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Week of March 25, 2003

Program 0312


Transatlantic Tensions | Transcript | MP3

Chemical Weapons Convention | Transcript | MP3

Kosovo Education | Transcript | MP3

Nord Ost Revival | Transcript | MP3

Bering Straight | Transcript | MP3

South African Documentary | Transcript | MP3

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

RONALD ASMUS: The image of Germany has taken a terrible beating. France was always a difficult, contentious ally, but even there I think this fight is qualitatively of a different nature than previous ones.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the train wreck of trans-Atlantic relations as America returns to battle in the Persian Gulf.

KEITH PORTER: Plus, implementing the chemical weapons treaty.

GENERAL ROGELIO PFIRTER: If you look at the declared stockpiles, it’s a genuine potential threat in the sense that it has the ability to cause vast and massive devastation.

PORTER: And the challenges of rebuilding the education system in post-war Kosovo.

LORIKA: Our classroom is over there and it’s too small and the lights don’t work. In the morning, like in winter, it’s very dark.

MCHUGH: These stories—coming up next.

MCHUGH: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. As events continue to unfold in the Persian Gulf, it’s clear that events happening halfway around the globe directly affect our daily lives. In the coming weeks, Common Ground will, of course, bring you coverage of events in Iraq and the Persian Gulf but we’ll also spotlight issues from other global hot spots, including Afghanistan, Africa, and Chechnya. Events in those regions and elsewhere will continue to shape our world—and thus our daily lives—well into the future.

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Transatlantic Tensions

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MCHUGH: As the US returns to battle in the Persian Gulf, those who value the trans-Atlantic relationship between the United States and its longtime allies in Europe are looking for ways to mend the damage done by the sharp disagreements over the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. Relations between Washington and certain European capitals—notably Paris and Berlin—are strained over the issue.

PORTER: The divisions are also playing out in public opinion here in the US, where France in particular is taking a beating. Tabloid newspapers have accused the French government of forgetting about the sacrifice of American troops, old anti-French jokes have been given new life, and there have even been calls for a boycott of Gallic goods. While a portion of that can perhaps be written off as a temporary phenomenon, some observers of the underlying relationship between the US and Europe warn of the potential for a lasting impact. Malcolm Brown takes a closer look.

[The sound of a busy restaurant at lunch time.]

MALCOLM BROWN: Lunch-time patrons at this French-style bistro in downtown Washington, DC, have evidently not lost their appetite for things Gallic.

FEMALE RESTAURANT PATRON: I don’t have any feeling about France that is negative. In fact, I think Chirac has been a voice for positive international relationships.

MALE RESTAURANT PATRON: It’s regrettable that particularly my own country, the United States, did such a poor job of communicating with the French and with other Europeans.

BROWN: But not everyone in Washington has been quite so forgiving. The critics found a spokesman in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who downplayed the concerns of Paris and Berlin in a now famous phrase.

US SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD: You’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don’t. I think that’s old Europe.

BROWN: “Old Europe’s” opposition to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy also provoked something of a backlash on Capitol Hill. At a February hearing, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Henry Hyde, said Americans were rightly puzzled by what he described as the “ingratitude” of certain nations.

US REPRESENTATIVE HENRY HYDE: America is often said to be a hyperpower, yet our actions are repeatedly frustrated by an endless train of objections and obstacles. America has fought distant wars to defend whole continents from a succession of aggressors, but the beneficiaries of the safety we have ensured often devote their energies to impeding our efforts to help others.

BROWN: Hungarian-born congressman Tom Lantos, the committee’s top Democrat, singled out three European nations for their role in the NATO row over bolstering Turkey’s defenses.

US REPRESENTATIVE TOM LANTOS: Had it not been for our military commitment; France, Germany, and Belgium today would be Soviet socialist republics. The failure of these states to honor their commitments is beneath contempt.

BROWN: Other lawmakers considered retaliation, ranging from restrictions on imported French mineral water and fine wine, to a call for an American boycott at the Paris Air Show. There’s also been talk about substantial reductions in the number of American troops stationed in Germany. The poisoned atmosphere has some observers worried.

