Monthly Archives: December 2009

Abdurrahman Wahid has just died. I knew him a bit during the mid-1990s, when the Suharto regime was still well entrenched and “Gus Dur” – as he was known – was a focus for the hopes of democrats and liberals. His position as a key figure in the opposition to dictatorship was made easier by the fact that he was descended from a long line of Muslim leaders, with deep roots in Java. But Wahid was anything but a parochial or forbidding figure. On the contrary, he was culturally tolerant, funny, liberal, fluent in English and intellectually-sophisticated.

I once travelled with him into Central Java to watch him preside over a religious ceremony, in a village that claimed to have just manufactured the world’s largest Koran. On the way there, he told me a joke that marked him out as an unusual Muslim leader. “Have you noticed,” he said, “that when the Jews pray, they stand by a wall and whisper. The Christians kneel and speak very quietly. But we Muslims stand in a tower and shout through a megaphone. It makes you wonder who is closer to God.” At this, he roared with laughter. Read more

The new outbreak of protests and repression in Iran have got me looking back at what I wrote in June, at the time of the presidential election. My first column was called “Democracy can still win in Iran“. The second was “Check-List for an Iranian revolution“. I think both are still valid. In the second column, I argued three things essentially. First that Iran met many of the pre-conditions for a successful revolution. Second, that the government had crossed a line – and possibly doomed itself -  by killing demonstrators in the streets. And finally that the precedent of the Iranian revolution of 1979 suggested that events would take some time to play out because “it took more than a year of sustained unrest to topple the Shah.”

It’s that last point that would be worrying me, if I were part of the Iranian establishment. The pattern of 1978-79 in Iran was that unrest would die down for a while and then flare up again, gradually gathering unstoppable momentum, as the months passed. As the FT reports this morning, there are plenty of religious and national holidays coming up- not to mention funerals of demonstrators – that will give the opposition the scope to get people out on the streets again. Read more

The oddest thing about 2009 was how normal it was. At the beginning of the year, the global economic crisis was still causing panic in prime ministers’ offices and presidential palaces across the world. Many politicians were looking anxiously back to the 1930s.

Those fears of a return to a world of soup kitchens and fascist marches turned out to be overdone. The German economy contracted by more than 5 per cent in the year to September. But in that month, the Germans still re-elected Angela Merkel – the very epitome of stolid, centrist good sense. The Japanese elections, a month earlier, were more dramatic – marking the end of the Liberal Democratic party’s almost uninterrupted hegemony over postwar politics. But it is still too early to tell whether Japan has really changed as a country. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

I am back in the office – briefly – to write my first column for a couple of months. It actually won’t appear until December 29th (in a week’s time), but editors here seem eager to get away for Christmas. Funny that. Read more

Geoff Dyer of the Financial Times blogs on Chinese government measures to slow China’s housing market. Read more

By Stefan Wagstyl, eastern Europe editor

When Ukraine’s economy was booming it did not seem to matter so much that its political leaders were locked in perpetual strife. The deadlock between president Viktor Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, his glamorous prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, the main opposition leader, made headlines. Read more

Alan Beattie’s blog post for the Financial Times looks at the outbreak of peace in the banana trade wars.  Read more

By Geoff Dyer, China bureau chief

Pew Research last week put out an opinion poll with the astonishing result that 44 per cent of Americans think that China is now the “world’s leading economic power”. I could go on at length why this is misguided, but suffice to say that the Americans who believe this have a GDP per capita more than ten times higher than the Chinese. Read more

By Mure Dickie, Japan bureau chief

Barack Obama’s critics will no doubt see it as a metaphor. During his recent visit to Tokyo, the US president bowed so low to Japan’s Emperor Akihito that some people wondered if he had spotted a Y100 coin on the Imperial Palace’s immaculately swept porch. Read more

By Alan Beattie, world trade editor

Nothing to gladden the heart of a reporter* more than a good row about development aid. It’s got everything: political posturing about rich versus poor; blindingly complex arguments about “additionality”; dire warnings that everything will fall apart without it; George Soros punting some version of his Special Drawing Rights plan for the twentieth time. And so it came to pass with the Copenhagen summitRead more

This post for the Financial Times looks at the attack on Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister.  Read more

James Blitz blogs for the Financial Times on President Barack Obama accepting the Nobel peace prize. Read more

By Victor Mallet, Madrid correspondent

There are few easier ways to inflame Spanish nationalism than to talk about Gibraltar, the tiny British possession at the mouth of the Mediterranean, and that is exactly what the Spanish right has been doing with increasing intensity for the past few months. Read more

Geoff Dyer, China bureau chief of the Financial Times, writes on a study that says the biggest story of the decade in the media has been the rise of China.  Read more

By Stefan Wagstyl, eastern Europe editor

Small European countries generally make international news only when they get into trouble, as crisis-hit Latvia has found to its cost. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

The World Cup draw has just been made and I am immediately faced with a dilemma – can I be bothered to travel thousands of miles and to spend thousands of pounds to watch Brazil play Portugal in Durban on July 25th? On the one hand, I appear to have tickets for the tie of the round. On the other hand, my sofa in west London looks more comfortable and cheaper.

I will return to my personal issues in a moment. But, first, some comments on the draw. Everybody on television here is crowing about how easy England’s group is: the US, Algeria and Slovenia. Even Scotland might have a shot of qualifying from a group like that. When England were drawn in an easy group and made to play their first game in Rustenberg, right near their training camp, I must admit I sensed a fix. (The proverbial hot ball in the pot.) Were FIFA making things easy for the English, who usually have a huge and free-spending group of travelling supporters? The holders, Italy, also have a ludicrously easy group.

But any unworthy suspicions that there might have been a fix have been dispelled by looking at poor old South Africa’s group. It is normally deemed essential to the health of the tournament that the host country qualify for the knock-out stages, which means that they have to finish in the top two. Normally, by hook or by crook, they do it. Even an unfancied US made it to the last 16 in 1994 – and both co-hosts, Japan and South Korea, made it through in 2002. But South Africa are really going to struggle to qualify. In fact, they might struggle to win a game against Mexico, France and Uruguay. Read more

By James Blitz, defence and diplomatic editor

Iran has this week made two announcements about its nuclear programme that made big headlines. The first is that it wants to build 10 new enrichment plants like the one that operates at Natanz. The second is that it wants to begin manufacturing low enriched uranium to 20 per cent purity that can be used in cancer treatments.  The first of these claims is being dismissed by western diplomats as a fanciful goal that Iran could never seriously achieve. The second claim, however, is causing a lot of concern in western capitals. It raises fears that Iran is about to take a big step towards the manufacture of the weapons grade uranium needed for a nuclear bomb. Read more

By Alan Beattie, world trade editor

Horrendously remiss of me not to have linked to Vox’s new e-book on how trade collapsed at the end of last year and early this, but fortunately Clive was on the case. Read more

This post by Alan Beattie looks at the WTO’s ministerial in Geneva. Read more

By Victor Mallet in Madrid

Secessionists are making a noise again in western Europe. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, is pushing for a referendum on independence from the UK. In Catalonia, more than a hundred towns and cities are preparing to hold referendums on independence from Spain on December 13. Read more