province, the country enjoying full use of the Port of Odessa on Ukraine’s south coast. In declaring the final destination of any imports handled to be Transnistria, goods passing Odessa are nominally still “in transit” and thus avoid inspection or scrutiny from Ukrainian customs officials.

On an amusing note, the European Union Border Assistance Mission figures show that enough chicken meat is imported into Transnistria for each resident to consume an average of 90kg of the foodstuff each year. In Germany, the annual figure is 10kg per head. The reality for Moldova – Europe’s poorest country with average annual earnings of less than $US2000 – isn’t so funny. Figures estimate that the total financial cost of fraudulent imports passing through Transnistria each year is equivalent to double the country’s annual GDP.

The repeated efforts by the Governments of Moldova and Ukraine to tighten controls on goods either lost “in transit” or smuggled over Transnistria’s borders have failed, largely as a result of Russian-backed threats from Smirnov’s governments to cut off electricity supplies to its neighbouring regions. As the USSR’s former regional industrial heartland, Transnistria’s power plants produce more than ten times as much electricity as its own resident population is able to consume. One could not find a better microcosm of diplomatic realities of the global energy crisis than Transnistria’s (population: 500,000) ability to hold Moldova (population: 4.3 million) and Ukraine (population: 46 million) to ransom on this issue.

Media outlets are almost exclusively owned by Smirnov’s administration, the exceptions being those operated by Sheriff. According to a report from Reporters Without Borders it is forbidden to bring Moldovan newspapers into the province and the opposition Glas Naroda newspaper has been closed down for engaging “anti-state activity”.

Besides the suppression of the free media, widespread financial impropriety and the evils of people trafficking, the situation in Smirnov’s Transnistria has further implications for global and regional security. If the Putin and Medvedev Government is to gain the international credibility it evidently craves, it is on this issue that Russia must take immediate action.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet weapons stockpiles in Transnistria have been almost entirely neglected by Russian. No formal audits have been carried out by Russia to assess the types of amount of weapons stored in Transnistria and no real attempts been made to remove any remaining weapons from this South East European province. As a result of this, numerous Soviet weapons – from handguns to nuclear suitcase bombs – have simply gone missing from Transnistria.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 tonnes of Soviet-era weaponry remain in Transnistria at sites like the KolbasnaMilitary Depot which remain largely off-limits to international inspectors. Informal estimates from the organization suggest that explosives stored in Kolbasna alone have a force equivalent to twice that of the Hiroshima bomb.

In addition to the stockpiles of weaponry remaining in the territory, well-calibrated Soviet-era Transnistrian factories continue to churn out low-level assault rifles, mines and mortar bombs – chiefly for Russian clients. The Transnistrian authorities bitterly deny that arms are manufactured on their territory, going as far as to invite French television crews to scrupulously-organised tours of gargantuan factories “producing knives and forks”.

Weapons directly traced back to Transnistria have been found in use in Iraq, Afghanistan, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to name but a few of the global conflicts fuelled by Tiraspol. Little is known about how these weapons leave Transnistria although the OSCE has identified smuggling (uninspected) through the Ukrainian port of Odessa, across the 500km Transnistria border and by air from the former Soviet air base in Tiraspol as the most likely routes.

The lack of Russian action to stem the flow of these weapons is even more perplexing given the discovery that weaponry originating from the province has been used against the country’s own troops in Chechnya and the North Caucuses.

The reason for Russia’s continued presence on Transnistria can likely be linked back to power games reminiscent of the Soviet era.

Just as Russia’s intervention into South Ossetia ended the possibility of Georgian membership of NATO in the medium-to-long term, their ongoing presence in Transnistria ends any hopes the Moldovan government may have of moving towards eventual European Union membership which has been promised to all countries in South East Europe. More importantly to Russia, by ensuring the survival of a sympathetic pro-Kremlin “buffer zone” the prospect of Ukrainian EU membership is simply out of the question – a seemingly wise decision from Moscow’s perspective given that even elements of President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions have begun making decidedly pro-Brussels noises in recent times.

If Russia’s wish to come in from the cold and be taken seriously by the international community is genuine, the Kremlin must acquiesce to the demands of NATO demands for the country to “withdraw its illegal military presence [including munitions stockpiles] from the Transnistria region of Moldova”.

In helping the Russian Federation to achieve this treaty obligation, technical, economic and political support from the European Union, United States and the British Conservative-led government would surely be forthcoming.

What must now be done to prevent the breakup of Ukraine

Originally published on ConservativeHome

imageIn the past 48 hours, Ukraine has gone full-circle.

From the grim spectacle of snipers executing demonstrators in the centre of Kyiv and the images of bodies piled high in the lobby of the Hotel Ukraine to the public shaming of a vainglorious President and triumphant scenes of a returning hero, history has truly been made.

For the past nearly three months, millions of protestors across the Ukraine have massed into squares in cities across the country ostensibly to demand closer links to the European Union. While the push for closer EU links was the spark that ignited the fire, the significant of the Euro Maidan movement had far more to do with challenging the country’s corrupt political elite who have revelled in excessive wealth while the rest of the country has teetered on the brink of economic and social collapse.

Even the briefest of visits to Ukraine is enough to demonstrate the gaping divide between the people and the powerful. In little more than an hour, one can drive from avenues with nicknames like “Kyiv’s Montmartre” lined with the xixi eateries and bijou boutiques beloved of former First Lady Lyudmilla Yanukovych to muddy, barren villages where subsistence farming and unemployment is the order of the day.

