Russia Keeps Backing Losers in the Arab Spring

Posted September 21st, 2011 at 6:31 pm (UTC+0)

Russia backed Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, until he fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, ending 23 years in power.

Syrian protesters in Jordan step on a Russian flag during a protest against Russia's support for the Syrian regime, in front of the Russian embassy in Amman on September 17, 2011. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

In early February, as demonstrators massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, President Dmitry Medvedev telephoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a show of support. On Feb. 11, President Mubarak resigned, ending 30 years in power.
Through June, July and August, Russian diplomats and commentators bitterly sniped at the NATO bombing campaign in Libya. Finally, on the eve of a Libya conference in Paris on Sept. 1, Russia recognized the rebel coalition, becoming the 75th country in the world to do so.
Even today, Duma members continue to publicly bemoan the overthrow of Moamar Gadhafi after 42 years in power.
One would think that after backing losers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Russia’s Foreign Ministry would have a rethink. In baseball, three strikes, and you are out.

But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is still at bat.
And now he faces the fourth major uprising of the Arab Spring — Syria.
Governments as diverse as those of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Britain and the United States are all saying, to varying degrees, that the 41-year rule of the al-Assad family should come to an end.
Over the last six months, according to a United Nations’ tally, President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have shot and killed 2,700 protesters, including at least 100 children. Despite this slow motion, nationwide bloodbath, protests show no sign of subsiding.
But when confronted about Syria, Russia’s foreign minister said on Monday that he opposes a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime. Instead, he called for dialogue between President Assad and the opposition.
No one knows how Syria will play out in coming months.
But one thing is clear: Russia will emerge as a much reduced player in the Arab world. Until this year, Russia’s has had disproportionate influence in the Arab world, largely due to the momentum of old Soviet relationships and arms deals.
Now, Russia’s Arab friends are in hiding, in exile or on trial. After clinging to aging autocrats, Moscow now faces a steep, uphill battle to rebuild influence among new elites. The new powers in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli clearly recall which side the Kremlin took during the revolution.

In Libya, a woman displays handmade messages to welcome French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron to Benghazi on Sept. 15. In the forefront of the military and diplomatic fight against Moammar Gadhafi, the two men were the first foreign leaders to visit Libya after the rebels took power. Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

Moscow’s reactionary foreign policy reflects a deep, widespread conservatism in Russia today. As Russia’s population ages and shrinks, many people are skeptical of the youth-led revolts of the Arab world.
In American terms, the 2011 Kremlin is like the 1968 White House: Richard Nixon surrounded by a conservative staff of World War II veterans appalled and mystified by the youth revolts going on around the world.
After a disastrous 20th century, many Russians still accept the conservative offer made in 2000 by then-candidate Vladimir Putin – peace and quiet and reasonable economic growth.
For many Russians today, the word “revolution” provokes cynicism at best — hostility at worst.
On a visit to the Kremlin, I once asked Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to then Prime Minister Putin, why Moscow’s riot police devoted so much energy to beating up and arresting “NatBols” – the National Bolshevists who showed up at demonstrations waving revolutionary red and black flags, often tied to sturdy sticks.
Peskov replied: “Hmmm, nationalists and Bolsheviks, black and red. Russia has had very unhappy experiences with both.”

24 hours after Russia Watch was posted, Russiyskaya Gazeta, a state-owned newspaper, published this interview by Russian Foreign Minister, outlining Moscow’s view on the Arab Spring:


9/22/2011 11:16:34 AM MSK

Middle East, North Africa undergo cardinal transformations – Lavrov

MOSCOW. Sept 22 (Interfax) – ‘The Arab spring’ has changed the Middle East and North Africa, which entered a period of transformations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview posted by the Wednesday issue of the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

“In light of the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and later in other countries the Middle East and North Africa region has since early 2011 been undergoing a cardinal transformation. What’s happening is in fact a change of regimes and practices that took shape back at the time of gaining independence by the peoples of those countries, the desire of popular masses for greater democracy, higher living standards and welfare, and unhindered access to universal human rights,” the minister said.

“In our estimation, these processes won’t be easy and the development of events isn’t going to be straightforward, of which there is already ample evidence. It is undoubted that the changes will have far-reaching consequences, resulting in an entirely different countenance of the region.

We are sympathetic to the aspirations of Arab peoples and their desire to live better and we believe that they themselves can and should determine their own destiny.

“So we are fundamentally opposed to interference in internal affairs, the imposition from the outside of ready-made development precepts and scenarios. It is important that the concepts of democratic reforms should be generated by the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa themselves with due respect for their civilizational traditions from outside players.

“Our fundamental interest is to see the Middle Eastern states stable, prosperous and developing along a democratic path. In the present circumstances the main task of the international community should be to help reforms in the Middle East, the elimination of threats emanating from the region to international stability and security, and the settlement of longstanding conflicts.

