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    Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    Thailand's stress-relieving street battle

    Bangkok: There were just two of us on the empty street. Me, and the guy with the gun.

    We were in the centre of the Thai capital, in broad daylight, but it couldn't have been more deserted. All the shops on Nakhon Sawan Road had their metal shutters pulled down after 24 hours of violent protests in the city. The road behind me was blocked by a burned-out bus that red-shirted protesters had positioned to keep the army out of their encampment.

    There was nowhere for me to run. My assailant trained his weapon on me and let loose a jet of water straight into my chest.

    He then collapsed into giggles like the six-year-old he was.

    After days of escalating tension in Bangkok as the army faced off with supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a hint of normalcy returned to the usually jovial Thai capital yesterday.

    The state of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is still in effect, and there are still soldiers on the streets, but most of Thais moved on to the important business of celebrating Songkran, the lunar new year.

    That means heading out into the sweltering hot streets (it was 33 C today) with a water gun and an attitude. Buddha images are “bathed,” and so is anyone who walks into splashing range.

    Many Thais appear to believe that extra karmic points are awarded to those who douse foreigners who walk around lost in thought, or women of any nationality foolish enough to wear white. Motorcyclists are another favourite target.

    The clashes on Monday between the Red Shirts and the army (which left at least two people dead and more than 100 injured) led some to dub this holiday the “Black Songkran.” But Thais are a resilient people, having endured a staggering 18 coups in the past eight decades, as well as countless popular protests.

    Even at the height of the violence this week, much of Bangkok carried on as if nothing abnormal was taking place. In the famous backpacking district around Khao San Road, it was as though this troubled place called “Thailand” that the newspapers were writing about was somewhere far, far away from the merry stretch of bars and restaurants.

    Nonetheless, the city emitted a collective sigh of relief when the leaders of the Red Shirts called off their protest on Tuesday, putting at least a temporary end to the crisis. Maybe, just maybe, it will be a happy new year after all.

    Me, I'm taking my cue from the kid and going shopping for a Super-Soaker.

    Or at least a rain slicker.

    Friday, April 10, 2009

    What colour for Chisinau?

    Tbilisi: As I write this, students have just been evicted from the parliament building in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, a day after storming it to show their despair at the idea of four more years of Communist rule there.

    I’ve seen a few such popular revolts in my time (Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon), and happen to have spent last week hopping through the post-revolutionary capitals of Kiev and Tbilisi on vacation.

    The simple conclusion: these uprisings, even when they’re successful, rarely mark a wholesale change from the past.

    In Ukraine, tents still occupy part of the Maidan (otherwise known as Independence Square), just as they have almost continuously since the Orange Revolution in late 2004. But the politicians the world fell in love with back then – the brave Viktor Yushchenko, with his face bearing the scars of a poisoning attack, and the glamorous Yulia Tymoshenko, with her golden Princess Leia-like braids – quickly turned on each other after the people put them in power, and politics quickly returned to the dirty old status quo in Kiev.

    What looked like a popular revolution back then (albeit one with plenty of outside support) turned out to be more about one clan of oligarchs ousting the other.

    My closest Ukrainian friends, who five years ago were heavily politicized and energized by what had happened on the streets of Kiev, were disheartened and interested in talking about anything but Ukrainian politics when we had dinner last week. On the Maidan, you can still buy KGB T-shirts and Lenin paraphernalia, but not one vendor bothers to sell anything orange anymore. There’s just no interest, not even from tourists.

    Other than a single column in front of the main post office – which has been encased in plexiglass to protect the revolutionary graffiti painted there five years ago – it’s as if the Orange Revolution never happened.

    Georgia, despite last year’s disheartening war with Russia, provides more reason for optimism. Tbilisi in 2009 is a completely different place than the city I first visited back in the fall of 2002.

    Collapsing buildings in the historic Old Town have been replaced by sidewalk caf├ęs and jazz bars. The old Intourist hotel – which for more than a decade had been overflowing with refugees from the early 1990s war in Abkhazia – is now an almost-complete five-star Radisson. (The refugees were given compensation to move elsewhere in town.)

