Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My Big Fat Greek Holiday: Crete

Keenan and I just returned from a week long family holiday to the Greek Isles with my older sister and her husband in town from Hong Kong and my kid sister from California who just finished her first semester of nursing school.
The first leg of our family holiday took us to the largest and southern-most island of GreeceCrete - which is known for its rugged landscape, famous gorges, hiking, and sun-drenched beaches. Crete is a hiker’s paradise so if you fancy hiking, then you should base yourself in either Rethymnon or Chania for the Samaria Gorge, otherwise, head to the eastern part of Crete and stay in or around Elounda Bay, or as far as Vai. 

Scenic views of Crete:
After touching down in Heraklion, we made the obligatory visit to the Knossos, the largest Minoan palace, located about 5 miles south of the airport. If you are an archaeological enthusiast of all things related to the late Bronze period, then Knossos will be your little slice of heaven. But for us, it was a bit underwhelming. My suggestion is to get a guide as the palace isn’t very well signposted, otherwise, you may feel like you are looking at piles of stones and a few reconstructed buildings. 

We booked a 3br-2ba villa with a pool and view of the sea just outside of the Venetian city of Rethymnon. The villa was well-designed with an open plan kitchen, dining and living room -- perfect for socializing and entertaining. We spent most of our time in the villa due to the dreadful rain. Yes rain in Crete in late May – way to spoil a sun holiday! However as it has been well over two years since we were all under the same roof, we ceased the opportunity for some quality family-bonding time playing board games, following President Obama’s European tour through Ireland, U.K., France, and Poland on the BBC, and BBQed...English-style in the rain!

When it wasn’t raining, we spent lazy mornings and afternoons sunbathing in the garden, explored the town of Rethymnon, and went on a scenic drive to the south coast. Like the rest of central Crete, Rethymnon is a gritty city with a Venetian castle built in 1590 to protect the city from the Turks as well as a lively harbour and pleasant old town. For dinner one evening, we went to Taverna Kyria Maria (Moshovitou 20, Rethymnon), a small family-run restaurant located in a small narrow alleyway in Old Town for a traditional Cretan dinner washed down with Mythos beer and a complimentary strong shot of raki.
Rethymnon Harbour and Venetian Castle: 
Perhaps the highlight of Crete was the drive to the southern coast through Kourtaliotko Gorge to the beaches of Plakias and Damnoni, and visiting the hilltop monastery of Moni Preveli. The beaches along the south coast are less crowded and the sweeping bay of Plakias makes it ideal for sunbathing (beware for the nudist beach at the far end of Plakias) and swimming although the water was freezing.

The Moni Preveli is also worth a visit though I should note that the road up to the monastery is treacherous. Due to its isolated position, Moni Preveli played an important role in Cretan revolts against the Nazis during World War II. There is a statue commemorating the Battle of Crete in 1941.
After spending a few days in Crete, we took a 2 hr high-speed ferry from Heraklion port to the island of Santorini. More to come from Greece

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Open Air Theatre at Regent's Park

"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."— Samuel Johnson
London is an organic behemoth of a metropolis that is always pulsating.  There is always somewhere to go, something to see, or something to do and to become bored is an exercise in self-imposed house arrest.  Tired from our various work and personal travels so far this year we have opted to lay low the last several weekends and in the process almost forgot how much there is to take advantage of in London.  So this weekend we decided to resurface and hit the Regents Park Open Air Theatre for a performance of “The Lord of the Flies”.
Having read the book years ago in middle school, I forgot how much this story resonated with me and I couldn’t help but to draw parallels with the events unfolding on stage and the revolutionary patterns occurring across the Middle East.  At its core it has always been a story that shows how man is both a carnal animal and a political beast and that attempts to organize and build institutions are always a balance between these diametrically opposed human instincts.    