Just as Ukraine is a country of contrasts, it would be wrong to try and paint the protestors as forming a uniform block. While many I met in the crowds massing on Independence Square were indeed highly educated, well-travelled and English-speaking, they were easily outnumbered by a loose coalition of industrial and agrarian workers, war veterans, churchy types and pensioners’ rights campaigners. In short, this wasn’t your typical kind of protest: beards, gritty rhetoric and machine oil-splattered cassocks were more in vogue on the square than student-penned poetry and starry-eyed idealism.

In securing the removal of Viktor Yakukovych, the demonstrators have secure their chief objective. What comes next, however, is far less clear. While the pro-West movement is currently in the ascendancy, Ukraine remains a painfully divided country. Bridging that divide will be the country’s main primary challenge in the coming months.

Ukraine is currently without an elected President and appears likely to be so until elections are held later this year. While many of the leading figures in the Euro Maidan movement are likely to enter the race in the coming weeks, the only declared candidate so far is Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko undoubtedly possesses the oratorical skills, the passion and the rolodex of powerful contacts in Brussels and Washington DC that would make her an attractive candidate for the top job. Her back story, including her disgraceful politically-motivated detention, is compelling. She is, however, a figure from the “old Ukraine”. For the Euro Maidan movement to result in Tymoshenko in the President’s office would be a grave mistake, and a tremendous missed opportunity for a country badly in need of a fresh start.

The reasons for this are numerous.

Tymoshenko is a divider, not a uniter – a figure adored by a third of the country, yet disliked and distrusted by the rest. As Prime Minister, she presided over an incompetent administration that effectively destroyed the country’s financial standing. While she has reinvented herself as a pro-western figure in recent years, it was her political alliance with her latter for Viktor Yanukovych that derailed the pro-NATO Presidency of Viktor Yuschchenko. She too signed the accords with Russia that extended the country’s lease on the Black Sea naval base in the Crimea.

One might have expected her arrival at the Euro Maidan protest yesterday evening to be met with rapturous applause – but it was rather more muted than that. While Mrs Tymoshenko was politely heard and warmly clapped by the crowd, the following speaker, the Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, ignited more enthusiasm from the crowd.

Politicians are not a group known for being able to set aside their egos, but what Ukraine needs at present is a government of national unity, encompassing all parts of the Euro Maidan movement. The leaders of the Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda should field a joint Presidential candidate – potentially drawn from the academic community – to effectively act as a “referee” and “honest broker” overseeing a cabinet comprised of figures from all political parties. Tymoshenko should be part of that process – but not the leader of it.

The next key issue that must be addressed is the ethnic dimension of Ukrainian politics. It has not escaped the attention of political analysts that the east and west of the country has split, almost down the middle, between Russian speakers who favour closer ties to Moscow and the Ukrainian-speaking West.

The situation in the South East of the country, where a number of local assemblies have already indicated they wish to be annexed by Russia, is particularly concerning. The Euro Maidan movement must immediately act to prevent this situation spiralling into a conflict that causes the country to divide in two.

As an immediate step, the incoming government must pass legislation in the National Assembly that reinforces Russian language and cultural rights inside the Ukrainian state. With evidence mounting that the Russian Government is pushing propaganda in Eastern Ukraine claiming that Russian speakers will be the target of retribution from the Euro Maidan government, such a move would be a powerful confidence-building measure and statement of commitment to a multi-ethnic Ukraine.

Additionally, a programme of financial aid must also be urgently adopted – with the support of the European Union and United States – to provide support for the vast industrial complexes in Eastern Ukraine that rely on Russia for the bulk of their trade so as to ensure the region is not decimated by unemployment. Some will question the financial cost of this transaction (of which more later), but it would be minuscule compared to the sums that would need be spent remedying the effects of an armed conflict.

In the longer term, a constitutional amendment should be moved to create the position of Vice-President, the expectation being that such a post would be allocated to a member of the Russian-speaking community. The Euro Maidan movement cannot be allowed to become only an ethnic Ukrainian success story.

The next issue the new government must address is corruption. The images of former President’s Yanukovych’s private zoo, Galleon and marble-lined massage parlour speak to his personal corruption – but he was far from alone. A special commission should be established by the Euro Maidan government to investigate and make examples of figures from all political parties who have habitually raided the state coffers for their own gain. This should be done fairly and proportionately with support from international judges – and with the understanding from all political parties their own activists will not be immune from prosecution.

One of the major failings of the 2004 Orange Revolution – or “false dawn” as it ought to be known – that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power was the fact that, in the eyes of Ukrainians, all it did was replace corrupt pro-Russians with corrupt pro-western politicians. For the sake of Ukrainian democracy, history cannot be allowed to repeat itself.

Six months ago, President Yanukovych appeared all set to sign the Eastern Partnership Agreement which would have opened up the country’s economy to tariff-free access to EU markets. The chief reason for Yanukovych’s volte face on the issue and decision to align his country with Russia’s Customs Union was a short-term financial calculation – both personally and politically.

Western powers must recognise the power of financial inducements in Ukraine. Outside of its major cities, Ukraine effectively lies in ruins; with poorly-maintained roads, a largely inoperable rail network and thousands of mothballed factories established in the Soviet era to satisfy Russian priorities. There’s no denying it: the money promised to the Yanukovych administration by the Kremlin towards the end of last year would have provided a temporary sticking plaster for these problems.

Ukraine’s external debt payments are due to reach around $13 billion this year. Without financial aid from western governments, the country will either be forced to default and be plunged into economic meltdown or go cap in hand to Moscow (and capitulate to all of its associated demands) in order to pay its bills – a step that would undermine the entire purpose of Euro Maidan.

If the West is serious about securing Ukraine’s long-term political reorientation, the United States and European Union must create some form of modern-day Marshall Plan to upgrade the country’s infrastructure and wean it off its dependance on Russian gas supplies to fuel the economy. Such a plan would not only benefit Ukraine but the scores of foreign firms that could be attracted by opportunities in the country’s burgeoning natural resources sector.

