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Dilma Rousseff re-elected: a missed chance to tackle corruption, cronyism and economic malaise

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Yesterday evening, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was re-elected to a second term in office. In a close race, the Workers’ Party incumbent defeated the pro-business Senator Aécio Neves by a 51.64% to 48.36% margin.

Amidst the Workers’ Party euphoria at having clung to power, some important questions need to be asked about the impact the election will have upon both the country’s economy and international standing. On both counts, the outlook is negative.

Observers of Brazilian politics often keenly note that the country is a tremendously polarised one. Yesterday’s results leave it more polarised still. By squeaking back into office by the narrowest of margins, Rousseff has unwittingly exploited divisions which run far deeper than traditional rich/poor sentiments but extend to a regional divide between the North and South of the country, the urban and the rural, the middle class and the impoverished.

Dilma Rousseff’s victory has a rather hollow feel to it and is a world away from the outpouring of optimism brought about by former President Lula’s victory in 2002. Lula, a master of the spoken word and the product of a spectacular political transformation from militant trade unionist to soothing social democrat, built his victories on a coalition of the working poor, aspirational middle classes and ambitious manufacturers. Instead, Dilma took a purely transactional approach; pledging generous social benefits to her base and deriding her pro-business opponents as aloof and uncaring. (Neves, of course, firmly pledged to protect cherished benefits programmes such as Bolsa Familia, ProUni and Minha Casa from any cuts).

In some respects, the Workers’ Party’s (PT) welfare policies have been a victim of their own success. It is indisputable that they have played a big part in lifting millions of people out of poverty and creating a burgeoning middle class that is better educated, better travelled and more socially mobile. With that, though, came problems for the PT: these people wanted more than the welfare state and the “old politics” of cronyism and corruption.

The first moment it because clear that Dilma would face a tough race was back in April of this year when thousands of mainly young, mainly middle class Brazilians took to the streets to protest at widespread corruption and excessive spending on the World Cup and Olympics. Rather than seek to provide this sector of the public – who overwhelmingly backed Neves – with an olive branch, she instead revered to an aggressive core vote, 50%+1 strategy. With the root of their concerns unaddressed, trouble will undoubtedly spill over again soon.

On an economic level, Rousseff’s re-election is nothing short of a catastrophe.

Trade protectionism is widespread – and will remain so under Dilma. In a country as poor as Brazil, it is plainly ridiculous that the most basic of electronic goods – from fridge freezers to cheap televisions – cost more than they do in the United Kingdom. How can it be logical that members of the country’s emerging middle class increasingly find it cheaper to board a budget flight to Miami to shop for clothes rather than heading for domestic shops? How much longer can industry sustain crippling import tariffs for critical machinery?

Brazil’s public spending is a mess. Under the Workers’ Party – and, more precisely, the Rousseff Presidency – the country’s deficit has grown to a gaping chasm, with a tax base unable to fund the state’s generous spending programmes.

Around 90% of the entire spending the state does each year is mandated by a range of arcane laws, many of which are hangovers from the 1980s. With Dilma having pledged to increase social welfare spending on the poorest Brazilians, she will have little room inside the budget to make economisations elsewhere to provide such funds. The Brazilian Congress, a famously dysfunctional body that is dominated by former footballers, telenovela actors and other assorted egotists, has no appetite to change this construct.

In order to keep her base happy, the Rousseff administration has adopted policies designed to keep gas and electricity prices artificially low. While this may have proved to be a clever pre-election trick that has kept inflation at a relatively comfortable level, the state lacks the financial resources to sustain such a policy. Prices will have to rise – and so will inflation.

Despite is reputation in recent years as a hard-charging growing economy, Brazil remains a dire place to do business. Even the most basic of tasks requires multiple, costly government permits. The risk of a government agency deciding to level crippling retrospective taxes is ever-present. What this system does is sustain a state bureaucracy – but it doesn’t bring about private sector growth. While Aecio Neves had made the elimination of red tape a key plank of his campaign, Dilma has remained tight-lipped on the issue.

The days when Brazil’s poor fiscal climate and red tape-saddled regulatory structure, underpinned by external demand and global growth, could sustain growth rates of more than 7% are long gone. This year, the economy will grow by little more than 1% – and that’s an optimistic calculation. A credit downgrade now looms.

On a foreign policy level, the Rousseff Government has adopted an at times bizarre “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” policy which has involved the expansion of cultural links with Iran and propping up machismo-fuelled administrations in Venezuela and Ecuador with economic aid. Such activities have been bitterly at odds with Brazil’s own domestic focus on the expansion of social and political rights, campaigns to eliminate racism and a liberal line on sexuality issues. While Aecio Neves had pledged to discontinue the Workers’ Party’s more recherché international projects, a second Rousseff administration will likely continue to build links with openly anti-American governments around the world – a dangerous position to be in, given the country’s precarious economic state.

There’s an old saying that “Brazil is the country of the future – and always will be”. I’ve never believed that – but I do struggle to see much hope for one as long as Dilma Rousseff remains President of the Republic.

Brazilian Presidential election – what to look out for as the results come in

imageAfter months of campaigning – and one of most unpredictable races in living history – it is finally time for the second round run-off in the 2014 Brazilian Presidential election. What had looked like a likely coronation for the incumbent Dilma Rousseff eighteen months ended up being a late-breaking political firestorm involving the tragic death of charismatic challenger Eduardo Campos, a temporary surge for the ecologist outsider Marina Silva and a late resurgence for the establishment choice, Aecio Neves.

The first round saw the incumbent Dilma outpace Aecio by a 42% to 34% margin – a much closer margin than any poll had foreseen. Since that time, polls have fluctuated wildly – putting Aecio ahead by as much as sixteen points and the incumbent Dilma up by as little as six. The only valuable conclusion we can draw from polling is that the race is close – and very close at that.

Due to the electronic voting system used in Brazil, the final results will be clear by around 23:00 UK time. Even if the result comes down to a few thousand votes across the country, the scope for recounts is extremely limited – so we should not expect even a very close result to impede the final declaration.

Keep the “75% rule in mind” – Taking into account the results of the first round, Aecio needs to capture roughly 75% of the votes that were cast for third-place finisher Marina Silva on a state-by-state basis in the first round in order to cross the magic 50% line. We should be able to tell relatively early on if this has been the case and how Marina’s support is splitting between Aecio and Dilma. In order to win, Aecio needs to meet or exceed the following percentages in most (or all) of the early-declaring states:

* Roraima – 53%
* Amapa – 40%
* Tocantins – 43%
* Federal District – 53%
* Mato Grosso do Sul – 56%
* Bahia – 32%
* Para – 40%

This rule doesn’t work perfectly – for example, such a calculation would require Aecio to carry the impoverished state of Acre with 60% of the vote given Silva’s strong performance there in the first round. As such, the states chosen above have been chosen in on order to provide a geographic split and filter out any abnormally high votes for Silva in the first round.

Aecio’s home and “Brazil’s Ohio” – While Aecio’s national performance in the first round of voting was strong, his grossly under-performed in his home state of Minas Gerais where currently serves as a Senator and had been a very popular Governor. Indeed, Dilma actually beat him here by 43-40 margin. If he is going to be the next President of Brazil, he needs to win what has become known in psephological circles as “Brazil’s Ohio”. Since the return of directly-elected Presidents in 1989, the victorious candidate in every race has carried Minas.

In 2010, Dilma Rousseff defeated Jose Serra in Minas by a 58/42 margin – just slightly more than her 56/44 national victory margin. Aecio needs to hit 50%+1 here if he is to stand any chance of victory nationally.