    But, like Moldova, the country is held back because large chunks of Georgian territory are de facto Russian protectorates. Last summer’s war over South Ossetia proved a disastrous miscalculation by President Mikhail Saakashvili (that's him looking alternately frazzled and amorous in the posters I saw in downtown Tbilisi), and now tens of thousands of Georgians are back on the streets demanding that he step down, just as he forced Eduard Shevardnadze aside back in 2003. (Check out reporting from the scene by my longtime friend Michael Mainville of Dowling, Ont. – now the Caucasus bureau chief for Agence France-Presse.)

    Neither the Rose Revolution in Georgia nor the Orange Revolution in Ukraine brought the people on the streets the change they were seeking. The change in governments only began a whole new cycle of instability and overt Russian intervention in both countries.

    That’s something the angry students in Chisinau should probably keep in mind.

    Tuesday, April 7, 2009

    Moscow redux

    Moscow: The first thing that strikes me upon returning to Moscow is the new sense of order in the Russian capital.

    In my book The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union, I wrote about my concerns that Vladimir Putin's obsession with stability and the "power vertical" (stabilnost and vertikalny vlast) were populist code for eliminating such annoyances as free elections and independent media.

    That's proven to be true, but it must be remembered that a wide majority of Russians continue to back Putin's policies (and those of his chosen successor as president, Dmitriy Medvedev, who in many ways still remains his mentor's underling). With the benefit of some time away, it's easier to see some of the reasons why. Simply put, Moscow is a safer and more prosperous place to live in 2009 than it was when Vladimir Vladimirovich succeeded Boris Yeltsin nine years ago.

    A few little things that struck me:

    * There is now an official taxi stand at the still-dilapidated Sherevmetyevo-2 airport that charges you a pre-set rate for trips to the city centre (i.e., no more arguing with bandits who will wait all day for a foreigner rich and stupid enough to pay their price).

    * I wasn't stopped once, during more than a week in Moscow and St. Petersburg, by police demanding to see our dokumenti and looking to extract bribes for invented problems with said documents, something that used to happen on a regular basis. Perhaps I look less like a Chechen like I used to. Or perhaps the crackdown on corruption has reached the police force. The only time we were stopped was when our cab driver was actually caught on a radar gun going over the speed limit. Yes, police in Moscow now use radar guns and care how fast you drive.

    * The touts who used to harass tourists lining up to see the Kremlin and the Hermitage museum have all disappeared. (Though St. Petersburg is still an easy place to get your pocket picked. My wife and I witnessed a woman lose her camera on the Nevskiy Prospekt).

    * An overall sense that Moscow, in particular, is a less chaotic place than it used to be, certainly than it was when we first arrived in late 2001.

    * This Putin lookalike on Red Square thought I would pay 1,000 rubles (about $33) to have my picture taken with him. This one cost nothing.

    That said, Russia is also one of the countries that has been worst hit by the economic crisis thus far (GDP shrank 7 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 ), and Moscow remains one of the most expensive cities in the world.

    As in China, many in Russia have been willing to accept some restrictions on personal freedoms so long as the economy kept growing and their lives continued to improve. If that deal is broken, will the popularity of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin also take a hit?

    The past few days have seen some of the largest anti-government rallies in recent years (such as the Communist Party gathering yesterday in Nizhny Novgorod) and heavy-handed government responses (such as a recent decision to dispatch Interior Ministry troops from Moscow to break up anti-government protests in the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok) -- the latter being a sure sign of government nervousness.

    A test of where things are heading could come in the unexpected form of the mayoral elections for the city of Sochi, which is scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Some 26 people threw their hats into the ring, including leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov (briefly deputy prime minister during the Yeltsin years), celebrity ballerina Anastasia Volochkova (famously canned by the Bolshoi Theatre for being overweight), billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev and acting mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, who has the all-important backing of Putin's United Russia party.

    Nemtsov has already had ammonia thrown at him by unknown assailants dressed in women's clothing and Volochkova has apparently now been disqualified for leaving her birthday off one of the documents she submitted with her registration papers. A porn star and a prominent freemason have also joined the race. It's enough to make a former Moscow correspondent tear up with nostalgia.

    Despite the ludicrous start to the campaign, there is a serious side: whoever emerges from the crowded field on April 26 will get a chance to promote their version of Russia on the world stage in five years time. Given the way elections are run these days in Russia, the safe money is always on the Kremlin's man.