Iceland and Russia

October 14, 2008

In 1972, Iceland was the stage for one of the more dramatic encounters of the Cold War.

This time it was over a chessboard.

The tempermental American genius Bobby Fischer was up against the reigning World Chess Champion Boris Spassky, a Russian.

Both players felt the pressure and accusations flowed from Russia to America and back again that the other side were trying to subvert their opposing player.

Spassky and Fischer in Iceland, 1972

Finally, once Fischer settled his fee and actually made his mind up to play chess, the American triumphed over the Russian.

Then the reclusive American declined to defend his trophy and the Russians under Anatoly Karpov once again assumed the title in 1975.

Fischer, once the beloved darling of America, was a troubled soul. He praised the September 11th attacks on America saying the U.S. should be ‘wiped out’. Apart from a 1992 rematch against Spassky – which he won, although both players were well past their best – he had retired from Chess. He died early this year.

Iceland, situated at the edge of Europe, has often been the site of such American – Russian meetings. It has often acted as a bridge between the two nations.

It is, however, a founder member of NATO.

So it must cause America some alarm when Iceland has now turned to Russia for a 4 billion euro loan.

It cites lack of help from its NATO allies when dealing with its banking problems in the global credit crunch. I have cited before the help that Norway gave Iceland; it seems its other NATO allies weren’t quite as generous.

“We have not received the kind of support that we were requesting from our friends,” said prime minister Geir Haarde. “So in a situation like that, one has to look for new friends.”

Although Iceland has said that they have not made any military concessions yet to the Russians, it must be a concern to NATO. Iceland’s position in the North Atlantic is vital for allowing movement between the U.S. and Europe, the so-called GIUK gap (Greenland-Iceland-UK). If Iceland was to allow any Russian bases on its soil, that would seriously compromise NATO.

Its the makings of another political chess match.

Coincidentally, today was the start of the 2008 World Chess Championship between Viswanathan Anand, the current World Champion from India, and Vladimir Kramnik, the previous champion from Russia and the man who took the title from Garry Kasparov. (Kramnik had also beaten Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, the FIDE champion and his win unified the chess crown and brought FIDE to prominence again.)

Today’s game was drawn, something that favours Anand as Black.

Kramnik,V (2772) – Anand,V (2783) [D14]
WCh Bonn GER (1), 14.10.2008
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.Bf4 Nc6 6.e3 Bf5 7.Nf3 e6 8.Qb3 Bb4 9.Bb5 0-0 10.Bxc6 Bxc3+ 11.Qxc3 Rc8 12.Ne5 Ng4 13.Nxg4 Bxg4 14.Qb4 Rxc6 15.Qxb7 Qc8 16.Qxc8 Rfxc8 17.0-0 a5 18.f3 Bf5 19.Rfe1 Bg6 20.b3 f6 21.e4 dxe4 22.fxe4 Rd8 23.Rad1 Rc2 24.e5 fxe5 25.Bxe5 Rxa2 26.Ra1 Rxa1 27.Rxa1 Rd5 28.Rc1 Rd7 29.Rc5 Ra7 30.Rc7 Rxc7 31.Bxc7 Bc2 32.Bxa5 Bxb3 draw.

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Rankings and levers

October 12, 2008

Newspapers have been quoting the survey by the World Economic Forum in which business leaders have been rating the solvency of world banks.

The rankings however were compiled just before the recent £50 billion bail-out by the UK, the nationalisation of the Icelandic banks and the larger US bail-out.

The website has the co-authors interviewed from the 3rd to the 7th of October. The report itself was published on the 8th October.