How high can Aecio go in São Paulo? - In order to win the Presidency, Aecio needs to absolutely blow Dilma out if the water in the country’s largest (and richest) state of São Paulo. To give you an idea of scale, São Paulo’s 44 million population makes the state roughly the same size as Ukraine and equal to the entire size of the smallest sixteen of the country’s twenty-seven states combined. In the first round, the recorded 44% (10.1 million) of the votes in the state to Dilma’s 26% (5.9 million) and third-place finished Marina Silva’s 25% (5.7 million). If he can make it above 65% in São Paulo (2010 challenger Jose Serra managed 55%), he will be the next President.

In a close race, Rio de Janeiro could hold up the final result - As one would expect, the smaller states will be faster to declare their results by virtue of the simple fact they have less results to tally. In the first round, the two largest states São Paulo and Minas Gerais were mercifully quick to declare their results yet we had to wait right until the end of the count for the results from Rio de Janeiro (which includes more than just Rio itself but a number of other 500,000+ resident cities like São Conçalo, Nova Igassu and Niteroi). The Federal Government was severely critical of the amount of time it took Rio to tally its first round results – so things may have improved this time around. However, in the case of a very closely contested race and a slow count, everything may hinge in Rio. This may come as late as 00:00 UK time.

The morning after the night before: observations on the 2nd round of the Brazilian Presidential election

dilmassLate yesterday evening, the results of the first round of the Brazilian Presidential election became clear.

After a tough campaign, the incumbent President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party scored a first-round victory with 42% of the vote.  In second place was the centre-right Minas Gerais Senator and former Governor Aecio Neves with 34%, followed by the ecologist Marina Silva. Rousseff and Neves will now advance to a second-round run-off on Sunday October 26th.

The campaign was one of the most exciting in Brazilian political history, with Neves surging in the last few days to overtake Silva for the run-off spot against Dilma.   With his campaign having been written off as doomed several weeks ago, his recovery is testament to his political skills and the discipline of his campaign operation.

This will be a close-fought race.  At this stage – the morning after the night before – here are some key observations…

Aecio’s second place finish wasn’t actually a big surprise – I have seen many tweets and media comments this morning describing Aecio’s second place finish as a “big surprise” or a “slap in the face for opinion pollsters”.  This isn’t actually true.   It is fair to say that the emphatic margin over third-place finisher and one-time favourite Marina Silva was surprising (he beat her 34% to 21%) but, as I noted on Saturday, Aecio’s surge at Marina’s expense had been clear for the past two weeks.  In a poll published early last week, Datafolha showed Marina Silva’s support down from its high of 34% on August 29th to 24%, with Dilma and Neves increasing their support from 34% to 40% and 15% to 21% respectively – both at her direct expense. By the eve of poll, both Ibope and Datafolha were recording narrow leads for Neves over Marina.

A “traditional” run-off – A run-off between Dilma Rousseff and Marina Silva would have been terrific political theatre.  The contempt the two women have for one another was palpable throughout the campaign, with wicked scowls and finger-pointing abounding in their final debate performance.  It would also have been fascinating from a political perspective, with the middle-class (and now painfully bourgeois) former Marxist guerrilla Dilma being forced to defend her “socialist” record to a doughty mix-raced lady who didn’t learn to read until she was sixteen.   It was not to be.

Dilma and Aecio are both solidly establishment choices representing solidly establishment parties.  Both are wealthy, both are well educated and neither is particular exciting.  Dilma gives lip-service to the trade union movement but has never really been part of it.  Instead, she made her name as a left-aligned civil servant. Aecio talks about business and enterprise but was elected to Congress when he was 25 after his grandfather, a former President, stitched him up with a seat.

After an era when Lula, a former shoe shine boy, could be elected President, the country has return to an era of elitism in its politics.   Is this contest one between “left” and “right”?   Not really.  It’s a debate over slushy centrism.  Personalities, rather than ideas, will be at the heart of the campaign over the next three weeks.

Don’t apply “European” norms to Marina’s voters – It would be easy to look at Marina Silva’s personal background story and at times bellicose rhetoric anti-business rhetoric and conclude that her votes were almost certain to transfer en masse to Dilma in the second round.  Marina’s political appeal has long been built around an ecologist image (she served as a Green Party Senator) and this community has long shown itself to be more favourable to candidates of the Brazilian social democratic to centre-right than the Workers’ Party.  Green-inclined voters in Brazil are largely highly-educated people of a moderate to high income, living in affluent urban areas whose main preoccupation is with transparency, education standards and better governance rather than what we in Europe would think of as “green” issues.  They do not make natural bedfellows with the trade union movement-aligned Workers’ Party.

A poll conducted two weeks ago showed that 70% of Aecio Neves’ supporters would have voted for Marina in a second-round run-off.  Frustratingly, the expectation at that time of a Marina/Dilma run-off meant that comparative figures for what Marina’s backers would do in the case of a Dilma/Aecio contest are not available.  However, polling does show that self-described “right-wing” voters stated they would have backed Marina over Dilma by a 49% to 35% margin, “centre-right” voters would have broken 50% to 38% for Marina and “centrists” 48% to 43%.

Dilma has the clear advantage – The basic fact is that, with 42% of the national vote, Dilma has a much easier path to 50%+1 than Aecio Neves does.  In order to win, he would now need to secure roughly three-quarters of Silva’s votes, as well as those of the left-leaning Luciana Genro and Pastor Everaldo who got 3% between them.   It’s not impossible – but it is unlikely.

As usual, the centre-right was under polled – This was the third consecutive cycle in which the strength of the pro-business, centre-right candidate was underestimated in the first round.  In 2010, the final pre-election polls showed José Serra on 26% when he actually received 32% while in 2006 Geraldo Alckmin’s support was underestimated by 13% – 29% to 42%.  Last night, Neves received 34% of the first-round vote, when final polls from the country’s two leading pollsters Datafolha and Ibope showed him on 24% and 27%.  One can debate the reasons for this under-sampling until the cows come home but I put part of this down to the disproportionately strong showing the centre-right nominee always scores on the largest state Sao Paulo (Neves received 44% of the vote– and roughly a third of his entire votes nationally there), whose 44 million population is larger than the smallest sixteen of the country’s twenty-seven states combined.  The weighting simply doesn’t take into account the “Sao Paulo factor”.

Who would you like to have a cerveja with? – Dilma is a “known quantity”.  Very few people in Brazil like her; even fewer love her.  Her supporters do, however, respect her competence and sincerity while admitting she is unable to put on the same oratorical fireworks or issue the same raw emotional appeals as her predecessor Lula.  People’s views about Dilma are not going to change in the next few weeks and nor will her political presentation – she’ll be solid, combative and sharp.  She won’t be likeable, though.   Aecio Neves remains a political unknown in many parts of the country, yet has shown a likability and fluidity on the campaign trail that marked him out from the other candidates.  If voters were asked who they wanted to have a “cerveja” with, he’d win.  That likeability could well translate into votes.

For 2018 candidates, look to Sao Paulo – Just as Sao Paulo played a decisive role in propelling Aecio Neves to a strong second-place finish, the state also produced a couple of notable results which those taking a longer look at the 2018 Presidential contest should not ignore.  The state’s popular Governor Geraldo Alckmin scored a landslide re-election victory, with 57% and more than 12 million votes.  Simultaneously, voters sent former Health Secretary, Mayor and Governor Jose Serra to the Federal Senate with 58% of the vote, defeating a veteran Senator and popular former Mayor in the process.  Sao Paulo is where the political power and money is in Brazil.  If Neves doesn’t manage to pull off a victory on October 26th, expect the two men to reach an accommodation as to which of them becomes the Sao Paulo centre-right’s standard bearer in 2018.

Brazilian Presidential election – things to look out for tomorrow

imageBrazilians will tomorrow go to the polls to vote in the country’s Presidential election. With voting compulsory, a total of almost 120,000,000 votes will be cast; from the lush Amazonas in the North West the to rocky, wind-swept plains of Rio Grande do Sul in the South.

