31 December 2014

Carrie on up the North West Frontier (Grand Review: 'Homeland' Season 4)

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/2e/Homeland_Season_4.jpg
Actually, the song "Lady in Red" is about Chris de Burgh's missus, or so says Wikipedia

So, with Brody out of the picture, we now get to see what happens when our favourite blonde CIA operative works without a redhead in her life that isn't a baby. It involves a lot of alcohol and some frankly dodgy spy moves.

As always with my Homeland reviews, this contains major spoilers from the get-go.

****

Carrie is now a CIA Station Chief, but not in Istanbul as planned, but in Kabul. It pays more and I hope she's using that for her daughter's college fund, because the bairn is in the US being looked after by her sister (she can't take her to Afghanistan as it's a war zone). She's in charge of drone operations against terrorists and we join her having a walk in Kabul interrupted by a time-critical situation. A suspected terrorist, Hassan Haqqani has been found and she calls in the F-15Es (not drones, but that's a technical point). He dies (or so we think)... but forty people in a wedding party go with him, with the exception of a medical student of which more later. It turns out that the usually reliable Islamabad chief, Sandy (a bloke) went on this with less than the usual intel verification... so she goes to Islamabad to investigate.

Sandy, now as conspicuous as the bald white man in Islamabad he is, tries to flee but is found by a mob and despite an attempt by Quinn and Mathison to help (via shooting dead a couple of locals), bites the dust.

(Yes, I've got plenty more groaners where that came from)

Carrie is called back to the US, along with Quinn, seemingly permanently. However, Carrie soon persuades Director Lockhart (who replaced Saul Berenson) to assign her as the new station chief; she's suspicious that Sandy was getting his usually very accurate intelligence on the location of high value targets by providing other intel to Pakistan's ISI spy agency... which isn't something the CIA actually approved. As a result, she leaves her kid behind yet again.

Quinn meanwhile ends up in a sexual relationship with his motel manager, who is a bit overweight. Defending her honour in a diner, he gives one taunter an injury that requires 63 stitches... it's becoming increasingly clear that he and the CIA are heading towards parting company. He comes along with Carrie.

Also coming along to the party is her old boss Saul, who after spending some time arguing with the DoD about the Afghanistan draw-down (something a private contractor touting for business really shouldn't do) goes to Islamabad. At this moment, the 'kill-it-with-fire' thoughts on the future of Homeland that I was starting to have during Season 3 return with a vengeance... at the same time that Showtime order a fifth season of the show.

For some reason, the CIA decide to follow the medical student, who is in fact the nephew of the terrorist. This involves Carrie pretending to be a journalist.

Meanwhile, while looking at some YouTube videos of Sandy being blown away, Quinn sees someone standing with a mobile... the ISI sicced the mob on him! Carrie et al find where the guy in question, a local hood who does wet work for ISI (i.e. kill people) is staying and Quinn sneaks in to clone his phone, just before the guy gets a call telling him to clear out.

Saul has a tense conversation with a couple of figures in the ISI and we also learn that the US Ambassador's husband, Dennis Boyd has been the one passing documents to Sandy... when he's blackmailed by an attractive female ISI officer.

Medical Student, who is called Aayan, is stealing medicine from the local hospital, something that gets him kicked off the course by the father of a fellow student. One of Carrie's colleagues, Fara, follows him and finds out who he is giving the meds to... his uncle, who isn't dead after all, so the CIA decide to use him to get to the terrorist. Aayan then goes to a safe house that Carrie has prepared for him. She makes up a bed on the couch... and then, for some unearthly reason, proceeds to give him an anatomy lesson he'll never forget by seducing him.

(Does Claire Danes have a no-explicit-nudity clause in her contract? It seems like it)

She gets him to admit that his uncle is alive. Saul fails to realise that he's the ex-CIA director (so fairly recognisable in the spy business), shadows the ISI goon at the airport... and gets duly abducted by Haqqani's lot. Indeed it takes a while before the CIA actually realise this.

After a couple more sexual encounters, Carrie gets her CIA chums to stage an attack on the safe house, which we don't know they're behind until after; this results in her getting carried into a van (pun intended) and complaining about punched in the face. She wanted convincing, not a broken nose (she doesn't actually get one). Nice twist, this one.

Aayan hops on a coach and the CIA track him to a meeting with his uncle. Who by way of greeting, proceeds to shoot Aayan in the head... and for a trump card, pulls Saul out of the car. Carrie in a moment of possible madness orders the drone to take out the entire party, former boss included, but the cooler heads prevail.

Carrie unfortunately is about to not just lose the plot, but the entire Combat Information Center. Dennis Boyd tells the ISI that Carrie is on some serious medication... and Female ISI Officer decides to pull a tactic that Carrie later states is low even by the standards of the espionage business. They tamper with her meds, which results in her going seriously loopy (if there's one thing Claire Danes does well, it's playing crazy)... to the point she starts hallucinating, shooting people with fingers... and seeing the distinctly dead Brody, Damian Lewis making a brief appearance. The aim is to get her sent home... it just succeeds in making her very, very annoyed.

Saul is taken to Haqqani's compound, where after having to listen to the terrorist make love to his wife for the first time in three years (poor Saul, it's not the first time he's found himself in a situation like this), he manages to escape via picking his cuffs with a nail in the floor. He gets to the nearest town, but is ultimately recaptured.

Director Lockhart at this point waltzes in and starts acting like a drunken bull in a china shop, threatening the Pakistanis (who are really not coming out of this series looking that good) with a cut in their aid package if they don't get Saul back. Ambassador Boyd manages to calm things down and after Saul makes an appearance on Jihadi TV (or rather just a video - it's not actually put on the Internet as we shall see later), a deal is struck involving swapping five high value Taliban prisoners for Saul. This is not an exchange Saul is happy with, as we will see later.

At this point, Colonel Khan comes to Carrie and tells him that Boyd was the one who told the IS about her meds. Dennis the Menace ends up being arrested and is somewhat in denial about all of his role in this.

The exchange at an airstrip almost goes very wrong when Saul refuses to leave, but is eventually persuaded by Carrie to go through with it. The very tense situation is resolved... but then out of the blue, the convoy with Saul and Carrie in comes under RPG attack. The Marines from the embassy are sent to deal with the situation... at which point we learn Dennis told the ISI about a secret entrance to the embassy. In a moment so 24 it just needed a ticking clock at the end, the episode ends with Haqqani about to attack the embassy.

The attack goes down with a large number of Carrie's CIA colleagues killed as they begin the process of destroying the classified documents and generally evacuating. The Ambassador and Director Lockhart get to the safe room where Haqqani lines up a bunch of hostages, including Fara. He wants a document containing the list of CIA assets in Pakistan so he can exact involuntary head amputations on them. After three hostages get a bullet in the head, Lockhart demonstrates a complete lack of backbone and gives him the document. At that point, the Mighty Quinn and another CIA officer attack the terrorists, with the result that a wounded Haqqani legs it. Before that however, he kills Fara with a knife in the back. This is definitely a show not afraid to bump off characters without warning, that's for sure (I was spoiled for this; Twitter post by Fara's actress on the day after US transmission got re-tweeted by another account).

Meanwhile, the Marines come under fire from a sniper as Khan is stopped from sending backup by Female ISI Officer because she really doesn't like the Americans. Carrie and Saul survive, but their driver John (who I believe was in previous seasons) gets a piece of glass to the carotid, ending his career permanently. Carrie plays a spot of Counter-Snipe, but to no avail; the sniper legs it just before the Pakistani military arrive.

The Americans are of course furious about this attack on their embassy; having a jihad flag hanging from the window is just an insult on top of 36 fatal injuries. The US decides to break off diplomatic relations with Pakistan and as a result the CIA is having to pack up its stuff. Dennis asks the Ambassador to get his belt so he can hang himself, but is unable to go through with it and is taken back to the US to await trial.

(It's at this point where the RL Pakistan/Taliban relationship took a dramatic turn towards the hostile with the Peshawar school attack; it seems if you want something not to happen, feature it on Homeland. The Pakistani government weren't happy about their portrayal here, but when you've have the world's most wanted terrorist living under your nose, you kind of lose your credibility in some matters)

While they're packing up, Quinn goes AWOL and decides to engage in a spot of Haqqani hunting. Carrie is many things, but she's not one for going off on sole unsanctioned missions where the probability of being killed is high. Quinn also takes the video of Haqqani shooting Aayan in the head, hands it to his medical school friend and she ends up putting it on YouTube, hopefully helping damage his reputation in the long-term.

Off screen, Carrie's father dies, adding more emotional trauma to an already unhappy blonde spy. She traces Quinn to where Haqqani is being driven back to his compound to a warm welcome from a crowd, a group of counter-demonstrators is arriving and the first of these is preparing to blow up the terrorist leader with an improvised bomb. She stops him from doing that - they'll know it was the Americans, then heads towards him to shoot him herself... and is stopped by Colonel Khan, who points out who else is in his vehicle.

It's Dal Adar; a senior CIA officer and one of the top people in the agency. What a way to lead us into the finale... which instead of being a spectacular meal turns out to be the equivalent of a BR cheese sandwich.

Everybody ends up back in the USA. Carrie's estranged Mom, who she hasn't seen for fifteen years, suddenly turns up out of the blue and she learns that she has a half-brother. There's her dad's funeral and much of the rest of the domestic is really too soapy to mention, apart from Carrie and Quinn kissing. Carrie isn't ready to commit to a relationship as she's bi-polar and they don't work out well with her.

