News & Current Affairs

August 31, 2008

Sign of the times

Sign of the times

Courtesy BBC

As Russia and the West warn of a new Cold War after the Georgian conflict, the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley in Moscow tries to imagine what it would look like.

Corridor inside the bunker
A complex network of narrow tunnels broke out into vast, high-ceilinged chambers with the sides curved cylindrically like the hull of a ship

Evgenia Evlenteva strode past a row of old radiation suits hanging on pegs like raincoats.

With a bounce in her step and a torch stuck into her jeans back pocket, she asked: “Right, it’s more than 60 metres (200ft) deep so do you want to take the stairs or the lift?

“Oh and by the way, the door weighs three tonnes. It’s made of lead and metal, and it still works.”

She jabbed a button and, with a groan and a creak, a huge slab slid back and let us into one of Moscow’s key Cold War nuclear bunkers.

It was decked out with its own air, water and food supplies for 2,500 people, should the city have come under nuclear attack.

With Russia and the West now exchanging accusations about starting a new Cold War, it seemed a good place to go, once hidden in a leafy street near the Moscow River and just off Taganskaya Square, where it linked up to the Metro station so the top brass and supplies could get in there.

International crisis

I found out later that, at the same time as our small tour group was taking the stairs down, Russia was testing an intercontinental ballistic missile from its recently modernized Topol system, more than capable of reaching Washington.

Russian Topol intercontinental ballistic missiles

Topol missiles during rehearsals for Russia’s annual Victory Day parade

Over the past couple of weeks, each day it has seemed either Russia or the West was ratcheting up the stakes, as if both sides were relieved to get away from the insoluble nihilism of Islamist terror and work on something that they could get their teeth into.

Russia spoke of tensions resembling the eve of World War I. Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that this international crisis marked a clear end to the relative calm enjoyed by Europe since the Cold War finished.

But it has been difficult to reconcile this exchange of apprehensions with snapshots here, where the bus stops are decorated with posters for the new Batman movie, hoardings advertise global brand-name products and you sweep out of a ring-road tunnel towards a skyline of cranes putting up new high-rise office blocks to keep up with Russia’s high economic growth.

No longer isolated

From the mobile phones, to the makes of cars, to the news-stand Russian editions of the celebrity magazine Hello!, it is pretty impossible to envisage how a new Cold War would actually work.

Room inside the bunker
It’s no longer safe down here from a nuclear attack… The bombs are too big now. It’s not deep enough
Evgenia Evlenteva, Moscow bunker guide

Boeing, for example, has a huge factory outside Moscow. Russia’s Gazprom, the conglomerate much feared for its ability to turn on and off Europe’s gas supplies, is one of the biggest companies listed on international stock exchanges.

And would some Western package of punitive sanctions mean that the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich would have to sell Chelsea Football Club?

In the last Cold War, Russians were seen as isolated behind their Iron Curtain, with their own ropey technology and a grim-faced population oppressed by secretive monosyllabic leaders.

Now you can barely stop them talking, as they ferry between 24-hour news channel chat shows.

As we finished our climb down the stairs, Evgenia snapped on the lights to the bunker.

It was a complex network of narrow tunnels that broke out into vast, high-ceilinged chambers with the sides curved cylindrically like the hull of a ship, made of reinforced lead and concrete.

The museum had put in telex machines, old telephones, maps and wooden desks to show what it had looked like.

Present-day thinking

Evgenia ushered us into a lecture hall for a video briefing, where I got perhaps a glimpse of Russia’s present-day thinking.

Black and white film drawn from once-classified Soviet archives began by naming America as the only nation that had ever used a nuclear weapon in conflict, and telling how the Soviet Union was forced to catch up to protect what it called its “sphere of influence”.

The 1962 Cuban missile conflict was a brilliant piece of brinkmanship that re-defined Russia’s global power.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. The motif of the film was nuclear tests, exploding into bigger and bigger mushroom clouds, both Russian and American.

New bunkers

“So,” I asked Evgenia, when it is finished, “will you be re-opening this bunker for the new Cold War?”

She pushed back her dark hair and creased her brow in confusion. She would have only been a child when the last one ended.

“No, why?” she said. “Who wants that? What family wants that – that you could be blown up at any moment? Why would anyone want to go there again?”

Then, as we set off towards the next tunnel, Evgenia came up to me and said:

“But it’s no longer safe down here from a nuclear attack, you know. The bombs are too big now. It’s not deep enough.

“We have new bunkers in Moscow, though. Maybe 100 metres deep, I don’t know.

They’re still secret and I’m not allowed to go there.”

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August 8, 2008

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

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