RONALD ASMUS: The image of Germany has taken a terrible beating. France was always a difficult, contentious ally, but even there I think this fight is qualitatively of a different nature than previous ones.

BROWN: Ronald Asmus is a former Clinton administration official, now at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC. He divides the blame for what he describes as the “train wreck” in transatlantic relations, between President Bush on one hand and the leaders of France and Germany on the other.

ASMUS: Historians will judge Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder harshly for not comprehending the kind of threat we face, for not understanding how our past policies have failed, and for not putting forth a credible alternative. But the antipathy towards the President and the credibility problem he faces in Europe has made it that much harder for European governments to support us.

BROWN: As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ronald Asmus was heavily involved in NATO’s eastward expansion in Europe. Now he’s worried about the harm being done to alliance’s reputation. He points out that NATO was kept on the bench by Washington in the war to defeat Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. Then came the internal divisions over Iraq.

ASMUS: I had a senator say to me the other day, “You know, you can go to a dance”—and this is NATO going to the dance—”and if the first time you’re not asked to dance, it’s OK. If you take it past the second time, maybe it’s OK. But at some point, no one’s going to come around you and ask you to dance any more.” And I think what he meant by that was, if we can’t get this right and if we can’t make NATO work to deal with the gravest strategic challenges we face, Americans and senators are starting to lose faith in the ability of this institution to change and to adapt to meet the problems of the day.

BROWN: Dr. Asmus warns the Bush administration against a long-term European policy which turns its back on some old allies and relies more on partners from the former communist bloc. He says the trans-Atlantic relationship can’t work properly if Europeans are fighting among themselves and he challenges leaders on both sides of the water to act.

ASMUS: Who’s going to be the enlightened statesman who will step forward and say, “Never again can we let this happen. We have to repair this relationship, so that we do a better job.” And that leadership will have to come from both sides of the Atlantic.

BROWN: For Common Ground, I’m Malcolm Brown in Washington.

MCHUGH: We’d like to know what you think. Which party is to blame for these strained relations? America or Europe? And just how important are US relations with Europe? Send us your thoughts and comments and we may use them on the air. Our e-mail address is [email protected] You can also send us feedback via our Web site, at

[Musical interlude]

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Chemical Weapons Convention

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PORTER: Six years ago this month, the historic Chemical Weapons Convention—or CWC—came into force. Today, nearly 150 countries, including the United States, have signed the agreement. Iraq, however, is not one of them. The treaty aims to end the development, production, and use of chemical weapons. It also calls for the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles in all member countries.

MCHUGH: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—or OPCW—is charged with implementing and enforcing the treaty. I recently spoke with OPCW Director General Rogelio Pfirter about the treaty and the challenges his organization faces.

GENERAL ROGELIO PFIRTER: I think the Chemical Weapons Convention represents a, an agreement amongst the great majority of countries in the world that chemical weapons are inherently bad. They need to be erased from the surface of the Earth and therefore they have undertaken the commitment to destroy whatever stockpiles or arsenals are there and impede the future development of these weapons.

MCHUGH: Now, this came into force on 1997.

PFIRTER: Now we have 150 countries, which I think is a significant number of the international community. We still have some countries which are relevant in the context of the Convention which are not members. But we haven’t given up. And we will keep trying to invite them to join in.

MCHUGH: And who would you say those members are?

PFIRTER: Well, we have countries on the list which are not members. North Korea is not a member. And we have some other small countries in the, for reasons very different, in the, I would say the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific.

MCHUGH: Now the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was created basically to enforce this Convention.

PFIRTER: Absolutely.

MCHUGH: So how do you go about enforcing the Convention?

