Roger Boyes

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If you think lockdown has been a strain, you should try it in a state that has been battened down for decades. Bingeing on television in Kim Jong-un’s hermit kingdom has just become more dangerous, food is disappearing fast and the spread of coronavirus is a state secret. And lest his put-upon subjects get the crazy idea that life could be better elsewhere, the North Korean leader has declared a culture war on South Korea.

A new law provides for between five and 15 years in a labour camp for watching or owning bootlegged South Korean films and K-pop videos, which are smuggled into the country via China.…  Seguir leyendo »

The problem with freezing conflicts in a defective fridge is that after a while they start to stink. That’s what happened to the nasty ancestral feud between the Armenians and Azeris in the rugged mountain terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh. Vladimir Putin slammed them into the freezer drawer marked “Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, Transnistria and miscellaneous other territories — to be consumed at leisure” and forgot. Now he is faced with a full-scale war on the southern borders of Russia that could soon turn into a geopolitical flashpoint.

That’s how imperial power unravels: the centre neglects the periphery, blood is spilt and strength ebbs away from the leader.…  Seguir leyendo »

Angela Merkel may be patronisingly pigeon-holed as Mutti, the consensus-seeking matriarch of Europe, but she is also capable of wielding the assassin’s blade. A crucial step in her rise to power in Germany was the way she used a strategically placed comment article to turn over her mentor Helmut Kohl. After being pushed aside, the great trencherman got some petty revenge by telling a would-be biographer that Merkel had barely known how to hold her cutlery at the dinner table when he first took on the callow East German.

Well, Merkel certainly improved her knife skills. Two of the men now positioning themselves for the imminent arrival of the post-Merkel era were sacked by her in the past because she feared their ambition.…  Seguir leyendo »

The hand-painted matryoshka doll that separates into ever smaller components is more than a tourist cliché for visitors to Moscow. It is also the design principle of a daunting weapon in the new battle zone of outer space.

The Russian satellite Kosmos 2542, launched last November, gave birth to a sub-satellite, Kosmos 2543. Baby Kosmos started to stalk an American spy satellite. Then, last month, 2543 released a high-speed projectile in what appeared to the United States and Britain to be something like a weapons test.

The Kremlin says that these manoeuvres are all about inspecting damage to Russia’s space fleet.…  Seguir leyendo »

Aphrodite rose gracefully out of the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and its Nereids guided sailors in distress. How did this sea, cradle of so many civilisations, end up as a military flashpoint? This year its eastern shores could become Europe’s equivalent of the South China Sea, bristling with great power tension, or a model for co-operation. I would like to believe the latter but it is going to require a leap of faith in the ability of hard-nosed autocrats to give ground and in terrorist groups to show restraint. That’s a stretch.

Let’s start with the positive. The discovery of large undersea hydrocarbon reserves is giving shape to a new regional constellation: Egypt and Cyprus, Israel and Greece.…  Seguir leyendo »

‘Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!” The instructions to the Delta team in pursuit of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were probably less direct than that of the Mexican crime lord in the Sam Peckinpah splatter movie but there’s little doubt that it was effectively an American hit job. In the end, the trapped leader of the Islamic State death cult blew himself up, sparing the need for an awkward debate about the ethics of targeted assassinations.

The problem, though, is that most modern terror organisations cannot be decapitated. When Osama bin Laden was eventually run to ground in Pakistan in 2011, a cache of porn and works by Noam Chomsky on the bookshelves of his hideout, it became clear he had become largely irrelevant to the daily proceedings of al-Qaeda.…  Seguir leyendo »

School textbooks in Syria make uncomfortable reading. Jews, pupils are told, reject Allah’s divine truth, their state is illegitimate, Israeli occupation of Arab lands is a crime. A 25-year-old Syrian, whatever his views of Bashar al-Assad, whatever his personal misery, will have been brought up with these unquestioned views and some will have drawn the conclusion: it is impossible, indeed wrong, to live side by side with Jews.

We are seeing the results of this in Europe today. Antisemitism is on the rise, especially in countries that took in large numbers of migrants from Arab countries. At the outset of this month’s Hannukah festival, two Syrians and a Palestinian firebombed a synagogue in Gothenburg, Sweden.…  Seguir leyendo »

When Emmanuel Macron gets angry he often seems merely petulant, a thwarted princeling. Recently, however, in Abidjan, the de facto capital of Ivory Coast, the French president was more convincing, brimming with Old Testament outrage. “These days in Africa there are Africans who enslave other Africans,” he boomed.

The reference was to Libyans holding slave auctions of would-be refugees from Nigeria and Senegal. Some are sold to local farmers, others to building contractors. Deeply in debt to people-smugglers, unable and unwilling to return home, unwanted in Europe, bullied and beaten in Libya’s holding camps, they inhabit a miserable limbo. And as Macron told African leaders, this is not solely a European dilemma.…  Seguir leyendo »

The street-wise but pious kid from Istanbul’s harbour district is both a victim and a fighter. According to the film The Chief, the young Tayyip Erdogan was a frequent mosque-goer, protested when a referee refused to interrupt a football game for prayers and was chucked into jail for reciting a poem that goes: “the minarets are our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers”.

Across Europe’s Turkish communities, where the film is being shown this week, audiences may well be dabbing their eyes and declaring: “That’s our boy!” President Erdogan’s spin doctors certainly hope so. There are four million registered voters outside Turkey and the referendum on April 16 — over boosting the president’s powers to near-Putin levels — is looking as if it could be a near-run thing.…  Seguir leyendo »

There is a strange, embarrassed silence from Moscow about how it intends to celebrate the red letter year of 2017, the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution. One reason is this: left-wing populist uprisings have been faring so badly in Latin America that the communist founding myths, the storming of the Winter Palace, and the execution of the Romanov dynasty, just seem like the beginning of a grisly experiment that is still going devastatingly wrong.