The next few days should rightly be dedicated to remembering the martyrs of the Euro Maidan movement and celebrating the country’s rejection of autocracy. Optimism though, must be balanced by the realisation of the scale of the challenges facing the new government.

From ethnic unrest in Crimea to an uncertain economic future, this is not the end of Ukraine’s path to democracy – it’s only the end of the beginning.

A tribute to my grandmother, Laura Hamilton

imageOn Monday evening, I received the kind of phone call everyone must surely receive – yet nobody ever wants to receive – several times in their life. My Grandmother – Laura Hamilton – has passed away at the age of 81.

The sense of shock and disbelief was palpable. Almost exactly twenty four hours earlier, she had dropped me off at Manchester Airport for my regular commute to Brussels. I wish I could say there was a poignance to the last time we saw each other – but there wasn’t. Short of time, I gathered my bags, gave her the briefest of kisses on the cheek and hurried into the terminal. It’s a scene that has played over and over again in my mind.

I had always feared I would be filled with regret when Grandma passed away. I thought I would be racked with guilt at being an “absentee grandson” or troubled by aggressive words uttered at the height of my most difficult teenage years. I don’t feel any of those things, though. Over the past six months I saw Grandma more that any time since I was at primary school.

In many ways, we were like chalk and cheese. Tempers (usually mine) were easily frayed at the height of contentious debates about family matters and mild offence (on both our parts) often taken at political differences.

Nobody could claim Grandma was the easiest person to deal with. But for the fact she was an avowed atheist, you could have been forgiven at times for thinking she was a daughter of the manse. Her austere emotional strength sometimes jarred against my occasional bouts of volatility. Comments genuinely meant to be constructive and practical could sometimes be seen as insensitive.

She considered me rather spoiled – and, in some respects, she was right. While she acknowledged that I worked hard in my own way, her benchmark was always my grandfather’s long hours researching intricate physics concepts in the laboratories of Manchester University for little recognition by wider society and few of the material rewards bestowed on PR men like me.

In her last months, though, I think we finally understood each other.

I learned that her love and pride was at times unspoken (to your face) – but always there (and always expressed to others). I knew, though, beyond all doubt, how proud she was of both me and all her other grandchildren.

It was always a great injustice to her that academia was such an apparently undervalued quantity when pop stars, “con men” and “Tory MPs” (her words, not mine) seemed to have so much influence over society. To her, it was the academics, the writers and the musical scholars that deserved adulation. Perhaps she’s right.

In the last few months, I had grown to accept that my grandmother and I – a Glaswegian Socialist and English Conservative capitalist – had more in common than I once thought.

Throwing about a few words to I’ve heard to describe Grandma in the last few days – “passionate”, “strong-minded”, “loyal”, “confident”, “frustrating”, “blunt” – it’s clear that so many of them also describe my personality.

On Sunday lunchtime, just as we were preparing to head for lunch in Dunham Massey, I walked into the little-used reception room at the front of the house to pick up something I had left in there. I concluded at the age of seven – and never changed my view – that the only purpose of that room was to house Grandma’s grand piano, as well as a collection of wine bottles, foreign nick-nacks and assorted books that hadn’t found a home any of the myriad other bookshelves around the house.

On the bookshelf was a copy of a book from 1963 entitled ‘Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat’. Jokingly, I took a photograph of the book and posted it to Twitter with the comment “perhaps this is where I get my interest from”. Not perhaps; certainly. After all, how many people would have driven from Manchester and dragged their teenage son – my father – around Tito’s Yugoslavia in the mid-70s?

It was Grandma who took me on my first trip to Eastern Europe (to Saint Petersburg in Russia) back in 2002. That trip and the questions it raised in my mind about the lasting scars of dictatorship and the injustice of communism kicked off what has become a lasting fascination for me.

Over lunch on Saturday, I told her about the book I was in the early stages of writing about the modern-day culture and politics of countries on the fringes of the Soviet Union. She listened intently as I told her about my plans to visit Kyrgystan and Tajikistan in June in order to uncover yet another far-flung and mildly dangerous corner of the globe.

There are few things that would have made Grandma prouder than seeing a book in print written by one of her grandchildren. For her, the power of the (well) written word trumped weasel words and snappy soundbites. As a tribute to her, I will make sure I finish that book.

Over the past few days, a number of people have asked me about Grandma’s life.

Born on the prosperous outskirts of Glasgow in the early 1930s, Grandma was as proud a Scot as it was possible to be. While she left Scotland at a relatively young age and never permanently returned, her heart was always there. She didn’t just say she was “from Scotland” but rather she described herself as having “exiled in England for 56 years because your grandfather won’t move to Scotland”. If her will doesn’t contain a specific request for her ashes to be scattered on a lake or hill on the west coast of Scotland, I’ll be astounded.

Grandma was a lady of high culture; steeped in literature, a great lover of classical music and an devotee of art exhibitions. I don’t think I will ever hear a piece of classical music, inhale the musty smell thrown off when flicking through an old Penguin paperback or see a Lowry painting again without thinking of her.

While low-level run-ins with sloppy restauranteurs and intransigent sales assistants were frequent, I know of not an occasion or an incident where Grandma ever demonstrated spite, unkindness or intended insult to anyone. She was strong and tough – but always decent.

She disliked the anonymity and facelessness of big businesses, preferring the personal touch of local butchers and greengrocers – all of whom knew her by name and will be shocked at the loss of one of Cheadle Village’s most well-kent faces.

As a family, it’s very hard to imagine her not being around.

Her house in Cheadle has been a staging post, rallying point and shelter for generations of Hamiltons scattered all around the world – from my grandfather’s mother who was expelled from her home in Mozambique with little more than the clothes she was wearing to grandchildren, nephews and nieces needing a bed for the night. It will feel empty and soulless without her.