PFIRTER: Well, I think they are doing very well, because the Convention is very explicit. It sets up deadlines for the destructions of arsenals based on the declarations, the voluntary declarations of countries on whatever arsenals they have. And so far so good I would say. We are moving with some difficulty. It’s not easy to destroy chemical weapons. It’s complicated. It’s costly. It requires a certain technology, a certain investment. And it has environmental connotations also. So you do need to attend to a series of parameters before you are able to get there. But we are getting there. Countries which have chemical weapons have undertaken a commitment to eliminate about one percent of their arsenals, precisely by this year.

MCHUGH: One percent?

PFIRTER: One percent. And they are getting there. This is the first deadline. This is a process that will take us, I would say, a few years. But, but we are moving in that direction.

MCHUGH: What is the ultimate deadline for the complete elimination?

PFIRTER: Well, the Convention set up initially 2007. But these are, these are dates which are being considered there. I think ultimately what we have is a goal, which is the destruction of chemical weapons. And I think that deadlines are very important because they, they are benchmarks which we are measuring whether we are making progress or not. But ultimately we shouldn’t forget that the real goal is the destruction of chemical weapons.

MCHUGH: What’s the biggest obstacle to meeting those goals and that deadline?

PFIRTER: Well, in some cases it is technology. The finances involved into it. The environmental connotations. Sometimes governments decided we’d proceed to the destruction of these weapons but then they find that, of course, the local communities—the states or whatever—also have a say in it. And of course, there is a process that has to be followed. But again, I think that the important thing, we are moving in that direction. There is no sign whatsoever of any diminution of the political will on the part of the important countries which have chemical weapons. And therefore I think that we can remain very optimistic.

MCHUGH: On the question of finances, we probably should explain to our listeners that the countries who have chemical weapons and have agreed to start eliminating their stockpiles are supposed to finance that themselves, not your organization financing it.

PFIRTER: Exactly, exactly. I think this is important. We do have a budget. But the budget basically is for us to have the sort of inspectorate and verification capabilities which is important for us to certify the destruction. But the destruction itself is basically financed by the countries involved.

MCHUGH: And you were just in Moscow, because Russia is concerned that they don’t have enough financing….

PFIRTER: …Absolutely.

MCHUGH: ….in order to achieve their goals.

PFIRTER: The Russians were concerned because there is an international effort and a commitment in a way, within the G-8, to help them with the financing of the destruction of all the different categories of chemical—of weapons of mass destruction. I think that everyone understands that it is in the general interest that these destructions should take place. I think this goes beyond Russia itself; it’s for the whole of the international community. At the same time there is an interaction between the support by the international community and the actual advancements that Russia itself can make towards that destruction.

I think we are now entering into a stage where indeed there is a process that is taking place. There are facilities which are now operating. The most recent one, or the one which is now operating, is called Ghorny(?) And this facility started towards the 19th, 20th of December. It’s making significant progress. Chemical agents are being destroyed. Weapons are being destroyed. So I think that now probably the international community feels that conditions are better to continue funding the program. But it will be, as I say, a process in which the funding and the actual banishment towards the destruction interact in a mutual condition.

MCHUGH: You mentioned the word, “inspections” before. And inspections, sometimes that word alone implies that somebody has done something bad. Or that a country has made some sort of violation. Is there a better way to come up with an enforcement mechanism that helps you attain these goals better?

PFIRTER: Well, I think we need to call them inspections because, you know, that’s what we do. We do go and see and verify. Now, of course, there are different categories of inspections. And some, one category which we have in the, in the Convention is called “challenge inspection.” Now, that category of challenge inspections which is necessary for the ultimate credibility of the treaty itself, is one which has been seen, as you very well said, sometimes as a controversial type of inspection. Actually, what we believe is that we should advance towards the moment when challenge inspections are no longer considered to be controversial necessarily. They are seen as part of the normal process in which there are no necessarily political connotations involved but rather as a genuine concern or a genuine reason for believing that probably in one country or the other some chemical agents or whatever, have not been entirely, sufficiently inspected or declared or whatever. I believe that we need to move towards a stage where all these so-called inspections become much more normal.

MCHUGH: Now you’re relatively new to this job.