“Russia, given its close historical ties with the region, is ready for such work. We will continue to build our relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa based on mutual respect and reciprocally advantageous cooperation. These relations rest on a solid foundation, underpinned by decades of mutual friendly feelings of the peoples, rather than a momentary conjuncture,” he said.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Moscow Traffic Tales: Life on Wheels

Posted September 19th, 2011 at 7:11 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

With the end of summer holidays and the twilight of the dacha season, Moscow’s roads are filling up again on the weekends. Here are two tales from the traffic front:

On weekdays, Moscow traffic often moves so slowly that often no one is hurt in the 'fender-bender' accidents. Photo: Francisco Anzola

On Saturday afternoon, Alyona, a 28-year-old economist friend, was crossing a wide avenue by Universitet Metro station, near the Moscow State Circus. There was not a traffic light, just black and white zebra stripes indicating a pedestrian crossing. On each end of the crosswalk were two blue and white pedestrian crossing signs, now familiar warnings to drivers in Moscow.
Three meters in front of Alyona, a woman was crossing the avenue with her five year old son. An old Zhiguli car sailed through the crossing and knocked her flat on the asphalt. The driver, a free-lance cab driver from the Caucasus, apparently did not know that pedestrians have the right of way over cars in Moscow cross walks.

Within five minutes, a police car was on the scene. Within 10 minutes, an ambulance was there. Within 15 minutes a helicopter touched down. Quite an impressive scene for Alyona, who spent the next three hours calming, consoling, and amusing the traumatized five year old. Finally, his father arrived at the hospital. It seems that his wife would pull through.

Traffic inches toward 'Moskva City,

Several hours later, John, an American businessman friend, was driving a girl friend to the Metro after a movie. He rumbled down a cobblestone street in Zamoskvoreche. This old, largely residential neighborhood across from the Kremlin is served by the last tramway line in central Moscow. Impatient with a lumbering tram, he wheeled his SUV around the tram, across the tracks and back to the bumpy cobblestones.
Wrong move.
Three traffic police appeared out of the shadows, their yellow vests suddenly reflecting the headlights.
One strode into the street and waved his white baton, signaling the offending driver to pull over.
After a perfunctory salute, he rattled off chapter and verse of the violation: overtaking a tram. His recitation then slowed to stress the final point. Penalty: loss..of…drivers…license… for… 4…to…6…months.
Dokumenti, please.
The policeman started writing down the driver’s particulars on an official form.
John, who speaks reasonable Russian, commented a bit lamely that there are very few tram lines in the United States. The traffic officer suggested that he look up Moscow traffic rules on the internet. A version is posted in English.
More form filling out.
Feigning naiveté, John asked if the ‘straff’ – or fine – can be paid on the spot.
The officer asked John to step out of the car, out of earshot of his date.
“Do you drive much in Moscow?” the officer asked.
“No,” John fibbed.
“Well this is how it works here in Moscow. Traffic fines are paid on the spot.”
“Oh,” said John, feigning surprise. “How much for this violation? 2,000 rubles?”
“No, 5,000 rubles,” the officer said, citing the equivalent of $170.
“Oh,” said John, fibbing again. “I don’t have 5,000. I only have 4,000.”
“That will take care of it,” the officer said. “Go back in the car. Put it in your documents. Like this. Then give me your documents again.”

Moscow's famed Stalin era highrises are now backdrops for epic traffic jams. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

The next day, John recounted the encounter in detail. He justified the payoff as follows: He broke the traffic rules. He would have had to pay a fine anyway. Instead of paying it to the government, why not pay it directly to the traffic officer? How does the government expect an officer to support a family in the world’s most expensive city on a monthly salary of $1,000?
(On Sept. 21, Russia’s Cabinet approved a 2012 Federal budget that is to double all police and military salaries).
Aside from the fact that not all Americans are Boy Scouts, what lessons can be drawn from Saturday’s traffic tales?
First, as a result of Russia’s oil and gas boom, most of the population of Moscow, now the largest city in Europe, is from somewhere else.

Second, modern Russia has a foot in two worlds. An ambulance helicopters to an accident caused by an unregistered taxi driven by a migrant worker, unfamiliar with the city and the language.
Finally, five blocks from the bright lights of Red Square, traffic police lurk in the shadows, waiting to shake down drivers in order to make up for their poverty level pay.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Modern Architecture Shakes up Ancient Georgia

Posted September 14th, 2011 at 3:02 pm (UTC+0)
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In the 11th century, David IV, a medieval king, forged a unified state of Georgia. To this day, he is revered by Georgians as “David the Builder.”

Almost 1,000 years later, Georgia’s newly elected leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, took his oath of inauguration at the tomb of David the Builder.

Since then, President Saakashvili has had mixed success bringing wayward provinces under Tbilisi’s central control.

But he has had more success putting his architectural stamp across his nation in the Southern Caucasus.

Georgia’s American-educated president is shaking up a complacent country, a place that seems like a patch of rural Greece transplanted 1,500 kilometers east to the far shores of the Black Sea.
In Tbilisi, the capital, he has plopped into the city’s ancient heart, an oddly successful, glass and neon “Peace Bridge.”

On a nearby hillside, he has erected a Greco-Roman Presidential Palace, a new city landmark because of its tall, egg-shaped glass dome.

Near the airport, visitors drive past a wavy, all-glass Interior Ministry.

For Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city and future legislative capital, President Saakashvili is building a $35 million new Parliament building that looks like a concrete and glass armadillo.

In Batumi, Georgia’s tourist capital, so many zany shaped buildings are rising for hotels and restaurants that some critics cry kitsch.

And strung along an east-west highway joining these cities is a series of see-though police buildings. By using glass for government buildings, the Georgian leader seeks to put into three dimensional form his drive to bring transparency to a nation long ruled behind closed doors.