When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, the Russians were immensely proud. Marxism-Leninism, it appeared, had been successfully exported to the American continent, to the backyard of the Yankee superpower.…  Seguir leyendo »

Is Donald Trump-style populism, Trumpismo, ready for export to Europe? We will get the first hints this weekend when Austrians may well vote for Europe’s first far-right head of state, and when a constitutional referendum in Italy goes “wrong” — that is, when voters ignore the advice of a comfortable elite. Imagine how this could unfold: an Italian government led by the Five Star movement demanding a referendum on the country’s membership of the eurozone, an Austrian rejection of closer EU integration and maybe, just maybe, a President Marine Le Pen threatening to blow up the European dream. If you thought 2016 was a rough ride, just wait for the 2017 revolutions.…  Seguir leyendo »

It all started as a bit of Moscow hoodlum-politics, the settling of scores. No one at the court of Vladimir Putin imagined that Donald Trump would emerge as the Republican contender for the US presidency. Rather, the Kremlin assumed that the shadowy monied American elites would chew up Trump and spit him out, just as Putin himself had gobbled up for breakfast Boris Berezovsky, another politically ambitious businessman.

So Russian interference in the election was from the outset about muddying the democratic process and doing some eye-for-an-eye with Hillary Clinton. The writer Peter Pomerantsev compares Putin to Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, shouting “You talkin’ to me?”…  Seguir leyendo »

Try as he might, playwright George Bernard Shaw could not find a bad thing to say about Stalin’s Soviet Union. The workers? Not downtrodden at all, he wrote after a 1933 trip, but hopeful and enthusiastic. As for the purges of Stalin’s critics: “They often have to be pushed off the ladder with a rope around their necks.”

Blinkered liberals — not just Shaw but the likes too of Beatrice Webb — were useful to the tyrant in Moscow. They created a fog around Stalin’s intentions, muffled protest, justified inaction.

Today wealthy and corrupt autocratic leaders in the central Asian republics, Russia’s backyard, are performing a similar whitewash: they are signing up former statesmen (and not just Tony Blair), commissioning hagiographies and paying top dollar to western PR companies to rebrand their image.…  Seguir leyendo »

Don’t expect Stalingrad 2.0. The epic 1943 Russian offensive on the Volga River turned the tide against Hitler — but a victory over Islamic State in Mosul is unlikely to carry similar historic clout in the war against terror. Rather, the fast-approaching showdown on the Tigris could go horribly wrong, discrediting the supposedly reformed Iraqi army and accelerating a new, even more vicious phase in the evolution of Isis as the world’s most high-profile terrorist outfit.

Thrashing Isis in Mosul would of course be a prize worth winning. It would dent the group’s standing among angry young Muslims, reduce its cash flow, take away its last major urban bastion in Iraq.…  Seguir leyendo »

What a way to run a planet. Not since Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on his delegate’s desk in 1960 has there been such open animosity at the United Nations. At the emergency session of the security council last weekend, the US accused Russia of barbarism in bombing Aleppo, the British told Russia it was involved in war crimes by helping the Assad regime’s “sick blood-lust”. When the Syrian ambassador started to speak, the US, British and French representatives stomped out of the chamber.

The Syrian war, the crisis of an ancient city under siege, is highlighting how dysfunctional the UN, and in particular its security council, has become.…  Seguir leyendo »

It’s still August, month of victoria plums, grouse shooting and doomsday scenarios. Right on cue comes a report from Rand, the US think tank, into the odds of a war between the US and China which concludes: it’s worth worrying about.

A future Sino-American bust-up, say the forecasters, could be short and bloody or long and devastating. Take your pick. “Sensors, weapon guidance, digital networking and other information technologies used to target opposing forces have advanced to the point where both US and Chinese military forces seriously threaten each other,” say the authors. That doesn’t mean either country wants a war, nor would such a war necessarily turn nuclear.…  Seguir leyendo »

One way of understanding war is to see it as capitalism with the gloves off. That certainly is how the hidden war in Yemen is being viewed by many charities and NGOs: Saudi Arabia and 13 other wealthy Arab states have been bombarding one of their poorest neighbours to stop the Yemenis from becoming an ally of Iran. In doing so this Riyadh-led coalition against Shia insurgents is fuelling an arms bonanza in Britain; it may be hitting factories in Yemen but it’s securing jobs in the midlands. More than £2.8 billion of British arms orders have been authorised for delivery to Saudi Arabia since bombing began 17 months ago.…  Seguir leyendo »

It was strange to meet Vaclav Havel again the other day. Strange to see him in a suit, without a cigarette cupped in his hand; as an elder statesman rather than a scruffy dissident playwright. Most of all, though, it was strange to be talking to him about Europe. For the Havel generation that spawned the 1989 revolutions, Europe signified freedom, a set of deeply entrenched cultural values, a tradition of tolerance and reflection that would outlast communism and numb-skulled autocrats.

Now we were discussing a Europe that was trying to slow its loss of global influence and camouflage its lack of political will by tinkering with its institutions.…  Seguir leyendo »

The British have always been beastly about the Swiss. Oscar Wilde thought the Alpine republic was inhabited solely by theologians and waiters; Sydney Smith argued that it was an inferior version of Scotland. The consensus seems to be that the Swiss did not deserve their extravagantly beautiful landscape. Ethnocentric claptrap, of course. We just resent that you can prosper by avoiding wars; wimps win. Remember that old Orson Welles line: “They had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Well, yesterday's referendum in Switzerland shows how wrong we are with all our tinkling cowbell, Heidi- skipping-through-the-meadows clichés.…  Seguir leyendo »