PFIRTER: Yes. I’ve been there for six months.

MCHUGH: And your organization as a whole, since its creation, has been somewhat embattled. The United States was a major force in actually getting you into office. Does the US really hold that much control over the overall Convention?

PFIRTER: No, I don’t think the word “control” is the appropriate one, if I may. I think what is important is that the United States is a major actor in international affairs. It is a major holder, also, of chemical weapons. It has what I believe is a very strong commitment behind its participation in the Convention. And that’s all to be welcomed. And I think that everyone, not just the team which is there on the site of the so-called technical secretariat, which is the one that carries on the inspections, but I think every member of the international community which is a part of the Convention values enormously the active involvement of the United States.

MCHUGH: How serious is the threat of chemical weapons.

PFIRTER: Well, it’s very serious. If you look at the declared stockpiles, which are 40,000 tons in the case of Russia, 20,000-plus tons in the case of the United States, and so on and so on, it’s a genuine threat, potential threat in the sense that it has the ability to cause vast and massive devastation.

MCHUGH: And when we talk about stockpiles, we’re talking about lots of different types of chemical weapons?

PFIRTER: We are talking different types of chemical weapons. And we are talking also about the fact that, of course with the issue of terrorism today, the threat that is posed by the arsenals is in the hands of some so-called non-state actor, terrorist, might get hold of them.

MCHUGH: Rogelio Pfirter is the Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I spoke with him in New York.

PORTER: The challenges facing a war-ravaged education system, next on Common Ground.

[Musical interlude]

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Kosovo Education

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MCHUGH: Rebuilding after any military conflict is a monumental task. Kosovo, for example, is still recovering from an ethnic cleansing campaign, civil war, and NATO bombing which brought quasi-independence to this little region still technically part of Serbia and Montenegro. When Keith and I visited Kosovo late last year, one of things we hoped to learn was how the education system had survived through all of the trauma. What we found are schools, teachers, and students still struggling against enormous odds.

[The sounds of children at school.]

PORTER: Before 1990 Serbian children and ethnic Albanian children in Kosovo would often attend the same school, but study in segregated classrooms. Besi attended school in the town of Gjakova.

BESI: At that time we had Serbs in our school, and we couldn’t do nothing. We couldn’t sing our tradition songs, which was really bad. We couldn’t express our feelings. We couldn’t say our feelings. And that was the worst. We usually got beaten up from the Serb teachers, but our teachers couldn’t do nothing to them or even just tell them, “Don’t do this. This is wrong. Go this way.” They could give back to our teachers. They could give back to our teachers. They could like, maybe, treat them in really bad ways. I mean the pupils. And I just don’t want to talk about the teachers.

PORTER: But by 1990, Serb nationalism was being fueled by Slobodan Milosevic. Soon many Serbs decided that even having Albanians in the same school buildings with them was unacceptable.

REZA BASMANI: [via a translator] It was a terrible time to live and work. The Serbs shut down the Albanian schools. They wanted teachers to teach a Serb curriculum. They kicked out the Kosovo Albanian school directors so we had no choice but to create a parallel, underground education system.

PORTER: Today, Reza Basmani is Kosovo’s Minister of Education. But back then he was head of the underground Albanian teachers’ association. The so-called parallel schools operated in garages and basements.

BASMANI: [via a translator] Kosovo Albanian teachers were beaten and arrested. One school director was killed. Three parents were killed. I was arrested and spent two months in prison for creating the parallel school system.

[Sounds of combat from the Balkan War.]

PORTER: Then the real war started.

[Sounds of combat from the Balkan War.]

PORTER: Kosovar Albanian separatists battled with Serbian government and paramilitary forces. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo or hid in the mountains to escape the fighting. Yet education continued. Actress Vanessa Redgrave visited one of the makeshift schools and described it to me in 1999.

VANESSA REDGRAVE: On the day I went there was about 444 men, women, and children. I visited the school shifts being run under plastic where the supple branches of young trees had been stripped and stuck into the ground and bent over so that the plastic was over them like greenhouse panes. And this teacher had been teaching the children in four shifts a day when there was a possibility of doing so because they were being continually shelled.

