November 29, 2009

The Dubai Effect

Max Boot is quite right that the Middle East needs Dubai, and not only because it embraces modernity and flouts the region's taboos. It's also an example of good government, at least by the Arab world's standards, and good economics if you look past its excesses.

The United Arab Emirates' most extravagant city-state has a more or less transparent market economy and a degree of personal freedom rarely found elsewhere in the Middle East outside Israel and Lebanon. The government doesn't micromanage the personal lives of its citizens as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor does it smother the economy with heavy state socialism as in Egypt and Syria. Its bureaucracy is efficient -- investors don't spend years acquiring permits and filling out paperwork before they can open a shopping center, a hotel, or a Starbucks. The Islamic religion is respected as it is everywhere else in the Middle East, but clerics don't make the rules.

Lebanon and Iraq have both been hailed as possible models for the rest of the region, but they aren't really. Maybe they will be someday, but they aren't today. Freewheeling Lebanon is more or less democratic, but it's unstable. It blows up every year. The Beirut Spring in 2005 ousted the Syrian military dictatorship, but shaking off Iran and its private Hezbollah militia has proved nearly impossible. Iraq is likewise still too violent and dysfunctional to be an inspiring model right now.

Many of the skyscrapering steel and glass cities of the Persian Gulf feel like soulless shopping malls. It wouldn't occur to anyone to suggest that one of these places is "the Paris of the Middle East," as Beirut has often been called. Dubai's outrageous attractions and socially liberal atmosphere, however, makes it something like a Las Vegas of the Middle East as a traveler's destination. And it really is something like a Hong Kong or Singapore as a place to do business.

It features prominently in Vali Nasr's compelling new book Forces of Fortune, where he argues that the Middle East may finally liberalize politically after it has first been transformed economically by a middle-class commercial revolution. Most in the West haven't noticed, but that revolution has already begun. And what he calls "the Dubai effect" is a key part of it.

"People in the region who visit Dubai," he writes, "return home wondering why their governments can't issue passports in a day or provide clean mosques and schools, better airports, airlines and roads, and above all better government."

He's right. Most Beirutis I know look down on Dubai as artificial and gimmicky, but just about everyone else in the region who isn't a radical Islamist thinks it's amazing.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:07 PM | Comments (21)

November 22, 2009

Terrorism's Mask of Sanity

The following article appears in the print version of the Autumn issue of Azure.

As of this writing, a war of words is heating up between Israel and Hezbollah that may lead to yet another round of armed conflict between the two. Hezbollah recently threatened to carry out overseas operations against Israeli interests in order to avenge the assassination of its military commander, Imad Mugniyeh, last year in Damascus; the Israeli government, for its part, warned Hezbollah that a steep price will be paid if it dares to proceed. Will Hezbollah make good on its claims, and risk bringing the wrath of the IDF down on Lebanon’s already-battered southern villages and the Shiite quarter in Beirut? True, predicting the course of events in the Middle East is difficult, if not impossible. When it comes to Hezbollah, however, one can play it safe by assuming the worst—or at the very least, being wary of rosy predictions. And there have been no lack of those: Ever since Lebanon’s “Party of God” (a literal translation of hizb allah) stopped hijacking airplanes and taking Westerners hostage, chronic underestimation of its intentions and capabilities has been the norm among journalists, policy analysts, and even Hezbollah experts.

One such widely-acknowledged expert is Augustus Richard Norton, whose book Hezbollah: A Short History is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. Norton has earned his reputation as a serious authority on Hezbollah, having conducted research in Lebanon for more than two decades and authored several volumes on that country in particular and the region in general. During the 1980s, when Hezbollah first emerged, he was a U.S. Army officer and military observer for the United Nations near the south Lebanese border with Israel; in 1993, he became a tenured professor of both international relations and anthropology at Boston University. Like all good academics, Norton strives here for an objective view of his subject: “The purpose of this book,” he writes in the prologue, “is to offer a more balanced and nuanced account of this complex organization” than has been provided before. He mostly succeeds. His short history is not a polemic, after all: He does not grind an axe, nor does he serve as a Hezbollah apologist, as some sympathetic Westerners have been wont to do. On the contrary, the book is long on facts and refreshingly short on opinion. Moreover, the new 2009 paperback edition includes an afterword that corrects some of the mistakes in the first edition.

