No-fly zone

Are the changing fortunes of the Gulf carriers a cause for concern?

On my most recent long-haul flight, in December last year, the route took my fellow passengers and me across five countries, three continents and one ocean. Out of the European Union, through the African Union and into the Union of South American Nations. Trans-Atlantic and trans-hemisphere. North to south, winter to summer, three hours backwards in time zones.

A Qatar Airways flight takes off (QR official)

This happened smoothly and the few hundred of us on board had no reason to spend time thinking about the intricacies of international aircraft and airspace agreements. The hundreds of thousands of people up in the sky as you read this will rather be watching films, snatching a few restless hours’ kip or nibbling at a tray of in-flight food.

But when diplomatic quarrels escalate to include no-entry signs for the maligned airlines of regional foes, things come more sharply into focus.

Qatar Airways is having a bumpy old time of it at the moment. On the bright side, it has just regained its title as best airline in the world. The consumer website Skytrax also awarded it best airline in the Gulf.

On the other hand, the Saudi Arabia-led isolation of Qatar by several countries – nations from as far and wide as Mauritania, Mauritius, and the Maldives – has forced the airline to shift some of its routes. It has been banned, for the moment, from passing over certain countries – frustratingly for Doha, they include its three closest neighbours: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

An Etihad Airbus A380 plane (EY official)

This should be a red-letter day for its rival Gulf airlines, Etihad and Emirates, based out of the UAE cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. It certainly offers some relief for the former, which has been enduring a torrid time relating to its investment in the Italian flag-carrier, Alitalia.

Last month, the struggling Rome-based airline filed for bankruptcy. Etihad pumped just shy of €2bn into Alitalia in 2014 but has seen its opportunity to make anything of the investment blow away in the wind.

Emirates is also on a bit of a come-down this year, recording profit before tax of $405m – an enormous drop from 2016’s figure of $2bn. The Dubai-based carrier explained the  challenges its margins faced as coming from “increased competition and overcapacity”.

An Emirates Boeing 777 (EK official)

It also complained that it had been hit by a drop in demand for flights to the US which it blamed on “the actions taken by the US government relating to the issuance of entry visas, heightened security vetting, and restrictions on electronic devices in aircraft cabins”.


So is the status of the Gulf as the world air hub in danger? It pounced on saturation in European airports such as Heathrow (UK), Schiphol (Netherlands) and Frankfurt (Germany) and promoted its geography. Racing economies in Qatar and the UAE boosted its position further, and with investment came expansion in routes, passenger numbers, aeroplane numbers and the size of their airports.

The dwindling price of oil certainly called this into question and the US ban mentioned above hit the area further. Now that the countries in the region have fallen out with each other it has derailed the upward curve the major Gulf airlines enjoyed. They are finding life a bit tougher at the top.

Their rise was cheered and this period of turbulence is useful in that it serves to remind them that it is always easier to be the challenger upstart, but pressure builds when you yourself turn into an established player in the world’s airspace.

A look at Fidel Castro’s legacy

An “astute political brain” who “inspired a generation of leaders”? Or a “figure from a different era” running a government of “sordid lawless killers”?

Heated discussions dominated the morning at this special event at Canning House, the UK-Iberia & Latin America foundation, looking backwards and forwards at the legacy of the former leader of Cuba.

Ken Livingstone paints a positive image of Castro’s global legacy

There were three sections to be debated: Castro’s domestic, regional and global legacies.

The first one saw Antoni Kapcia, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Nottingham, put forward the point of view that the Cuban revolutionary acted and made “decisions within the realm of the possible”, carefully calculating what was achievable and loth to outreach himself on domestic policy.

Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, described the US embargo as “devastating and suffocating”. She also looked to the island’s Soviet sponsor giant, saying that “constraints were placed on Cuba’s room for manoeuvre from the collapse of the USSR”, not just through the American trade ban.

The final speaker in this section was Cuban-born Alina Garcia-Lapuerta. She argued that there was still a “sense of uncertainty” surrounding the future after Castro’s death. Having said that, she did try to look to what might be ahead: “there could be no political change while Castro was still alive…he was too big a figure in Cuban life and Cuban history.”