As we approach the final hours of the campaign, there are a few observations that can be made…

Dilma Rousseff is likely to be re-elected – Since the very start of the campaign, the incumbent President Dilma Rousseff has led in the opinion polls. Aside from a brief period at the start of September, polling has shown her with a comfortable lead in the second round run-off with either the centre-right challenge Aécio Neves or ecologist candidate Marina Silva. 45% of voters are currently set to hand her their first round vote – not far off what she needs for an absolute majority. She won’t clear that hurdle tomorrow but she is likely to on October 26th.

For Marina Silva, an expectations/capabilities gap¿ – The main centre-left challenge to the incumbent Rousseff was supposed to come from Eduardo Campos, the popular and telegenic Governor of the northern state of Pernambuco. On 13th August, his plane tragically crashed in poor weather when coming in to land for a campaign stop in the city of Santos in São Paulo state, killing Campos and several campaign ads. Following several days of national mourning that took place across Brazil for the loss of this promising, young political leader, he was replaced as Socialist Party nominee by his Vice-Presidential candidate Marina Silva.

The two individuals could not be more different. While Campos had sought to cultivate a solidly (or even slavishly) pro-business record alongside the expansion of social programmes for the working poor, Silva was a radical environmentalist and feminist Senator with a habit of attacking the establishment. While Campos was part of Brazil’s wealthy political aristocracy (his grandfather also served as Governor of Pernambuco), Silva is one of eleven mixed-race children who grew up working on a rubber plantation and only learned to read when she was sixteen.

A mixture of sympathy for Campos’ death and a genuine excitement amongst many sections of Brazilian society about Silva’s life story saw her shoot into a dramatic poll lead in the days following his funeral. While, on August 6th, Campos had been polling well behind both Dilma and Neves on 9% she was tied with the incumbent on 34% by August 29th.

Since then, there has been a considerable degree of “unwind” in her support. The respected polling firm Datafolha has shown her support down from a high of 34% on August 29th to 24% today, with Dilma and Neves increasing their support from 34% to 40% and 15% to 21% respectively – both at her direct expense.

A “traditional” run-off? - While the media narrative has, for the past weeks, pointed at a run-off between Marina Silva and Dilma Rousseff, this is now in serious doubt. Neves has clawed back significant ground since Campos’s death – to the point where one could claim he now has “momentum” – and his campaign has both a very strong infrastructure in the biggest states across the country and institutional support from a string of powerful Senators and Governors. Silva’s campaign remains a disorganised and renegade effort – despite her strong standing nationally. The final poll of registered voters that were “certain” to go to the polls, showed Dilma ahead on 45% with Silva on 27% and Neves on 24% – effectively too close to call in respect of who will go through to the second round. We may yet see a “traditional” left/right run-off.

Will the debates damage Dilma and Silva? - Thursday night’s televised debate between the seven (yes, seven) candidates for President was one of the most poorly-natured and caustic events in Brazilian political history. The downright contempt Silva and Rousseff have for one another was palpable with both candidates firing rhetoric bombs at one another and repeatedly invading in each other’s personal space in a manner reminiscent of Rick Lazio’s disastrously aggressive attack on Hillary Clinton in the 2000 New York Senate race. Neither of the two women covered themselves in glory. Behind in the polls, Aécio Neves needed do little more than smile, sound constructive and drive up his positive ratings – which post-debate polls show he did effectively.

Will the centre-right be under-polled again? – Brazilian opinion polls have a habit of slightly understating the support for centre-right candidates. The reason for this, I believe, is that right-leaning candidates have disproportionate strength in wealthy and populous São Paulo and its surrounding states and can therefore be diluted by (ordinarily sensible) efforts to weight polls to reflect the country’s average make-up. In 2010, for example, final first round polls showed José Serra on 26% when he actually received 32% while in 2006 Geraldo Alckmin’s support was underestimated by 13% – 29% to 42%. If this polling anomaly occurs again, it could see Neves surging into a surprise second-place finish.

An unholy coalition? – Despite Marina Silva’s background as a radical environmentalist, there is an increasing feeling amongst many on the Brazilian centre-right that a Silva Presidency may well be preferable to the continuation of Workers’ Party rule under Dilma Rousseff. Firstly, despite Silva’s background story, she has been relatively light on policy specifics. Her life story has been her political appeal, not her pledges. Secondly, if she was to be elected, Silva would lack almost any party political supporters in the Federal Congress and Senate. This has led to some, such as the former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to hint that centrist to centre-right forces could do a deal with Silva to provide her with a workable majority in Parliament. Polling shows that up to 70% of Neves supporters would be “open” to backing Silva over Rousseff in a second round run-off. We could yet see the intriguing prospect of the two, left-leaning women scrambling to set out pro-market policies in order to secure support from the quarter or so of the population that favour Neves.

Expect a quick count - Voting in Brazil is carried out electronically, with voters entering the numeric code of their candidate (i.e. 40 for Marina Silva) in order to make their choice. After entering the number, a photo of the candidate and their name appears and a confirmation button is then pressed to record the vote. With the process being fully automated, hundreds of millions of votes can be tallied within a couple of hours of the polls closing. As such, first round results should be clear by before midnight GMT tomorrow evening.

Impressions from Scotland and the independence referendum campaign

scotlandI have spent the last few days in Edinburgh and Glasgow supporting the efforts of the “no” campaign to receive the right result – the rejection of Scottish independence – in the referendum that will take place this Thursday.

I have been asked by several friends and colleagues to share some observations about my perceptions of how things really stand on the ground; beyond the partisan comments of politicians and the newspaper front pages.

The below are my perceptions; not the formal view of any campaign…

* The referendum is all everyone is talking about. Turnout will be colossal - Nobody could possibly accuse Scots of not taking an interest in the referendum. Everywhere I went – from the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow to grabbing a cup of tea in a Leith café to buzzing West End of Edinburgh boozers – was buzzing with people talking about the poll and what they thought of an independent Scotland. The lapels of every third person bore stickers in support or opposition to independence, while Saltires and Union Jacks (and sometimes both) hung from private homes and tenement blocks. The strength of interest and feeling on both sides of the debate is palpable and one can expect a bumper turnout on Thursday. I would not be remotely surprised to see turnout exceed 90% or for there to be widespread problems with excessive queues still waiting to vote at polling stations at 22:00. In order to prevent low-level civil unrest in the case of a close vote, I hope the national returning officer Mary Pitcaithly issues orders to polling stations to allow all of those present before 22:00 to cast their ballots.

* On the ground the campaign is (mostly) good natured - Edinburgh and Glasgow are both hives of activity for the “yes” and “no” teams. One only needs to walk a couple of hundred metres from the intersection of one busy road to another to find street stalls and groups of earnest leafleters thrusting referendum material into your hands. For most part, both campaign teams as well as the supporters of the two campaigns are polite and amiable towards those they disagree with. Manning a street stall in Leith on Saturday morning, the greatest opposition we encountered from “yes” supporters was the odd playful comment shouted from a passing car or a firm – yet friendly – “I’m “yes”, mate” from opponents I was attempting to ply with literature. I picked up several rumours of violent exchanges between groups of “yes” activists and the “no” team but these appear to be isolated incidents involving hot-headed renegades.

* The cross-party nature of the “no” campaign is holding up - I found it a little bizarre – but not remotely uncomfortable – to campaign alongside those I have spent my political lifetime opposing. I could see from the assembled Labour activists I spoke with that they were also a little bemused to find themselves campaigning alongside Tories. Nevertheless, when one was pounding the pavements and chatting inside the confines of the “no” HQ, party politics was entirely set aside. For these few weeks, there are more important issues at hand.

* The “no” campaign is attracting support from those of all parties and none – From my point of view, one of the most surprising things about the campaign is the vast numbers of people taking part in the campaign that have no prior track record of political involvement. I would estimate that roughly two thirds of those I went out campaigning with on Saturday and Sunday were pretty much apolitical when it came to party politics and had most certainly never delivered a piece of political literature before. They were a diverse social, educational and ethnic mix, including a Polish-born taxi driver, a travel writer specialising in sub-Saharan Africa, an art student, a resplendently-dressed elderly couple from wealthy Balerno and a former dock worker. This is a campaign that defies traditional political logic. (I am sure the same is also true of the “yes” campaign).