Generations hence, Georgians may remember President Saakashvili as the nation’s “architect-in-chief.”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia Air Travel: Safe Class and Crash Class

Posted September 12th, 2011 at 3:36 pm (UTC+0)


Above: Members of Yaroslavl’s Lokomotiv ice-hockey KHL team pose for a pre-season photo on August 21. Three weeks later, most of the men in this picture were killed when their Soviet-designed Yak-42 crashed into a Volga River embankment near Yaroslavl.  (REUTERS: KHL Handout)


Most nations have two classes of air travel: economy class and business class.
Russia has two categories: safe class and crash class.

Today, Russia mulls lessons learned from last week’s crash that killed 44 hockey players and coaches from Yaroslavl. It is the worst sports aviation disaster worldwide in a generation.

On an absolute level, Russia now has the world’s worse air safety record, topping the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Think Zaire). This year, seven airplane crashes have killed 121 people in Russia. In the Congo, three crashes this year have killed 106 people. However, Russia has far larger volume of air passengers than the Congo – about 60 million for Russia this year.

But the air crash rate for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States is now 7.5 crashes per 1 million flights, or three times the world average, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Burrow down into the statistics, and you will see emerge a two class system. Last year and so far this year, all of Russia’s fatal crashes have involved Soviet-designed passenger aircraft. Take these Soviet-era planes out of the equation, and Russia’s commercial air accident rate for the last two years falls to zero.

Russia today has 130 airlines. The top 10 carry 85 percent of passengers, overwhelmingly on Western-made Boeings and Airbuses. Looking only at Russia’s top 10 airlines, Russia’s current air accident rate again falls to zero.

The challenge for Russia is to supply safe air service to the largest country in the world.

After a two decade dip, air passenger traffic in Russia is finally returning to the levels of the last days of the Soviet Union. This year, the number of air tickets sold represents the equivalent of 40 percent of Russia’s population.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev places flowers at the site of a plane crash near the Russian city of Yaroslavl September 8, 2011. The passenger plane carrying a Russian ice hockey team to a season-opening match crashed after takeoff from Yaroslavl's airport the day before, killing 43 people and plunging the Russian and international sports world into grief. Reuters: Dmitry Astakhov

Russia’s 120 small airlines provide services to smaller cities and regions, areas that would be literally marooned in this continent of forest and snow.

World class safety rules and inspections that are now the norms in Moscow and St. Petersburg often do not reach regional airports and airlines.

In addition, smaller airlines are often run by post-Soviet entrepreneurs who take shortcuts on safety to maximize profits. Tales abound of small air companies that skimp on pilot pay and training and that fine pilots for cancelling flights, for using too much fuel, or for not landing on the first try.

This breed of air company executive flies planes until they crash.
I saw the results of this kind of entrepreneur years ago when I worked in Zaire. Across Central Africa, the edges of landing strips were littered with carcasses of planes that were flown until the ends of their useful lives.

After crashes in Russia, companies routinely claim ‘pilot error.’ (Blaming the dead is fashionable in Moscow this season, with victims ranging from an obstetrician killed by a speeding VIP car to Sergei Magnitsky, the whistle blowing lawyer who died in prison.)

This argument may be hard to make by Yak Service, the operator of the Yak-42 that crashed with Yaroslavl’s Lokomotiv hockey team. The plane’s captain had 1,500 hours of Yak-42 flight
experience. Yak-42s have a seating occupancy of 120. But this flight carried only 42 passengers.

But even with only one-third its passenger load capacity, a three kilometer runway, and three working engines, the aging Yak was unable to gain altitude. After the end of the runway, it fatally clipped a radio navigation beacon.

The 18-year-old plane was scheduled for “heavy repairs” later this year, according to Igor Levitin, Russia’s Transportation Minister.

In 2009, the European Aviation Safety Agency ranked Yak Service as the least safe of 35 Russian airlines flying to Europe. That ranking prompted the EU to ban the company from flying to Europe.

To turn around Russia’s air safety picture, President Medvedev has ordered bureaucrats to speed up existing plans to cut the number of Russia’s airlines. Recognizing that Russia’s aircraft industry is decades away from meeting airplane demand, he is cutting incentives for Russian companies to buy Russian-made planes.

With Russian air travel increasing by 12 percent this year, Boeing estimates that Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union will buy 1,080 passenger aircraft over the next 20 years.

Oddly, as 100,000 people in Yaroslavl braved heavy rain Saturday to honor their hockey heroes, some anger was directed at Russia’s president. In a strange intersection of politics and sport, the
coffins of 19 players were placed on Lokomotiv’s Arena 2000 rink, a space where only two days earlier Mr. Medvedev had presided over his annual international political conference.

Because of the conference, Lokomotiv was forced to charter a plane to play its season opener out of town, in Minsk. On the Russian blogosphere, some fans are speculating that confusion at the regional airport on the first day of the conference, traditionally the airport’s busiest day of the year, contributed to the fatal crash.

In a nation where a lack of government transparency allows conspiracy theories to flourish, this question mark is bound to hang in the air for years to come.

Follow James Brooke on twitter: @VOA_Moscow



James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia-Libya: Love Match for the History Books

Posted September 9th, 2011 at 7:45 am (UTC+0)

Some readers have complained that Russia Watch recently has been all about Libya, which has nothing to do with Russia.

They are right.

Once a big player in Libya, Moscow will now be a bit player in Libya.

In 1969, the Soviet Union took a quick shine to Moammar Gadhafi, extending diplomatic recognition only three days after his Sept. 1, coup.