The Open Air Theatre is a great way to spend a clear and mild spring evening in London.  The outdoor stage and sets of the amphitheatre fit in nicely with the trees and foliage of the park and, as this particular story is set on a deserted island, performing it outside amidst the natural elements provided extra authenticity.  I was also quite impressed with the actors who are all up and coming young thespians hoping to break onto the London stage scene.  The venue itself is intimate and small enough to the point that seat selection doesn’t really matter; you’ll have a great view from pretty much anywhere.  To complete the evening be sure to pack a picnic hamper and enjoy the show! 
For more information about Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, please visit: http://openairtheatre.org/

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Balancing Act: Revolt in Syria and Assad's Choices

A few months ago when the pro-democracy revolutions of the Arab Spring toppled the long established autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt, I turned my attention to the wave of protests that were occurring in Libya and the tough response required by the West, which should have been led primarily by the European Union.  Although the EU does not speak with the single voice I thought necessary for a coherent solution to the ongoing Libya crisis and although the response has basically turned into a United Nations backed coalition of only certain NATO members driving the campaign without clearly defined objectives, the actions in this mission are mainly spearheaded by France and the United Kingdom, with additional support from the United States; a lighter, but less effective version of my initial recommendation.  I also discussed the options that President Mubarak had during the onset of the revolutions in Egypt; to either move with the transition towards democracy or to oppose it.  In the end and after sustained tenacity he finally capitulated to the domestic and international pressure.  For him however it was already too late and the irreparable damage to his reputation had been sealed. 
Colonel Gaddafi in Libya on the other hand, reacted to his country’s uprisings with a predictable level of extreme violence and brute force.  Based on his long and disturbing history of personal instability and horrific repression, there was never really an alternative response to be expected from him as there might have been for Ben Ali in Tunisia or even Mubarak in Egypt.  Now, as events continue to unfold in Bahrain, Yemen, and increasingly worryingly in Syria, it is important to consider what President Assad’s options are and what the outcome of these might be.  Even though the world is currently distracted by the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I would argue that the most urgent and pressing issue in the greater region is not to be found there, or even in Libya, but rather in Syria and the potential for either sustained violence or a collapse of the Assad regime and wider contagion in the region. 
When I visited Syria in December I was hopeful at what I saw at the time as a country attempting to slowly open up after decades of closed doors, policy efforts aimed at building a vibrant tourism industry and welcoming of foreigners overall.  While entirely realistic about the true nature of the Baathist regime in power and my constant awareness of surveillance, censorship, and the suppression on individual liberties and freedoms, I interpreted the leadership of Bashar al-Assad as more pragmatic and forward looking than that of his father Hafez who had ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 2000.  Reluctant, disinterested in politics and an ophthalmologist by training, President Assad succeeded his father almost by accident when his brash older brother, Basil al-Assad, was killed unexpectedly in a car accident.  The whole story almost had a “Godfather” feel to it with President Assad playing the role of a Michael Corleone.  People who I had travelled with in Lebanon had an opportunity to have an audience with President Assad as part of a delegation of academics and their feedback was similar; that he was receptive to criticism, allowed open dialogue, and expressed a desire to implement reforms over time.  Furthermore, as the country is officially secular, I personally observed how Syria’s minorities were protected by law and noticed that the country did not appear to face the same sectarian and religious strife as do many of its neighbors.  To a visitor, Syria might have seemed like a country on the verge of change.    
Now, just four months later, and to the shock of the international community, President Assad has demonstrated his more forceful and brutalizing side, crushing demonstrations throughout the country and massacring unarmed civilians by the scores.  As I write this post, the “days of defiance” carry on and tanks continue to move through cities across the country to deter, suppress, and ultimately kill any sign of rebellion.  His lifting of the state of emergency and the forming of a new government has meant very little in relation to real change and it is clear that Assad’s Baathist security forces direct policy in the country, holding together the “calm and serenity” I interpreted through terror.  For Syria and for President Assad in particular, trying to reconcile these actions going forward is going to be difficult.  He has set his country’s development back decades and the future that I thought imminently possible just a few months ago is no more as he sinks Syria deeper into bloodshed and chaos.  If the demonstrations keep their pace and are met with the same bloody crackdowns by the government, the situation risks further destabilization, largely because the international community might feel it must do something in light of its verbal chastisements towards Egypt and its military actions towards Libya.
Syria has always been an immensely important player in the region and it is important for the US not to lose sight of this in light of the distractions emanating from the death of Bin Laden, Pakistan’s probable culpability in his protection and the ongoing humanitarian and military crises in Libya.  Long, complicated and incredibly influential, Syria remains one of the only countries in the region that truly matters when it comes to the long term stability of neighboring Lebanon and the progression of the Israel/Palestine peace process.  From the meddling of the internal affairs of Lebanon, accusations of connivance in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the staunch support of Hezbollah and Hamas, and lastly, its strategic relationship with Iran as the foremost enemy of Israel, I would argue that next to Egypt, Syria is the most important country to witness the Arab Spring so far.  Up to this point the international community has had its hands full and has decided to focus its efforts on Libya, which besides the oil and commercial contracts, does not carry the same geopolitical strategic weight as Syria.  I would argue that the situation on the ground there is much more sensitive than in Libya and how the international community decides to handle it depends largely on what moves President Assad makes next.  Unlike Colonel Gaddafi, President Assad is not an unpredictable mad man, but rather a highly calculated and rational politician, so the interactions with Syria will likely be a balancing act of rhetoric, soft power, and, if necessary, economic warfare.                    
I only see three options for President Assad at this point; crush the movement at all economic and human costs, including the risk of alienation by the international community and the imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions; resign amid growing internal pressure from within his own Baath Party leaving the country to potential sectarian violence, power vacuums and struggles within the party and with external factions; or maintain a temporary tight grip on power, ease on the violent crackdowns, and institute immediate political and economic reforms with a clearly defined timeframe for transition to a new caretaker government to oversee a period of constitutional overhauls and eventual elections.  Obviously there are a million shades of gray between each of these courses of action and the variables are complex and numerous with varying versions more realistic than others.  In order to resign, there would have to be significantly more domestic pressure exerted on him than there is currently, either internally from his own party, or through greater popular revolt in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two biggest cities which have remained mostly quiet during the onset of these demonstrations, suggesting that Assad manages to secure political control on these important cities.   