Saul loses his job, but gets a year's salary as severance. With Lockhart resigning, he is offered the possibility of being director of the CIA full-time, but there is the issue of what happens if the video of him being captured is released... but that's sorted as the real reason Dal Adar was there is revealed.

He was doing a deal with Haqqani, in what is clearly meant to be a cynical comment on US foreign policy with a comparison to Israel's first Prime Minister having bombing a British Army barracks. One might argue there is a difference between targeting soldiers and civilians... Haqqani gives him the sole copy of Saul's Jihadi TV appearance and agrees not to harbour terrorists; in return they basically let him take over Afghanistan (on the grounds that it's going to happen anyway) and remove him from the kill list. It's a stinky deal and Saul says so.

Quinn is asked to go on a special op to Syria to hunt an Islamic State leader; after initially declining, he agrees to go, handing the team member due to replace him a letter to Carrie to be sent if he doesn't come back.

Carrie drives to Adar's house to confront him and tells him that Saul would not approve if what he's doing. Adal just tells her that she can ask Saul himself... who is sitting in his garden, clearly accepting of the situation, or so we are led to believe. A furious Carrie gets into her SUV, drives off... and then cut to credits.

Sorry, the least you could have done there was have her crash the car or something. That was a poor ending and Howard Gordon can do so much better.

Conclusion

After a slow start and some initial desire to "kill it with fire", Homeland has made a frankly welcome return to form... until the frankly poor finale, which docks this one down a whole point. I'm happy this has got a Season 5, but my "kill it with fire" impulse is twitching.

7/10

28 December 2014

Like 'Inception', only lower budget (Review: 'Doctor Who' 34.X, "Last Christmas")

Clara is preparing for a Christmas without Danny Pink when suddenly something crashes on her roof; and it's not the TARDIS.

  • The Doctor was wonderfully crabby in this episode (pun intended). Mind you, Capaldi's 'costume' has hardly featured in full; this is a Doctor far more comfortable in a hoodie than a formal shirt.
  • Keeping it unclear whether Clara was staying or going until the end of the episode definitely added things to this. Mind you, the old person make up was unconvincing.
  • Nick Frost did a fun performance as Santa; I can see why the final shot was like so. Mind you, I'm not sure Ian and Wolf really added much to the proceedings and the CGI budget didn't stretch to more than three reindeer.
  • I like it when a show is open about its influences and that's a brilliant joke about Alien, which is arguably a trope in science fiction in general that Doctor Who has done much to try to correct.
  • So, what was real and what wasn't? They made it clear early on not to trust your senses. Mind you... [If you say 'Mind you' one more time, I'll delete your Star Citizen screenshots - Ed.]
  • Good to see Danny Pink again; it gave some further closure to the character. M... sorry, I'm not sure we actually needed that though.
  • I actually have had dreams where I know that I'm dreaming. Mind you, I've had some weird ones in my time.
  • This is a show that doesn't need graphic special effects to do chilling horror. The dialogue doesit just fine.
  • Of the guest characters, I have to say I liked Shona best. We need more like her.
  • So, "The Magican's Apprentice", eh? I wonder who that could be?

Conclusion

Somewhat of a slow starter, but the ending was very good.

8/10

27 December 2014

25 years on: Romania

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Protestors on a military vehicle (image from a collection by Denoel Paris and other photographers)

Gil Scott-Heron once sang a song called "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". 

This proved to be very much not true when it came to the revolutions of 1989; they were broadcast all around the world and the countries of the Soviet bloc already had a well-developed television system. OK, it wasn't exactly the multi-channel stuff of the USA and other Western countries, but they had colour, a couple of (state-run) channels and at times some fairly decent shows that actually ended up getting a Western broadcast. Some of these shows are in fact actually still going!

It was also a batch of largely civilised revolutions; while there was some violence, people weren't killed and the Communist leaders accepted their fates. With one exception. In Romania, what many people thought would have happened when communism collapsed happened - what was basically a short civil war, with around a thousand deaths.

They think it's Moldova... it won't be for nearly fifty years

The history of the then Kingdom of Romania during the war is fairly complex, but can be summarised as follows:
  • Britain and France guaranteed Romania's territorial integrity, but following the loss of France to the Germans in 1940, the USSR was able to demand and get parts of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina that became part of what is now Ukraine and Moldova. It also lost territory to Hungary and Bulgaria.
  • After this, a fascist named Ion Antonescu seized power and aligned Romania with the Axis.
  • Romania played a major part of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, as well as in the Holocaust (a Romanian government report in 2004 concluded that it was second only to Germany in its crimes against the Jews of Europe. It supplied Germany with oil and grain, which made it a major target for Allied bombing raids... and the targeting of oil supplies was one of the more successful aspects of them, as the Axis needed petrol etc. for their tanks.
    • Romania remains a significant oil producer and refiner, although it's admittedly not as well known as some other countries.
  • With the war turning against the Axis and the USSR approaching Romania proper, King Michael I was able to seize power in a coup in August 1944 and the country switched sides, with Antonescu placed under arrest. Soviet occupation followed.
After the war, the Soviet backed communists won power in a fraudulent election in 1946 and the following year, King Michael was forced to abdicate; he ended up going into exile. Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej (who it was latter claimed forced said abdication at gunpoint) became leader of the country. There would continue to be some armed anti-communist resistance, but it was small scale and uncoordinated; while that made it harder to eliminate, it was still eliminated by 1962.

Antonescu was tried in a politicised trial in 1946 and ended up being executed by firing squad... the execution was recorded on film. In a way, that's rather ironic considering what happened in 1989.

Romania's involvement on the Allied side was ignored in the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties with the minor member of the Axis; while the border with Hungary was put back to the pre-1940 one, the Soviet and Bulgarian acquisitions stayed in place. They also had to pay $300 million in reparations to the USSR.

Gheorghiu-Dej was a repressive hardliner, but he was certainly not going to be Moscow's creature; Romania began to develop trading and diplomatic links with the West and Bucharest frequently asserted its independence from the Soviet Union.

He died in 1965 and his successor was even worse...

The worst thing to come out of Romania, ever

I once commented on TV Tropes that Romania has a bad international reputation because the three best known things to come out of it were Dracula, the Cheeky Girls and Nicolae Ceaușescu. The first is fictional, the second was added as a joke... but the third is all too real. 

Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989) took over three days after the death of his predecessor and did two things pretty quickly - change the party's name back to the Communist Party Romania and change the country's name to the Socialist Republic of Romania. He continued the country's independent course in foreign affairs, condemning the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, signed trade deals with the EEC and played a role in international negotiations.

Those were the nice things he did... which means I get onto the nasty ones pretty quickly. It's not entirely clear how many deaths one can lay at his door or that of his regime; he was found guilty of 60,000 deaths at his trial, but that, as we shall see, was of questionable legality at best.


The regime was propped up by the  Departamentul Securității Statului ("Department of State Security"), known among Romanians simply as the Securitate. One of the largest of the Soviet bloc secret polices, it was arguably one of the most brutal. Particular lowlights include:
  • Spreading of rumours
  • Attempted assassinations of defectors
  • Subjecting union leaders to five-minute chest X-rays to attempt (probably successfully) to give them cancer.
  • Putting microphones in public places to record people's conversations
  • Old-fashioned beating and torture in custody.
In 1966 or 1967 (sources vary on this), the regime decided that the one thing Romania really needed was a large population. So, they basically outlawed contraception and pretty much all abortion (which was in fact the main means of contraception anyway as other reliable methods weren't available) to stop a decline in the birth rate... and they were harsh on it. Women were checked monthly by a gynaecologist... and if you were found to be pregnant, the secret police checked on you to make sure you didn't terminate the pregnancy. Those who had ten or more children could get medals... but most women didn't want ten kids. In addition, it became very hard to get divorced.

The result was a baby boom - Romania's number of births doubled in a year and the 1967 babies would end up being 22 in 1989 - Freakonomics theorised that this actually made the revolution more violent as you had a lot of disaffected youth at the average age for being revolutionaries.
With families unable to afford to look after the extra kids, many ended up in orphanages that made the one in Oliver Twist look positively pleasant. Some stories of them can be found here.

The leader, who became full President in 1974 (and 'won' three more elections after that), being to set up a cult of personality around himself. His birthday became the biggest national day in Romania where not smiling was basically a health risk, he had a sceptre made for himself (which got a sarcastic compliment from Salvador Dalí... the Romanian press printed it not realising it was sarcasm), he called himself the Conducător or leader and restrictions on how he was portrayed on television were very strict. You could not emphasise the fact he was only five foot six. His wife, Elena, claimed to be a brilliant chemist, but she was just putting her name on other people's papers.

Oh and at least thirty family members were given high positions. Nothing like a bit of good old-fashioned nepotism, is there?

The 1980s 

As mentioned in other articles in this series, the Warsaw Pact countries had some quite serious problems with foreign debt - as did Romania, which was extended plenty of credit by the West to try and split the bloc. When this, combined with an oil deal with Iran being scuppered due to the fall of the Shah in 1979, Ceaușescu decided to free Romania of reliance on foreign loans.

In a manner that made Greek austerity look like a picnic. 

Much of Romania's industrial and agricultural production was exported, with resulting food rationing, electricity shortages, the eventual limitation of television to two hours a day and the closure of all the regional radio stations. It was as if Romania was going through a bad war; day-to-day life became a struggle for survival. The debt was paid off, but at a big human cost... frankly too high in my opinion

In November 1989, one of Romania's national heroes, gymnast Nadia Comăneci (her of the Perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics of 1976, although Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim also got one in the same Games) defected to the United States, via the gap in the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria.