Fast forward to Sept. 1, 2011. On that day, Russia extended diplomatic recognition to Libya’s National Transitional Council, becoming nation number 73 on the list to do so.

In the intervening 42 years, Moscow and Moammar were often an item. Jowly Leonid Brezhnev accurately thought he could do business with the then jut-jawed Libyan Colonel.

In 1974, after the West hit Libya with an arms embargo, the Soviets saw their chance, jumping in to sell combat jets, tanks, frigates and anti aircraft systems. By 1980, Moscow had a 3,500 advisors in Libya, and Libya’s arms purchases accounted for 10 percent of Soviet hard currency earnings.

As files from Libya’s secret police now reveal, East Germany gave valuable assistance to Col. Gadhafi in setting up a ruthless domestic spying agency, one that long outlasted its East German mentor.

The transition from Soviet Union to Russia was rocky. Moscow put all deals on a commercial basis, and demanded a settlement of Libya’s Soviet-era debt of nearly $5 billion. In 2008, the debt was waived in return for business contracts.

Driving down Tripoli’s Corniche the other day, I saw a sun-faded billboard touting one of the biggest – a $3 billion deal for Russian Railroads to build a high speed, double track rail line from Benghazi west to Sirte, Gadhafi’s home town.

In other projects, Russia’s Tatneft has drilled wells in Gadames and it has licenses around Sirte. Gazpromneft was negotiating to take part in a large oil field, appropriately named Elephant.

Gadhafi and Putin sip tea in a Bedouin tent that the Libyans pitched in the Kremlin's garden on a cold night in November 2008. It was the first time that Gadhafi had visited Moscow since 1985 and seemed to signal a renewal of the old Tripoli-Moscow love affair, albeit on commercial terms. AP Photo/RIA-Novosti: Alexei Druzhinin,

But after the collapse of the Gadhafi government, Aram Shegunts, head of the Russian-Libyan Business Council, moped to Reuters: “We have lost Libya completely. Our companies won’t be given the green light to
work there. If anyone thinks otherwise they are wrong. Our companies will lose everything there because NATO will prevent them from doing their business in Libya.”

In reality, the new government will probably honor existing contracts. The railroad will probably go ahead as it is part of a larger project to connect Cairo and Morocco by rail. China is building the rail portion west of Sirte, toward Tripoli.

But, there is no glory in being 73rd on the list of Libya’s favored nations.

Libyans now associate Moscow with their Gadhafi past. It is unlikely the new government will do Russia any favors. To Russia’s benefit, the country is now largely off the radar screen in Tripoli.

The rare public dispute last March between Prime Minister Putin and
President Medvedev over the U.N. resolution authorizing NATO to act here was big headlines in Moscow, but was largely ignored in Libya. Libyans are thinking about Italy, France, Britain and the United States, not Russia.

After 10 days in Libya, the only time Russia surfaced was when I slid into my airplane seat from Tunis to Moscow.

Sitting next to me was a young Libyan man, a fourth year kursant, or cadet, at a Russian military school. He said he had been home for July and August. I asked him what he thought about the revolution.

“Gadhafi only lost because of the NATO bombing,” he said earnestly in Russian. On one level, he seemed to be practicing lines that would be a hit with his Moscow instructors.

On another level, I realized he was kind of out of it. His priorities were the 40 apps on his i-phone, buying a duty free luxury watch on the airplane, and getting back to Moscow nightclubs to check out the devochkas.

I asked him what he was learning. He replied: “A strong army is essential for a strong Motherland” and “Russia makes the best tanks in the world.”

I asked him about the future. He tapped his shoulder, winked, and said that on graduation in June, he would become an officer in the Libyan Army.

I translated from French, a headline in a Tunisian newspaper, saying that Libya’s new leaders are planning to form a new national army.
His confidence was undimmed.

By all accounts, defense spending in Libya will decline as the nation slows arms purchases, and reorients spending to health and education.

Unlike Mr. Gadhafi, the emerging leadership in Tripoli shows no interest in waging wars on its neighbors or picking fights with the Europe and the United States. For example, the $850 million contract the Gadhafi government signed earlier this year for Russian anti-ship missiles can be expected to sink below the waves.

As our Airbus droned east into Russian airspace, I wondered silently if a Libya rebel unit leader, after six months of fighting, would give up a plum officer’s commission to a young man who sat out the revolution ogling girls in Moscow nightclubs and playing video games in his parents’ house in Tripoli.

I had another hour to go in the confines of Seat 4B. I decided to keep those thoughts to myself.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Libya: The Price of Freedom

Posted September 7th, 2011 at 6:22 pm (UTC+0)

Arm chair generals watching Libya from afar ask: why are the rebels dragging their feet in attacking Sirte?

The birthplace of Moammar Gadhafi, this Mediterranean seaport is the last holdout of Gadhafi loyalists on the coast between Tunisia and Egypt.

In the last desert war to sweep across Libya, British 8th Army soldiers died in 1942-1943 in a campaign to end Italian colonialism in Libya and Nazi control of North Africa. From Britain, India, Sudan, and South Africa, soldiers are buried in Tripoli's War Cemetery. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Gadhafi lavished public works spending on his hometown, building an assembly hall where he proposed that Sirte serve as administrative capital for a “United States of Africa.”

Last week, after losing control of Tripoli, Gadhafi proclaimed Sirte to be the capital of his Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

Rebel columns now surround Sirte. But they have given city and military authorities 10 days to negotiate a surrender of the city. The deadline is now Sept. 10.