For my grandfather – her companion of more than fifty years – Grandma’s loss will be unbearable. Her beloved sister Margaret has lost her rock. My father, Ross and uncle Dougal have lost their mother – and all that entails. Her grandchildren, nephews, nieces and the so many others that loved her have lost someone very special.

Grandma was taken from us suddenly – but that is absolutely she way she would have wanted it. She would have thought of nothing more horrifying than the prospect of being bed-ridden and dependent on others to live, as so many other elderly people are. We can draw solace from that.

Over the past few days, my mind has been filled with images of the times we spent together – visits to Bruntwood Park, wading in the river at the end of her garden, exploring the caves at Alderley Edge, walks with her doting dog Sheeba, summer holidays to Llanbedrog and, more recently, the selfless support she has given to my political ventures.

When people pass away, friends often tell you to “remember the good times you spent together”. I do.

Rest in peace, Grandma – and, wherever you are, I hope you and Rabbie Burns aren’t causing too much trouble!

Defending Moldova: Russia’s latest attempt to derail the Eastern Partnership

moldova_rel93Moldova is one of the least known and understood corners of Europe.  Even amongst those with a strong grasp of geography, attempts to place the small, landlocked country on a map are met with awkward silences and shrugs of the shoulders.

Ironically, it is Moldova’s geographical positioning that lends it such geopolitical significance – at least at the moment.

For the uninitiated, Moldova is located on the European Union’s eastern flank, sandwiched in between Romania and Ukraine.  While the residents of the country speak Romanian – and many of its residents freely describe themselves as “Romanians” – Moldova was a constituent part of the Soviet Union rather than independent, communist Romania.  As a post-Soviet rather than a post-Ceau?escu state, Moldova has naturally maintained close links to Moscow since independence and has a mostly bi-lingual, Russophone population.

As such, while Russia has been powerless to stop Romania’s movement towards the European Union – and “the west” in general” – Moldova has remained Russian satellite state for much of its post-independence history.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government has pursued a policy of exploiting, fomenting and sustaining internal ethnic conflicts in order to frustrate the ability of former Soviet states to pursue a policy course that is genuinely divergent from that of Moscow.

The examples are clear for all to see.

To this day, Russian juntas occupy the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – an area akin to 20 percent of the country’s sovereignty territory. Russian troops are stationed in both territories, forcibly preventing the country’s reunification. Prior to 2004 a third region, Ajara, was also under control of Kremlin-backed stooge Aslan Abashidze.

For more than twenty years, possession of the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh has been bitterly disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has repeatedly exploited the frozen conflict for its own ends; holding back Armenian wishes for closer links with the EU by threatening Yerevan with increased arms sales to Azerbaijan.

In the case of Moldova, a narrow strip of land on the country’s eastern border with Ukraine, home to roughly 500,000 people, has since 1992 been administered separately from the rest of Moldova as the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic – or Transnistria, as it is more often known.

In terms of ethnic composition, Transnistria has a plurality of Moldovans (or ethnic Romanians) at around 40 percent of the population, yet is a minority compared to the 55 percent or so of the population that are either ethnic Ukrainian or Russian.

In 1992, fears of ethnic-Romanian hegemony in the newly-independent Moldova spilled over into ethnic conflict with remnants of the Russian-aligned Soviet Army’s 14th Guards Battalion siding with ethnic Russians to drive out Moldovan forces.  Since that day, Transnistria has been under the de facto controlled of Moscow. Residents all receive Russian passports and the region is heavily subsidised in terms of low-cost energy and bungs to prop up unreformed Soviet-era industries.

TransnistrianRegionMapOn the face of it, Russia has little to gain from supporting the separatist forces in Transnistria.  The suggestion that the involvement of the Soviet Army in the 1992 conflict – or the continuing presence of more than 1,000 Russian soldiers stationed in the territory – was for peacekeeping reasons or to prevent ethnic conflict is specious to say the least.

In reality, the purpose of the ongoing Russian presence in Transnistria has been twofold; first, to ensure the survival of a military presence in the region and secondly, to frustrate Moldova’s movement towards the west. Until now, the Russian position has been an effective one.

Transnistria’s shelf-life as a potent political pawn is, however, running out.

Recent history is littered with numerous attempts by Moldova to reach an amicable agreement with Russia on the status of Transnistria. Each of these attempts has failed.

Frustrated by the country’s crushing poverty and perturbed at being cut off from the regional development assistance and market access opportunities provided to its sister nation Romania inside the EU, Moldova has opted to pursue a different political course.

In November, the government of Prime Minister Iurie Leancă inked a wide-ranging free trade deal with the European Union that will effectively sever the country’s political ties to Russia. As part of the deal, Transnistria will no longer be able to enjoy the benefits of trade deals that Moldova is a signatory to. Up to now, Russian-owned manufacturing conglomerates in Transnistria have been able to gain preferential access to European markets by labelling their products as having been manufactured in Moldova.

Leancă has taken a gamble.

On one hand, denying the breakaway region access to the privileges associated with trade with the European Union could lead to a popular uprising calling for Transnistrian reintegration into Moldova. On the other, the Russian government may opt to step in and plug the 40 percent gap left in the breakaway territory’s finances by ending preferential trade, leaving it even more dependent on Russia.

It is clear that, while Leancă would prefer the former outcome to the latter, he and the Moldovan people can live with either. Vladimir Putin and the broader government of the Russian Federation now recognise that.

While the Transnistria issue will effectively be left to play itself out, more pressing concerns exist in relation to the 160,000-strong Autonomous Territorial Unit (ATU) of Gagauzia in the south of Moldova.