The revolution

The downfall of the regime began on 16 December in Timișoara, Transylvania, where the Hungarian minority (who were being subjected to forced relocation) began a protest against a decision to evict a popular local pastor who had called from democracy on Hungarian television. The crowd wouldn't disperse, things got violent and the police, along with the secret police went in. There was a failed attempt to set the local party office on fire.

The following day, there were further riots, with ethnic Romanians joining in as well. The Army were called in and refused to open fire on demonstrators. Thus, the Securitae did the thing that many had feared would happen but had not in other revolutions.

They opened fire. They ended up killing three army officers (for disobeying orders) and a number of children. There would be further deaths in the next two days - not covered by Romanian TV of course, but people learnt about them through other means like Radio Free Europe. Rumours of thousands of deaths soon spread; people were beginning to believe as many as 64,000 had died. The 'truth' was irrelevant to what people believed.


Demonstrations began to spread across Romania and the President, who had taken a trip to Iran just as all of this was breaking out, came back to an orchestrated demonstration of support. A large crowd was gathered in Palace Square, basically brought in on pain of losing their jobs, being told what to do... where they promptly proceeded to play the wrong notes.

Ceaușescu, appearing on the balcony of the Central Committee Building started a rambling, wordy speech in he blamed events in Timișoara on agitators... and after eight minutes, people began to actually boo him. His facial expression as he tried to placate the crowd is considered a defining moment of 1989's revolutions; he knew he was in deep trouble. He was finally removed from the balcony by his security and then ordered troops to open fire on the crowd. They refused, so the Securitate did that and open street fighting followed. One protester waved a Romanian flag with the Communist insignia removed.. and others soon imitated him.

Hundreds died, some crushed by tanks.

The following day, defence minister Vasile Milea died in suspicious circumstances - it was eventually concluded as suicide in 2005, but people believed he had been murdered. An official announcement claiming suicide after being sacked for treason just helped that belief. Most of the army then proceeded to switch sides... as did many of the top officials. The new defence minister, Victor Stănculescu, then ordered troops back to barracks without his President's knowledge - a key moment in the revolution. He also aligned himself with Ion Iliescu's group of those trying to gain control of the situation.

The following day, the leader planned to address his people, but the crowd threw projectiles at him and he had to swiftly retreat back inside. He and his wife then proceeded to flee as the crowd below stormed the building, leaving by helicopter with some very angry people only a few metres behind.

As they left, a 'National Salvation Front' made up of military leaders and second-tier officials in the Communist Party took control. However, the military and the people of Bucharest soon found itself under attack from loyalists to the old regime as the city was hit by a considerable amount of street fighting; this 'terrorist' activity lasted until 27 December, when it abruptly stopped. Far more people died from the last guard attacks than in trying to bring down the regime in the first place. However, amidst all the chaos, Romanians started celebrating Christmas; something long suppressed under their previous rulers.

The former leader and his wife's attempt to flee into exile failed; after a few hours, they ended up being locked in a room of an agricultural college in Târgoviște and were arrested by the local police, who handed them over to the army.

Ceaușescu had been given a considerable number of gongs by Western governments over the years; including a couple of honorary knighthoods - most of these ended up getting revoked around this time, including the one from the Queen. When he got that one, the couple practically stripped their Buckingham Palace suit of anything of value... taking the towels is a bit cheeky, but the whole suite is just taking liberties.


On Christmas Day, Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu faced a court-martial set up by the National Salvation Front on charges of illegal wealth-gathering and genocide, among others.

The trial was perfunctory, in violation of a good number of legal procedures (it was widely condemned for this in fact) and had one inevitable outcome. The couple were sentenced to death, taken outside and received an assault rifle machine-gunning for Christmas; one NSF member later said he saw 120 bullet wounds - which strongly implies the firing squad actually reloaded They were in fact executed within five minutes; so fast that the cameraman who was going to film the execution was only able to catch the end of it, the dead bodies duly appearing on Romanian television a couple of days later, as well as on Western channels.

One does have to give Ceaușescu some credit - he was singing "The Internationale" (a very well known left-wing song, although the original English version is rather hard to sing) as he was positioned for execution. His wife just told the three members of the firing squad (there were apparently hundreds of volunteers) that they were the kind of people who slept with their own mothers, although not in such polite terms.

They would be the final people executed in Romania - capital punishment was abolished two weeks later.

Romania today 


The Romania Communist Party disappeared and unlike most of the former bloc states, it has not come back in any form.


The NSF won presidential and parliamentary elections held in March 1990, with Ion Iliescu becoming President after gaining over 90% of the vote, but not everyone was accepting of the new government, feeling that it was too dominated by former Communists and not doing a good enough job. There were four lots of violent anti-government protests in 1990 and 1991, known as Mineriads (as they involved miners in some form or another) that resulted in a number of deaths.

A new constitution was created and the NSF split into two; the Democratic National Salvation Front (headed by Iliescu) and the Democrat Party. The former won the 1992 elections and formed a coalition government that lasted until 1996, when the next elections saw a peaceful handover to a centrist government. This first term also saw the Caritas scandal, which saw a huge pyramid investment scheme go the way of all of them... down the plughole with a lot of people losing money.

King Michael is actually still alive and aged 93; along with Simeon II and the current Dalai Lama, they are the only three Second World War heads of state still alive.

The country's current leader is President Klaus Iohannis, a Transylvania Saxon and thus Romania's first ethnic minority president. The Prime Minister Victor Ponta is head of the Social Democratic Party, runs a three-party coalition and recently surrendered his doctorate over charges that he plagiarised his thesis.

There was a decade of economic decline after 1989, followed by a boom once reforms that had an effect that lasted until the sub-prime crisis; it needed an IMF loan but the economy is slowly growing again and unemployment isn't actually that high compared to some countries at 7%. It is now considered an upper middle income country; it still has a way to go to get in the high income category.

Romania joined the European Union in 2007 along with southern neighbour Bulgaria. Unlike the countries that joined in 2004, it was not given full access to the whole free movement of workers things by the United Kingdom; instead having to wait until 2014 for this to happen (to the whole of the rest of the EU) amid alarmist claims of basically the entire two countries potentially wanting to emigrate at once. Of course, they did not.

Romania has moved considerably towards the West; it is believed that CIA black sites in their 'enhanced interrogation' programme were based there. In addition, it plays host to a land-based interceptor site for the US missile defence system.

The country is also one of the world's biggest arms exporters - 11th place in fact; with sales to various Middle Eastern countries that still use Pact-calibre weapons. Romania in fact still retains some MiG-21s, which are also capable of carrying Western missiles (via an upgrade from Israel's Elbit Systems), but these are due for replacement in the next couple of years by F-16s.

Nadia Comăneci briefly returned to Romania in 1996 with her fiancé for their wedding, this was televised live. She now holds dual US-Romanian citizenship.

The rest of the Communist countries

1989 concluded with five of the six satellite states of the USSR having thrown off their shackles and  gained their freedom, Moscow just letting them do it. Bulgaria would follow the following year; although that was more a case of the Communist Party itself making the country democratic; it gave up its monopoly on power, changed its name and won free elections. It would lose the next lot to the centre-right, but the Bulgarian Socialist Party remains very much a key player in the politics of Bulgaria.

Protests began in Albania in 1989 and after reforms, the communist party there won the 1991 elections, holding power for another year.

Finally there was Yugoslavia; where the federal state collectively threw off Communist rule in 1990... then proceeded to disintegrate in a series of wars, some of which would be very bloody indeed.

For some this would be called the "end of history", but we now know very differently; some might argue that we are in a new Cold War with Russia. It might not be that, but it's certainly something.

25 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

Today, we should (if we're not already doing so) remember the birth of the most influential figure in human history and a truly great man, even if you don't think he is the Son of God.

Jesus' life, death and resurrection allowed us to connect to God directly. Personally, I feel that my faith in Jesus has made me a better person and given me hope in some situations that haven't been particularly pleasant. Without him, I would be in a much worse position, both morally and probably physically.

I wish everyone a joyous festive season and a happy new year.

12 December 2014

Place this on the Very Good shelf (Review: 'The Librarians' 1.1, "...And the Crown of King Arthur" and 1.2, "...And the Sword in the Stone")

As I've probably mentioned before, I spent five years at secondary school as a pupil librarian... and in that whole time, I never met one who looked like Rachel Weisz. Or for that matter Noah Wyle.

So, naturally, I have an interest in things bibliothèque, as they say in the French Republic.
Back in the last decade, Noah Wyle (ER, Falling Skies) starred in three TV movies as Flynn Carsen, a nerd with more degrees than I've had pints of lager who gets a magical invitation to interview to become a librarian at the Metropolitan Public Library. Not just a librarian, but The Librarian, keeper of The Library, a secret underground storage facility for magical artefacts like the Ark of the Covenant too dangerous to be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. The movies got repeated fairly frequently on Sky1, but I never had a reason to watch them until now.
I watched the first a while back and the second two before watching this, hence the delay in this going up. I found the first good but not brilliant, highly enjoyed the second and will say that Stana Katic adds considerable bite (pun fully intended) to a very good third.

When I saw that TNT were making a series following up the movies, I decided to make a reservation. Seeing Christan Kane (Elliot in Leverage) and Lindy Booth in the cast attracted me... the fact that former Victoria's Secret model turned actor Rebecca Romijn was in it completely passed me by - I've only ever seen one X-Men movie and Mystique really didn't make that big an impression on me. While Noah Wyle is in this, he is only a recurrer, due to his commitments to the fifth and final season of Falling Skies, handing lead duties to Romijn.