In this short but dense volume, Norton documents in detail how and why Hezbollah was founded in South Lebanon in the crucible of civil war, and goes on to explain the group’s role during that war and how it emerged as the champion of Lebanon’s ideologically fractious Shia community. Like Hamas, Norton shows, Hezbollah acquired much of its support by providing social services such as education and medical care to parts of the country long neglected by the state—even as it waged a proxy war against the “Zionist enemy” to the south. During the last decade or so, however, Hezbollah has attempted to show a more moderate face to the world, following the laws of war a bit more than Hamas, and a lot more than Al Qaeda. Yet if Hezbollah may be described as “restrained” in comparison to some other terrorist groups, it is hardly moderate in any objective sense, a fact of which Norton is well aware. Indeed, he points out that toward the end of Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s, Hezbollah’s kidnapping spree made the country so dangerous for Westerners that the U.S. State Department prohibited using American passports to travel there until 1997. And if some analysts have split hairs over whether it is in fact a guerilla organization or a terrorist group, Norton’s account of the source of Hezbollah’s notoriety—its slate of kidnappings, murders, hijackings, and car bombings, usually against civilian targets, and some as far away as South America—should lay to rest any questions of that particular debate’s relevancy.

Nonetheless, there are some problems with Norton’s book, which the benefit of two years’ worth of hindsight have brought squarely into light. Aside from its exhaustive research and wealth of detail, it offers a valuable lesson on the misunderstanding that permeates most Westerners’ assessments of Hezbollah—a misunderstanding with dangerous implications for foreign policy in the Middle East.

*

As Norton’s book makes clear, there is such a thing as being too even-handed and balanced in one’s analysis. While he undoubtedly set out to be as objective as possible, as any good analyst or historian should be, more than once Norton lets this tendency get away from him. The result is a series of equivalences that are far-fetched at best, and absurd at worst.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this problem is Norton’s depiction of Hezbollah’s long series of confrontations with the State of Israel. From its inception, war with Israel has been a defining aspect of Hezbollah, and it is therefore no surprise that Israel’s northern border seems always just about to boil over. Yet, from Norton’s description, one would assume that both parties are equally to blame for this situation. Regarding the Second Lebanon war in 2006, for instance, he writes that “both sides were clearly itching for a fight.” Norton has a point here, but just barely: After Israel evacuated southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah started one skirmish after another along the border fence. The IDF, over time, grew weary of these low-level attacks, and prepared for a stronger response if they continued. To say, however, that Israel “itched” for a fight is a stretch. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak was elected in part because he promised to withdraw the army from Lebanon and end the conflict once and for all. As far as Israelis were concerned, they no longer had a reason to fight with Hezbollah about anything. They were flat-out sick of combat in Lebanon, in no way eager for more. In contrast, Hezbollah justifies its existence, ideologically, by continuing its “resistance” against and war with Israel.

Not two pages later is a similar example: Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman, Norton writes, referred “to Hezbollah as a cancer that would have to be cut out. The Israelis certainly have no monopoly on this sort of language; Hezbollah propaganda routinely refers to Israel as a cancer.” Again, this is technically accurate. Both Israel and Hezbollah have used the word “cancer” to describe each other. Norton’s attempt to draw an equivalence between these two usages, however, is questionable. Like it or not, there is a world of difference between describing an entire country as cancerous, and describing an aggressive terrorist organization in the same way.

In the conclusion to Norton’s chapter on the 2006 war, he uses the “both sides” formulation to make a point that is not just misleading, but false. “After the war of arms ended,” he writes, “the war of words began, as each side struggled to persuade friend and foe alike of their victory, revealing the fragility of claims on both sides.” It is true that plenty of Israelis mocked Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s declaration of “divine victory” from the smoldering ruins of the suburbs south of Beirut, but hardly any of them insisted they had won. On the contrary, the war was perceived as a catastrophe by Israel’s left, right, and center alike. In its aftermath, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s approval ratings plunged to single digits. Meanwhile, Nasrallah put up bombastic triumphant billboards throughout the territory he controlled, including the major road that connects Beirut to its international airport.