Scarred by the Transnistria conflict and scared of a repeat of ethnic violence in the country, an agreement was reached in 1994 to give ethnic Turkic (yet Orthodox Christian) citizens of Moldova a degree of independence inside the state. Unlike Transnistria, which forms a cohesive territorial unit that is physically divided from the rest of Moldova by the River Dniestr, Gagauzia is comprised of a series of enclaves that possess the right to pursue its own education, linguistic, social security and justice policies separately from the rest of Moldova. The areas under the control of the Gagauz AUT, which is fully enshrined in the Moldovan constitution, possess one administration yet take the form of effective bantustans surrounded by “ordinary” ethnic Moldovan areas.

gaugaziaThe autonomy granted to Gagauzia is fast becoming a serious problem for Moldova – and a tool to be exploited by a Russian government vehemently opposed to the country’s move towards EU membership.

On February 2nd, a non-binding referendum took place in the territory in Gagauzia in which residents were asked to vote on whether they supported Moldova’s participation in the EU trade deal signed by Leancă or whether they would back participation in a Russian-led Customs Union. Ninety-eight percent voted in favour of the Customs Union, rejecting closer western links.

The reasons for such a strong vote in favour of the Customs Union demand examination.

Historic concerns exist in among ethnic Gagauz regarding the possibility of overwhelmingly ethnically-Romanian Moldova seeking to federate with neighbouring Romania, a move that would see the end to the region’s autonomous status.  Such a situation would see the uniquely Turkic yet Christian Gagauz minority subsumed into a state where they enjoyed no minority privileges.

Such concerns, however, fly in the face of the successful functioning of autonomy for Gagauzia for the past two decades, the Moldovan constitution, explicit denials of the suggestion by Prime Minister Leancă and statements from the EU Enlargement Commission Štefan Füle that unification would not be tolerated by Brussels.

Ethnic politics – whether in the Balkans, Carpatians or Caucasus – is an explosive issue. For that reason, the scale of Moscow-led interference in the Gagauzia is of profound concern.

In recent weeks, a number of members of the Russian State Duma including ultra-nationalist MP Roman Hudiakov have visited the region in order to advocate Gagauzian secession from Moldova.  During his trip to the region, Hudiakov participated in joint rallies with pro-Customs Union Communist MP Igor Dodon in which he called for the outright rejection of the EU trade deal on the basis that it would lead to ethnic Romanian hegemony in the country and membership of the Russian Customs Union.

On January 31st, a team of Russian security service agents were detained and refused entry into Moldova at the Palanca border crossing in the south west of the country following evidence that the agents were working on campaigns to ferment ethnic unrest in Gagauzia.   The referendum that took place on 2nd February, that was judged to be illegal under the terms of the Moldovan constitution, was openly financed by multi-millionaire Yuri Yakubov, a close associate of the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Gagauzja2It is clear that, with the issue of Transnistria lacking the potency and hold over Moldova that it once had, the Russian Federation is pursuing actions designed to ferment ethnic unrest in the very heart of Moldova.  Russia knows that, if Gagauzia was to either unilaterally declare independence or take up arms against the institutions of the central government, the very viability of Moldova as an independent state – let alone a future EU member – would be at risk.

The actions of the Russian government and its allies in the region are intolerable and cannot be met with silence from Western European powers.

If Moldova is to complete its transition from failed Soviet state to market economy, urgent support is needed to bolster the country from external forces adamant it must remain aligned to Moscow.

As a starting step, financial assistance should be provided to Prime Minister Leancă’s government to ensure public services and transport infrastructure in Gagauzia is upgraded in in a show of commitment to the region. If this is not done, the Russian Federation will likely seek to replicate the significant investments already made in Transnistria.

It is also important that the Leancă government take measures to ensure that ethnic Gagauz feel part of the Moldovan state as opposed to an inconvenient addition to it.  A starting point in this regard may be the appointment of members of the community to strategic roles in the country’s Cabinet of key concern to the Gagauz – possibly with responsibility for infrastructure and agricultural concerns.  Such a move would be a powerful confidence-building measure.

Similarly, senior governmental and civil society figures from across the European Union must visit the region in order to directly respond to the burlesque propaganda that has been perpetuated by supporters of Russia’s Customs Union. In particular, specific promises should be made to defend Gagauz autonomy, matched with pledges to ensure preferential markets are found for the region’s agricultural goods and textiles.

The adoption of each of these measures would be a strong start to countering threats to Moldova’s sovereignty and stability.

Across the border from Moldova lies Ukraine. If the experience of the past months has taught us anything, it is that the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin are willing to fight for what they believe is theirs. It’s high time that Western democrats responded in similar terms – by defending Moldova’s independence – and its future.

Mike Hancock MP’s foreign policy disgraces

Originally published on TrendingCentral.com

hancockMuch has been written over the last twenty four hours about the personal conduct of Mike Hancock, the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South.

Following the leaking of Nigel Pascoe QC’s leaked report (which you can read for yourself, it all its sordid glory, on the Guido Fawkes blog), the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party and group on Portsmouth City Council have rightly suspended Hancock. Only a fool would bet against his ultimate expulsion from the party.

Instead of focusing on the report into Hancock’s conduct, I wanted to shine a light on another of Hancock’s activities: foreign policy.

Since his return to Parliament in 1997 (he served briefly in the 80s) he has served as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; a body considered largely irrelevant by the British foreign policy community but one that holds significant way in the far eastern extremities of Europe. From this perch, he has advocated a range of policy positions and views that range from being ignorant to offensive to downright damaging to Britain’s national interests.