****
This two part opener sees all-action NATO counter-terrorism agent Colonel Eve Baird (Romijn) run into The Librarian while on a mission in Berlin; both having to defuse deadly devices at the same time. Afterwards, she gets a magical white envelope inviting her to join The Library, where she becomes The Guardian, the tactical specialist whose job it is to look after Carsen and serve as the common sense to his "head in the clouds". The show's producers worked on Leverage between movies and series, sticking in a good number of Doctor Who references and Carsen is basically a full-blown one. While the James Bond/Indiana Jones/The Doctor fusion pre-dates Matt Smith's Eleventh version of the last by six years, Carsen is an Eleven expy here, down to a penchant for bow ties and tweed jacket - in fact, I wonder if Carsen influenced the Moff in creating Eleven. Not that there is anything wrong with that... although it's a good thing he's a recurrer, as it does start to grate after a while.

Investigating the mysterious death of someone in the public area of the Metropolitan Public Library, they learn that the evil Serpent Brotherhood (which does include a Dark Action Girl, parking a suitably evil British accent as well as the guy who played Dr. Leekie in Orphan Black) has been killing off the top other candidates from when Carsen got the job ten years earlier. They discover that three are still alive and go to collect them, embarking on a mission to stop the Brotherhood from destroying the world.

****

The plot allows for the setting up of the main premise of the show quite easily - as well as eliminating two expensive guest star fees from the outgoings, not to mention removing the need for a considerable amount of CGI in the Library proper. We get the by-now-standard plot for this franchises, which involves finding the location of a mysterious dangerous artefact, then getting to said artefact before the bad guys can use it to do nasty things.

Baird's job is basically to kick backside, deal with authorities and wear a blonde top knot; I found myself reminded of Clara, albeit with more punchiness. The other characters, all straight-up geniuses:
  • Cassandra: The synthesia (and brain tumour - this is important to the plot) packing maths genius, she's definitely the heart of the team and while she doesn't have a great start, she's adorable in her own way. Booth does an excellent job here.
  • Jacob: A Mid-Western oil worker who is secretly an art historian, Christian Kane is essentially reprising his Elliot role; not that there's anything wrong with that.
  • Eziekel: The professional thief of the trio, his appetite for nicking stuff that isn't nailed down might lead to plot problems later.

The CGI effects in this are very good and en par with the stuff Doctor Who does on a weekly basis; but not being the BBC means that they're probably going to have to limit themselves a tad.

This is a very, very funny show - it doesn't take itself hugely seriously and willingly lampshades its own ridiculousness (prosciutto blowtorch anyone?), with good quotes a plenty.


Conclusion

The first half is pretty awesome; the second while still good, starts to get a bit predictable. I'm reminded of Steven Moffat-era Doctor Who more than anything else and while this shows clear promise, it remains to be seen if it will fulfil that. I hope and think it will.

8/10

07 December 2014

1989, 25 years on: Czechoslovakia

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bc/17listopadu89_pomnik.JPG
Monument to the student demonstrations of 17 November 1989. Photo by Rémi Diligent
It has been said that if Poland took ten years to overthrow communism, Hungary took ten months, East Germany ten weeks and Czechoslovakia ten days. This isn't quite true... the process took a good deal longer for all of them.

An 'artificial country'

Czechoslovakia was one of the countries that were created out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in late 1918 and it does seem a bit odd that two rather disparate regions should team up in this manner. Bohemia was the most industrialised part of the Empire, while Slovakia had been largely agrarian for most of its history - they'd been in the same country once, but back in the 9th century AD. Yet, Czech leaders supported teaming up with the Slovaks to form a new country.

Czechoslovakia was a bit of mixed ethnic bag; there were enough Germans (over 20% in fact) there that Hitler was able to get a hearing among many when he demanded and got the Sudetenland in 1938. After that, Slovakia was persuaded to declare independence when Hitler annexed the rest of the modern day Czech areas in early 1939 (which of course convinced the UK and France he could not be bought off) and became a client state of the Nazis during the war, until the Nazis took it over in 1944 following an uprising by the non-Nazi locals. Of course many Czechs and Slovaks made their way to the UK and fought on the Allied side - including with the RAF in the Battle of Britain.

The Red Army occupied Bratislava in April 1945 and took Prague in May; the last shots of the war in Europe were fired on 12 May; as the remaining forces of Army Group Centre didn't quite get the memo and continued to fight on for four more days. The US forces were stopped from reaching Prague first by Eisenhower; George S. Patton was not happy about that.

The end of the war saw the expulsion of most of the German population to the occupied German zones, the loss of Carpathian Ruthenia to the USSR (it is now part of Ukraine) and three years of semi-democratic rule. Eventually, after working their way into the various ministries, the Czechoslovak communists (KSČ was the Czech and Slovak acronym for their name - Komunistická strana Československa) seized power in a coup in February 1948 and the country became a solid Soviet ally. Shortly afterwards, the Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk (a non-Communist who had kept his job) was found dead in his pyjamas below his bathroom window at the Foreign Ministry; the official verdict was suicide, but post-1989 investigations concluded murder - this has been dubbed the Third Defenestration of Prague.

In 1960, the country changed its name from "Czechoslovak Republic" to "Czechoslovak Socialist Republic", abbreviated in Czech to ČSSR, claiming that had achieved socialism - and that it was the second country to do so after the USSR; indeed many of the others would stay as "People's Republics" throughout Communist rule.

The Prague Spring

Antonín Novotný, General Secretary from 1953 to 1968, was not a popular figure; he was a hard-liner and the pace of de-Stalinisation was a good deal slower in Czechoslovakia than it was elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. Support for reform was growing and in spring 1968, he was challenged by  Alexander Dubček, the First Secretary of the Slovakian party. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev saw the limited support for Novotný and allowed this challenge to succeed. Unfortunately for a lot of people, Dubček proceeded to move things a way that the USSR didn't like.

Dubček announced what he called "Socialism with a human face", an action programme that included freedom of speech, allowing emigration to the West, a federal Czechoslovakia (in two equal parts), limiting the power of the StB secret police and recognition of the State of Israel, diplomatic relations having been severed after the Six Day War of 1967 - they would not be restored until the fall of communism.

There was a brief period of considerable openness, but Moscow was getting concerned, fearing that Czechoslovakia would leave the Warsaw Pact (it wasn't planning to) and that unrest would spread.

Eventually after negotiations failed, five Warsaw Pact countries sent armed forces to remove the regime, after receiving a letter from some figures in the KSČ calling for intervention. Dubček ordered the Czechoslovak people not to resist (Prague was in no position to stop it - for one thing, they didn't think there would actually be an invasion), but there was a large amount of non-violent resistance; removing road signs, graffiti and so on. Nevertheless, there were 108 Czechoslovak deaths and 112 deaths among the invaders (mostly in accidents for the latter).


International reaction was swift and condemnatory. The US, however, had a hard time arguing its case due to its own actions in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic (it was a very bad year for the superpowers and the establishment in general in terms of public opinion, with a lot of student demonstrations); a UN Security Council resolution on the matter was vetoed by the USSR. Two protests from unusual quarters were Romania (Ceaușescu openly condemning the invasion and setting himself on a more independent course that would remain until his death in 1989 - see next article) and Albania, using this to exit the Warsaw Pact entirely and align itself with the Chinese.

The events had a major impact on the communists in Western Europe. While Hungary could be passed off as a fascist uprising put down by Soviet intervention in the minds of fellow travellers, they certainly could not do this here. Many of the parties (but by no means all) distanced themselves majorly from the Soviet Union and moved towards something called Eurocommunism, making clear their support for democratic structures in their home countries; the Italian communists eventually formed an association with the Christian Democrats!

Unlike in Hungary, Dubček was not executed - he actually briefly kept his job until anti-Soviet demonstrations following Czechoslovakia beating the USSR in the 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships led to his removal under pressure from Moscow; Gustáv Husák (who had ironically actually spent about ten years in jail from 1950-1960, including six in the notorious Leopoldov prison) would replace him.

On 19 January 1969, Jan Palach, a 20 year old student, set fire to himself in protest at the Soviet invasion; he died several days later and two other students would self-immolate in the same manner in that year. He would later get a memorial in Prague.

The Soviet troops stayed after the invasion and would remain until after the fall of the regime; they would form the Central Group of Forces opposite NATO forces in West Germany.

(An interesting side note: David Nykl, who played Radek Zelenka in Stargate Atlantis came to Canada as a toddler after his family fled the country following these events - Nykl used a Czech accent to play Zelenka, but actually has a Canadian accent off-camera)

Charter 77 

Gustáv Husák engaged in what was called 'normalization' - a wholesale purge of reformist elements from the party (including Dubček, who ended up as a minor functionary in Slovakia), strict censorship and a spot of militant atheism to boot. There were no overt reprisals and it wasn't a return to Stalinism, but the StB were pretty repressive. He hoped that improvements in living standards would placate the population and it generally did (temporarily), as the populace were able to get hold of new cars, appliances etc. OK, the cars were Škodas... but that was frankly better than nothing.

(It's amazing just how far Škoda has come recently - no-one makes jokes about their cars these days as they're now very good; however, one reason for the jokes in the West was that a lot of them did actually end up being sold in Western Europe)

In 1976, an underground rock group by the name The Plastic People of the Universe were arrested and jailed for "organized disturbance of the peace". Their "crimes" were having long hair and using rude words in their music. In protest against this, a Czech playwright named Václav Havel and other prominent figures put together a manifesto called Charter 77 (Charta 77), criticising the government for not abiding by the human rights agreements it had signed up to, such as the Helsinki Accords in 1975 - however, to try to cover their backs legally they said they would not engage in political activity. This was published on 6 January 1977; while the original was confiscated by the StB secret police (An English copy can be found here (I don't speak Czech, but that may be the StB file data at the back), copies were circulated underground (being copied by hand or typewriter) and ended up in the Western press; Radio Free Europe would broadcast the contents back to Czechoslovakia.