Such strained attempts at equivalence are at times just a minor annoyance, and I would be inclined to give Norton a pass on the matter, except for the fact that they expose his worst blind spot: His difficulty in acknowledging the simple fact that Hezbollah is nothing like Israel. Israel is a sovereign country and a democracy. Hezbollah is a theocratic terrorist organization backed by an equally theocratic regime in Iran. To paint them as in any way similar is bound to lead a historian into error, especially with regards to predicting how one, the other, or both are likely to behave in the future. In Norton’s case, that is exactly what has happened.

Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Shalem Center and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has pointed out on his Web site that Norton’s habit of giving Hezbollah too much credit long preceded the publication of Hezbollah: A Short History. In 1998, before Ehud Barak ordered the IDF out of southern Lebanon, Norton predicted, “Episodic attacks on Israel might occur from Lebanon, but the broadly popular resistance will close up shop when Israel leaves.” Later, in an article published in Middle East Policy, he went so far as to claim that Hezbollah would agree to its own disarmament.

Hezbollah, of course, must be mindful that the mood of general support that it now enjoys is hardly guaranteed, and that it would sacrifice much of its support base if it provoked violent Israeli retaliation against southern Lebanon. For that matter, it is apt to reiterate that Hezbollah calculates that it will be the beneficiary of an Israeli withdrawal, given its celebrated role in the resistance. Certainly, the modality of an Israeli withdrawal would include provisions for disarming Hezbollah in the South, as well as the creation of a security regime for the area. It is precisely this eventuality for which Hezbollah has been visibly preparing since its party congress in July 1995.

Unfortunately, none of this turned out to be true.

Norton further compounds the problem when, in the conclusion to Hezbollah, he equates the Shiite organization with Lebanon’s “March 14” movement, whose series of 2005 street protests succeeded in ousting the Syrian military. In late December of 2006, Hezbollah held a gigantic rally in downtown Beirut against the March 14 government led by Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and demanded that its own “March 8” alliance be given veto power over all government decisions. Hezbollah refused to disperse until its demands were met, drawing the country into a seventeen-months-long political crisis. “The previous year,” Norton writes,

Western governments, especially the U.S. government, endorsed and encouraged similar protests to topple a pro-Syrian government, but now the shoe was on the other foot. If Washington and the predominantly Sunni world was aghast at Shiite muscle flexing, especially since it might well benefit Iran’s power projection into the wider Middle East, perhaps the most profound importance of the December protest, if it remains peaceful, will be a model for collective action in other Arab locales, which is a prospect no less distressing to the Arab world’s autocrats.

But Hezbollah’s protest did not remain peaceful, as the March 14 protests did. On May 7 2008, following the Lebanese Government’s decision to shut down Hezbollah’s illegal telecommunications network in the international airport, the organization initiated an armed assault on the western half of Beirut and the Chouf mountains, carried out by militiamen wielding AK-47s, Molotov cocktails, sniper rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Government buildings, businesses, and houses in the university- and international-hotel district were attacked. Television stations were ransacked and firebombed. At least eighty-one people were killed.

There was, in other words, no symmetry whatsoever between the March 14 demonstrations and Hezbollah’s siege on Lebanon’s government; neither their aims nor their methods were in any way similar. The March 14 protests succeeded in forcing out a foreign occupation army. Hezbollah sought to weaken or overthrow the Seniora government, which was neither foreign nor a dictatorship, but rather democratically elected. Hezbollah’s patrons and armorers in Syria and Iran, by contrast, rule by brute force, a quality they have passed on to their Lebanese protégé. Norton’s unfortunate determination to see Hezbollah as favorably similar to the Arab world's answer to the "color" revolutions that previously swept Georgia and Ukraine led him to underestimate the organization’s intentions in the region, as well as the measures it would be willing to employ in their service.

*

If the first edition of Hezbollah: A Short History had been published this year, instead of in 2007, Norton might well have avoided most of these mistakes. He isn’t a dishonest writer, after all; he simply got some things wrong. In the new afterword to the paperback edition, he clears up some of his errors, and concludes with a far more realistic tone than before. “The threat of a new war cannot be ignored,” he writes on the last page of the afterword, “even if neither Israel nor Hezbollah seem particularly anxious for it to occur.” Perhaps more important, Norton warns that, “Should the United States or Israel, or both, attack Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities with the goal of thwarting Iran’s drive to build nuclear weapons, it is possible that Hezbollah would retaliate with its rocket arsenal against Israel.” Gone, it appears, are his assumptions that Hezbollah was on a path to reasonableness and moderation. For Norton, the last two years have apparently been a reality check.