Through thick and thin, he has been an outspoken supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The former Hungarian MP Mátyás Eörsi who had the indignity of sitting beside Hancock in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said, “he is the most pro-Russian MP from among all of the countries of western Europe. When it came to debates on Putin [and] freedom of the media… Michael always defended Russia… According to him, Russia really is a fully-fledged democracy”. The travails of his former researcher-come-lover Ekaterina Zatuliveter, which involved allegations of involvement in Russian espionage at the very heart of Westminster, are well known.

During the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, which saw tanks move within miles of the country’s capital city Tbilisi, Hancock was an outspoken supporter of the Kremlin. As bombs rained down on Georgia, Hancock rather astonishingly delivered a speech thanking the Russian government for preventing the “genocide of the peaceful South Ossetia population”, while simultaneously ignoring the charred Georgian villages following Russian air strikes.  Following the conflict, he wrote an article endorsing the de facto independence of South Ossetia and calling for the breakaway region’s “boundaries and borders to be respected”, despite the displacement of more than 30,000 ethnic Georgians from the region.   To this day, the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions which comprise 20 percent of Georgian sovereign territory remain occupied by Russian-backed juntas.

In common with his throaty support for the regime in Russia, Hancock has been an outspoken supporter of the Ilham Aliyev’s government in Azerbaijan.

Speaking during the 2013 Presidential election, Hancock told an Azeri state news agency: “I have not observed any irregularity since the presidential elections started in Azerbaijan. In fact, the process is going on easily and conveniently.  I have been to at least 10 polling stations. I have not seen even minor shortcomings that people might complain.”

His view stands in direct contrast with that of the U.S. State Department whose post-election report stated that, leading up to Election Day, “Azerbaijan maintained a repressive political environment… Authorities interfered with the media and civil society routinely, sometimes violently interrupted peaceful rallies and meetings before and occasionally during the campaign period, and jailed a number of opposition and youth activists”.

Aliyev has been described by Transparency International as running the “most corrupt government in Europe” and as a “dictator” by CNN. Hancock, however, takes a different view, telling an audience in Baku that Aliyev is the “best [leader] that Azerbaijan could have at present… with a broad mandate… I [feel] that he [is] the right man with whom everyone in Europe would like to work.”

In August 2012, Aliyev demonstrated his commitment to European values by pardoning, decorating and awarding lavish financial benefits to Ramil Safarov, a man convicted in Hungary for the nationalistically-motivated decapitation of an Armenian solider at a NATO training camp. Upon his return to Baku, the Head of Aliyev’s Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan Novruz Mammadov proclaimed: “[Safarov’s return is] great news for all of us. It is very touching to see this son of the homeland, who was thrown in jail after he defended his country’s honor and dignity of the people”.  Nice.

Finally, Hancock has used his position to advocate his view that the Armenian genocide, in which over 1.5 million were killed and scores more driven from their homes (never to return), did not happen.  Instead, he refers to it as the “so-called Armenian genocide” based on “dubious historical facts”. In a particularly classy move given the Ramil Safarov case, Hancock described Armenia as being “like a headless chicken that runs around in circle [that] really does not know where to run”. As the 100th anniversary of the 2015 genocide approaches, Hancock’s comments have caused particular upset to the families of survivors and those who lost relatives.

This short piece offers but an insight – a small window – into the foreign policy views of Mike Hancock.

We should all breathe a collective sigh of relief that his days as a Member of Parliament – and a profound opponent of the liberal and democratic principles he has long claimed to champion – are numbered.

Travel blog: my first trip to Bucharest

I have spent the past few days in the Romanian capital city of Bucharest for work.  Thankfully, I was able to spend a few hours over the course of the weekend looking around the city; soaking up its atmosphere and exploring some of its landmarks.

While I have passed through Romania before during the course of various travels, this was my first real visit to the country.  I don’t claim to have even scratched the surface of the country – but I have noted down a few initial observations.

* Architecture – some strange clashes

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Bucharest is genuinely a city of contrasts.  Historic Orthodox churches sit cheek by jowl with crumbling, communist-era tower blocks.  Ornate museums and theatres are often buttressed by ugly towers with reflective blue glass cladding.  It’s common to see a 1800s terrace in which is half is renovated and housing Swarovski and Armani shops and the other half vacant and crumbling.

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As with so many post-communist cities, it’s clear that the concept of obtaining planning permission for major building projects is a relatively new one for Bucharest.  Nevertheless, there are a huge amount of great buildings in the city – from the vast, imposing buildings that line the banks of the Dâmbovița River to the seemingly endless number of theatres, museums, government departments and academic institutions that each tell their own stories.

As a first time visitor to the city, I took a fairly aimless and unscripted attitude to sight-seeing, opting to walk around the Old Town (Lipscani) and city centre exploring as opposed to visiting certain monuments.  There were several buildings that I found particularly interesting including the Stavropoleos Monastery, Pasajul Macca-Vilacrosse (Vilacrosse Passage) (see the photo of the arcade and green and yellow roof below) and University of Bucharest.

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* The Palace of Parliament

There is no better known building in Romania than the country’s Parliament.  An enormous Italianate building constructed on the orders of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1984, it’s said that one ninth of buildings in the entire city of Bucharest were pulled down in order to accommodate its grounds.  This apparently included a total of 30,000 private houses and twenty two churches.  For a while, it was the world’s largest building with a floor space of 340,000 m2 (3,700,000 square feet).

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I got up very early on Saturday morning walk the mile or so to the Parliament.  I had a quick glance at a map before setting off but figured that if I headed roughly in the right direction, the looming structure would eventually reveal itself to me in some way.  I was right.  No sooner had I crossed the river, I saw a glimpse of one of its wings peeking through in between two tower blocks.

I approached the building from what I later learned was its eastern entrance where visitor groups usually gather for organised tours.  When I arrived at the tourist centre, I found out that I was too early to join any of the formal tour groups but managed to persuade one of the very friendly guards to walk me through to the main parliamentary chamber and through some of the impressive marble-lined rooms surrounding it.

