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Trouble at the FCO

Jonathan Steele, 28 July 2016

... Despite​ explicit warnings,’ Chilcot said, introducing his report, ‘the consequences of the invasion were underestimated.’ A good deal of the blame for this has to be laid at the door of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Chilcot listed four possible consequences that many people had identified before the war was launched: the risk of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and increased al-Qaida activity ...


Jonathan Steele, 19 December 1985

Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista 
by Omar Cabezas, translated by Kathleen Weaver.
Cape, 233 pp., £9.95, September 1985, 0 224 02814 6
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... Like all revolutions, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua is about the present and the future – idealistic dreams of a new society built on impatience and anger with the dark reality of today. Like all colonial revolutions, it is also about the past. There is a half-remembered sense of a past which has to be restored: a more glorious time which must have preceded the arrival of the occupying invaders, a past when the people had their own sovereignty, their own dignity, their own freedom to make mistakes ...

The reporter who got it right

Jonathan Steele, 4 April 1985

Weakness and Deceit: US Policy and El Salvador 
by Raymond Bonner.
Hamish Hamilton, 408 pp., £13.95, February 1985, 9780241113929
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... On 14 January 1981 the pack of Western journalists in San Salvador ‘scurried across town to the Presidential Palace’, as Raymond Bonner puts it in this important book. Alerted that the United States Ambassador, Robert White, would make a significant statement, they crowded round the entrance. ‘I believe reports that a group of approximately a hundred men landed from Nicaragua about 4 p ...

Half a Revolution

Jonathan Steele: In Tunisia, 17 March 2011

... It felt like the finale of Fidelio, a crowd of prisoners staggering into the sunlight, free at last, their voices rising triumphantly in ‘Hail to the Day’. We were in a conference hall in Tunis, packed with close to 2000 people, with every seat taken and dozens standing in the aisles, singing nationalist songs to the accompaniment of an electric organ on the stage ...

Wanted but Not Welcome

Jonathan Steele, 19 March 2020

The Unsettling of Europe: The Great Migration, 1945 to the Present 
by Peter Gatrell.
Allen Lane, 548 pp., £30, August 2019, 978 0 241 29045 3
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... Upheaval​ and displacement on the European continent are nothing new. Great movements of people took place between the two world wars and again, on a massive scale, in the aftermath of the second. The emphasis today is largely on forced migration by non-Europeans, yet the anxieties over ‘integration’ which have grown dramatically since the wave of arrivals in the Mediterranean in 2015 were also present during the postwar period, in relation to Germans and Eastern Europeans ...


Jonathan Steele: In Syria, 22 March 2012

... Roughly twice a week several carloads of people set off from middle-class areas of central Damascus for a ‘party’ in the unlikely setting of Qudsaya, an impoverished hill town about eight miles northwest of the city. As the guests drive up the steep streets to the town’s small central square, young men, some with scarves wrapped round their faces, look out for signs of danger ...

What does China want?

Jonathan Steele: China in the Stans, 24 October 2013

Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia 
by Philip Shishkin.
Yale, 316 pp., £20, June 2013, 978 0 300 18436 5
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The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change and the Chinese Factor 
by Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse.
Hurst, 271 pp., £40, October 2012, 978 1 84904 179 9
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... The usual view of the ‘stans’, the five states that emerged in Central Asia after the Soviet Union’s collapse, is that they are a potential site of geostrategic rivalry: it is after all the only place in the world where three imperial powers are fighting for control of the same territory. Russia, the most recent external ruler, exploited the area for two centuries; for commercial as well as nostalgic reasons it is reluctant to lose its remaining influence ...

Another War Lost

Jonathan Steele: In Afghanistan, 20 December 2012

... Russia’s man in Kabul, Andrey Avetisyan, has been travelling to Afghanistan since 1983, when he was a student of Pashto during the Soviet occupation. When Gorbachev took power and started negotiating the Soviet withdrawal Avetisyan was sent to Kabul for two years as a diplomat. He went back again in 1989, after the troops left, and watched Najibullah’s Soviet-backed regime survive for three more years ...

Doing Well out of War

Jonathan Steele: Chechnya, 21 October 2004

... The Beslan school siege would seem to have closed the door on a political resolution of the war in Chechnya. Vladimir Putin was still palpitating with anger three days after the dénouement when he met a group of Western academics and journalists who had been invited before the siege on an expenses-paid trip to meet him. ‘Why should we talk to child-killers?’ Putin asked me ...

Lukashenko’s Way

Jonathan Steele, 27 September 2012

Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship 
by Andrew Wilson.
Yale, 304 pp., £20, October 2011, 978 0 300 13435 3
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The Last Dictatorship in Europe: Belarus under Lukashenko 
by Brian Bennett.
Hurst, 358 pp., £30, January 2012, 978 1 84904 167 6
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... The one thing most Europeans know about Belarus is that it has the most repressive political system and the most authoritarian ruler in Europe. The country’s parliamentary elections on 23 September, which most opposition parties are boycotting, will confirm that fact. It is also the only European country which still administers the death penalty. (If you widen the field to include the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, there are six other dictatorships: Azerbaijan and the five ‘stan’ states of Central Asia – all, like Belarus, former Soviet republics ...


Jonathan Steele: Neo-Taliban, 9 September 2010

... The road from Kabul to Kandahar was once known as the Eisenhower highway. Built in the 1950s, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed peacefully for Afghan friendship, this US-funded 300-mile ribbon of tarmac was plied for two decades by lorries and garishly painted buses with no concern for security. Among the passengers were half-stoned Western hippies on the overland trail through Asia ...


Jonathan Steele: In Transdniestria, 14 May 2009

... I have lived in and reported from Communist countries for many years, but until this spring I had never been to one where the Communists had won power in a nationwide multi-party poll that international observers judged broadly free and fair. Moldova is unique. The old nomenklatura still rules half the former Soviet republics, from Central Asia to Azerbaijan and Belarus, not to mention Russia itself ...

Who started it?

Jonathan Steele: Who started the Cold War?, 25 January 2018

The Cold War: A World History 
by Odd Arne Westad.
Allen Lane, 710 pp., £30, August 2017, 978 0 241 01131 7
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... More than​ a quarter of a century has elapsed since the Cold War ended and the surprise is that few historians have yet attempted to analyse it from start to finish, even though for two generations it threatened the world with nuclear armageddon. The balance of terror between the superpowers may have seemed to offer reassurance – as if it could last for ever – but that was always an illusion ...

Putin in Syria

Jonathan Steele, 21 April 2016

... Flanked​ by his ministers of defence and foreign affairs, Vladimir Putin looked characteristically stern as he went on television on 14 March to announce a significant reduction in Russia’s military presence in Syria. Putin rarely smiles in public but on this occasion he could have been forgiven some inner gloating. In less than six months he had reinvigorated the forces of his ally Bashar al-Assad and helped them to make strategic advances, thereby preventing a repetition of Western-backed regime change on the pattern of Iraq and Libya ...

Was it better in the old days?

Jonathan Steele: The Rise of Nazarbayev, 28 January 2010

Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan 
by Jonathan Aitken.
Continuum, 269 pp., £20, July 2009, 978 1 4411 5381 4
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... long road to nation-building. Kazakhstan was the last of the 15 republics to declare independence. Jonathan Aitken is an unlikely candidate to write a book on this subject. Since emerging from prison after his conviction for perjury in 1999 he has written books about himself and other public figures who fell from grace: Richard Nixon, his former special ...

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