(Ironically for a work meant to be photocopied and distributed to as many people as possible, Wikisource has the text hidden for a possible copyright violation!)

The government reacted harshly - signatories to the Charter (which was not published in full in the official press for obvious reasons, being deemed an illegal document) were dubbed "traitors" and faced sanctions ranging from loss of driver's licences all the way up to imprisonment or exile. Their children also lost access to education. Havel and others set up the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted in 1979 to support dissidents along with their families; this got him and five other members sent to prison, but Havel's plays continued to circulate underground.

Other Czechoslovak celebrities, such as singer Karel Gott, were forced to sign an 'anti-charter' if they wanted their careers to keep going.

1980s

Charter 77's influence was limited - even those involved were not optimistic they could get fundamental change in Czechoslovakia. Pope John Paul II was invited to the country in 1984, but the government stopped him from coming.

(The church was still allowed to operate, but under heavy restrictions - the government also sponsored a group of pro-regime Catholic clergy)

In 1984, Jaroslav Seifert won the Nobel Prize for Literature; he was too ill to collect the award himself and his daughter picked it up for him. As he was a dissident, the official media only gave it a tiny mention.

The regime's hope that it could provide an 'opiate for the masses' through consumer growth worked initially, but by the 1980s, the economy was stagnating; Czechoslovakia was reliant on the USSR for trade and also for oil - despite a global fall in prices in the mid-1980s, the Soviet price actually rose due to the formula used among the COMECON countries. There were problems with debt as well.

(It's rather amazing how much we actually helped prop up these regimes through loans, buying their goods etc... Communism probably could have been taken down a lot faster if we hadn't... then again, it might have collapsed in a much more unpleasant way).

The Velvet Revolution 

The events in other parts of Europe were making themselves noticed in Czechoslovakia; for example, the large number of East Germans passing through the country to Hungary and the West. However, the USSR was not anticipating that country going the same way as Poland, the GDR and Hungary.

On 17 November 1989, a non-violent demonstration by students to mark 50 years since the Nazis stormed the University of Prague turned into a demo against the regime itself; with 15,000 protesters heading into central Prague, where they were set upon by riot police. Once the crowd dispersed, one person was left lying on the ground and taken away by medics. He was in fact an undercover StB agent... and not dead, merely overcome. However, a rumour began to spread that a student had been killed in the attack by the name of Martin Šmíd; this was picked up by a Charter 77 activist and reported as fact by the BBC. Martin Šmíd was fictional (the story had been made up for unknown reasons by an injured demonstrator), but despite government attempts to disprove the story, people believed it and it furthered anger against the regime.

Students and theatre actors began to go on strike; theatres would only be open for public discussions. With the TV and radio strictly under government control, word was spread by posters, word of mouth etc. There were fears of a bloody repression, with the defence minister announced the army was ready to "defend the achievements of socialism" and rumours of troops around Prague being prepared for action circulated. 

One feature of the demos and the revolution was people jingling their keys to indicate the opening of doors... and to tell the Communists it was time to go home. Google's doodle for the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the 25th anniversary of the revolution starting featured these keys.

However, it wasn't to be; the USSR did not support the regime doing that sort of thing.  On 19 November, members of Charter 77 established Civic Forum (for the Czech half) and Public Against Violence (for the Slovaks) to unify the dissident movement and call for change, wanting the following.
  • Resignation of two officials responsible for the police attack.
  • A commission to investigate said attack.
  • Release of political prisoners.
  • Resignation of the leaders who were responsible for the Soviet invasion.
Unofficial negotiations began on the 20th, when Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec met with Civic Forum without Havel present- he was sympathetic, but could not get support among his cabinet. Civic Forum now added a new demand - an end to the KSČ's leading role in the state.

Dubček turned up the following day and addressed a crowd in St. Wenceslas Square, but it was clear that there was no support for any socialism at all.

The dissident movements called a two-hour general strike for the 27th and the Slovak part of Czechoslovak federal television, after a strike threat, began to air uncensored coverage of events in Bratislava. On the 24th, they aired the first free discussion ever on Czechoslovak TV; Havel made an address... and on that day, the entire Presidium resigned, with Miloš Jakeš replaced as as General Secretary by Karel Urbánek; he would be the last Gen Sec.

Formal negotiations began on 26 November, the day before the strike, although the Communists were very clearly on the back foot.

The strike had a participation rate of an estimated 75% and the Ministry of Culture then proceeded to allow anti-communist literature to be borrowed from libraries. Two days later, the party's leading role in the government was removed from the constitution and they were done.

Adamec resigned as PM on 7 December; he was replaced by Marián Čalfa. Three days later a new Cabinet, not dominated by communists, took office, with President Husák resigning the same day. He was thrown out of the party the following spring and died in 1991, with no-one bar his family really caring.

Havel soon became the biggest victor of the lot - he was unanimously elected President on 29 December.

Dubček became chairman of the Federal Assembly and head of the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia; unfortunately he was killed in a car crash on 7 November 1992.



The Velvet Divorce

It became clear that the two peoples were on different courses quite quickly; the Czech area had a higher GDP per capita, the two halves spoken different languages, the Slovaks were far more religious than the Czechs and the 1992 elections saw major political differences in the two. The Slovak National Council elected wanted independence, while the new Czech National forum and new Czech PM, Václav Klaus (who needed the Slovak Movement for a Democratic Slovakia for a majority in the Czechoslovak legislature), favoured closer integration. The two sides met together for negotiations and it became clear that there was no way that a continued union was going to work. On 17 July, the Slovak National Council backed a declaration of independence and the 'divorce' discussions began.

Federal property (such as the Su-25 jets, which eventually ended up being retired anyway) was mostly split on a 2:1 ratio in favour of the Czechs, based on their relative populations. The border was mostly based on the existing one, although there were issues where it went through settlements, which were worked out. One issue not resolved was the Romany population - mostly registered in Slovakia, but living in the Czech Republic, they had difficulties regarding their citizenship for a decade afterwards.

Both countries agreed to not claim the title of successor state to the defunct Czechoslovakia and also not to use the symbols of the old country (the coat of arms contained symbols for each, which were easily taken for new coats - the Czechs got the lion and the Slovaks the cross); however, the Czechs were unable to find a suitable new flag and unilaterally decided to carry on with the Czechoslovak flag, the Slovaks were OK with that.

On 1 January 1993, the two countries separated, without bloodshed, starting new lives in the same neighbourhood. The Czech Republic and Slovakia had been born.

(The Czech Republic remains the standard name of the country in English; attempts to get 'Czechia' into wider English use haven't worked so far... or for that matter Česko in Czech...)

The Czech Republic and Slovakia today 

For a divorced couple, the Czech Republic and Slovakia get on arguably better than they were when they were married! Both countries are now members of NATO (the Czechs entered in 1999, Slovaks in 2004), joined the EU in 2004 and with the signing of the Schengen Agreement have eliminated routine border checks between the two of them. However, while Slovakia joined the eurozone in 2009, the Czech Republic continues to use the koruna as its currency (it is not likely to join until at least 2019).

They retained the +42 country code for international until 1997, when the Czechs took +420 and the Slovaks took +421. Liechtenstein got +423, for what it's worth)

(A follow up to the East Germany article, their code +37 got discontinued and was split among a number of ex-Soviet states and four of Europe's tinier states like Monaco)

The Czech Republic

The Czech Republic engaged in the wholesale privatisation that followed the collapse of the communist systems, but in their case, the shares were mostly sold at moderate prices to ordinary citizens, giving them something they could invest in and creating a lot of shareholders in the now private companies. There was a steady economic boom (with the exception of a crisis in 1997) until the economic crash when the country suffered a sharp economic contraction due to problems with its export markets e.g. Germany but has returned to growth since then. It is now firmly at Western European levels in terms of GDP (no other ex-Pact state can claim that), it is now a vibrant tourist destination and according to its statistical office, 97% of its population had access to a mobile phone in 2012.

Prague now has a lot more posters on the streets than it did when it featured in the video for INXS' single "Never Tear Us Apart" and I visited in 2004; I liked it but got a bit tired of the architecture by the end of my stay, which also featured a frankly dangerous taxi ride that involved the driver mounting the pavement.


In 1993, the Czech Republic's parliament passed a resolution declaring the old regime illegal and the KSČ (which had finally dissolved when Czechoslovakia ceased to exist), the first such legislation in the former Soviet bloc. 

Havel spent just over three years as Czechoslovakian president and another ten as a less powerful President of the Czech Republic; he remained a highly popular (although at times controversial figure, given his support for the NATO war with Yugoslavia) figure, produced another play after leaving office and was voted third greatest Czech in a TV poll, while still alive. He died in 2011, receiving a flood of tributes and today Prague's main airport is named after him.

The current President (the first elected by popular vote instead of Parliament) is Miloš Zeman, a fairly controversial figure who upset some Czechs by being nostalgic about the communist days. The real power lies in the hands of PM Bohuslav Sobotka of the centre-left Czech Social Democratic Party, head of a three-party coalition since earlier this year - he was 18 when the revolution happened and so has no connection to the old regime in any form bar having lived there.