Friday afternoon, I got an insight into the reasons for rebels’
patience. I hunted down the Tripoli War Cemetery, a little visited reminder of World War II that lies largely forgotten behind apartment blocks in Tripoli’s Mansour district.

I went there because my father, John L.B. “Jack” Brooke, drove an ambulance during the North African campaign, essentially from Cairo to Tunis, passing through El Alamein, Tobruk and Benghazi. A volunteer for the American Field Service, he was attached to the British 8th Army.

Most of Commonwealth soldiers buried in the cemetery came from military hospitals set up in Tripoli after it was liberated from German-Italian forces by the 8th Army on Jan. 23, 1943. Undoubtedly, some of the men buried here passed through the back of my father’s ambulance.

Pallets of newly carved headstones await intallation to replace stones damaged by decades of desert winds. Work at British cemetery was suspended after Gadhafi mob partially burned British Embassy, protesting Britain's air war support for rebels. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The cemetery is well maintained, with drought resistant dull green grass that crunches underfoot. Date palms provide islands of shade in a sea of 1,369 tombstones — row upon row of sun-baked stones, honoring young men from Britain, Sudan, India, and South Africa.

One British headstone, probably carved in the late 1940s, memorializes a 19-year-old man who “will be forever cherished by his grandmother, mother and father, and brothers and sisters.”

Another, picked at random, reads: “Treasured memories of Bill. Loving husband of Peggy. Darling Daddy of Norma. We shall meet again.”

To ponder these rows of stones is to glimpse lives cut short, weddings canceled, children never conceived, children who never knew their fathers.

This year, Libya has lost an estimated 50,000 men in its six month revolt. That is a staggering amount in a sparsely populated desert nation of only 6.4 million people.

Libya’s uprising was a bloody, city by city revolution — not an urban riot over high bread prices, not a surgical military coup.

James Brooke, son of American Field Service ambulance driver John L. B. Brooke, stands at Tripoli War Cemetery. VOA Photo: Khaled Ben Yala

To the west, Tunisia, with twice Libya’s population, lost only 224 lives in its January revolution.

To the east, Egypt, with 10 times Libya’s population, lost only 846 in its February revolution.

In American terms, Libya’s fatalities would be the equivalent of 2.4 million lives lost in six months.

Yes, the rebel forces massed around Sirte can physically crush this last major stronghold of “Gadhafis.”

But no, rebel leaders do not want more lives lost in Libya’s costly civil war.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

In Tripoli, Gadhafi’s Bad Hair Day

Posted September 6th, 2011 at 3:15 pm (UTC+0)

Wigged out Moammar: Tripoli street artists seem to imply that Libya's former leader might be, uh, a little unbalanced. VOA Photo:James Brooke

For decades, it has been considered improper in polite society to say
that Moammar Gadhafi was crazy.

In one Wikileaks memo, an American diplomat described Libya’s leader as…

There were, of course, hundreds of newspaper cartoons the world over. But generally, the public fiction among grownups in the West was to assert the leader of the nation that controlled the largest oil reserves in Africa was, well, a little eccentric.

But now Libyans are saying that the emperor has no clothes.
(Kind of harsh verdict on a guy who loved to play dress up.)

Sitting in the back of a taxi in Tripoli, I pass kilometer upon
kilometer of anti-Gadhafi graffiti. Since I don’t read Arabic and Khaled Ben
Yala, the VOA translator, can’t keep up with volume, it ends up
rolling by as a red, black, green and blue blur.

A rebel sends a cartoon Gadhafi and his Green Book packing. VOA Photo: James Brooke

But caricatures jump across language barriers.
There is only one man caricatured.
It the man who called himself “Brother Leader.”

Crazy eyes are hard to render in spray paint. Tripoli’s graffiti
artists have a hard time with wild eyes, often settling for crossed

To portray Libya’s wigged out leader, the key is the frizz under the fez — the hairdo.

Painted on garbage cans, or flying across a wall after getting a kick
in the seat of the pants is the man with the black curls. Gadhafi
appears peering sadly out of toilet bowel, or scampering like a
hirsute rat down to a ‘safe’ tunnel.

Wall cartoons fill the gap until a free press starts up in Libya. VOA Photo: James Brooke

From “King of Kings,” Gadhafi is now a North African version of Larry,
the curly haired member of The Three Stooges, a long running, low-brow
American comedy act.

On family night, a girl-led sound truck rolled through the streets Tripoli.
Drawing grins from battled-hardened rebels, they took turns screaming
into a microphone: “Where’s the guy with the boshafshofa?”

Or “Where’s the guy with the crazy hairdo?”

Moammar and his Green Book get the boot. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Moammar as Porky Pig, one of several barnyard animals chosen by Tripoli graffiti artists to depict their former leader. VOA Photo: James Brooke

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Libya’s Dog Barks, the Caravan Passes

Posted September 5th, 2011 at 5:01 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

In an audio message carried by Syria’s al-Rai TV, Moammar Gadhafi addressed Libyans Thursday night threatening “a long fight” that would see their nation “engulfed in flames.” Libya’s fugitive leader vowed: “The Libyan people cannot kneel, cannot surrender. We are not women.”

The next day, my taxi rounded a city corner, and I suddenly found myself face to face with Libya’s real women.