* Random acts of kindness abound – Ordinarily, political activists are viewed by members of the public as, at best, irritants and, at worst, pond life. It was astonishing, therefore, to encounter vast numbers of people who thanked us for being out on the streets and went out of their way to offer cups of tea and coffee to those manning street stalls around the city. In one case, a young couple that had travelled up from London to help the campaign were offered dinner and bed for the night by a couple of passing strangers. As we headed out for dinner on Saturday evening, our taxi driver heard we were “no” activists and declined our £8 fare, declaring to be “on me!”. (I am sure “yes” activists have also been shown similar kindness by their supporters).

* A social divide is evident – Travelling around Edinburgh, Glasgow and the rural environs of Paisley, it was noticeable that a social divide exists in terms of willingness to support either side of the campaign. “Yes” posters were highly visible in tenement blocks in poorer areas of both cities, while more well-heeled districts were fairly sparsely covered by either campaigns. Posters were visible in rural areas, yet were by no means prominently displayed.

* “No” voters are more timid than “yes” supporters – The “yes” campaign are clearly winning the poster campaign. That’s not surprising. After all, in the minds of “yes” voters, they are voting for what they (misguidedly, in my view) view as an exciting vision for the future of their country whereas “no” voters are articulating a small-C conservative message of maintaining stability and a status quo that has delivered handsomely for Scotland. Both sides possess passion – but it is the insurgent “yes” campaign that are putting on more of a show of it. The knock-on impact of the “yes” campaign’s visible posters and, at times, irresponsibly fiery rhetoric (i.e. former SNP MP Jim Sillars’ call for a post-referendum “day of reckoning” for those who opposed independence in the event of a “yes”) vote has led to some – mainly elderly – voters being reluctant to publicly declare their hand in favour of a “no” vote.

* Finally, a political issue young people care about – Canvassing in a Leith back-street, I noticed a group of children of no more than twelve writing “no” in big letters on the pavement. I stood at a bus stop and heard a group of teenagers that must have been no older than seventeen intently discussing how they were planning to vote. More young people under the age of 30 were wearing “yes” or “no” stickers than any other age group. Sure, young people may feel alienated by party politics – but this campaign has seized their political attention.

* Things are close. But “no” are narrowly ahead – What is going on in Scotland at the moment is a political circus; the type of which the United Kingdom has never seen. Over the next seventy-two hours, we can expect tempers to fray even further, rhetorical bombs to be deployed by both campaigns and the “yes” and “no” machines to go into over-drive as they attempt to turn out their supporters (attempts to persuade the small number of “undecided” voters appear to have been shelved). National opinion polls show the race to be close; the “yes” poster campaign would suggest they are going to secure a landslide. However, on the basis of those I spoke to in the streets, the raw numbers on the canvass cards I completed and a powerful impression that there is a “silent majority” sceptical of independence, I’d say the “no” campaign have a narrow advantage.

Federica Mogherini: the wrong person, the wrong views, the wrong time

imageLate yesterday evening, the European Council appointed Federica Mogherini as the next European Union High Representative for Foreign Policy. Coming more than a month after her political patron, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, had sought to install her in the role, her appointment has satisfied few and angered many.

My opposition to Mogherini is twofold – technical and, more importantly, personal.

I have always been an opponent of the principle of the European Union having its own Foreign Minister – or rather, High Representative for Foreign Policy, as the job is rather grandly styled. The creation of the High Representative post smacked of having rather more to do with furthering the federalist ambitions of several EU heads of government and reducing national autonomy in the field of foreign policy making than genuine necessity.

While advocates of the High Representative post and the broader monolith, its civil service, the European External Action (EEAS) service like to point to successes under Catherine Ashton’s term in office in Kosovo, Iran and Somalia, her real success has been the creation of a network of EU “special representatives” and their associated missions that are increasingly replacing national government representatives. The argument that an increasingly strong EEAS would undermine national governments has been vindicated.

To answer the critics who will accuse me of possessing a unilateral view of foreign policy, I would simply say that I have no problem with the principle of cooperation between EU states on shared challenges. Cooperation does not, however, require the Lisbon-mandated monolith we have at present.

Ashton’s Kosovo mission – the results of which are actually inconclusive rather than clear, as many would have you believe – could just as effectively been carried out by an intergovernmental mission backed by EU governments. Similarly, the anti-piracy mission to the Horn of Africa (“Operation Atalanta”) did not require a series of EU symbols, motifs and command centres but rather ought to have been coordinated solely through existing NATO structures.

Given my scepticism about the existence of the role (and its associated bureaucracy), it may be logical to assume a position of “worse is better” when it comes to the appointment of the High Representative.  For now, I cannot adopt such a position.

Whatever the failings of the European Union – and they are legion – it has become increasingly clear to me over years of standing in protests like Euromaiden in Kyiv and working with democrats from Pristina across to Tbilisi that the EU is viewed by them as the only practical forum for engagement with Western European power structures. As such, the identity of the High Representative and their willingness to speak affirmatively on key foreign policy challenges facing the region is an important one for them. For us, it is an issue of “western” credibility – whether we like it or not.

At present, this means being a tough, pugnacious and outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin and his administration in Moscow. This means being willing to push for deep and stinging sanctions on his regime – including blocking their attempts to further European reliance on Russian gas supplies and access to money markets. This means being a strong supporter of Eastern Partnership states like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia whose territorial integrity is directly threatened both by Russian military occupations and secret service operations designed to ferment instability.

On the key issues of the day, Federica Mogherini is found wanting.

To start with, Mogherini has no appropriate, practical experience to take on the job.

She has served as Foreign Minister of Italy – which is not a country, with the best will in the world, that possesses much foreign policy clout in Brussels – for scarcely six months. At least four of these six months have been spent openly campaigning for nomination to the High Representative post as opposed to building relationships in key capitals and amassing a record of foreign policy accomplishments.

To appoint a diplomatic lightweight such as Mogherini at such a perilous time for many countries in Europe’s periphery is baffling. Alternative candidates such as the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski or former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt would not have, as Mogherini has, most people frantically hitting Google in order to find out the most basic of facts about her. That matters in Moscow, Minsk and many of the other hostile capitals the new High Representative will have to deal with.

Mogherini’s views on Russia are also a matter for genuine concern. While her home country of Italy enjoys substantial business entanglements with Russia and is one of the main targets for Russian energy expansionist policies, her attempts to woo the Kremlin have gone further than good diplomacy and have bordered on sycophancy.

The first warning sign as to her inexperience and unwillingness to take a tough stance on the issues was her blundering appearance at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Brussels Forum in March where, in response to calls for even initial sanctions on Russia from panellists such as Estonian President Ilves and former World Bank President Bob Zoellick, she exasperatedly told the crowd, “what do you want us to do? Bomb Russia?“. No, Federica, nobody ever suggested that. At that stage, all that was being sought by even the most hawkish amongst is were some minor trade and banking restrictions.

Her first visit as Italian Foreign Minister was to Moscow, after which her staff confirmed to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper that Italy was amongst the states seeking to “put the brakes on sanctions” against Russia in pursuit of “a more gradual approach… so as not to burn the possibility of a negotiated solution”.

On her personal blog, she was indeed critical of Putin for “reviving an attitude of regional hegemony and competition with the west“, yet failed to explicitly condemn the Russian annexation of Crimea which has directly led to the led to the present deterioration in relations between EU capitals and Moscow. Indeed, she followed her remark by stating that “it would be wise for neither the EU nor the US to fall into the trap of contrast, not to side with one or the other but to facilitate a way out of the violence and towards national reconstruction”.