As they have been for most of the rest of us, too. To give Norton the benefit of the doubt, I must confess that, in the past, I have made some of the same errors in judgment regarding Hezbollah. Although the Lebanese scene is not foreign to me, I also thought Israel’s withdrawal from that country should have ended the problem—though I wasn’t writing professionally about Hezbollah at the time. I also was caught off guard by the 2006 war, but so were most Lebanese and most Israelis. Even Hassan Nasrallah himself said he was surprised by the intensity of the conflagration he ignited. In the end, Norton’s errors are the same errors most of us made.

Why were so many people mistaken about Hezbollah? The truth is that it is easy to underestimate the organization. For a variety of reasons, Hezbollah often looks more reasonable than it actually is. For starters, it really is more disciplined and restrained than Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, and other militant Islamic groups in the Middle East. It really does compete in elections and join in parliamentary coalitions. And while it sometimes uses force to get its way, at other times it protests non-violently—something that would not even occur to the likes of Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Moreover, its sophisticated media relations department employs spokesmen who know exactly what liberal-minded Westerners want to hear. If you squint hard enough at Hezbollah, it can sometimes look like a somewhat cruder version of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), a group of former Islamists who really have joined the democratic mainstream.

During the time I lived in Beirut and since, I’ve spoken with numerous Hezbollah officials, and I know from experience that they use sanitized, politically correct language when speaking to Westerners, studiously avoiding the hysterical and bigoted rhetoric typical of the party’s Al Manar television network and newspapers. They’re much more adept at this than they used to be, and Norton, after listening to them for years, seems to have taken much of this talk at face value.

It is also possible that Norton, unlike many of us in the media, is unfamiliar with Hezbollah’s bullying tactics toward journalists of whom they disapprove. After cracking a joke about Hezbollah on my blog in late 2005, Hussein Naboulsi of their media relations department called me at home and said, “We know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.” During the war in 2006, Beirut-based Time magazine reporter Chris Allbritton wrote the following on his Web site, “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.” Reporter Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal had problems of his own in 2007: “My experience with Hezbollah this week has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth,” he wrote. “I had heard this from other journalist friends who have recently returned from Lebanon, but discovered it for myself this week: their interaction with the press borders on fascist.” Some of the Shiite party’s officials can be charming, even disarming. I, too, might have been inclined to cut Hezbollah some slack and take some of its moderate statements more seriously had I not seen its public-relations mask slip myself.

Hezbollah is not just the terrorist group, political party, and social-services organization Norton so ably documents. It is also a de facto overseas branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Nor does the organization make much of an attempt to hide this fact. Its original manifesto states, “We are the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran.… We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih (jurist) who fulfills all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him!” Posters of Khomeini and Iran’s current “supreme leader,” Ali Khamenei, are still plastered all over Hezbollah-controlled territory along the border with Israel and the suburbs south of Beirut, territory that is effectively an Iranian satellite state inside Lebanon. This is Hezbollah’s most defining characteristic, and it is the number-one reason the group cannot be adequately compared to other terrorist organizations or political parties.

If Hezbollah actually did resemble Israel or Lebanon’s March 14 coalition, Norton’s predictions would likely have turned out to be accurate. Unfortunately, the only equivalency that actually conforms to reality is between Hezbollah and its patron, the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. This, in turn, leads to the depressing conclusion that despite the confident analyses of Norton and many others, Hezbollah is not likely to change unless the government in Iran changes first. As long as people who, like Norton, make a living from writing on these issues miss this crucial point, they will continue to underestimate and misunderstand Hezbollah, its intentions, and the calamity it is capable of causing in the future.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:01 PM | Comments (119)

November 20, 2009

A Third Lebanon War Could Be Much Worse than the Second

Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah recently announced that he could hit any and every place in Israel with long-range missiles. That would mean that, unlike in 2006, Hezbollah could strike not only the northern cities of Kiryat Shmona and Haifa but also Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion International Airport, and the Dimona nuclear-power plant.