A laughing, giggling parade of women and children was coming down a side street in the Medina. Like female pied pipers they drew more and more followers as families tumbled out of apartments and high walled compounds.

There were chic young girls in lipstick, designer sunglasses, and big smiles as they walked arm and arm. There were traditional grandmothers, taking excited grandchildren by the hand, and ululating as if they were back in the oasis.

Driving back to the Radisson Al Mahary hotel, my taxi driver patiently threaded his way around more and more knots of women and children gathering on street corners. They all were preparing to walk in the same direction.

From my 13th floor balcony in the Radisson, I saw the same phenomenon – times 100.

Ignoring threats of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's leader-in-hiding, thousands of cars inch down Tripoli's Corniche coastal highway to Family Night at Martyrs' Square. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Stretching down the Corniche, Tripoli’s ocean side boulevard, traffic was a long, thick red smear of tail lights – four lanes wide and kilometers long. After Friday afternoon prayers, everyone going to Martyrs’ Square.

Fighters were told to stop firing their guns in the air. It was family night on the square, down in the Medina.

Singing the nation’s new anthem, tens of thousands of women and children gathered around a block long banner in the red, green and black colors of Libya’s new rebel flag.

Bounded on one side by a massive, ancient wall of the Red Fortress, the square was created during the Italian colonial period. It was then called Piazza Italia. After Independence in 1951, it was called Independence Square. After Col. Gadhafi seized power, in 1969, he renamed it Green Square, after the color of his revolution.

From a high balcony in the fortress wall, he would give radical
speeches, often containing pronouncements that would echo around the world.

But Friday night, a banner in the colors of the rebel flag hung from that iconic balcony.

Block by block, neighborhood by neighbhorhood, Tripoli women and children turned out for Family Night on Martyrs' Square. Photo: James Brooke

The morning after, it would be common journalistic practice to report that Tripoli’s women and children turned out en mass in defiance of Moammar Gadhafi. The family night celebration took place only 24 hours after Gadhafi promised to drown the streets of Tripoli in blood.

But it would be more accurate to say that the women blew off “Brother Leader” as yesterday’s man, a blowhard out of touch with reality, sending blustering, poor quality audio tapes from a secret desert hiding place.

Libyan children may be too young to catch the finer points of their nation’s revolution. But for them, Friday night on the square was another chance to sing ditties that, to the untrained ear, sound like Arabic versions of the Munchkins singing: ‘Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is Dead.”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

In Tripoli – Dumb Questions Get Smart Answers

Posted August 30th, 2011 at 2:23 pm (UTC+0)

In journalism,”dumb” questions often get smart answers.

In Tripoli in recent days, I have repeatedly asked Libyans if they think
Moammar Gadhafi or his politically ambitious sons can one day make a comeback.

People look at me with incredulity, as if the foreigner has a learning disability.

Mohammed Abou Gabha, manning a checkpoint, is only 21 year old but he has a Phd in surviving in a dictatorship. VOA Photo: J. Nedelii

Impossible, never, he is a criminal, are some of the responses.

Rajeb Alghriani believed the solution was to talk loudly. He was helping his son clean up a burned out police station next to his house.

He shouted, slowly, in my face. “Finish. Forty-two years in our head. Dictator. Finish. Finish.”

And a comeback for the Gadhafi clan?

“Gadhafi? Heh, heh, heh. Never. Never. Never.”

Then, when he discovered that we could communicate more easily in Italian, he
invited me to dinner.

Interviewing at a road block, it was a French reporter’s turn to play Agent

Why, he asked, was everyone in Tripoli shouting

“Yahia Gadhafi — Up with Gadhafi” – only one month ago?

Missaoud Barouni, a 56-year-old retired oil engineer sitting at the wheel of
his car, grew serious.

“In Tripoli, people said ‘Long Live Gadhafi’ because they were scared.
Before, if I said anything else, they could come after me, my children.”

The same question went to Mohammed Abou Gabha, who was manning the checkpoint. Although aged 21, he had a wiser understanding of how to survive under a dictatorship than some people three times his age.

On my audio recording, his voice jumps off the tracks: “You are TV guys, right?
And, you are recording us, right? If Gadhafi see that I say: ‘Down Gadhafi!’ That is not good. They will catch me and put me in prison and
kill me and all my family.”


Since the 1970s, Gadhafi has projected around the world the image of Libya
as a militant, aggressive nation at war with Europe and the United States.

In that light, it is startling how quickly Libyans have reverted to form as
a mellow Mediterranean people with great smiles and hospitality.

I have passed through 100 checkpoints on the strength of my Western face.

For the one time I was asked for my passport, I have been invited five times
into people’s homes for iftar, the post-sundown dinner that breaks the
Ramadan fast. In a nation short of everything, these invitations are

“America — good”, armed young men say, waving me through checkpoints. They apologize for their rudimentary English, saying that Gadhafi wanted to keep them isolated from the world.

With 90 percent of its population strung along the beach, the new Libya
seems to about to turn its back on Africa, and return to its geographical
destiny – as a Mediterranean nation.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Welcome to Tripoli…

Posted August 25th, 2011 at 3:38 pm (UTC+0)

In the last 24 hours, I drove with two VOA colleagues from southern Tunisia through the desert and mountains to Tripoli, Libya, on the Mediterranean. Troops loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi still control the coastal road.