So, there we have it: at a time when Crimea is occupied, Eastern Ukraine is battling to hold off advances from the well-equipped Russian army and “at risk” states such as Georgia and Moldova are struggling to stay afloat, the EU is handing control of the foreign policy agenda to an individual whose only policy towards Russia is capitulation and negotiation rather than affirmative action.

Sorry, Federica, but there is and ought to be a contrast between the democratic values EU capitals claim to hold dear and the regime in Moscow. Sure, Federica, there is a place for dialogue – but is Russia’s record over the past six months in Ukraine not evidence enough that it alone cannot break this impasse?

Given the behind closed doors, back-slapping procedure used to reach agreement on the European Union’s top jobs, Mogherini’s appointment is now all but assured. It is important, however, that she receives a tough and incisive approval heating by the European Parliament in order that her inexperience and questionable views are heard.

These are dangerous times. Freedom is at stake in large parts of Europe. Once again, the EU has been found lacking.

Did the MH17 crash terrorists smuggle the rocket launcher out via the Sea of Azov?

imageOver the past forty eight hours, the media has been dominated by the terrible news of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 en route for Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam. There can be no doubt that the plane was shot down with equipment provided to pro-Russian terrorists in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine.

So far, the investigation into what exactly caused the flight has been retarded by the failure of the terrorist rebels to allow international inspectors appropriate access to the crash site.

The rocket launcher that was used in the attack has been identified as a BUK M2. The present location of the launcher has not, however, been determined.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry has published photographs of what it believes may be the rocket launcher being smuggled across the terrorist-controlled Ukrainian border and back into Russia.

To my mind, this would be an exceptionally foolhardy move on the part of the Kremlin who have gone to serious lengths – however lacking in credibility they might appear to be – to disassociate themselves from the shooting down of MH17.

Moving an object the size of an M2 across the Donbas would be no small undertaking. It is not an item you can hide or even mask the nature of – even in the dead of night. Similarly, a large number of local people in the region are actively opposed to the actions of the Russian-backed terrorists and would, in an age of social media, easily be able to capture images of it being moved around the territory on the way to the border.

Instead, I imagine that the more likely exit point for the rocket launcher was the Sea of Azov, immediately to the south of the Donbas.

Since the annexation of Crimea and terrorist occupation of the Donbas, the Russian Federation has effectively had a vice-like grip on the area. The only way in and out of the Sea of Azov is via the narrow strait that divides Crimea from Russia proper and it is almost entirely surrounded by Russian-controlled area, save for a strip of land to the north that remains in Ukrainian hands.

Having placed the rocket launcher onto a ship, the terrorists would then easily have been able to ship it to the Russian ports of Novorossysk or Sochi – both of which are a short distance from the main Donbas port of Mariupol. An alternative could even be the port of Sevastopol on the southern tip of occupied Crimea, which is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet whose large installations could provide cover for even an object as large as a an M2.

Removing the M2 by sea would have brought significant benefits to the terrorists. Firstly, given that the Sea of Azov is fully controlled by Russia, there would have been no chance of it being intercepted by forces loyal to the Ukrainian Government. Secondly, when stored inside the hold of a ship, it would be impossible for it to be detected by satellites or other distance-imaging technologies. Thirdly, the hard-line nationalists in control of the Black Sea Fleet would have been solidly reliable interlocutors for the Donbas terrorists – enjoying close links with Moscow and trusted to act with total discretion.

Regardless of what has happened to the launcher – and whether it left Donbas by land or sea – its disappearance, when coupled with the efforts being made by the terrorist rebels to block a crash-site investigation, will likely make it almost impossible to ever determine the exact truth behind MH17′s felling.

For those who lost family members in the crash, that thought must be unbearable.

In praise of David Jones MP

dijIn every government reshuffle, there are winners and losers; competent and popular ministers dispatched from their posts to make way for new blood and backbenchers plucked from obscurity and catapulted into the realms of high office.

One of yesterday’s losers – or rather, unlucky sorts, as I should prefer to say – was David Jones, the Secretary of State for Wales.

I’m not sure if there has ever been a Welsh Secretary who has brought such zeal to the role.

Sitting in London, I imagine the post of Welsh Secretary can be a fairly difficult and, at times, distant one.  The bulk of your (English) colleagues pay scant attention to your challenges and concerns, your legislative triumphs largely go unrecognised and you appear to be engaged in endless tit-for-tat battles with both the Welsh Assembly Government and your party’s own Assembly Members in Cardiff.

My view is admittedly one of an outsider – but I really do think he made the job his own and redefined what it meant to be Welsh Secretary.

On the issue of trade alone, David and his Special Advisor Lauren McEvatt were omnipresent at trade shows, symposiums and business fora not only in the UK but in the Far East; banging the drum for business and drawing attention to the huge number of (largely unnoticed) manufacturing success stories across Wales.  Any business leader – large or small – was unequivocally told that the Welsh Office’s door was very much open to them.  Rather than focus on narrow institutional concerns, David redefined the post as that of drum-banger in chief for Welsh business.

On a party level, David also went above and beyond the call of duty.  As a candidate at the last European elections, I was extremely grateful that he was willing to make the journey across the marches to support our campaign in the North West of England.  Many others candidates have similar stories.  Similarly, he has been a strong supporter of young people in the party; often attending and speaking at Conservative Future events and backing training organisations like the Young Britons’ Foundation.

In comments to the media yesterday evening, David said that the Prime Minister had offered nothing but kind words for his service.  I can well believe that.  The thought of his disappearing onto the backbenches and morphing into a bitter malcontent is unthinkable for a man for whom the watchwords are “optimism”, “generosity” and “decency”.

Out of ministerial office but not out of Parliament, this is certainly not the last we have heard from David.  For starters, I know we can once again look forward to a stream of tweeted photographs of the North Wales coast to brighten our timelines…

Thank you and good luck for the future, David.

Reflections on my first visit to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital city

I have just returned from a fascinating trip to Central Asia that saw me flit between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan and Tajikistan.

To my surprise, the part of the trip I enjoyed most was the final leg – the Tajikistani capital of Dushanbe; the poorest country in the former Soviet Union and place I had been widely told to avoid on account of it being a dusty, drab backwater. Indeed, even the Tajiks I had spoke to about my trip were not exactly effusive about their country’s capital.

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I would be the first to admit that my visit to Tajikistan was a bit of an afterthought when it came to the rest of my trip to Central Asia. I’ve had an interest in Kyrgyzstan since the 2011 Tulip Revolution and was keen to see the rapid, futuristic developments I had heard so much about in Kazakhstan but had relatively little knowledge and comparatively little interest in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan, it just be said, doesn’t make it easy for itself in terms of attracting visitors. Indeed, if I had not have had experience of navigating the visa regimes of former Soviet states, I might have written the place off as too much of a hassle to bother with.

Unlike neighbouring Kyrgyzstan which has abolished visas for tourists, entering Tajikistan requires you to submit a ream of paperwork including letters of invitation (the requirement for which is waived for British tourists), photocopies of your passport and photographs.

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Walking from the plane after landing in Dushanbe from Kazakhstan, it wasn’t immediately obvious to me where exactly I needed to go in order to gain my authorisation to enter. Eventually, I was shown into a dark room on the edge of the arrivals terminal where a gruff, bald man examined my documents. Upbraiding me on the poor handwriting I had exhibited on the visa application form (“you should have shown more respect for this document”), I was sternly told to take a seat and wait my turn to be seen.

Roughly half an hour later, I heard someone bark “Danh-hnell” through a window on the other side of the room. Approved for entry into Tajikistan, I was then handed a one-week visa at a cost of $33 – a rather pointless piece of bureaucracy, yet not a cripplingly expensive one.

I was now free to explore Dushanbe – and loved every moment of it.

As a starting point, I can only conclude the reason I enjoyed the city so much was that it felt authentic. By that, I mean that it actually feels like the capital city of a distinct and independent nation with its own culture and identity rather than just another identikit post-Soviet city like Bishkek or a soullessly futuristic symposium like Astana.