The Czech military, as did most of the armed forces of Europe, downsized considerably following the end of the Cold War - it is largely oriented towards defence, but has participated in NATO missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The MiG-29 fleet was traded to Poland for helicopters - the Slovaks ended up with the maintenance kit for the Fulcrums in the divorce; after using MiG-23s and even MiG-21s for air defence, the country now has a lease (until 2027) on 14 Saab Gripens. Conscription was ended in 2004.

Today, the Czech Republic is a popular filming location for overseas works; while the local industry was always pretty strong (it had a boom before the war and Czechoslovak won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar on two occasions, while a further statuette going to Kolya in 1996, which oddly enough revolves around the revolution), Prague's Barrandov Studios have played host to filming for well-known works such as Casino Royale, The Bourne Identity and Alien vs. Predator, while the BBC's swashbuckling action series The Musketeers is also produced there. It's also a good place for game production - Bohemia Interactive, best known for the ARMA series, are based there and the second game in that series includes a DLC covering the modern Czech army.


The Plastic People of the Universe? Reformed in 1997 at Havel's suggestion and are still going.

Slovakia

The Slovak Republic or Slovakia is definitely the less well-off and less well-known of the two countries, although it is catching up with its neighbour in terms of GDP. The economy is growing quickly, it no longer needs aid from the World Bank and has been dubbed the Tatra Tiger.

That said, I can't name any famous living Slovaks (I can name two famous Czechs and three famous Belgians) - children of immigrants don't count, even if that list includes one Jessica Biel. It also doesn't have the same level of fictional prominence as its neighbour - arguably the most famous (or rather infamous) example was the Hostel movies... filmed in the Czech Republic and laughably inaccurate in their portrayal of Slovakia. A few films I've heard of and indeed seen were filmed in the country though. It really says something that the most famous film set in Slovakia was 1987's James Bond film The Living Daylights, which was filmed in Vienna!

The country's head of state is the independent entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska, elected in the second round of the 2014 elections. The real power lies with Prime Minister Robert Fico (who was in fact runner up in 2014), head of the centre-left Direction – Social Democracy, who won an absolute majority in the 2012 legislative elections. These elections resulted from Iveta Radičová losing a vote of confidence and a major corruption scandal (this remains a problem for many former Bloc countries, although it's not as bad as in some places) handed victory to the centre-left.

The military barely numbers a small division in total (14,000) with the air force featuring only a dozen front-line fighters, upgraded MiG-29s; however, it has taken part in operations in Kosovo, Cyprus and Afghanistan, where it has acquired a reputation for being very good at bomb disposal.. Compulsory military service was abolished in 2006.

Final note

I'd love to see a Czech/Slovak version of The Bridge. 

02 December 2014

Waltz with Bassam (Grand Review: 'Tyrant' Season 1)

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a5/TyrantFXLogo.jpg

Howard Gordon has had a busy year, depending on what he actually did as executive producer, one of the most meaningless titles in showbusiness. With 24: Live Another Day, Homeland season 4, 24: India and Legends with him holding the credit... and this, it's clear that the Emmy-winner is clearly setting out his stake in the espionage/intrigue world.

And this series, which aims to combine high politics ad family drama with a thought-provoking view on the whole Arab Spring thing.

(This review contains spoilers)

****
Pasadena-based paediatrician Barry al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) is enjoying his life with his wife Molly and their two children when he is invited to visit the Middle Eastern republic of Abbudin for the wedding of his nephew. This is no ordinary nephew and Barry, or to use his full name, Bassam, is no ordinary guy. You see, he's the second son of the country's autocratic President, who has a penchant for dealing with rebels the violent way, including as we learn later, via poison gas attacks. Barry has been away for 20 years, while his older brother and heir apparent, Jamal, has been enjoying power and raping women just because he can.

The wedding of a nephew I'm calling "Arab Chumlee" goes off without a terrorist attack, but there is a bit of drunken firearms discharge... and it's clear that Arab Chumlee is turning out a bit like his dad. However, his father dies and Jamal becomes President, albeit after a car accident where one of his latest victims performs a groin attack.

Barry decides to stay and try to moderate Jamal's rule, a task made harder when a spot of self-immolation sets off an Arab Spring-style uprising. Then things get more complex...

****
This is an interesting story; while it's saying nothing that someone with a half-decent knowledge of Middle Eastern politics wouldn't really know already (the Americans prefer stability over democracy, the leaders are jerks and the alternative might be worse), we get a fairly gripping story with more than a few twists and turns along the way... and some US viewers probably need the education. One is reminded of Game of Thrones, in the "you win or you die" sense rather than the nudity everywhere sense (every episode aired on FX aired with a content warning for at least violence); characters do die frequently and no-one is probably safe, with the probable exception of the frankly dodgy US Ambassador. In addition, the title sequence is clear intended to invoke that show. It's a pity we don't get more detail on Abbudin; I have no idea of its size, overall history etc. At least we get an actual flag for it!

The key focus of my attention is Jamal (Ashraf Barhom); inspired by Uday Hussein, he combines a firm desire to stay in power with being completely sadistic and evil. At times, he practically sprays his lines and while I've not had nightmares about him, you can imagine he might cause a few.

Adam Rayner caught a considerable amount of flak for being, well, white - his character's arc is interesting and we can clearly see that he has a complex back story. However, he's not the best thing in this one by far - and if the cliffhanger goes the opposite way to what I'm thinking, the show might be better without him.

The kids are annoying and mercifully sidelined fairly quickly... Jennifer Finnigan's Molly really just exists to be the blonde woman in the low-cut dresses, while Molly's sister really needs a lesson in appropriate dressing while in the Middle East... this ain't a bare your midriff land at all!

Conclusion

Renewed for a second series, it will be interesting to see where this goes for that. Enjoyable definitely, but needs further work.

8/10

26 November 2014

Ferguson

OK, here is my take on recent events in Ferguson, Missouri:
  • Mike Brown was engaged in criminal activity at the time of his death, there is no question of that.
  • If the officer's version of events is correct, then he was justified in using deadly force.
  • If not, then he certainly wasn't.
  • Eyewitnesses contradict each other all the time.
  • There should be a civil trial to determine what happened on the balance of probabilities; the Browns need their day in court.
  • There is something frankly rotten in the town of Ferguson.
  • Rioting, especially against those who had nothing to do with it, just makes the town worse. Many of those shops will remain gutted out shells.

23 November 2014

51 Years of 'Doctor Who'

Today marks the 51st anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who. We've had a change of Doctor to the very different (yet still excellent) Peter Capaldi, another change in title sequence and somewhat of an alteration of tone.

Viewing figures are slightly down (I think being against The X Factor hasn't helped here at all), but are still very good and we now have Capaldi returning for Season 35.

Long may this show continue.

18 November 2014

A pale imitiation of reality (Review: 'The Imitation Game')

Fans of Benedict Cumberbatch will no doubt be interested in his latest film, due to be released in the US on 28 November, but already out in the UK. The Imitation Game is a biopic of Alan Turing, the gay mathematical genius who developed the Turing Bombe and later the world's first electronic computer Colossus at Bletchley Park, helping to crack the German Enigma codes and shorten the war by two years... then ended up being prosecuted for homosexual activity. This resulted in his undergoing chemical castration and later suicide. That's not a spoiler by the way.

As a fan of him myself (although not in that kind of way), I went along to see the film last weekend and frankly, I wasn't impressed. General rule of thumb for me is that if I start looking at my watch, there is a problem with your work.

****
Cumberbatch does a very good job at playing the eccentric Turing; a man not known for playing nicely with others and of course an under-appreciated genius in his time (Enigma was kept secret until the early 1970s, not for fifty years like the final caption says). He gets a lot of funny lines in the peace. That is frankly the best part of the movie... and the rest isn't that great.

Let's start with the plot. It's your standard Hollywood-ised biopic, where Turing and his team of geniuses struggle against a sceptical authority figures (Charles Dance doing what Charles Dance always does) to find a way to crack the Enigma code in a timely manner. The narrative jumps from the war to the late 1920s to 1951 like an Enigma rotor; a frankly unnecessary device. It ignores the fact that ULTRA was a huge operation involving a few thousand people and omits one key figure entirely, Tommy Flowers, who actually built the (many) Bombes that Turing improved from the Polish bombas. It feels very trite at times... and it delays revealing the name of one key character until a key plot point; some of us who know our history would have liked to be able to spot that one coming.

Another problem is Keira Knightley, playing Joan Clarke, a close friend of Turing and an expert mathematician. Unfortunately, I just couldn't take her seriously. I was thinking to the effects "I've seen you half-naked in perfume ads and I'm supposed to think you're a maths genius?" Call me judgmental... but the real Joan Clarke was apparently quite plain.

Cumberbatch doesn't actually kiss any men in this movie (IIRC), making it a male version of Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl"... an attempt to avoid controversy for the US market perhaps?

Conclusion

Save your money and buy a book covering the real story. Cumberbatch doesn't make this worthwhile.

5/10

11 November 2014

Hey Missy, she's so mad (Review: 'Doctor Who' 34.12, "Death in Heaven")

Concluding this two-parter, Missy is about to turn the dead of Earth into an army of Cybermen.
  • I loved the opening credits gag.
  • Capaldi was on great form throughout this episode - with many great lines, including the bit about "self-concussing".
  • Coleman was on fine form as well - pretending to be the Doctor was excellent, but the last scene in the cafe was good as well.
  • Samuel Anderson did a lovely performance; it's a shame that he won't be coming back now.
  • Michelle Gomez... just when you thought a certain Time Lord couldn't get any crazier, she comes along and knocks Simms' portrayal into a cocked hat. Poor Oswin..
  • Shame we couldn't have had the Tissue Compression Eliminator. Disintegration is so old hat.
  • You don't need to hit the console like that Doctor, it wasn't your fault.
  • The street scene where Missy was arrested was very recognisably Cardiff, as was the ending scene.
  • It's really quite appropriate that Missy was dealt with in that manner.
  • At least the ending was jolly... and it's about time Nick Frost joined Simon Pegg in the Whoniverse.