In the second part of the event, for the discussion on regional legacy, Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba, called in on conference from the United States. He discussed how Latin nations’ friendships and ties with Cuba had come and gone. While at some point in recent history, most neighbour countries had “broken diplomatic relations with the US”, many states had gone on to thrive economically following different models than that espoused by Castro.

The former diplomat raised the issue of the “economic mismanagement and social turmoil” currently afflicting Venezuela, noting that Havana stands by Caracas due to their traditional links. Yet those regional links are weakening, according to Webster Hare, who said that young Latin Americans are today more distant in their political views from what is increasingly seen as the outdated outlook of Fidel Castro.

Steve Ludlam came to the regime’s defence.

The lecturer and member of the Cuba Research Forum drew a picture for the Britons in the audience of Fidel Castro as a mix of “Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan (the founder of the NHS) and the Queen Mother”. He went on to stand up for the “audacious revolutionary” whose radicalism had “strong anti-imperialist and anti-racist” elements to it. He also saw one of Castro’s legacies as the “success of social welfare programmes across Latin America”.

The final section was on the former leader of Cuba’s global legacy. For this, Canning House invited the Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens and the ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

The politician put forward an appraisal of the revolutionary, calling him a “giant” and an “icon to those who want to live in a better country”.

Peter Hitchens delivered the opposite. He described the Castro regime as being treated in a “rock-star way” when it was really a “government of torture”. Hitchens saw Castro’s “boasts of social advances go unchecked” and argued that “people should grow up about Castro…this cult of Fidel should be dropped.”

Questions were taken after each section and there was a notable intervention during the regional legacy part of the morning. The “Ambassador from the British Empire” was lambasted for challenging the fading policies of the Castros by a book publisher and socialist apologist who offered a vehement defence the Cuban leftist model. There were other questions, too, from exiled Cubans, criticising divisions in society created by the lack of a free press and the fact that Castro never held an election.

Catchphrases and Top Trumps

The reliable power of a political phrase in recent elections

‘Make America Great Again’.

Emblazoned on caps, waved on placards, repeated again and again by Donald Trump, it was a message that was at the heart of the political earthquake that has shaken the United States. The president-elect skilfully used nicknames, pithy refrains and stadium chants to hammer home his mantras throughout the campaign. And when it comes to election day, these things tend to stick in people’s minds.

When Trump discussed his nearest Republican challenger in the primary process, he called him ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz. It worked — the name caught on in the public consciousness and media space and Cruz’s campaign was dismissed and dismantled. Trump named the defeated Democratic presidential nominee ‘Crooked Hillary’ and on the campaign trail town halls rang to the deafening refrains of ‘Lock her up’ (on calls for Mrs Clinton to face trial over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State — the FBI’s most recent investigation found no case to answer on this).

Mr Trump had two other core chants with which he whipped up his supporters: ‘Build the wall’ (about his now-altered plan for a barrier on the border with Mexico) and ‘Drain the swamp’ (on his stated desire to sweep Washington clean of corruption).

Trump’s election victory compares to the Brexit vote in the UK in June. The similarities clearly exist in the punishment both votes dished out to the establishment candidates and the political elites.

The Trump and the Vote Leave campaigns promised an unclear future but one that would be undeniably different, fresh and changed from a picture they painted of a tired, entrenched system that was not working for the masses. And both campaigns enjoyed a willingness on the part of voters to see past questionable economic claims (in the Vote Leave case) and inflammatory and often racist comments (espoused by Mr Trump). The people overlooked issues like those because there was a greater dream at stake — the drive to rock the Westminster and Washington boats forever.

Furthermore, like the Trump campaign, in the UK, Vote Leave activists made successful use of the pithy remark. The phrases ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ — whether these remain truthfully obtainable aims for the Brexiteers or not — carry a message of patriotic optimism with an undercurrent of achievable change. They embody the Vote Leave ambition of wresting the governance of the UK back from Brussels and they hark back to what they see as a golden era of how their country ‘used to be’.