PORTER: Later that year, NATO bombings ended Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign and Kosovar Albanians began returning home. But what they found wasn’t pretty.

[The sound of Rezah Belaarle speaking in French.]

PORTER: Here in the town of Vusharii, near Mitrovica, the Serbs used this school building to house refugees from elsewhere in the Balkans. Rezah Belaarle is former director of the school.

REZAH BELAARLE: [in English] All was destroyed here. And the refugees was obliged to take the floor to make fire.

PORTER: They took the wood from the floor to build fires?

BELAARLE: [in English] Yes. Okay, because they had nothing to light.

PORTER: But this school, like many others in Kosovo, has been rebuilt. Here the French Foreign Office, the Rone Alps region of France, and the French peacekeeping force in Kosovo all contributed to the effort.

PORTER: [reporting from the school’s chemistry class.] Education here in Vusharii has certainly improved since the times that the refugees occupied this building. At the moment we’re in a classroom that is obviously a chemistry class. You can see the periodic table of elements pasted to the front wall. And a chalkboard. Very nice work stations, several of them throughout the classroom. The floor is covered in white tile and the work stations are also covered in white tile as well. And each one of the work stations has a sink and running water, making a very nice chemistry lab for the students here.

[The sound of students in school.]

PORTER: Legally the schools in Kosovo today are integrated. Many Romas and other minorities study alongside ethnic Albanians. But most Serb parents left in Kosovo do not send their children to the public schools. Here at the Faik Konica School in Central Pristina, it is easy to see that the infrastructure has improved somewhat, but not nearly enough for 13-year-old Lorika.

LORIKA: Our classroom is over there and it’s too small and the lights don’t work. In the morning, like in winter, it’s very dark and we can’t learn and we have to go to another classroom where there is lots of light. They don’t, I don’t think they have enough money to make, you know, sports. When we have sport, we don’t have a place to do sports. We have to go outside even when it is snowing.

PORTER: Despite her complaints, school facilities are getting the lion’s share of international donations earmarked for education in Kosovo. But the aid mainly pays for physical repairs and textbooks. Who isn’t getting the money? Teachers.

[The sound of Sonja Sherimiti speaking.]

PORTER: In the faculty lounge of the Faik Konica school, literature teacher Sonja Sherimiti tells us she is so hungry she can barely stand up.

[The sound of Sonja Sherimiti speaking.]

PORTER: Three hundred Euros a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Euros today are roughly equal in value to US dollars. The average teacher in Kosovo makes 150 Euros a month. The teacher salary problem is so bad that last year teachers did something that even Serb aggression and NATO bombing couldn’t make them do. They stopped teaching. The general strike lasted for two weeks.

HASELOCK: The nice thing in a way about this question is, in fact, it is the sort of discussion that you would have in any civilized society. Because this is a relationship between what do you spend your budget on in a governmental situation. Here you have a finite amount of money. How do you split it up between the various priorities? Do you give more to the teachers or more to the doctors?

PORTER: Simon Haselock is chief spokesperson for the United Nations mission which oversees Kosovo.

HASELOCK: And if the general salary in Kosovo for public service workers is low, that is something that only generating economic improvements will actually change rather than actually funding it from direct aid. And they have to decide, if we are going to pay the teachers more, where do we take the money from to pay the teachers more? And this is a decision which they are faced with.

PORTER: The money problem for teachers is two-fold. First, the international community has imposed budget discipline on the fledgling Kosovo government.

HASELOCK: You can’t spend more than you’ve got. And that’s the reality. It is too often easy for them when they are confronted with something which is not easy to solve, to say this is the fault of the international community. Because the international community is going to go. So I would say that budget discipline is about spending only the money that you’ve got.