IMG_00000213The rooms were undoubtedly impressive but I found myself unable to move beyond the fact they had been constructed as part of a vanity project for one of the most evil and autocratic dictators of the past century.  Had I not known that, I would likely have been able to just appreciate the architecture for what it was.  Instead, my mind kept looking for hidden meanings in the ways rooms were laid out, examples of dictatorial machismo played out in the way daises were places and so on.

By the time I’d finished my impromptu tour, I was running slightly late but thought I’d have enough time to walk once around the grounds so as to see the building from every angle.  This only exacerbated by lateness as the entire route took close to half an hour to complete. Nevertheless, it was more than worth it to get a sense of this iconic and impressive building.

* Orthodox churches

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Until a few years ago, I never gave much thought to visiting churches when I was abroad.  Recently, though, I’ve developed a fascination with the architecture of Orthodox churches in particular – an interest fuelled by visiting the breath-taking Novy Afon monastery in Georgia this summer.  With this in mind, I really enjoyed the opportunity I had to look around several Eastern Orthodox churches while in Bucharest.

Even a short walk through the centre of Bucharest will see you stumble upon scores of churches, all of which are buzzing with people of all ages.  In my opinion, there’s something quite special about Orthodox churches: the pungent smell of incense, the vivid colours of the frescos and excessive gold-covered alters all contributing to the solemn atmosphere.

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While walking to the Parliament, I stumbled upon a tiny church in a side street.  I thought I would have a quick look inside, expecting it to be empty but was instead injected into the middle of a Christening ceremony.  I did think about leaving but, after an elderly lady handed me a warm mug of sweet tea and a prayer card, I felt it only right that I stay until the end of the service.

* Gara de Nord

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As if I needed to even further demonstrate my geekery, I’ve developed a passing interest in visiting stations when travelling in former communist countries. My interest has nothing to do with trains but rather because I find it fascinating to soak up the atmosphere in the places that, long before air travel became a viable option, provided the only real link ordinary people had with the outside world.  These stations are usually architectural masterpieces in themselves, with sweeping marble concourses and buzzing markets surrounding them.

Prior to visiting Bucharest, I’d received only one piece of advice relating to my personal safety: avoid Gara de Nord.  Many reasons were given; ranging from the presence of legions of glue-sniffing orphan children roaming the streets to the threats posed by thugs waiting for unsuspecting foreigners to cross their paths.

After all the warnings I’d read and received verbally, Gara de Nord had taken on an almost menacing quality in my mind – a fusion of Dickensian London, 1980s King’s Cross and Jack the Ripper-era Whitechapel.  Logically therefore, I decided that it would make an ideal spot to grab Sunday breakfast…

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Rather than walk to Gara de Nord which was a good couple of miles from where I was staying, I took the Metro.  An unlimited day pass cost 6 Lei (about £1.20).  The stations and metro carriages were well maintained, with clear announcements at each stop.

I arrived at the station shortly before 10:00 and found a small café close to the main concourse from where the Sofia-bound train was leaving and spent about half an hour watching people coming and going.  In honesty, it was a fairly dull half an hour.  The station itself wasn’t anything special architecturally and, in terms of basic security, I felt no more at risk of crime than I would at any other Eastern European station.  Still, I’m glad I got to see it…

If you do find yourself at Gara de Nord (and there is genuinely no compelling reason at all to go unless you are getting a train somewhere), there is an interesting market in one of the ticket halls selling a selection of low-end electronic tat and some nice local arts and crafts.

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* Food and drink

When I travel to new places, I always do my best to try local food and drinks.  This is an approach that has both broadened my horizons to new and delicious dishes and exposed me to some true culinary horrors.

Sticking to this rule proved surprisingly difficult in Bucharest.  Walking through the Old Town, I was bombarded my by a strange array of pizzerias flying Italian flags yet having incongruous names like ‘Coco Bongo’, Irish theme bars offering out of place “Oktoberfest” promotions and wannabe high-end French brasseries.  It felt as if, in Bucharest’s rush to modernise, the Old Town is trying too hard to be “modern” at the expense of its rich history.

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After much searching, though, I did manage to find one genuinely exceptional place.

While walking back from a meeting on Friday evening, I stumbled upon a rather shabby-looking Transylvanian Hungarian restaurant on a down-at-heal side street.  Drawn in my the sound of what can only have been Transylvanian folk music wafting out of a side door, I decided to walk over and take a look at the haphazard chalkboard menu.  The dishes sounded delicious.

Peering through the window at the flock wallpaper and frilly tablecloths, the decor had the distinct look of having not been updated since Ceausescu’s time.  It was late, so the restaurant had clearly largely emptied out but the tables that remained seemed to be having a good time.  Oddly, I became quite hooked on the idea of giving the place a go.

The following evening, I met up with a friend who is working in Bucharest.  After a couple of quasi-diplomatic manoeuvres, I managed to talk her out of the faceless, could-be-anywhere-in-the-world restaurants she wanted to try and round to my way of thinking on the Transylvanian place.

IMG_00000260We were certainly not disappointed.  No sooner had we taken our seats and we were given a masterclass in Romanian wines by our waiter; ultimately opting for a very reasonable locally-produced Merlot.

For a starter, I had “hortobagy” meat pancakes.  The pancakes could have been an entire meal in themselves; filled with juicy chicken and swimming in a tangy sauce.  I don’t want to even consider the calorie count.  As a main, the waiter recommended I try the Szegedi-style mutton stew with strapacska (a type of cheese and bacon gnocchi) served on a red-hot iron dish. Everything about it was delicious. The mutton was extremely tender, the sauce packed with rich paprika flavours and the distinctive taste of the dill in the strapacska added an unexpected zing to the dish.