This was a similar flavour to Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. The president-elect’s chant was denounced by opponents as a fallacy but for millions of his voters it was a positive message that could one day be realised. It painted a triumphant image of the superpower’s history but it was also a message where we saw the electorate willingly put on some rose-tinted spectacles to envisage that new ‘old’ America.

And the man that Donald Trump is replacing in the Oval Office knows the power of a good catchphrase.

‘Yes we can’ was the central message for Barack Obama and his team in 2008. An unquestionably positive phrase, it laid the basis for the hope that an African-American president could be elected, and that a new, more mindful politics could be introduced. The fact that the phrase was written and spoken regularly in several languages demonstrated its inclusiveness: any voter could take the phrase and apply it to their personal ambitions.

Slogans that are seen as optimistic and aspirational were also employed by the former British Chancellor, George Osborne, who regularly used the words ‘Long-term economic plan’ throughout his time in the Treasury.

The opposition Labour party would groan and jeer when he uttered it for the umpteenth time in a budget speech. But when it came to the general election in the UK last year, the idea of a ‘long-term economic plan’ struck a chord with the electorate and offered them the chance to be associated with what they saw as an aspirational message. Osborne also used the words ‘hard-working families’ and together the two refrains gave support to the desires and aims of millions of so-called ‘shy Tories’ who propelled Osborne’s party to a majority in May 2015.

Whether or not a phrase is entirely true or can actually be carried out is not of top importance. What matters is how readily the electorate take to the message. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to be ‘locked up’ but frequent hollering of this demand by Trump supporters re-affirmed the fear that millions of Americans had that there was something not wholly truthful about the former first lady’s conduct.

The negotiations to extract the UK from the European Union are going to be difficult and detailed and the terms of the exit are nowhere near set in stone. We do not know whether the country will ever ‘take back control’ but it was the power of what the message meant to voters during the referendum campaign that mattered.

What these phrases also do is convince the electorate that now is the one and only opportunity in history to effect the change behind the refrain.

The millions of Americans who voted Republican last week saw this election as their chance to ‘make America great again’. Those Britons opting to leave the EU saw the referendum as a unique opening to change the course of the country’s future. And those voting for Barack Obama in 2008 dreamt that this was the chosen hour; this was their time to effect the hopeful message of ‘Yes we can’.

Political slogans come and go in elections across the globe, but their iteration can become like a daily prayer for the believers.

What did the Tories say they’ll do in 2015? ‘Well they’ve got a long-term economic plan for hard-working families’. What was Obama’s main promise in 2008? ‘He says ‘Yes we can’ and we believe in him’. Can you name any of Donald Trump’s policies? ‘He’s the man who’s going to make America great again’.

Whether they are correct or not, once a certain rallying cry has been put out there, it is adopted by the faithful and repeated in discourse, online and in print. Catchphrases are useful methods to harden the resolve of your core voting constituency and they are an easy way to promote your policies, as voters take them up and repeat them for you out in the public sphere.

But is it art?

An insight into the world of street art – and a chance meeting with a major artist

Jay Kaes, Thierry Noir, Stik. Caravaggio, Hockney, Bosch. When it comes to artists, there are those that are world-famous and others who are less well-known. No doubt more people have heard of the second trio above – I certainly had before a recent walking tour of East London’s top street-art destinations.

A piece by Italian artist SOLO in East London

A piece by Italian artist SOLO in East London

There were two major distinctions within this branch of art that we had to understand: graffiti, which usually takes the form of hard-to-read tags carrying information of ownership, design and belonging; and street art, which offers more easily decipherable messages (at first glance) and may take the form of sculpture, installation or even painted chewing gum, rather than just simply a colourful mural.