RANKINGS

1. Canada

2. Sweden

3. Luxembourg

4. Australia

5. Denmark

6. Netherlands

7. Belgium

8. New Zealand

9. Ireland

10. Malta

11. Hong Kong

12. Finland

13. Singapore

14. Norway

15. South Africa

16. Switzerland

17. Namibia

18. Chile

19. France

20. Spain

21. Barbados

22. Bahrain

23. Slovak Republic

24. Brazil

25. Estonia

26. Austria

27. Panama

28. Mauritius

29. Kuwait

30. Qatar

31. United Arab Emirates

32. Trinidad and Tobago

33. Senegal

34. Israel

35. Portugal

36. Iceland

37. Cyprus

38. Botswana

39. Germany

40. United States

41. Lithuania

42. Peru

43. El Salvador

44. United Kingdom

45. Greece

46. Benin

47. Costa Rica

48. Malawi

49. Guyana

50. Malaysia

51. India

52. Puerto Rico

53. The Gambia

54. Montenegro

55. Mexico

56. Croatia

57. Czech Republic

58. Jordan

59. Ghana

60. Suriname

61. Brunei Darussalam

62. Latvia

63. Saudi Arabia

64. Kenya

65. Jamaica

66. Honduras

67. Zambia

68. Burkina Faso

69. Slovenia

70. Sri Lanka

71. Pakistan

72. Philippines

73. Republic of Korea

74. Romania

75. Thailand

76. Madagascar

77. Colombia

78. Cote d’Ivoire

79. Italy

80. Bulgaria

81. Hungary

82. Cameroon

83. Georgia

84. Oman

85. Tunisia

86. Paraguay

87. Nigeria

88. Armenia

89. Morocco

90. Dominican Republic

91. Bolivia

92. Malia

93. Japan

94. Tanzania

95. Moldova

96. Bosnia and Herzegovina

97. Poland

98. Nicaragua

99. Venezuela

100. Uruguay

101. Guatemala

102. FYR Macedonia

103. Syria

104. Albania

105. Nepal

106. Mozambique

107. Russian Federation

108. China

109. Uganda

110. Serbia

111. Egypt

112. Ukraine

113. Vietnam

114. Turkey

115. Bangladesh

116. Azerbaijan

117. Taiwan, China

118. Ecuador

119. Mauritania

120. Mongolia

121. Indonesia

122. Zimbabwe

123. Tajikistan

124. Kazakhstan

125. Cambodia

126. Burundi

127. Chad

128. Ethiopia

129. Argentina

130. East Timor

131. Kyrgyz Republic

132. Lesotho

133. Libya

134. Algeria

Yes. That’s right.

The UK lies behind Peru and El Salvador.

Now given this report was a survey of the world’s economists whose advice our banks were no doubt taking; should we believe it?

Are the UK’s banks really behind Peru, El Salvador and Senegal?

Or is it an accurate representation that is slightly out of date, compiled as it was slightly before the bail-outs?

That must depend on whether you believe the bail-outs will work.

If reports are to be believed the Royal Bank of Scotland is next in line to be nationalised tomorrow. If that happens then there will be further pressure on the remaining UK bank’s to be nationalised too. The banking sector could be picked off one by one by the market and the taxpayer forced to pick up the tab.

On that Iain Dale post there have already been comments about the English taxpayer bailing out the Scottish bank.

It must be a pity, to all those who carp, that Scotland is not already independent.

An independent Scotland with a similar oil fund like our neighbour Norway could be similarly insulated from these turbulent times.

It would also have the economic levers to maintain its economy best, not just for the South-East of England as remains the case today. Remember Eddie George, the former Governor of the Bank of England: Unemployment in the north is a price worth paying for affluence in the South!

Although the credit crunch is global, take a look back at those rankings.

Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands. All small countries lying in the top 10.

Even Ireland, who have recently guaranteed all deposits in their banks, are sitting 9th.

The argument that Scotland is too small to be financially unstable is farcical! I don’t hear anyone saying that Denmark is too small and should be run from Berlin. (Not since the days of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War anyway!)

As countries large and small struggle with the credit credit crunch from the U.S. and Russia down to Iceland with its 300 000 population, this population argument of independence must be seen to be invalid. Iceland, with a population slightly smaller than North Lanarkshire, isn’t exactly Miramont Gardens in Pimlico!