I dismissed his claim as a wild boast last week, but Israeli army commander Major General Gabi Ashkenazi confirmed it this week. So while we've all been worried about Iran's nuclear-weapons program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been quietly arming his chief terrorist proxy with more advanced conventional weapons.

A Third Lebanon War could make the Second Lebanon War in 2006 look like a minor kerfuffle. And the Second Lebanon War was anything but. When Noah Pollak and I covered it from the Israeli side, we found the whole northern swath of the country emptied of people and cars like it was the end of the world. The city of Tiberias looked like a zombie movie set. Kiryat Shmona is so close to the border that the air raid sirens often didn't start wailing until after Hezbollah's incoming Katyusha rockets had already exploded.

Meanwhile, pitched battles between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah seriously chewed up South Lebanon. The centers of entire towns were pulverized by Israeli air and artillery strikes. More than a thousand people were killed, many of them civilians used by Hezbollah as human shields.

Hezbollah is much more dangerous than any terrorist group that has ever been fielded from the West Bank or Gaza. It managed to create hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Israel, and it did so with fewer and shorter range rockets than it has now. And while the "Party of God" may think it's terrific that it can do what Hamas in Gaza only fantasizes about, its arsenal indirectly threatens Lebanon just as much if not more than it threatens Israel. Nasrallah can unleash a great deal of destruction, but it's still no match for what the IDF can dish out while fighting back.

If Israel's nuclear power plant comes under fire, if Tel Aviv skyscrapers explode from missile attacks, if Hezbollah manages to turn all of Israel into a kill zone where there is no place to run, Israelis will panic like they haven't since the 1973 Yom Kippur War when it briefly appeared the Egyptian army might overrun the whole country. I wouldn't want to be anywhere in Lebanon while Israelis are actively fending off that kind of assault. No country can afford to be restrained while fighting for its survival.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:18 AM | Comments (41)

November 16, 2009

Damascus Reverts to Form

Well, that didn’t last long. Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad announced he would resume peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions, but now he suddenly says it’s impossible. “What we lack is an Israeli partner,” he said, “who is ready to go forward and ready to come to a result.”

As an absolute dictator and a state sponsor of terrorism, Assad is in no position to boohoo about how the region’s only mature liberal democracy supposedly isn’t a peace partner — but he wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think he could get away with it. If even the United States, of all countries, is behaving as though Israel were the problem, why shouldn’t he play along?

In a different historical context, it might be amusing, as Baghdad Bob’s alternate-universe pronouncements were, to listen to the tyrannical Assad talk as though he’s the Syrian equivalent of Israel’s dovish Shimon Peres, while the elected Israeli prime minister is a Jewish Yasir Arafat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though, is acting as though the first part were true.

Sarkozy is working hard to boost France’s influence in the Middle East by carving out a role for himself as a mediator between Israelis and Arabs. When Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that they would hold talks, they did it through him. And this weekend Sarkozy offered to host Assad, Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a summit in Paris. He can’t host any such thing, however, if the belligerents on the Arab side are shut out. So Assad has to be brought in from the cold, whether he’s earned it or not.

He hasn’t. And now that his reputation is getting an undeserved scrubbing, brace yourself for the worst sort of passive-aggressive Orwellian grandstanding.

“What Obama said about peace was a good thing,” he said. “We agree with him on the principles, but as I said, what’s the action plan? The sponsor has to draw up an action plan.”

Notice what he’s done here? He’s portraying himself as though not only Netanyahu but also Barack Obama were less interested in peace than he is. It should be obvious, though, that Assad isn’t serious. He supports terrorist organizations that kill Americans, Israelis, Iraqis, and Lebanese — not exactly the sort of behavior one associates with leaders who agree with Barack Obama “on the principles.” Yet he’s blaming the United States for his own roguish behavior, because the U.S. does not have an “action plan.”

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:51 AM | Comments (14)

November 14, 2009

Amazing Photographs from Afghanistan

Take a look at these extraordinary pictures from Afghanistan by David Guttenfelder at the Denver Post Media Center.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:21 PM | Comments (4)

November 13, 2009

The Show Needn't Go On

This week the Israeli government announced will resume negotiations with Syria without preconditions, and the Syrians responded in kind.