There is another division between pieces: legal (and some of those are commissioned) or illegal. But here, as in other areas of street art and graffiti, you can find a blurring of the lines and varying interpretations. You may have an expansive piece painted on the side wall of a bar at the owner’s request (as we saw with a Jay Kaes work) that is legal and intricate. Then you see that it has been tagged with scribbly names by graffiti artists. At first glance, this is a legal work that has subsequently daubed with ruinous name-tags. An ‘illegal’ tag of a legal piece.

But what are the taggers saying? Hello? We don’t like this work? Or are they appreciating its quality and trying to cash in on the art-tourists, who, like us, will now also see the tag when we come to look at the original work? Are they suggesting that they would like to see something different in its place? The world of street art is transient and new pieces go up, are overhauled and challenged regularly. The fact that there were graffiti tags on this legal piece of wild-style street art shows that there are layers to the attitudes surrounding street art that cannot be easily categorised.

A piece by Colombian artist Stinkfish in East London

A piece by Colombian artist Stinkfish in East London

Of course, as in classic art, there are also layers to the lives of the artists themselves.

One of the major pieces we saw was near Old Street station by an artist called Tizer. He is an Australian who went through problems in his childhood and had found strength in his new family of fellow artists.

A riot of colour, his work often takes the form of his name creating another shape or design simply through the font and size of the letters. The Old Street work was the letters TIZER forming the chassis of a spacecraft that had a human inside, lending it an air of a self-portrait.

It was a fascinating lesson of learning to move through other streets in this area of London and see Conor Harrington’s blurred monochrome people, Invader’s pixellation-style video game creatures and Kai’s grey-framed political messages glued onto walls.

A piece by Thierry Noir

A piece by Thierry Noir

We did not meet any of the artists on that walkabout and we did not expect to do so.

The following day I travelled back to Wokingham, the town where my parents work, about 35 miles outside London. There is a long stretch of hoarding near a roundabout not far from the railway station that the council had put in place around a now-demolished building.

Over the last couple of years, at organised ‘Paint Jams’, the wooden boards have played host to a multitude of artworks by many local painters, with a mix of wild-style, graffiti and political cartoons.

Tiger working on a new design in Wokingham

Tizer working on a new design in Wokingham

I was walking past this hoarding the day after the street-art tour and came across two artists working on new designs. One of them was creating something very like the piece I had seen yesterday by Tizer. I wandered over and spoke to him. An Aussie accent purred back: “Yeah, that’s me. I’m Tizer.”

The finished Tizer piece in Wokingham

The finished Tizer piece in Wokingham

It was a ludicrous coincidence to learn about him and his work in London on one day and then the very next day see him spraying a new piece live in a little commuter town in middle-class Berkshire. He had never been to Wokingham before but had heard about the Paint Jam and had been shown the hoardings by his friend Bonzai, who was also there working that day. I listed all the names I could remember from yesterday, most of whom he knew and some of whom, like Spaniard Jay Kaes, were actually part of his crew.

What also struck me was that, for the most part, these artists are not angry teenagers trying to deface public buildings for no particular reason. These are grown women and men, like Bonzai and Tizer, working in the art world. They do not have the luxury backing of a commission from a gallery but theirs is a genre borne of the rain and the sunshine. It is here that they are engaging with people and the architecture that we create: designing intricate works of art; colourful, cryptic messages; and wild explosions of deep light. They are glueing, draping and tying and they are working for a meagre living.

These works of art breathe life into forgotten walls, alleys and corners. And while they may not always be legal pieces, they are always thought-through, and there is sizeable effort and creation behind them that cannot and ought not to be belittled and criticised as readily as others laud and salute those branches of the visual arts that are seen as historically as being more traditional.

Overflow – a review


It starts in a madcap whirl of old-school R&B and London gospel, intertwined with spiralling Latin brass and percussion.

And by the time it comes to an end, nine songs later, the new album from Venezuelan artist Edwin Sanz leaves you gasping at its musical breadth, its daring enterprise, its global depth.

Overflow is an apt name when you bear in mind the three major threads that dominate the record: the range of genres; the complexity of the experimental covers and new numbers; and the galloping Latin heartbeat.