Conclusion
An enjoyable and suitably epic season finale, which wasn't afraid to actually kill off some characters. Christmas will be interesting.

8/10

Remembrance 2014

Today marks the 96th anniversary of the end of the First World War - and this year of course is the 100th anniversary of its start.

Of course, those in the trenches on that day in November 1914 had no idea that it would end four years later - I'd imagine it was clear that it was certainly not going to be done by Christmas. Many of them, young-ish men just like many of my readers would not be going home; they'd remain in a corner of a foreign field that is forever Britain.

We will remember them.

09 November 2014

1989, 25 years on: (East) Germany


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/BerlinWall-BrandenburgGate.jpg
Standing on the wall, 10 November 1989 (photo: Sue Ream)

Today, 9 November 2014, marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also marks the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the 91st anniversary of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch (yep, that one)... which is one reason why they didn't use that date for the actual reunification of Germany. Indeed Kristallnacht and the whole Nazi regime play a massive part in the history of what was East Germany...

I'm going to avoid a long discussion of post war German history; many people will know about the Soviet operations in eastern Germany already - indeed I covered it in 2011 with my series on the Great Patriotic War. I will of course have to mention the Berlin Wall.

The Wall and the Curtain

Erected on 13 August 1961, the Berlin Wall became one of the defining symbols of the Cold War; the 12-foot high concrete structure that surrounded two-thirds of West Berlin (the rest was simpler barbed wire fence). Of course, this heavily graffiti-covered structure was only the final barrier for an East German seeking to reach the West; before that they had to cross another wall, alarmed fences, dog runs and a sand-covered death strip; all while being shot at. Indeed, a major upgrade of the system was in the pipeline just as the regime fell. The East German border guards were under shoot-to-kill orders; if they did let someone escape, they would be in very serious trouble. The estimates of how many people died trying to cross the wall vary (the German Democratic Republic were good at covering them up, especially in more isolated locations) but is believed to be at least 136.

In addition, most of the S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations on Western lines that transited East Berlin between two parts of West Berlin were closed and patrolled by border guards (except Frederichstrasse); these darkened "ghost stations" fell into a fair amount of disrepair over the 28 year history of the wall. As indeed did the permanent way; it took a fair amount of ingenuity and considerable tact to keep the U-Bahn running through enemy territory, especially when things started breaking down.

The S-Bahn in West Berlin was operated by Deutsche Reichsbahn i.e. the East German state rail company, but was subject to heavy boycott by the locals (who did not want to subsidise the GDR), the loss of half the service after a 1980 strike and eventually turned over to the Western transit authorities in 1984.

While everyone focusses on the Berlin Wall, there was also the heavily fortified and much harder to cross "Inner-German Border" between East and West Germany i.e. the main Iron Curtain. Unlike Berlin (where having someone step on one would be spectacularly bad publicity for the GDR), this contained minefields and also spring-loaded machine guns.

If people wanted to escape to the West, they would have a better chance by applying for permission to leave, but this was rarely granted, could take years and tended to draw the attention of the Stasi in an unwelcome manner. Athletes and entertainers going abroad had to leave their families in East Germany in case they started getting ideas. If you were a serious dissident, however, they might well be happy to get rid of you... especially if Bonn was willing to pay hard currency for your 'release'... about 3.5 billion Marks traded hands this way.

If you did manage to get the West, you didn't need to worry about getting work permits though - West Germany basically gave any East German citizenship automatically as the Basic Law allowed anyone born in the Germany of 1937 (i.e. including the parts taken by Poland and the USSR) to claim it.

Westerners could of course visit East Berlin, but had to exchange money at a very poor exchange rate (so the GDR could get their hands on more hard currency) and pay 5 Deutschmark for a Visa - of course a lot more back then. As the Germanies were still 'occupied countries', Allied military personnel could travel freely between the zones and indeed were able to engage in legitimate espionage on each other via the Military Liaison Missions, getting a look at each other's technology.

The 1980s

As the 1980s began, the German Democratic Republic, led by Eric Honecker and his Socialist Unity Party (SED) since 1971, was still a pretty unpleasant place to be a dissident; many prominent writers who criticised the regime either fled or got thrown out.

The GDR like most of the Soviet bloc countries, was starting to run into major economic problems. German coffee drinkers had a pretty unpleasant experience in the late 1970s when a global rise in raw bean prices led to the Politburo yanking most of the cheaper stuff from sale and replacing it with unpleasant 'ersatz' alternatives with a lot of filler. In addition, there were a good number of environmental issues; most lakes and rivers were pretty polluted.

Well at least the athletes were doing well... oh, wait, they were on the performance enhancing drugs!

The Western half was booming - and the East Germans knew this; it was easy for them to watch ARD etc. programming in most of the country as the regime couldn't jam the broadcasts without causing problems for West Berliners and those along the border - this was not only against treaties but could have led to counter-jamming by Bonn. East Germany's state broadcaster, DFF tried to undermine this by a weekly programmed called Der schwarze Kanal ("The black channel", a reference to a German plumbing term meaning "sewer") that 'corrected' the West German broadcasts... and wasn't popular at all.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan, the former B-movie actor turned President, visited Berlin and made a famous speech directed at the Soviet leader. The key quote is here:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

The "tear down this wall" bit was kept by Reagan over the concerns of his advisers, who thought it might upset the Soviet Union - there had been some significant recent moves towards a new arms control agreement. The speech (which also contained a call for an end to the arms race) wasn't actually that widely reported at the time; East Berliners couldn't hear it as they were kept away from the wall.

Arguably of more impact was Bruce Springsteen's concert in the GDR the following year; he called for the wall to come down in front of 300,000 concert-goers and a TV audience ("I'm not here for or against any government. I've come to play rock 'n' roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down"). The Hoff probably had little to do with it.

1989

When 1989 started, it didn't seem like things were going to change massively in East Germany - Honecker had predicted it would stay for another 50 or 100 year if conditions didn't change (i.e. East  Germany was still communist and West Germany wasn't).

In May, the GDR held local government elections... and the results were completely faked. Soviet bloc 'elections' were basically referendums on electing approved candidates... you could theoretically reject them, but you were likely to get into trouble if you did.

It was announced that the confirmed candidates from the National Front coalition (the SED and its allied parties) had got 98.85% support from the electorate. As the electoral observers had clearly seen far more than that refuse to vote and a turnout of between 60-80%, it was clearly something was very whiffy.

This led to protests and petitions, with a resulting large number of arrests. When Tienanmen Square happened in China, it was publicly welcomed by the official SED newspaper, Neues Deutschland, which naturally led to concerns that the same sort of thing would happen in East Germany.


Then came the Hungarian revolution (see this article) and thus the Iron Curtain now had a great big hole in it. A large number of East Germans decided to go to Hungary on holiday, slip across to Austria and thus to West Germany. Budapest stopped East Germans coming after pressure from Pankow... but many already there merely camped in the West German embasssy until allowed to leave. Pankow would then bar East Germans from going to Hungary, so they went to Czechoslovakia and Poland instead, camping in those embassies in what would become quite unpleasant conditions.
In September, weekly Monday protests began in Leipzig, backed by the Lutheran Church, which had been tolerated by the regime instead of being completely suppressed. These peaceful demos called for free travel and free elections; they soon spread to other East German cities such as Dresden.

An agreement was reached allowing those in the embassy in Prague to travel to West Germany in early October (in sealed trains going through the GDR... and stripped them of their citizenship to boot); the regime wanted the 40th anniversary celebrations of the GDR on 7 October to pass off without incident...

They didn't; many events were cancelled and counter-demonstrations in Berlin led to 1,200 arrests, including of those who weren't involved at all. Most were released within twenty-four hours, after being spat at, denied the use of a toilet or beaten. This was directly reported in the Western media, who of course had a much better view of events in East Berlin.

Honecker sent a paratrooper unit to Leipzig... where a bloodbath was averted by the local party officials ordering the troops to pull back. Further plans to suppress the demonstrations by force were also stopped.

The paratrooper incident was what the Politburo needed to remove Honecker who wasn't dying quickly enough; they got approval from Gorbachev to do this and in a session on the 17th, he was unanimously removed from his posts and replaced with his number two, Egon Krenz. In addition, it became clear from their own internal assessments that the country was close to economic collapse.

On 4 November, the biggest demonstration of the lot took place in Alexanderplatz, with between half a million and a million people attending this. Not only did the regime allow this to take place, it was actually broadcast live on television.

The Wall comes down

The Politburo decided to allow people to leave for the West after getting a passport (which only four of seventeen million East Germans then had) and applying for a visa in the meeting on 9 November. This was meant to be a controlled opening of the borders for those who wished to leave permanently... it turned out to be nothing of the sort. 

Günter Schabowski, the regime's unofficial spokesman, got handed the new regulations, but wasn't told it wouldn't come into effect until 4am the following day (so the border guards could be told). In a press conference, he was asked (it's unclear by who) when the regulations would come into effect... and answered it would be immediate. Also that it would cover West Berlin

The West German news programmes led with the press conference... which of course meant most of East Germany knew as well.