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There is no doubt that, compared to the other Central Asian capitals I had visited, Dushanbe has a distinctly Asian and Islamic feel. For one, the Tajik language appears to be far more significant locally than Russian and local women are far more likely to wear traditional Tajik dress including, in many cases, headscarves. While the architecture of most buildings was reliably Soviet, occasional Turkic flares were clear on some buildings in the centre of town.

The type of Islam practiced in Dushanbe at least – and I can well believe matters are different in more rural areas closer to the border with Afghanistan – appeared to be extremely liberal with bars and restaurants serving alcohol existing in abundance sitting alongside boutiques selling western-style clothing. The combination of obvious Islamic influence and clear tolerance for secular values was very appealing to see.

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The lifeblood of Dushanbe appears to revolve around the Rudaki Prospekt running through the centre of the city. To me, Rudaki had shades – and the cooling shade – of Rustaveli Avenue in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi (a comparison I do not use lightly). Dotted along the road are a number of pleasant cafes in which you can seek refuge from the blazing hot temperatures, neatly maintained public buildings reminiscent of an era of Soviet splendour and shady public parks they open out onto attractive plazas.

I spent a happy few hours relaxing in the international-friendly Public Pub at the northern end Rudaki supping iced tea and chomping on cheesy horse burgers (really). If you’re in town, it’s a great place to spend some time drinking local beer and chatting with English-speaking locals.

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Not much further up Rudaki and just beyond a bizarre building that is known by locals as the “Twin Towers” one reaches the Somoni Statue. Arguably the best known tourist attraction in Dushanbe, the statue stands a proud thirty five metres high and is topped by a crown fashioned from kilograms of Tajik gold. Regrettably, the afternoon sun was so strong when I visited the statue that I was unable to capture any good quality photos.

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Immediately next to the Somoni Statue, you can see the gargantuan Presidential Palace – Emomalii Rahmon’s seat of power. While the palace itself is fenced off and its perimeter closely guarded by police officers, the immaculately-groomed park in front of it is open to the public and is home to a pleasant range of fountains and monuments, one of which is decked out with a traditional Tajik mosaic – a refreshing chance from the predictable monuments drawn from central casting in many former USSR states.

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Away from the upscale Rudaki Prospekt and area surrounding the Presidential Palace, there were a couple of other areas that I enjoyed spending time in.

The first was the Central Shopping Centre. While the building had as boring a name as it was possible to have, it was a fantastically-preserved piece of Soviet kitsch. Spread over three floors, the Shopping Centre is essentially an indoor market that houses a series of stalls selling different products from mobile phones to carpets, traditional daggers to office furniture.

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While many of the goods available for sale are cheap tat, the building itself is more than worth a visit. The marble floors are decorated with ornate mosaics, the pillars painted with gold leaf and its sweeping staircases lend themselves more to a stately home than what is effectively a flea market.

I was very pleased to find a stall selling Soviet memorabilia and eyed up a couple of items I’d be interested in buying but first had to find a way of waking up the proprietor who was slumped snoozing in the corner under a desk fan. I purposefully generated some low-level clatter which roused him from his slumber and walked away with some original Soviet public information posters that will look great when framed back in the UK.

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The second was the Shakhmansur Bazaar; a bustling fruit, veg, spice and household goods market not far from the town centre. Walking through the bazaar, it was impressive to see stalls piled high with melons and watermelons, traditional Tajik tea sets and the kaleidoscopic range of Islamic attire available for purchase. Indeed, the bazaar was the only part of the city where Tajikistan’s Islamic influence felt particularly pronounced with many of the men on the stalls having beards and wearing religious attire and women uniformly wearing headscarves.

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In terms of purchases, I bought a few small bags of local spices, what purported to be a traditional Tajikistiani kettle (yet I suspect may have been manufactured in North Africa) and a sublimely tacky, gold-rimmed portrait of the country’s President Emonmalii Rahmon that will sit comfortably as part of my growing collection of dictatorship memorabilia.

On that note, it is clear that a low-level cult of personality exists surrounding the President.

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Walking around the city, I spotted numerous murals of him engaged in various poses: behind his desk examining papers (to demonstrate thoughtfulness and decisive leadership), reading to a young girl while displaying a proud smile (to show concern for the Tajiks of tomorrow and regard for the value of education) and my personal favourite, standing fully suited and booted in a field of maize (to stress a virile Tajikistani agricultural sector that has no doubt thrived on his watch).

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In each shot, President Rahmon sports an impressive, jet-black mane – a remarkable feat for a man who has held office for more than two decades, emerged victorious from a bloody civil war that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 of his people and is now well into his sixties. What could be the secret behind his follicular success?

On a serious note, while Rahmon has been widely and it would appear rightly criticised by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for the poor human rights situation in Tajikistan, I was not the subject of any undue attention from the authorities during my time in the country. The police presence, too, was relatively light and only particularly noticeable in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace. Aside from blowing a whistle at me for walking further up the marble steps of the Somoni Statue than appeared to be allowed, I was left alone.

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I do not think my time in Dushanbe would have been half as enjoyable without the excellent hotel I stayed out. I had received several suggestions of places to stay in the city yet opted for the rather strangely named ‘Twins Hotel’. At roughly £45 per night, the hotel provided outstanding value for money. Not only did I have an enormous, comfortable bedroom with air con (crucial if one wishes to get any sleep) but the hotel also had an excellent pool in the basement that provided a welcome reprieve from the blazing Tajik heat. I couldn’t recommend the place more.

Sitting in the hotel’s shady courtyard a few hours before departing, I only wished I could stay in Tajikistan longer. After a quick look on the internet, my interest in visiting again was more than piqued.

How easy would it be to try cross into Northern Afghanistan from the border town of Khorog? How would I go about arranging a few days of walking in the mountainous Gorno Badakhshan region? Where could I learn more about Tajik culture and traditions?

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Nevertheless, it was time to leave.

Departing from Dushanbe Airport is a memorable experience. Like so many other things in Tajikistan, it is clearly a relic from the Soviet era combining elements of ineptitude and dilapidation with a certain charm and faded elegance. The Art Deco light fittings clinging to the roof of the departures hall would, for one, look right at home in a hipster bar in Hoxton while the queuing system is reminiscent of a hoard of twelve year old girls surging towards One Direction for autographs. Rather than bother with endless security gates, the doors from the departure hall were flung open onto the runway, allowing a warm breeze to circulate in amongst the whiff of deep-fried food coming from a ramshackle cafe in the corner.

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It was an altogether friendly experience, though. In sharp contrast to the inquisitive and mildly aggressive tone I had been faced with when I entered the country, everyone was keen to check that I had enjoyed myself.

Approaching the baggage scanner, the guard glanced me up and down and clocked I wasn’t local. “American?”, he asked. Clarifying I was indeed “Anglitski” led to a series of quick-fire references to English football teams – “Wayne Rooney play good, da?”, “Manchester United!”, “David Beckham!”, “you like Tottenham Hotspurs, da?” etc.) before I was offered a firm handshake – and a further question: “Tajikistan good, da?”. Da.

I thought my luck may have run out when, clutching my framed portrait of President Rahmon in a thin plastic bag that barely masked its contents, I was turned away from the initial passport desk and sent to another for what appeared likely to be an interrogation. Instead, the guard happily stamped my passport before asking in a rather pained tone why I had spent such a short period of time in his country. In couldn’t help but ask myself the same question.

“Tajikistan very big and very beautiful”, he assured me.

Extending his arm to shake my hand, I promised him I would return. It’s a promise I intend to keep.