Unlike in Egypt where revolt occurred in the capital’s most high profile and visible public square, Syria’s demonstrations are taking place in secondary and tertiary cities, for now.  Unless there is a significant shift in this trend and activity increases in the capital and the second city, his resignation appears unlikely.  Furthermore, he is fully aware that his absence from power would create a vacuum, similar to the one left when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq.  As to whether he will transition the government to democratic reforms is also highly improbable.  His lifting of the state of emergency and the institution of a new cabinet has affected very little in terms of real policy or practice and there are signs that his powerful security apparatus might be the most influential player in government, much like the ISI is appearing to be in Pakistan.  My prediction is that Assad will make the short term sacrifice to his reputation and to his country in order stay in power and take the first course of action only to pick up the pieces later.    
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stressed that “there will be consequences for these actions”, but a US-led military intervention in Syria would likely only replicate the same destabilizing effects as the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The two regimes, Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Syria under President Assad, are both Baathist, and aside from the geographic proximity of being right next door to one another, both countries share similar demographics and underlying sectarian issues.  The US knows that a war in Syria or even a “military campaign” similar to the one in Libya is the last thing they need right now while still entangled in Afghanistan, Iraq, and with tensions rising with Pakistan.  The international community might be realizing, however awkwardly, that it will have to openly contradict itself time and again in how it approaches each situation on an individual basis.  If nothing else, the events this year in North Africa, the Middle East, and now in Pakistan have proven that there has never been a one size fits all solution in dealing with despots, revolt, extremism, and terror.  The lackluster response by the United States to Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement shares nothing in common with its hard line reaction to Libya.  The US only pushed back on Mubarak at the last minute when his ousting looked imminent.   
While it has always been the case, Western leaders can no longer portray to the public that their policy responses on these varying crises are consistently based on democratic ideals, but instead have more to do with longer term grand strategy.  President Assad will get away with his violent crackdowns only because the West cannot afford to destabilize Syria through more war and conflict and he knows it.  With no major commercial contracts or oil interests at stake in Syria, we can afford to leave a despot in power to kill his own people without the risk of losing vital economic interests to the whims of a dictator.  What we cannot risk is losing a potential long term strategic player in the region at the cost of a possible sectarian civil war that could span both Syria and Iraq, further engulfing the entire region.  Assad will accept travel bans and economic sanctions in the short term while his security apparatus focuses on regaining control over the country in the long term.  Although it will set his country back years diplomatically, it is a calculated risk that both Assad and the West realize must be balanced against long term strategic interests for all parties involved.  The alternatives here are far more unknown and dangerous than anywhere else so far, and neither Assad nor the international community can stomach those risks right now.        
Colonel Gaddafi has already explicitly set the precedent that a dictator can go as far as he wants on the spectrum of international pariah, killing foreign nationals overseas, brutalizing people at home, and still gain forgiveness and acceptance with Western powers so long as there is a strategic or economic argument in doing so.  Regardless of the West’s response to his behavior right now, Assad knows there is a good chance it isn’t over for his regime in the long term and that this bloody repression might just become another page in history once things settle down and global attention is again turned to Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Libya’s civil war, and potentially now, Pakistan. 
Increasingly, it appears that Assad was duplicitous all along, hoping to liberalize his image abroad in exchange for the economic benefits this would achieve at home while keeping the political status quo domestically.  From his perspective it was not a bad option; if Mubarak could get away with it for over thirty years with staunch support from the United States then why couldn’t he?  Leveraging its geopolitical importance in the region as collateral for dialogue with Europe and the United States could have put Syria on a similar playing field as Egypt; important not for oil, which neither country possesses, but rather for the diplomatic and political role they could play with Iran, Hezbollah and in the Israel/Palestine peace process.   