Voting with their feet, Libyan family waiting in Dhiba, Tunisia to return home to Libya. Long line of family cars, many bedecked with rebel flags, indicated that many thought the regime of Col. Gaddafi is on its last legs. VOA Photo: Japhet Weeks

Leaving Tunisia’s Djerba Island, we stopped at Tatouine to stock up on necessities before crossing into Libya. We loaded up our minivan with bottled water, dried food and nuts. Working a dusty ATM, I managed to pump 2,000 Tunisian dinars out of the last bank machine between me and the border. We had been told that Libya, the middle class oil economy of North Africa, is now running on a cash only basis.
The endless expanse of beige desert around Tatouine was so dry and moonlike that it was used in the filming of the first Star Wars movie. Our ribbon of asphalt took us close to the 1942 headquarters of Rommel, the Nazi’s ‘Desert Fox.” Preserved in the dry, windless climate, the slit trenches stand untouched.
For me, this military landscape has a personal connection. In the winter of ’42-43, my father, John L. B. Brooke, drove his American Field Service ambulance, essentially from Cairo to Tunis. Attached to the British Eighth Army, he suffered a setback early in the drive.
In the dark, in El Alamein, he took a wrong turn. His ambulance was stopped by a hail of German machinegun bullets. He and his fellow driver spent the night in a trench and eventually made it back OK to British lines – on foot.

Empty store shelves in Zitan, Libya. Shortages are spreading throughout Libya, once the richest country of North Africa. VOA Photo: Japhet Weeks

On Tuesday, as we approached Libya, I hoped that, seven decades later, my reverse trip across the North African desert, would be less eventful. Aside from one blown tire, our drive to the border went well.
With only one land crossing open to Libya, Tunisia evidently braced for a spillover of Libya’s civil war. Coils upon coils of fresh concertina wire glinted in the desert sun. Close scrutiny of the hills revealed freshly dug army posts, establishing commanding positions over the road.
But, despite the blazing sun, the border crossing was festive. Dozens of family cars, with their distinctive white and black Libyan license plates, lined up to leave Tunisia. Every family seemed to have stocked up on the new red, black and green flag of “Free Libya.”
Children happily waved their new flags. In a vote of confidence that the rebels are winning control of the country, Libyan men were bringing their families home. Mohammed, whose only European language was broken German, proudly showed off his five sons, all packed into his sedan with his wife.
Tunisia border police stamped our passports out of Dehiba.

Gaddafi banner hangs upside down on a garbage dumpster in Tripoli. VOA Photo: Japhet Weeks

Fifty meters away, rebels cradling automatic weapons welcome us to what they call ‘Free Libya.” They peered inside our car and waved us on – me, Elizabeth Arrott, VOA’s Cairo Bureau Chief, video journalist Japhet Weeks and Jamie Kirchick of Radio Free Europe.
Immediately, the graffiti started.
A garbage can was spray painted in Arabic: “Gaddafi House.”
One caricature showed the Colonel with buck teeth. In another, he was cross-eyed. In another, the self-styled “King of Kings’ was shown with snot drooling out of his left nostril.
It suddenly dawned on me that many normal Libyans shared the assessment of many outsiders: their “Brother Leader” of 42 years in power was an eccentric nut job.
Rebel attempts at graffiti in English fail on grammar, but win high marks for sincerity: “Gaddafi Out of Service.” And, this message from a mountain village: “Thanks for anyone supporting us.”
At one checkpoint, manned by rebels dressed in t-shirts, shorts and sandals, the flags of France and Qatar flapped in the desert breeze. One hour down the road, we passed a base guarded by three men in desert beige uniforms. Outside flapped the distinctive flag of Qatar, with its fields of white and maroon joined in a saw tooth seam.
Special force troops from Qatar, Britain and France have helped to train the rag-tag rebels.
We pushed on toward the coastal town of Zawiya, which had repelled a major Qaddafi attack as recently as Sunday. It was dusk now, and I was breaking a self-made rule that had gotten me through 13 wars: never travel after dark.
The road wound down from the mountains in sharp hairpin turns. Road blocks got more serious. In an effort to bottle the rebels up in the mountains, Col. Gaddafi’s forces had towed from the seacoast, three-meter high cement blocks. Shaped like giant versions of a child’s jacks, they towered over our sedan as we slowly wound between these white cement boulders. At each checkpoint, we turned on the dome lights in the car, smiled, and wished ‘Salaam Aleikum’ to every young man with an automatic weapon.
Rebel control now extends to the Mediterranean coast. We turned left at a massive, illuminated oil refinery, and soon were standing in front of the only working hotel in Zawiya.
Men with guns and journalists with worried looks milled in front of the barred gates of the hotel. NATO planes buzzed overhead in unceasing air patrols.
I overheard an Italian journalist say ‘rapiti’ – kidnapped. Several hours earlier, a car load of Italian reporters in Tripoli had stopped at what proved to be a “false checkpoint” on a road outside Zawiya. The men manning the checkpoint shot the driver dead and took four Italians hostage. The Italian reporter told me that ‘banditi’ had ‘sold’ the four journalists to Gaddafi forces. Game changer.
I talked with my colleagues and a bullet-headed British security consultant working for Canadian TV. We decided to push on to Tripoli in the morning, but in convoy. The hotel was full. We spent an uneasy night on dirty mattresses on floors in a nearby “liberated” private house that the rebels offered us.
Thursday morning, our convoy of three cars pulled out – two VOA/RFE cars and a vanload of Italian reporters. Journalists who had helmets and flak jackets, put them on.
The 50 kilometer drive from Zawiya, essentially a western Tripoli suburb, to Tripoli’s beach front took two hours.
The boulevards were spookily clear, only a rare car. Sidewalks were even more deserted – I spotted one pedestrian in one hour. Over three hours, I spotted one Libyan woman. We rolled down commercial avenues where every single store was closed. This made for kilometer after kilometer of locked metal shutters. This was more than Ramadan.
A highway junction provided a tableau of NATO’s precision bombing. Making a slow left turn, we saw how a direct hit had destroyed a Qaddafi military control post. The roof was smashed in, leaving air conditioners dangling crazily from cement walls. Remnants of sand bag emplacements still looked out from what was left of the second floor. Not a house on either side had been damaged.
We passed another NATO target, the base used by the 32nd Brigade, an urban assault unit commanded by Khamis al-Gadhafi, one of the colonel’s sons. Burned out tanks and pickup trucks littered the front gate. But the walls were covered with the telltale Arabic graffiti of the victors – the rebels. Our driver offered to take us in for a look. We voted to press on for Tripoli.
As the western approach road got closer to Tripoli, the checkpoints became more frequent and more serious. By the time, we were in the capital, they appeared on each block, manned by wary men from the mountains who proved incapable of giving us directions to the beach.
The first hotel we tried, the Corinthian, was full. Journalists in bullet resistant jackets milled around the muggy lobby. Outside, rebel guards were taut, on edge. They had the humorless air of men fresh from a fire fight — and fully prepared for the next one.
I asked one about the Radisson. He only replied: “Danger. Danger.”
(We later learned that about 15 minutes after we drove off, a firefight erupted around the Corinthian).
I was in the lead car of our three-car press convoy. Our Zawiya driver said he knew the way to the Radisson. Soon, after picking his way through deserted streets, it was clear he was totally lost. The mountain men at the check points sent us in different directions.
After a series of false starts, we found ourselves in a recognizable landscape.
The high avocado green and mustard yellow trim walls of Col. Gadhafi’s six square kilometer base. The base’s outer walls bore the signs a heavy assault — blast marks, burn marks and, in some cases, holes blown through reinforced concrete. All vehicles outside the walls were charred wrecks.
We came to a roundabout. With olive green field tents pitched on the grass, it was the camp for civilian supporters of Col. Gadhafi. But the tents were all empty.
My car circled around slowly, rubber tires crunching on broken glass and over spent brass cartridge cases. We passed dozens of smashed up and burnt out cars. Then, three large orange earthmovers blocked our exit. They had been parked sideways, their giant tires shot out, presumably by Gadhafi soldiers hoping to blunt the onslaught of rebels – a modern day desert cavalry of pickup trucks with heavy cannons mounted on the back.