Peace talks, if they ever actually start, aren't going anywhere, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows it. He's going through the motions so Western diplomats don't throw him and his country out in the cold. Syria's Bashar Assad knows it too. He's going through the motions so that he and his country can come in from the cold.

It has been years since I spoke to a single person in the Middle East who thinks the Arab-Israeli conflict will be resolved any time soon. Last time I visited Jerusalem with a half-dozen American colleagues, Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh bluntly told us to stop asking "What's the solution?"

"I don't see a real peace emerging over here," he said. "We should stop talking about it."

Some Westerners, though, can't stop talking about it and get bent out of shape when they hear comments like Toameh's from either side. As Evelyn Gordon pointed out here a few days ago, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner can't see the difference between Israeli disillusionment about the prospects for peace and an abandonment of the desire for peace in the abstract.

“What really hurts me," Kouchner said, "and this shocks us, is that before there used to be a great peace movement in Israel. … It seems to me, and I hope that I am completely wrong, that this desire has completely vanished, as though people no longer believe in it.”

It's not that people over there no longer want it. They've learned the hard way, repeatedly, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is no more stoppable right now than are plate tectonics.

Because supposedly right-thinking Westerners are appalled, Israel and Syria will pretend to hold talks while the more seasoned Western diplomats will pretend the talks stand a chance. It's like the old Russian joke about Communism: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:23 AM | Comments (16)

November 8, 2009

The Lives of Others

Twenty years ago, citizens of East Germany destroyed the Berlin Wall and set off a series of revolutions that demolished the totalitarian police states of Europe.

Like me, you probably won't be able to fly to Berlin to commemorate the anniversary this week. Might I suggest a film, then, if you'd like to mark the date?

If you haven't yet seen it, pick up or rent a copy of The Lives of Others, about East German civilians under surveillance by Stasi agents. It's one of the best films I've ever seen, and certainly the best film ever made about communism.

As many as 100 million people were murdered by communist regimes in the 20th century, but Hollywood is strangely uninterested in the topic. Perhaps one day Steven Spielberg will tackle Stalinism as he did Nazism. Until then, The Lives of Others is the film to watch, and what better time than the twentieth anniversary of the wall's destruction in Germany?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:27 PM | Comments (8)

November 6, 2009

Post-Communist Postcards

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Nicolae Ceausescu's "Palace of the People," now the Romanian parliament building, Bucharest

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Bucharest, Romania, in the rain

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Bucharest, Romania

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Old City, Bucharest, Romania

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Old City, Bucharest, Romania

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Transylvania, Romania

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Medieval clock tower, Sighisoara, Romania – birthplace of Vlad the Impaler

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Brashov, Romania

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Kiev, Ukraine

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Kiev, Ukraine

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Kiev, Ukraine

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Orthodox Church, Kiev, Ukraine

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A Soviet-built Lada, Ukraine

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Crimea, Ukraine

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Yalta on the Black Sea, Crimea, Ukraine

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A statue of Lenin angrily stares at a McDonald's across the square in Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine

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A babushka, her two goats, and a Soviet tank, Ukraine

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Communist housing blocks, Odessa, Ukraine

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:36 PM | Comments (11)

Home from the East

I'm home again from an absolutely fascinating tour of post-communist Eastern Europe and can start writing about it as soon as I get my interviews transcribed.

After leaving Romania, I was supposed to visit Chernobyl and the apocalyptic ghost city of Pripyat outside Kiev, Ukraine, but the trip was cancelled at the last minute. The Chernobyl Administration wasn't letting anyone into the area for reasons that aren't clear to me and may never be – perhaps because of a radiation leak, or maybe for more mundane reasons.

So I went to Crimea instead, the part of Ukraine that may be lopped off and reattached to Russia if Vladimir Putin decides to go on another Georgian-style adventure.

Traveling from the eastern edge of the European Union into Ukraine is educational, to say the least. Romania, Hungary, Poland, and other formerly Eastern bloc countries have largely recovered from communism, but much of Ukraine outside Kiev is still ruined. It still hasn't fully recovered from Soviet collectivization, the genocidal terror-famine, the Stalinist purges, and dekulakization. Kiev is a magnificent city and Crimea is a jewel, but large parts of the countryside feel haunted and doomed.

Stand by for photos and stories.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:10 PM | Comments (7)