More than likely, Assad might have thought he could have it both ways, a new Mubarak or Ben Ali in the Levant; more open to the West abroad, but repressive at home.  Reforms might have continued, albeit slowly and with little effect.  His real task for democratization was and will still remain open dialogue with liberal and progressive opposition figures and a dismantling of the system of nepotism and corruption that the legacy of Assad family rule has left in Syria.  It would have also meant a complete dismantling of the powerful security apparatus that, to a large degree, influences the actions of the regime.  All of this seems like it might have been too much, too soon for Assad; much easier to keep things as they were and evolve into something else, not quite democracy, but not quite pariah.  Alas, the Arab Spring came too soon before he ever had his chance to blossom into another globally acceptable Arab dictator, but he will probably stick to his original plan of action; crush democracy, accept the short term consequences abroad, and maintain his power grip on the country and therefore his influence in the region.  In the meantime, dozens of innocent civilians will continue to be maimed and killed in Syria while the international community observes “with deep concern”, slowly realizing that the awkward complexities of the Middle East will not be going away anytime soon and that there are no easy answers to the problems the world faces, even with the death of Osama bin Laden.    
P.S. Shortly I will be launching a spin-off from this blog which will serve as a medium of discussion and commentary on the world's events.  Please watch this space for a forthcoming link.  

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Old Friends, New Places: Ljubljana and Lake Bled, Slovenia

Sometimes life leads you to places you never imagined you would go. Unbelievably, it was almost fourteen years ago this summer that I had the opportunity to spend two months in Japan on a Lion’s Club youth exchange program, truly an experience of a lifetime and one which was instrumental in shaping my world view, instilling in me a global perspective at a young and impressionable age. Aside from the longstanding and close relationship that I cultivated with my host family during this time, other friendships were forged that still remain. In addition to the home stay, I spent nearly two weeks during this period at a summer youth camp in Tokyo, attended by other student delegates from all over the world. It was during this time that I met my good friend Blaz from Slovenia, who formed part of our clique which included others from Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and the US, each of us likeminded and eager to learn from one another.
Summer Youth Camp in Tokyo, 1998 with my London-based friend Jan
and  my Japanese host family (Photo Credit: Jan B.)
Summer Youth Camp in Tokyo, 1998 Blaz (far right) and Jan (middle)
(Photo Credit: Jan B.)
Visiting the Host Family in Tokyo - Winter 2002
Host sister's wedding in Honolulu, Sept 2006
At the time I probably had only a very vague idea of where Slovenia actually was and I certainly never anticipated having an opportunity to visit my friend in his home town fourteen years later. A relatively new country by the time we were in Tokyo in 1998 (independence was achieved after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991), Slovenia is a very small, but beautiful country located in Central Europe, not in the Balkans, contrary to any misconceptions. A country of only around 2 million inhabitants, Slovenia is geographically small, sharing borders with Austria and Italy to the north and west, and Croatia to the south and is comprised mainly of snow capped mountains and lush forests on the edge of the Alps. 