This is tight, roaring fare. Salsa, cumbia and merengue mixed with British church classics. Trumpet solos, major orchestral pieces and Santana-esque wail-blasts of electric guitar.

The third number is a rework of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ regularly-covered “I Put A Spell On You”. It is a belting Latin alarm-call kicked off with domineering and haunting female vocals. The influence of Stevie Wonder comes through strongly in “Something About You”. The cowbells are still trilling away, but this number shows Sanz’s skill when it comes to soul and slow funk.

With “Eres Tú”, we get back to the Latin heritage. It is a typical salsa serenade with a group refrain and a lead male singer, who is classically and deferentially romantic. Songs such as “Cómo Olvidar” are more traditional yet at other junctures on the album he offers gear-shift alterations to the Latin norm: just under two minutes into “Ella” there is a sudden acceleration from a slow-dance romance to a fire of slick salsa.

Overflow is a bilingual album chock-full of international influences and appearances from world artists. The first lines of the opening song are “From New York to Caracas, from LA to the UK”. Sanz has noted how his musical career has been shaped by his time studying and playing in the US and Europe. But though his music has adapted and developed across time and countries he shows his commitment to the land of his birth throughout the album, notably with the final track “Yo Vengo de Venezuela”, a colourful celebration of that country’s rich musical history.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.

When Seville came to London

Maria Vega leads a sevillanas dance demonstration

Maria Vega leads a sevillanas dance demonstration

It was a slice of Seville that lit up what was a surprisingly chilly April night in London.

Set against the sorry drizzle outside, 150 people embarked on a journey to Andalusia on a cosy, wooden barge on the River Thames. Stepping down the rainy gangplank and through the small doors, we were whisked away from the London rain and taken on an evening of Spanish dance, fashion and music to celebrate the traditional post-Easter Feria de Abril.

This festival takes places about a fortnight after Semana Santa in Seville where the customary sevillanas dances are stepped and swung through the streets of the city.

Here, on-board a barge in South London, we might have been hundreds of miles from the birthplace of the dance but the boat was rocking as the Battersea Spanish culture and language centre did its best to put on a true Andalusian show.

The evening began with a sevillanas class, then an open floor for those who wanted to try out their newly-learnt steps and finally the awards for best dancing couple and best-dressed.

Sevillanas technique from Maria Vega

Sevillanas technique lesson from Maria Vega

There certainly was some gorgeous style on show. Many of the women had embraced the evening with blue-and-white polka dot dresses or the traditional outfits of blood-red and black. Most of them also had flowers to adorn their hair. Some were in heels and others barefoot. There were also some lads there learning the coplas of the dance wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It did not matter: the crowd was here to have fun, drink a glass or two of sangria, meet friends, and enjoy the music and dance of the Feria de Abril.

The barge’s wooden floor creaked with the thumping ta-ta-ta of a hundred stomping feet and the coloured lights flickered through a thousand twirling fingers. Newcomers and old-timers, all were put through their paces by the star of the night. Maria Vega lives in London but the renowned Spanish dancer led the congregation on a trip back to Seville. She was enchanting as she twirled her pasadas and strutted through the steps. She gamely taught the growing gathering, cheered by the festivity.

What really stood out was the range of people attending. A woman in her sixties from Dumbarton had first danced flamenco 30 years ago and had been captivated by classic Hispanic dances ever since. A mother and daughter who were members of Battersea Spanish wanted to be there to enjoy the ‘community and family’ vibe that the cultural centre embodies. There were singletons, groups of friends and couples on dates. The atmosphere was relaxed and joyous – many of the Spaniards who came were there simply to dance.

The interior of the vessel was decked with red and white decorations, with the speakers dressed too. They were the only things that could not cope with this entertaining evening – as the folkloric music cut out a few times, such was the excitement and sevillana stomping on the floor of the barge.

With the drab, grey weather outside, the crowd could forget for a few hours that they were in South London and revel in the perfect antidote through the warmth and style of the Feria de Abril festivities.