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My visit to Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek, Issyk Kul and Karakol

Back in January, I was having one of my semi-regular, late night trawls through SkyScanner in order to find bargain basement flights to bizarre, uncharted destinations. Clicking through the usual promotional deals for long weekends in Prague and Barcelona, I found a flight to to Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on offer for just £148. Despite being roughly 6,000 kilometres from London, this meant the fare was roughly the same as a single train ticket to Newcastle from King’s Cross. I booked it immediately… and here I now am.

Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan’s capital city

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As with most destinations in the Caucasus and Central Asia, flights to Kyrgyzstan from Western Europe appear to almost uniformly arrive in the middle of the night. After a relatively smooth flight from Brussels via Istanbul, I touched down in Bishkek just before 05:00.

Even though the sun had only just begun to rise, I was greeted with sweltering temperatures as soon as I stepped onto the runway. Unlike the humidity that greets you when you step off a plane in South America or into the midst of a Flordian summer, the temperature in Bishkek was bone dry. And so it remained for the rest of my time in the city.

Driving from the modern, relatively efficient Manas Airport terminal roughly twenty minutes outside of Bishkek I was struck by how similar, apart from the elegant silhouettes of the Ala Too mountain range in the distance, the city looked to so many other parts of the Soviet Union. The concrete tower blocks, realist monuments announcing the names of small towns you were passing through and strategically-placed green spaces were reminiscent to me of the suburbs of Yerevan, Kyiv, St Petersburg and Riga. There’s a reason why; and that’s because Bishkek is an almost entirely Soviet creation moulded in the vision of the Russian communists who annexed Kyrgyzstan.

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Despite my initial impression of Bishkek as an identikit Soviet city, it was not an unpleasant place to spend a few days – and it wasn’t without a certain sense of faded charm.

After a few hours of sleep, I hailed a taxi from my hotel (the over-priced and poorly-ventilated Grand Hotel on Frunze Street) and headed for Ala-Too Square, the city’s main focal point.

The square is home to some superb examples of Soviet architecture; from the imposing City Hall to distinctive home of the Bishkek Philharmonic. The gardens that line the square are immaculately groomed, with the long avenues of trees providing much needed shelter from the blistering Central Asian sun.

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For me, though, the highlight of the city was the Osh Bazaar.

Wandering through the bustling mixture of low-quality sports merchandise vendors, spice merchants, prayer mat weavers, fruit and vegetable sellers and bakers, I finally felt that I was in Central Asia. The smells, the music and friendly spirit of the place contrasted pleasantly with the identikit nature of the rest of the city.

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Even though I must have stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the regular shoppers, the only hassle I received was from smallholders wanting me to take photographs of their stalls. One gentleman, who appeared to specialise in the dried apricot trade, thrust a kilogram-heavy bag of his produce into my hands an announced “five dollar, da?” – an offer I politely declined.

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Before coming to Kyrgyzstan, I has been told (warned?) about country’s national drink, kumis.

As I walked out of the bazaar, I spotted a sour-faced middle-age lady officiating over a vat of what looked like white milk. I concluded it must be kumis – and decided I had to at least give it a go, if only to confirm I hated it.

I approached her sheepishly, pointed at the plastic vat and, in a questioning tone, said “kumis, da?”. Her sour-faced expression (which I was about to learn matched the taste of the drink she was flogging), lit up. “Kumis, DA!”.

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She dipped a mug into the vat and presented me with what roughly equated to a tea cup of liquid. I gulped down the first sip and was hit with a series of tastes. First came the the sourness of milk that was several weeks beyond its sell-by date. Secondly came a taste roughly akin to inhaling acrid smoke from a bonfire. Finally, I was left with the chalky aftertaste of goats cheese.

Kumis was foul, alright – but I couldn’t risk offending the poor lady by showing my true feelings. I grinned, gave a quick thumbs up and pretended to stage a ‘phone call; moving away from her stall into a side-ally where I found a drain where I could safely dispose of the rest of the cup.

Free of the mug, I found the nearest stall selling water that I could. I gulped down a full litre of the stuff; convinced that the small amount of kumis I had just consumed was certain to hand me a nasty bout of ‘Montezuma’s revenge’. (Thankfully, I was spared!).

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After walking around the city for several hours and enjoying a hugely convivial evening with a friend who heads up an international NGO’s operations in Kyrgyzstan, I had crossed off nearly all the key sights. Bishkek is a perfectly pleasant place – welcoming, clean and safe – but it isn’t a particularly special or memorable one.

Kyrgyzstan’s real charm lies outside of its capital city.

Balykchy – and being realistic about the post-Soviet space

Aside from soaking up the atmosphere of the perfectly preserved monument to the Soviet Union that is Bishkek, the main purpose of my trip to Kyrgyzstan was to head to the small town if Cholpon Ata on the northern shore of Issyk Kul – the world’s second largest mountain lake.

The drive to Cholpon Ata from Bishkek is a fairly painless one. I had originally intended to take the bus but, when I reached Bishkek’s main bus station I was approached by a man with a people carrier who offered to take me all the way to me all the way there for the equivalent of about £20. Given that it was only a little after 10am and the temperature was already well into the mid-30s, the idea of making the three and a half hour journey in my own vehicle and without a sweaty armpit in my face was highly appealing.

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It takes roughly half an hour to exit the environs of Bishkek, following which you find yourself driving through mile after mile of arid, rocky terrain. While you do spot the odd (usually abandoned) factory or small plot of cultivated agricultural land, very few people appear to live in this part of Kyrgyzstan.

After driving for roughly two hours, you reach the town of Balykchy on the western shore of Issyk Kul. I had read a lot about the place – and had received several unprompted apologies for the fact I would have to see it from locals in Bishkek – so was rather intrigued to see what it would be like.

In many respects, I think it’s important for westerners with an interest in in the former Soviet Union to see places like Balykchy – however fleetingly.

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When one thinks of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the images that come to mind are of elation and liberation. It’s very easy to think about post-Soviet success stories – from the EU and NATO-aligned Baltic states to the Georgia’s glistening capital city Tbilisi – but the story has not been a happy one for everyone.

In Balykchy, all that was left in the early 90s by the departing Soviet administration was a tale of total and absolute social and economic collapse. Driving through the town, you are met with mile after mile of derelict factories, while the lakefront plays host to scores of rusting ships upon which peeling red stars are still noticeable, slowly sinking into the lake. Formerly the centre of the Soviet Union’s submarine testing operations, it has been a very long time since a sub trawled the crystal clear depths of Issyk Kul.

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While there were many states in the former Soviet Union that already possessed their own distinct governments and infrastructure prior to being annexed by Moscow, Kyrgyzstan was not one of them.

A largely nomadic and pastoral people until annexation, then Soviet Union was solely responsible for the “modernisation” of the country we now call Kyrgyzstan – almost every building, metre of road, inch of railway track and factory. In the period of just a few short years following annexation, the Kyrgyz were uprooted from their subsistence farms and forced into collectivised enterprises, small fishermen suddenly found themselves accountable to targets and traditional cottage industries were supplanted by central plans handed down from Moscow.

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Then, just a few short decades later, the Soviet Union was gone. The welders employed at the now-vacant smelting plant in Balykchy were no longer producing goods destined for pre-destined uses in Riga and Rostov, fishermen could only sell their salmon and trout to local consumers rather than seeing them appear on restaurant menus in Moscow and Magnitogorsk.

In short, the Soviet Union uprooted the entire Kyrgyz way of life – and left behind an unsustainable economic mess for those left on the margins, thousands of miles for Moscow.

Looking at the state of Balykchy today, it’s hardly surprising that some Kyrgyz still dream of the Soviet days when wages were paid, jobs existed and infrastructure properly maintained. For them, the relative political freedom that comes from being the most democratically progressive state in Central Asia means rather little when all it appears to have led to is poverty.

Cholpon Ata and Issyk Kul

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Several days before departing for Kyrgyzstan, I received a email informing me that the hotel accommodation I had booked in Cholpon Ata had been cancelled. Rather than worry about it or attempt to sort out a new booking, I opted to try my luck when I arrived in town.