IMG_00000262The final bill amounted to little more than £30 for the two of us – not including the several free lashings of Transylvanian palinka served to us “on the house”.  If you’d like to give the restaurant – the St George Transylvanian Restaurant – a go, visit www.stgeorge.ro.

One thing I was surprised about was the relative lack of cafe culture in Bucharest.  When travelling in Eastern Europe, I usually find that smoke-filled cafes serving rocket fuel-strong coffee and providing brilliant people-watching opportunities are ten a penny.  Not in Bucharest.  Instead, locals appear to get their coffee fix from the vast number of self-service terminals which are found across the city – which is no fun at all.

After using one such terminal, I plonked myself down with my espresso in the outdoor seating area of a nearby KFC.  As I glanced out across the Dâmbovița, I became aware that looming presence of a security guard paying me excessive attention.  Seconds later, I suffered the indignity of being ejected from the premises for disobeying the house rules about not consuming non-KFC products on their property.  The shame, the shame…

* Would I go back?

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Yes.  I’m acutely aware that, having only had limited time to look around the city, I’ve not yet have a chance to get to know Bucharest properly – let alone the rest of Romania.  To a man, everyone I came across during my short time in the country was open, friendly and helpful.

I’ve long thought about travelling to Romania’s “brother country” Moldova, so will give some thought to taking a longer trip to the region – perhaps travelling from Bucharest to Chișinău or from Hungary across to Transylvania.  Yet another place to add to my list of aspirational tourism destinations…!

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BlackBerry Q5: the worst ‘phone I have ever had

imageI’ve tried, I really have. I’ve slept on it, taken a long walk on the beach to clear my head, searched my soul and mentally deliberated to the point of exhaustion. I cannot, however, find a single thing I like about the Blackberry Q5. Not a single thing. Nothing.

The failure of the Q5 to have any positive features whatsoever is quite stunning.

Historically, moans about the antediluvian nature of the features of the operating system on BlackBerry ‘phones have been balanced against the speed and quality of their email systems. This is not the case with the Q5. The email system is so slow that outside of office hours I occasionally keep my webmail client open on my personal desktop in order to keep on top of emails.

As someone who deals with a lot of commercially sensitive information, I am a big supporter of having a secure ‘phone handset. The Q5, however, goes beyond guaranteeing security and is just plain frustrating from the position of a business user.

The root of my annoyance comes from the nonsensical decision of BlackBerry programmers to divide your phone into “office” and “personal” working spaces.

There are many annoying aspects related to this division (not least the requirement to enter your password every fifteen seconds or so, even if you have been using the ‘phone continuously) but the most infuriating is the inability to cut and paste from one “workspace” to another.

For example, my work email and address book and basic phone function are located in different “workspaces” meaning that I am unable to cut and paste ‘phone numbers from one to another. As such, I have to open up the “office” space, write the phone number down on a piece of paper and then manually type it into the ‘phone keypad to make a call or address book in order update it.

Is this the end of the world? No. Is it seriously annoying when you’re standing on a pavement in between meetings with rain falling all around you? Yes. I fail to see what was wrong with having just one password to enter when you turned the phone on or left it inactive for more than a couple of minutes.

Aside from the pointless “workspace” division, the remainder of the operating system is similarly appallingly designed. The graphics used on the ‘phone are clunky and outdated, skipping between functions such as the calendar and Internet browser takes an eternity and waiting for the address book to load up your contacts can take upwards of sixty seconds at a time.

Another historic strength of BlackBerry ‘phones has been their excellent battery life when compared to their competitors. Well, that’s another advantage that has been eliminated on the Q5. Even with very modest use, I barely manage to get a day’s worth of use out of the device before it conks out. Given that I’m frequently out until late in the evening, this means I am often left without ‘phone or email access for several hours a day.

I ordinarily like touch-screen devices and am devoted to my iPad – which is probably the best personal and business tool I’ve ever had. The touch-pad of the Q5 is nothing short of bizarre, though. Even after six weeks of using the phone, I still trigger strange, unexpected and counterintuitive responses from innocuous taps on its screen. Sometimes it’s too response, sometimes it refuses to do anything despite pneumatic drill-style tapping. After a period of some self doubt, I’ve concluded there’s no issue with my ability use the ‘phone; it’s just badly made.

The Blackberry Q5 is, without question, the worst ‘phone I have ever been afflicted with. I say “afflicted” because the choice of this ‘phone was not mine and, in my experience, no rational individual would actually choose to have a BlackBerry (of any sort).

If you are a private individual, steer well clear of this dreadful telephone. It doesn’t matter which alternative handset you choose – Android, iPhone or Lidl own brand – it will be better than the Q5. If you are an office manager, do your employees a favour and consign your corporate BlackBerry contract to the same place most private consumers have: the bin.

Must watch: Nagorno Karabakh as you’ve never seen it before

A friend has just sent me a copy of a video compiled to mark the recent visit to Nagorno Karabakh of the famous Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballé.

While I’m not a fan of opera, I’m sharing this video because it is by far the most professionally-produced video of Nagorno Karabakh that I have ever seen – sweeping through the country’s stunning mountain ranges, skimming its lakes and showcasing its many stunning churches. 

When discussing their visits to Karabakh, foreign tourists often tend to focus on the impending threat of invasion from neighbouring Azerbaijan rather than the myriad opportunities that exist to explore one of the most beautiful and unspoilt corners of the globe.  Videos like this indicate to me that the government are finally getting serious about promoting tourism from outside of the Armenian diaspora – and not before time.

If your interest in visiting this mysterious, far-away land has been piqued by this video, you might find the two part travel guide I wrote of interest. You can find it here and here.