Passport to Pimlico

What matters now is that we take the right decisions to get out this mess.

Those decisions may be different for each country. They may even be different for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

That’s why its important key economic levers are devolved away from Westminster.

Otherwise the Eddie George syndrome will hamper ‘the North’ recovering for years.

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Sarah Palin and Charles McKay

August 31, 2008

Anyone who read my previous post on Johann Anton Güldenstädt and his 18th century trip to the Caucaus mountains, at the end of the recent Russian – Georgian War over South Ossetia, would have guessed two things: I am a fan of nature and where politics and nature meet it gives me great incentive to blog.

With all the recent fuss over Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, and now Republican Vice President candidate; that’s all the excuse I need!

Particularly when Sarah Palin is backing destruction of one of the most spectular wildlife areas in North America and that site is intimately linked to a little known naturalist but one of my biggest heroes!

Charles McKay, born in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1855, was the son of a Scottish farmer. He studied Science under David Starr Jordan; a naturalist particularly noted for the study of fish and also a famous peace campaigner he became a president of Indiana University then Stanford University.

When Charles left university he joined the U.S. Army. He was sent to Alaska by Spencer Fullerton Baird as a signal officer. Baird was another naturalist and often used fellow naturalists in the military, sending them to remote places to study the wildlife, whilst carrying out their military duties.

McKay was sent to Bristol Bay in Alaska. He discovered a beautiful, rare and new species of bunting there, now named McKay’s Bunting in his honour.

McKay's bunting

There are only about 6000 McKay’s buntings in the world. They only breed on two islands in the Bering Sea; St. Matthew Island and Hall island. They winter on the coast of Alaska, and can be found in Bristol Bay.

Breeding on two Arctic islands McKay’s buntings could be threatened by global warming as the Bering Sea rises due to melting icebergs and the icecap.

Bristol Bay, the very area where Charles McKay first discovered these buntings, is now under threat from a proposed Gold and Copper mine that would be sited in the area called Pebble Mine.

Bristol Bay is also the site of one of the world’s biggest salmon fisheries. This is also at risk from the proposed mine.

And its this very place that Sarah Palin wants to see the Pebble Mine located.

Its an indication of how right-wing Governor Palin is when you realise that even the American Hunting Organisations are against the proposed mine.

The most worrying thing is that both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama were against Alaska’s Proposition 4 which would have prevented mining companies dumping their chemicals into the state water supply and rivers; it may have even prevented the Pebble Mine being built. It narrowly was defeated recently giving the mining companies a huge boost.

Indeed, it seems Sarah Palin even broke the law to campaign against Proposition 4.

The door is now open for the Pebble Mine.

Sarah Palin won’t stop it. Will Barack Obama?

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Home Nations Olympic teams in history

August 25, 2008

My previous post described how the 1908 Great Britain Olympic football squad was in fact the English national amateur team.

One other thing of interest in that Olympics was that the Home Nations representated themselves in some sports.

For example, in Hockey there was a English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh side. (This before before the independence of Ireland and the partition of Northern Ireland.)

They competed with France and Germany to get the medals.

England won gold. Ireland won the silver. Scotland and Wales shared the bronze, as there was no 3rd place play-off.

Scotland beating Germany 4-0 at hockey in the 1908 Olympics

England and Ireland representated themselves at Polo.

The IOC rules about countries competing only if they have an IOC committee in place where enforced at these London games.

This was a British ploy to prevent the situation that had happened two years previous in the 1906 Intercalated Olympics – basically a mid term Olympics between 1904 and 1908.

Peter O’Connor, an Irish long jumper, high jumper and triple jumper, was sent to Athens by the GAA and the IAAA, Irish sport authorities. Of course, Ireland at the time was not independent from Britain and hence Peter and other Irish atheletes found themselves listed as representing Britain.

In a controversial long jump competition, Peter came second, but as the Union flag was raised to represent his silver, Peter climbed the flagpole and waved his Irish flag instead.