As we entered Cholpon Ata, I signalled to the taxi driver that I needed to find somewhere to stay. After a few moments of attempting to fathom what my hand signals and broken Russian could possibly mean, he grunted “da, da, da” and drove me to what, on the face of it, looked like a fairly unwelcoming compound on the outskirts of town. The place looked like a cross between a bordello and one of those heavily-fortified UN compounds you see on television in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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I was pleasantly surprised to find that the owners spoke a bit of English and was even happier when they handed me the keys to a large, immaculately clean room which cost only $20 a night. The place was a bit bleak but it was absolutely fine.

With the drive from Bishkek having taken a little longer than I would have hoped, the sun was already starting to set by the time I had dumped my bags and relaxed for half an hour. Nevertheless, I set off in the general direction of Issyk Kul, hell bent on having a swim to counter the stuffiness of the journey.

After about ten minutes, I reached the shoreline and a sturdy pier clinging to the edge of a stony bridge. Wasting no time, I jumped into the clear, clean water – and instantly felt more relaxed that I had done for months.

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I was to come back to the shoreline several more times in the next couple of days, including at 06:30 one morning when I was lucky enough to be able to clear see the snowy peaks of the Tien Shen mountain range in the distance.  I captured this short video of what it was like that morning:

Aside from seeing and swimming in Issyk Kul, I was keen to find out what the nightlife on Cholpon was like. The answer? Bizarre.

I had expected, being the country’s main tourist magnet, that there would be a thriving bar and restaurant scene serving the masses of people that pour into the town each summer. Instead, it appeared that the majority of tourists visiting the area preferred to remain in the resorts they were staying at; spending the day on their private beaches and eating all their meals at their restaurants.

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The result of this meant that the centre of Cholpon Ata had a slightly depopulated feel. There were, though, a few decent restaurants which served good portions of hearty Kyrgyz food and cheap Russian beer.

One evening, I headed down to the town centre a little early in search of to couple of cold beers. I hadn’t bargained on it being live music night at each of the major bars in the town and was incredibly amused to hear “classics” such as ‘Viva Forever’ by the Spice Girls and ‘Sex Bomb’ blasting, in broken English, blasting out into the evening.

One of the best things about Cholpon Ata is the amazing scenery that meets you wherever you go. Waking up each morning, I was able to glance at the imposing Ala Too mountains looming over my shoulders, watch the reflection of the sun reflecting off Issyk Kul and see the distant peaks of the Tien Shen mountains in the distance. As a town, Cholpon Ata is nothing special – but the scenery does make up for it.

So, rather than just laze around at the lake or listen to poor imitations of ‘Sex Bomb’, I decided to go up into the mountains to see the scenery for myself.

Walking through the centre of Cholpon Ata, it was obvious that there were lots of organised tours to the mountains but I wasn’t keen to go on any of them. I always find trips of this kind to be overpriced, overly hurried and overtly tacky. As such, I walked down to the main road outside the hotel, stuck my hand out and hailed a taxi.

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After some haggling, I agreed on a price of roughly £20 with a taxi driver called Bolot and we headed off down the lakefront road that led up to the entrance to the makeshift mountain pass, some 25 kilometres from Cholpon Ata.

Taking my own transport was well worth it. In the three hours or so we spent in the mountains, I was able to stop off and see numerous interesting waterfalls, canyons and stunning mountain vistas – something I don’t think an organised trip would have afforded me the chance to do.

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On the way down, we stopped off for lunch in one of the small mountain settlements along the way. One of the families had turned their home – a traditional Kyrgyz yurt – into a makeshift restaurant serving freshly-caught fishy from the river running immediately below it.

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Clocking I was a foreigner, they immediately led us into the spectacularly colourful surroundings of the yurt; plying us with sickly sweet coffee and home-made sweets, before beckoning us to the feast they had prepared.

It was all going so well – fresh fish, fresh bread, fresh air and the relaxing sound of the mountain river gushing behind me – until the father of the family walked in holding a small, ornate bowl with a white coloured liquid sloshing around inside it. “Kumis!”, he declared, with a proud expression on his face. “Oh shit!”, I thought.

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I had no choice, other than to grossly offend my hosts, than to drink it. My hogs was clearly very proud of his home few. As I raided the bowl to my lips, my mind flashed back to the searing heat and sickening taste of the kumis I had sampled at the Osh Market. I had to drink it, though. I had to. Before I did, Bolot grabbed the bowl from my hands and sniffed the contents. “Ahhhh… goooood”, he said; emphasising that this kumis was something special.

Thankfully, the second time wasn’t so bad. Perhaps the mountain air and freshness of the surroundings played its part but I was able to drink three whole bowls of the stuff before feeling confident enough to politely decline a fourth.

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The road back from lunch was similarly lined with spectacular scenery that will remain with me for a long time.

Fundamentally, visiting Cholpon Ata is an exercise in managing expectations.

If you are going in search of luxury accommodation and haute cuisine, you will not find it. Nor, unless you are lucky (and I was), will you find anyone who speaks a word of English. If you are willing to look beyond these creature comforts and embrace what nature has to offer, you will have an incredibly memorable trip.

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Karakol

About ninety minutes to the west of Cholpon Ata is the town of Karakol – a small, dusty settlement a few miles in land from Issyk Kul.

I arrived in Karakol at height of the mid-day sun and with the temperature nudging up towards 40 degrees. As such, I didn’t feel particularly inclined to go exploring, so hid in my air-conditioned hotel room for a couple of hours until the temperature dropped to a more manageable level of discomfort.

In honesty, there isn’t a huge amount to see or do in Karakol itself. Due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to do what most people visiting the town are there for and head up to the mountains that surround it. I was, though, able to see two of the most interesting religious buildings I have ever seen.

The first was the Dungan Mosque. Built in the early 1900 by a group of Muslims who had fled religious persecution in North East China, the mosque was constructed entirely out of wood and without the use of a signal metal nail. On the face of it, the building looked to me to more closely resemble a Buddhist temple than a mosque, yet its brightly-coloured interior was undoubtedly Islamic.

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The second was the Orthodox Church of Holy Trinity; another entirely wooden structure that has recently been refurbished by the local Slavic community. Given the heat of the afternoon, it was incredibly relaxing to spend half a hour sheltering from the sun’s heat in its attractive gardens.

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Aside from Karakol’s religious sites, I also spent some time in Victory Park towards the north of the town’s main promenade. For those with a keen interest in Soviet history, the park is a perfectly preserved monument to the USSR with numerous flattering statues of communist leaders (who all, curiously, appeared to be Caucasian rather than local Kyrgyzstanis) and hammers and sickles to be seen.

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Aside from a few interesting sights, though, Karakol itself is no tourist destination.

Conclusion

From a political perspective, a huge amount of progress has been made in recent years. Unlike neighbouring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan where the Presidents appointed under the Soviet Union remain in office, having merely transitioned from one from one form of dictatorship to another, Kyrgyzstan can just about be referred to as a democracy. Entering the country is easy; just arrive, present your passport, enter and explore.

The political progress in the country shows no real signs of being matched with economic progress. Travelling across the country, it appeared very much as if the place had been left precisely as it was when the Soviet Union had collapsed – from the crumbling edifices lining the streets of Bishkek to the outdated sanatoria on the shore of Issyk Kul.

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Given the country’s landlocked nature and lack of valuable natural resources (in stark contrast to neighbouring Kazakhstan), I can see no realistic path for the country other than to remain reliant on Russia – both in terms of remittances from Kyrgyz working there or direct grants from the Kremlin.

Kyrgyzstan was described to me as mirroring how the Soviet Union looked thirty years ago – and that description rings true to me.

It isn’t a country of luxury – but it is a stunningly beautiful place which, against all the odds of probabilities, is an open book for western tourists. If you are in search of an adventure, give Kyrgyzstan a go. It won’t disappoint you.