Battersea Spanish runs language classes, dance lessons, film clubs and book clubs and it hosts events. Find out more:

This article first appeared in Sounds and Colours on 29 April

Greece is not alone

A mounting debt crisis. Restructuring and repayment. Calls for concessions from creditors. 

It sounds like Greece but as eyes have been watering over the disintegrating economic crisis there, a similar situation has been developing in Puerto Rico.

The Caribbean island is heading along the same path as the Hellenic Republic, with what legislators see as an unserviceable mountain of debt. Like Greece, it needs extra funds to be able to pay off interest, sort out its wage bills and shore up the banks.

But there is one key difference: Greece has been able to go to international institutions – the so-called ‘troika’ of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – for loans. As an unincorporated US territory, Puerto Rico cannot just head off looking for global financial aid. And Washington has also been holding firm over approving a federal bailout.

Something has to give. Will DC relent? Will lenders take a hit on the money they are owed?

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has been in combative mood over the last few months, backed up by steely minsters trying to play hardball against a rising number of missed due dates for debt repayments and increasingly gnarly European and IMF creditors.

Puerto Rico’s governor seems set for a similar face-off as it is unlikely the people who have been lending the US commonwealth money will willingly accept reductions on their repayments. The fight would be over an attempt by Alejandro Garcia Padilla to restructure the island’s $73bn debt that could see creditors ending up repaid less than they are owed.

There are other similarities. The two cases suffer from being out on the fringe, geographically and politically. Greece has been characterised negatively as a work-shy Mediterranean siesta state, that needs a cultural shift to organise its economy, a political shift to end austerity, and pan-European support and agreement to help it remain in the eurozone.

Puerto Rico is also a margin nation. It is not a sovereign state, but nor does it have full US statehood. On the international scene it sends a team to the Olympic Games but does not send an ambassador to the United Nations.

Greece has been setting unwanted records recently, joining the three dubiously managed countries of Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe in still having outstanding debts to the International Monetary Fund.

Puerto Rico cannot become a member of that particular basement club but it has a pretty parlous economic state of affairs. It seems unlikely to be able to declare bankruptcy or deal with its debts in a way that pleases all sides. San Juan might have to hope for a bailout from above, and if that sounds familiar, it is because that is how the whole Greek crisis began – an island nation seeing the tides of debt lapping at the feet of its people.

Flames in the mountains

Islamist threats spread anxiety in Russia with the Winter Olympics just around the corner

The toothed peaks and rumbling glaciers of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, along the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan, are sharply beautiful. The view from the top of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest point, was brilliant in the white light, far above the clouds when I summited it with two friends last August. Yet the region seemed quiet when I was there, the green glens of summer vibrant with wildflowers and the angled sun crashing off the snow caps onto green-domed mosques. All the people we met were friendly and very hospitable. But this can be a dangerous area, with worries not simply about the crevasse fields and exposed ridges. The Caucasus area has long been synonymous with an Islamist fundamentalism manifested irregularly by bombings and other atrocities, and carried out by militants who thrive in the region’s isolated backroads and labyrinthine valleys. This point was brought home to us by the border warning signs on peaks such as Mount Cheget that straddle the Georgian frontier and the fact that our mountain guide was not just responsible for our safety on the mountain, but also off the hill, as there have been kidnappings of foreign climbers in the area before.

In three weeks’ time, the Black Sea coast and mountain resort of Sochi, way out on the western fringes of the Caucasus Mountains, will host the Winter Olympics. Worryingly, the massive showpiece event has been subjected to terror threats from the extremists who are striving to create a Muslim Caliphate across the mountainous region. The self-styled leader of the ‘Caucasus Emirate’, Doku Umarov, has reproached Moscow’s staging of the Olympics in Sochi, saying the site for ‘Olympic revelry was built on the bones of Muslim brothers killed by the Russians’. That message came in a video posted in July but there was another video released last week in which he said “for those of you who are left, there is an obligation to continue this jihad until death itself.”