Peaceful and prosperous compared to what the Slovene’s refer to as their “southern brothers” (the former nations of Yugoslavia including Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo), Slovenia was among the first round of nations from the previous Eastern Bloc to gain entry into the European Union and immediate adoption of the Euro in 2004. Due to their role as a primary economic contributor in the former Yugoslavia, the economy was relatively advanced and stable and the citizens highly educated at the time of independence so EU accession was expedient and smooth. My initial impressions were that they seemed to have more in common culturally and economically with other nations in Central Europe than they do with the former Yugoslavia, united with them primarily in language and history only. Given its growing popularity in Europe and my connection there with an old friend, it had always been on our list of places to visit in Europe. 

As you know from Lily’s previous post and the unrelenting media coverage, last weekend was the Royal Wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William, so we decided to escape the frenzy in London and leave town for the four day weekend. I had already been traveling through Austria and the Czech Republic for work during the week, so I took the 30 minute direct flight from Vienna to Ljubljana, meeting Lily there. As with most of our city break trips, we decided to stay in a more comfortable flat which was centrally located in the Town Center’s Mestni Trg and within walking distance to pretty much everything there is to see and do in the city. I would say that Ljubljana is a city to experience rather than a city to go sightseeing in. Situated on a small river, the primary sights are Prešeren Square, named after Slovenia’s most well-known poet, the Franciscan Church, Ljubljana Castle, Dragon Bridge, Triple Bridge, and the main Town Square and Town Hall, all of which are easily accessible on foot. Additionally, the City Museum is also worth spending a couple of hours to learn about the history of this city and its context within Slovenia and the greater region. Like everything else in Slovenia, Ljubljana is not very big, but what it lacks in size it more than compensates for in atmosphere, energy, and beauty. 
Continued investment and development by the Mayor in the city is making Ljubljana one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in Europe and for good reasons. It is easy to pass the time in the many shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants that line the Town Square and the riverfront; a city where you can truly relax and take your time. Additionally, Slovene’s are among the most hospitable and friendly people you will likely meet anywhere in Europe. There is a joke that all Slovenes know one another. While my friend assured us that this wasn’t the case he did seem to run into plenty of people when strolling around town with us and later admitted that there are likely just two degrees of separation for most people. It might not be an exaggeration as after only one day in town, I myself began to recognize and greet people I had seen previously the day before. In this way, the pace and experience is very different from other European cities which can be hectic or overrun by tourists.
I’m sure it helps that we spent most of the weekend with Blaz who was incredibly welcoming and more than enthusiastic to share his city with us. Spending time with locals always provides better insight into a place and he made sure to take the time to include us in the best of what his city has to offer, including a late night hike through a forest to the May Day bonfire and live concert which lasted until nearly 3 am. Although I didn’t understand the lyrics, the band Tabu was very good and the place was buzzing with people, food stalls, and beer stalls until the early hours of the morning.
About 40 minutes north of Ljubljana towards the Austrian border is the picturesque Lake Bled and I highly recommend it as a short day trip. A pristine lake on the edge of the Alps, with a lake church and a hilltop castle, Lake Bled is a place of exquisite beauty and is well worth taking the time to hike and explore. Our friend Blaz absolutely insisted on driving us there, but we do know that it is possible to take a bus from Ljubljana if you’re without a car while in town. Breath in the fresh alpine air, stroll the lake, hike the castle, and be sure to try the local cream cakes that the village is known for. 

Of all of our European city breaks, this was an especially unique and memorable one for me. Charming, accessible, and generally pleasant overall, our time in Ljubljana was also a chance for me to reconnect with an old friend from the past and to catch up on the years since those youthful days in Tokyo.

-- KV

P.S. Some photos from my business trip to Vienna.