He later won the gold medal in the triple jump.

That’s why the IOC ruling was enforced in 1908 by the London Olympics, to try and stop any such political statements. However to primarily appease the Irish they allowed the Home Nations to represent themselves at some sports; particularly in those sports where Ireland had a good chance to win a gold medal.

A knock-on effect of this ruling was that Finland – at the time ruled by Russia – was listed as Russian. This was particularly upsetting for the Finns as Russia had not even bothered to send a team.

They decided to have no flag instead.

The official report on the London games stated “it might on another occasion be better to consider separate entries from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales…as well as from both New Zealand and Australia”

Even in the imperial mood of 1908 came the realisation that separate teams were the way forward.

One hundred years later and we’re still having the debate in the UK!


Plausible denial

August 15, 2008

As the Russian army is still in Georgian territory, south of South Ossetia, causing havoc, it seems a bad day for Boeing to announce their successful testing of their new laser gunship.

In the latest test, Boeing fitted their laser technology to an existing C-310 Hercules to try out its new laser technology.

Boeing Laser Gunship

Instead of carrying bombs and missiles, planes are fitted with a laser turret that can destroy any targets expertly. The technology could be utilised on a range of planes.

In fact, this technology has people searching for Star Wars comparisons.

A pity for science fiction buffs that the current stand off over Georgia between America and Russia jeopardises both their space programs and NASA’s involvement with the International Space Station. Star Wars type battles remain in the future.

X-wing fighter

But the thing that is getting most military analysts excited is the possibility of ‘plausible denial of air strikes’.

In other words, because there is no sign of a bomb where the target has been hit, it may be possible to deny that your aircraft – which may be a distance away – had any involvement in destroying the target site.

Absolutely scary.

I’m just glad that the Americans are supposed to be on our side.

Imagine if the Russians had this technology, would there be anything of Georgia left standing?


Güldenstädt and the Caucauses

August 13, 2008

I hope the current ceasefire between Georgia and Russia holds, so that diplomacy can take hold instead of war.

Certainly its a positive sign.

So I’m going to be positive too and write a small piece on a not so famous naturalist, Johann Anton Güldenstädt.

Güldenstädt was a Latvian naturalist and explorer, born in Riga in 1745. He studied in Germany before making the first scentific expedition to Georgia and the Caucauses.

From 1768 to 1775 he travelled throughout the region observing and noting species, languages and culture.

The Terek River starts in the mountains of Georgia. It runs near South Ossetia to North Ossetia before turning east to run into the Caspian Sea.

Its obviously here that Güldenstädt first collected the Terek Sandpiper, detailed in BWP as in 1775. (I say collected as thats what the old naturalists did. They shot the species to identify it, optics being rudimentary at the time.)

Terek Sandpiper

Its a widespread species across much of Asia, even found on African coasts and Australia. Its breeding range now stretches to Latvia and Finland and it is coincidental that it is called a Terek Sandpiper in view of the fact that the Terek River is only on its migration route southwards.

Its a very rare vagrant to Scotland and the rest of Europe.

Another species collected by Güldenstädt is the Güldenstädt redstart. This large mountainous redstart is found in the high altitudes of the Caucauses and the Himalayas.

Guldenstadt-redstart

It is also known as the White-winged redstart but doesn’t Güldenstädt’s redstart sound a lot better?

Its one of the top reasons for birders to visit Georgia.

Güldenstädt also collected and described the Ferruginous Duck and several freshwater fish.

It was only after his death in 1781 that Peter Simon Pallas – a far more well known naturalist – published an edited version of Güldenstädt’s journal; Travels in Russia and the Mountains of the Caucasus.

Perhaps when Georgia gets back to some sort of normality after this conflict, birders will once again travel to see his enigmatic redstart.


Georgia and the oil hungry Crocodile

August 10, 2008

In my last post I suggested that it wouldn’t be in Russia’s best interests in the region if South Ossetia was independent.

Paradoxically though they are right behind the South Ossetians in their bid for independence.