A bullet painted with the new red, black and green Libyan flag at a rebel checkpoint in downtown Tripoli VOA Photo: Japhet Weeks

Stopped by the earthmovers, I surveyed the landscape. The round human shapes on the grass looked familiar. One, two, three probably eight corpses swelling in the Mediterranean sun. They were dressed in civilian clothes.
Tires crunching over more broken glass, our car found an exit.
‘Ok, ok’ the driver assured. I knew things were not OK.
The landscape changed. A large heroic poster of Col. Gadhafi stood untouched. In full dress uniform, he waved to us and to the imagined masses.
About 200 meters beyond, the Gadhafi portrait, the driver grinned, slowed the car and said: “Radisson.”
Wrong. He had delivered three carloads of journalists to the Rixos Al Nasr, the luxury affiliate of the downtown Rixos. At the downtown Rixos, Gadhafi militia men held 36 foreign journalists captive for five days, until yesterday.
Soon unidentified armed men were milling around our cars.
Spying ammunition boxes piled on the hotel bellboy’s brass baggage cart, I asked if there were any free rooms, preferably two doubles with separate beds.
“Credentials” demanded the lead man with the gun. I fished out my VOA building pass. His brow furrowed. After a long pause, he read ‘V’.
Eventually, our translator emerged and explained we were really looking for the Radisson, not Rixos.
Discussion, discussion.

Then, a rebel pickup truck convoy rounded a corner and sped toward us. I have never seen so many men packed in the back of a pickup truck. All carrying automatic weapons. All pumped for action.
On spying Japhet’s TV camera, they raised their right arms to flash V for Victory signs. They shouted ‘Allahu Akhbar.” We smiled and waved.
That broke the ice. Soon we were on our way, going the wrong way down one-way streets, easing through red lights, on our way to the Radisson.
Fifteen minutes and fifteen checkpoints later, we were entering the Radisson, walking across the Col. Gadhafi portrait that had been freshly laid out as a welcome doormat.
“We were in hiding,” the Turkish manager, said to explain why rooms were not ready.
As he called around town to cajole chambermaids to come back to work, I walked over to a widescreen TV to listen to the news. The Italian journalists had been released without harm.
Looking down, I realized I had one foot through the gold frame that until one hour earlier held the lobby portrait of Col. Gadhafi.
Back to the reception desk, I told the manager that we had a little problem finding the Radisson Blu.
He laughed. It is a branding issue, he said. Radisson took over the oceanfront hotel only a few months ago. Everyone in Tripoli still calls it as the Al Mahary – or baby camel.
Indeed, high atop the hotel is the image of a baby camel. And now I have a map of Tripoli.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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