Large crowds soon appeared at the checkpoints, demanding to be allowed through. The border guards initially planned to let the noisiest through and stamp their passports "no return allowed", but that was going out the window rapidly. When a crowd broke through into the waiting area of the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint at about 10.30pm, the commander of the Border Guard present decided that he was not going to put himself and his soldiers at risk by trying to stop them; the crowd could just do what it wanted. Other checkpoints made the same decision over the next couple of hours.

And the crowd certainly did what it wanted. Long queues of Trabants would be seen crossing through the border as millions of Germans, some still in their pyjamas, joined what became a massive party. It was a great night for those selling champagne... and a great morning for those selling aspirin.

The events took everyone by surprise; West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had to cut short a state visit to Poland; he was attending a banquet when the news came through and realised he was very much in the wrong place.

West Germany gave all the visitors 100 Marks welcome money... which many of them promptly spent on, believe it or not, bananas. They were very rare in the East.

While people started to hammer at the wall on the night of 9 November, it wasn't until June 1990 that the official demolition began - official border controls were formally abolished on 1 July, the day East Germany adopted the Deutschmark, but things had become meaningless well before that.

The U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations would take two and half years to fully reopen (Jannowitzbrücke
opened on 11 November, but most of the rest had to wait until 1990); the signs and advertisements were unchanged since 1961, but none of this was preserved. A short-lived Maglev Line, the largely novelty M-Bahn, was closed and removed to allow the U2 line to be reinstated. It would take until 2002 to fully reinstate the 'Ringbahn' on the S-Bahn (later run by Deutsche Bahn, created by the 1994 merger of Deutsche Bundesbahn and Deutsche Reichsbahn) that had been broken by the Wall.

That was very much the end for the SED regime. On 1 December, the Volkskammer showed some considerable teeth and removed the right of the SED to rule from the constitution; the entire Politburo resigned two days later.

Reunification

The slogan began to change - it became Wir sind ein Volk; "we are one people". However, reunifying Germany was not without its opponents; for example Margaret Thatcher (who would last as PM only a month and a half after East Germany disappeared) feared that a united Germany would try to take over Europe again - she wanted it delayed by at least five years. Mitterrand, the French President, was also concerned about this, but realised that reunification was inevitable and hoped that a reunified Germany could be contained within a closer Europe with a single currency.

When East Germany held its first and only democratic elections in March 1990, a CDU-led alliance calling for swift reunification won with Lothar de Maizière becoming Prime Minister in a grand coalition. East Germany's economy was rapidly collapsing and an economic treaty was signed in May. On 1 July, the 'Ostmark' ceased to be anything other than something for collectors as East Germany adopted the Western mark and the day after, the two countries started discussing reunification in full. This was signed at the end of August and ratified on 20 September by large majorities in both legislatures.

There was now the question of getting the occupation ended and the superpowers to agree to reunification. The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany was signed in September by the four occupying powers (US, UK, France, USSR) and the two Germanies. The key points were as follows:
  • Germany would be fully independent and free to join whatever organisations it wished, so would remain a NATO member.
  • Germany would agree with Poland to make the Oder-Neisse line that had been their border since 1945 permanent and renounce any claims to the formerly German territories east of it.
  • All Soviet (later Russian of course) forces were to leave by the end of 1994.
  • The Bundeswehr would be limited to 370,000 and Germany would renounce all WMD; also no WMD or foreign (i.e. NATO) forces would be deployed in the former East Germany.
    • The US and UK would retain their bases in the western part, with US tactical nukes kept in Germany available for use by the Luftwaffe's Tornado fleet in the event of a war... one of the more notable loopholes in the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
It has been claimed by Gorbachev and others that there was also an agreement that NATO would not expand further east, which of course it later did. It certainly was not in writing, but it may well have been verbal. I doubt after events in Ukraine, Estonia et. al really care whether any agreement was made.

In September, East Germany's parliament building, the Palast der Republik was found to be riddled with asbestos and closed to the public; it took until 2003 for it to be removed (I passed the outside of the empty building on 2001 on a school trip) and was finally demolished in 2008; the site is being used for a rebuilt Stadtschloss due to open in 2019 - the old Prussian palace had been heavily damaged in 1945 by Allied bombing and pulled down in 1950. Ironically enough, much of the steel from the Palast der Republik was used in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai!

On 3 October 1990 (chosen for one reason so East Germany could not have a 41st birthday), East Germany ceased to exist. Its territory became five and a half (East Berlin became part of Berlin, which formally became a Land ) states of the enlarged Federal Republic of Germany, which only had some minor constitutional changes to accommodate the fact that reunification was done. Indeed, the Basic Law, intended as a temporary constitution back in 1949 pending this happening, would remain the key legislative foundation of what was now Germany.

The following month, the first free all-German elections since 1932 saw Kohl's coalition returned with an increased majority.

Honecker was quickly subject to a criminal investigation over deaths at the Wall and other things, but it would take three long years (during which time he fled to Moscow) before his trial began. He admitted political responsibility, but the case ultimately was dropped on the grounds that he was seriously ill i.e. his lawyers successfully got the warrant quashed. He went to Chile and died in 1994.

Criminal investigation followed for a lot of other people, mostly over the Wall. Krenz got six and a half years for four manslaughter charges (they'd limited to that for procedural reasons) in 1997 - after failing to get the conviction overturned, he entered prison in 1999 and was released in 2003, quietly retiring after that. Various border guards would face trial, tending to get short or suspended sentences, as did a former West Berlin police officer who killed a border guard while providing 'covering fire' for an escapee.

Other chickens soon came home to roost. Stasi employees had tried to destroy the records of their agency, but citizens of the GDR had occupied the buildings and stopped this. The Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (its first boss, Joachim Gauck, now holds the largely ceremonial role of Federal President) began collating the records and eventually started putting the shredded ones back together; in 1992, these were declassified and people were allowed to look for their own files; depersonalised files could be released in the media. The sheer number of informants became clear - 500,000 regular ones were informing on the activities of their fellow citizens.

The impacts of reunification


East Germany, as the state right next to West Germany (along with Czechoslovakia) was home to a large Soviet presence as well as a well-equipped armed forces of its own, whose uniforms bore an uncomfortable resemblance to those of the Wehrmacht. These armed forces were equipped with equipment very close to that used by the USSR itself, so reunification gave NATO an intelligence boon, if not exactly highly usable assets. Most of the Pact equipment was retired or sold, but the MiG-29 fleet would see over a decade of use in the Luftwaffe before being sold to Poland for one Euro each. As for the members of the National People's Army, most of them were let go, including everyone at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or above; they could not until 2005 count the time served towards a federal pension and most were only able to get security or manual labour jobs.

It wasn't exactly brilliant for many other people who had worked in the nationalised industries of the deceased state. 8,500 industries were privatised and most were so inefficient that the new owners closed them quickly. The result was high unemployment (double digits in the East) and some general resentment on both sides of the former wall - the Western side unhappy about the higher than expected cost. It would cost a trillion euros in the first twenty years of reunification to reconstruct eastern Germany; and it's still not done.

Germany today
 
Today, now in her third term, former East German chemist Angela Merkel rules Germany as the first female Federal Chancellor, her centre-right Christian Democratic Union, with its de-facto Bavarian version the Christian Socialists, in a second grand coalition with the Social Democrats after the traditional CDU coalition partners, the Free Democrats, failed to gain even a single seat in the Bundestag (Germany's lower house) 2013 elections.

Germany was hit hard by the 2008-9 recession, but bounced back quickly due to strong exports - although growth has now stalled. There are concerns about integration of immigrants (a million arrived in 2012) and Germany's ageing population.

The other two parties in the Bundestag are the Greens and The Left, a merger of the PDS (the successor to the Socialist Unity Party; they'd been roundly defeated in the 1990 elections) and a Western left-wing party. The latter are not really the kind of people prepared to play the coalition at present. The Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany almost beat the Free Democrats, but both of those failed to clear the 5% threshold for a seat.

The far-right National Democratic Party has never managed to get into the Bundestag, but has got enough support to get into state legislatures on eleven occasions; they have five members in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania at present. Attempts to ban them entirely have fallen on the issue of just how much the party is infiltrated by Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Germany remains a US ally and an active member of NATO; however, relations with the US have been strained in recent months after WikiLeaks revelations about the NSA hacking Merkel's phone. It is highly pro-EU and was a founding member of the Euro currency; although it opposes Turkey's membership. There are likely to be more disagreements with the UK over free movement of people, at least while David Cameron remains in Downing Street... and Merkel's leading role in austerity measures imposed on countries needing bailouts is not making her popular in some countries. In addition, Merkel's second administration ended conscription in Germany.

Berlin itself is a city transformed; you can't even see the line of the wall in the borough boundaries (the boroughs were were reduced in number from 21 to ten in 2001 to save money) and the tramlines largely confined to the old East Berlin are starting to go west.

Very little of the wall remains in situ; the East Side Gallery on Mühlenstraße is the eastern wall and the graffiti there is post-1989 (the GDR generally did allow it on their side). Bits of the wall (or claimed bits of the wall) are still sold on-line and off-line - a look on the UK eBay site on 20 October 2014 found 58 items under a search "piece of the Berlin Wall".

However, some elements of East Germany still live on partly due to 'Ostalgie' (nostalgia for the East); the Ampelmännchen (East Germany's hat-wearing pedestrian traffic indicators) has spread to the West as well and believe it or not, the Trabant still has a cult following.

It even passed the 'Moose Test' in 1998... swerving to avoid a hypothetical moose on the road without tipping... at the same time the Mercedes A-Class failed.

With that humorous finale, I will move on to Czechoslovakia.