Its not really a genuine wish for their self determination. A genuine South Ossetian state that wasn’t pro-Moscow like Georgia would be another nightmare for Russia, opening up tensions in its own ethnic Caucaus regions.

Its nothing more than the old divide and conquer strategy.

That’s why the Abkhazia and Ajaria independence movements are also sponspored by Russia. Purely to destabilise Georgia, nothing less.

If it was only about South Ossetia then why are Russian planes bombing Georgian cities? Military tactics or an excuse to bring Georgia to its knees?

Russia does not like Georgia’s pro-Western stance. Their attempt to join NATO.

Georgia is seen as the epitome of an former Soviet republic embracing Western philosophy.

The New York Times has this appraisal:

“It’s scarcely clear yet how things will stand between the two when the smoke clears. But it’s safe to say that while Russia has a massive advantage in firepower, Georgia, an open, free-market, more-or-less-democratic nation that sees itself as a distant outpost of Europe, enjoys a decisive rhetorical and political edge.

In recent conversations there, President Saakashvili compared Georgia to Czechoslovakia in 1938, trusting the West to save it from a ravenous neighbor.

“If Georgia fails,” he said to me darkly two months ago, “it will send a message to everyone that this path doesn’t work.”

During a 10-day visit to Georgia in June, I heard the 1938 analogy again and again, as well as another to 1921, when Bolshevik troops crushed Georgia’s thrilling, and brief, first experiment with liberal rule.”

“You should understand,” Mr. Saakashvili said, mocking the Europeans who urge forbearance on him, “that the crocodile is hungry. Well, from the point of view of someone who wants to keep his own leg, that’s hard to accept.”

The Georgian President’s analogy of Czechoslovakia in 1938 when Hitler invaded – on the pretext of liberating German citizens – was also reinforced by the Swedish Foreign Minister:

“Attempts to apply such a doctrine have plunged Europe into war in the past… And we have reason to remember how Hitler used this very doctrine little more than half a century ago to undermine and attack substantial parts of central Europe,” Bildt said.

“We did not accept military intervention by Milosevic’s Serbia in other Yugoslav states on the grounds of protecting Serbian passport holders,” he added.

Poland and the Baltic States are also on the side of Georgia in the conflict:

“The EU and NATO must take the initiative and stand up against the spread of imperialist and revisionist policy in the east of Europe,” leaders of the four countries said in a joint statement.

“The Russian Federation has overstepped a red-line in keeping the peace and stability in the conflict zone and in protecting Russian citizens outside its own borders,” the statement added.

Again from the New York Times:

“Marshall Goldman, a leading Russia scholar, argues in a recent book that Mr. Putin has established a ‘petrostate,’ in which oil and gas are strategically deployed as punishments, rewards and threats.

The author details the lengths to which Mr. Putin has gone to retain control over the delivery of natural gas from Central Asia to the West.

A proposed alternative pipeline would skirt Russia and run through Georgia, as an oil pipeline now does.

‘If Georgia collapses in turmoil,’ Mr. Goldman notes, ‘investors will not put up the money for a bypass pipeline.’ And so, he concludes, Mr. Putin has done his best to destabilize the Saakashvili regime.”

Already we are seeing problems with the oil supply.

Azerbaijan has now cut off their oil exports through Georgia.

And it is now reported that Russian jets have bombed the main oil pipeline that runs through Georgia to Turkey .

Here’s an old map showing the oil routes in the area. There are two oil pipleines shown in Georgia. The largest oil pipeline (on the map as planned) is now in place and runs straight through to Turkey. Its run by BP and is the one that is reportedly bombed.

Oil routes in Georgia

And wouldn’t Russia like the Georgian oil pipelines in their control!

You have got to feel sympathy for the South Ossetians, their capital Tskhinvali lying in ruins.

I’m reminded of the attributed words of Calgacus, the Pictish warrior, who said of the Romans attempting to invade what is now Scotland:

“They make a desert and call it peace.”