But is Umarov even alive? Last Thursday 16, the Chechen regional leader, said that he believed Umarov had been killed. The Interfax news agency quoted Ramzan Kadyrov in an eerie statement: “We have long been 99%-certain that D. Umarov was liquidated during one of the operations. Now there is evidence that he is not among the living”. But there has been no official announcement of this apparent operation, and it would be a timely coup for the security forces if it were to be confirmed.

One militant who has been ‘liquidated’ recently is Eldar Magatov, the alleged leader of an insurgent group in Dagestan. He was killed in a shootout on Tuesday. But security authorities are now looking for four so-called ‘Black Widows’ (whose husbands have been killed by the security services in the ongoing Caucasus skirmishes) who are believed to be either in and around Sochi now, or planning an attack of some kind on the Olympic site, possibly to avenge their spouses’ deaths.

The terror threats are certainly fresh in the Russian and international spotlight following the recent attacks in Volgograd. 34 people died in twin suicide bombings on 29 and 30 December in the southern city. Vilayat Dagestan, one of the regional militant organisations, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Vladimir Putin is certainly determined to face down the terrorists and pull off a successful Games. In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, he vowed to “completely annihilate” the terrorists. The Russian president has wagered a lot on being able to see off the threats coming from the region. He has also spent a lot: with a massive $51bn budget for the Games.

Troubled by the price tag, a furore over a ban on gay propaganda and now threatened by terrorist attack, the Russian government has had a controversial lead-up to these Games. It has spent a lot trying to promote these Games, bringing development to the West Caucasus region but the issue of security is certain to ensure a lot of hand-wringing in Moscow as the days count down to the start of competition. The Winter Olympic torch has been lit and has been travelling far and wide: across the Russian mainland, to the International Space Station and to the bottom of the deepest lake on Earth, Baikal. By the time of the Opening Ceremony, it will also have been to the top of Mount Elbrus. Next week sees the flame taken right through the heartlands of the North Caucasus region, reaching the pinnacle of 5,642m on Elbrus on 1 February. It would be a blessing if the Olympic torch’s view from the top of that huge mountain in a disputed region will be as hopeful and calm as the vista we enjoyed five months ago.

Snowed under

Several countries with competing ambitions are involved in the CIA whistleblower’s escapade

Since arriving in Moscow yesterday, Edward Snowden has set yet another diplomatic ball rolling. The cobweb of international espionage winks and nudges seems to be growing daily. The US would like to see Mr Snowden back on home turf as soon as possible to answer charges of spying and communicating classified information, but he has, so far, managed to stay one step ahead of Washington.

He first fled to Hong Kong after leaking details of the questionable intelligence-gathering methods employed by the US secret services, for whom he used to work as an IT engineer. That brought China into the mix, and although Hong Kong has a separate legal set-up to the rest of the country, it did give Beijing the indirect chance to rub the US up the wrong way.

Mr Snowden has flown from China to Russia and he has submitted an asylum request to Ecuador. He was rumoured to have been leaving Moscow today on a flight to Cuba; a journey that was possibly only going via Havana on route to its final destination in Venezuela. Lots of countries are involved and all of them are defending Mr Snowden’s right to speak out. But why? It does appear that one of the major reasons for these nations defending the name of Edward Snowden is to employ this ruse a means to irritate the US. Certainly, the Latin American states involved are all members of the late Hugo Chavez’s leftist ALBA bloc, and love nothing more than having a go at what they see as an overbearing, bullying neighbour to the north.

There has been a lot of talk on this issue so far regarding human rights, freedom of expression and the right (or lack thereof) of governments to snoop on citizens. But it is interesting to look at the list in the paragraph above of the countries now involved in this escapade. Mr Snowden claims to be fighting for freedom of expression but China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador have not been shy to suppress parts of the media that report on issues that they see as a bit too close to the ruling inner circles. The US may be wrong to think that all countries should deign to whatever arrest warrant it has issued for the latest Wikileaks-related secret data releaser. But, on the other hand, Mr Snowden may be wrong to think that a fair trial is a matter of regular, democratic order in places where restrictions on expression – the very issue at the heart of this case – have been all too common in recent years.