PORTER: But the other problem facing teachers is rapid inflation, which they say is driven by the high number of international civil servants and workers from nongovernmental organizations who have moved in to help rebuild Kosovo. Many of them get the same salaries they received in the United States or elsewhere in Europe, which drives up prices for almost everything in Kosovo. And many of the best teachers have left the classroom to become translators or even drivers for the United Nations and other institutions, according to the Minister of Education.

BASMANI: [via a translator] The cost of living here is very high. We have a number of internationals getting very high salaries, so the standards went up. And the Albanian teachers cannot afford that standard.

HASELOCK: It is a question which affects every international mission across the world, and it is a problem, you know. I accept that.

PORTER: Again, UN spokesman Simon Haselock.

HASELOCK: The ludicrous thing is that you might have somebody, a local person who works for the international community doing a comparatively ordinary job, let’s say, where they might be being paid more than a high court judge is, on who’s being paid on the local salary. Now this clearly distorts the wage market. It is a problem. It’s a problem that is acknowledged by the international community, and it is a problem which happens in every area where the international community descends and particularly in the, sort of the numbers that they are here. But the, the UN is also restricted by, you know, minimum—I mean if we were paying people, you know, 100 Euros a month for working for us we’d be criticized for slave labor. And so, you know, these are, these are the dilemmas which we have to, we have to account for. On the one hand it distorts the economy in the long term. But it still means that there is more money in the, flying around in the would-be—within the general economy. And it is a problem. And I mean, there is no instant solution to it. It’s a widely accepted problem. And it just means it has to be handled sensitively. Yes.

[The sound of students in school.]

PORTER: To end the strike, teachers were promised a small bonus of 44 Euros a month for just four months, but there was no change in their regular salaries, leaving teachers in Kosovo the lowest paid educators in Europe and leaving the Kosovo education system still teetering on the brink of collapse. I’m Keith Porter, Pristina, Kosovo.

[The sound of students in school.]

MCHUGH: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

KEITH PORTER: I’m Keith Porter.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, a Moscow theater recovers from tragedy.

US AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: This is a very happy day for Russia and for the world to demonstrate that terrorists can do damage, but they can’t win.

MCHUGH: Plus, Russian music with a country twang. And remembering South Africa’s Freedom Fighters.

LEE HIRSCH: Song was like, you know, the glue. It was that thing that was so critical to the liberation struggle in South Africa. It’s like that yeast that makes the cake rise.

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Nord Ost Revival

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PORTER: It’s been several months now since one of Russia’s worst hostage-taking incidents, when some 750 people were held captive for nearly three days by Chechen militants in a Moscow theater. One-hundred twenty nine of them were killed when security forces stormed the building. They were there to see Russia’s popular musical Nord-Ost. Now, the infamous Dubrovka Theater has been completely renovated and the show is finally back on the stage. But as our correspondent Anya Ardayeva reports from Moscow, Russians who came to see the reopening of Nord Ost have very mixed feelings.

[Sound of a Nord Ost performance.]

ARDAYEVA: Nord Ost was Russia’s first musical. It was one of the most popular shows in the country with performances sold out weeks in advance. And then suddenly, the show was silenced. Last October, militants from the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya, armed with explosives and guns, took 750 audience members hostage during an evening performance.

[The sound of Soviet special forces troops storming the theater building.]

ARDAYEVA: After days of negotiations, Russian special forces stormed the building. The gas they used to disable the militants and minimize the casualties, left more than 125 people dead. The nation was shocked by the number of casualties. And for more than a day after the deadly raid, doctors refused to give family members any information about the condition of their loved ones. Back then, looking at the theater and the damage it sustained, no one believed it could ever be restored. But just a few months later, the musical is back and the theater has reopened its doors. The US Ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, congratulated Moscow on its achievement.

US AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: This is a very happy day for Russia and for the world to demonstrate that terrorists can do damage but they can’t win. And this reopening is demonstration of determination of people to rise up above the threat of terrorism.

ARDAYEVA: The Nord Ost theatrical experience has changed dramatically. Before hanging their coats, visitors now must go through several security cordons, both outside and inside the building. Metal detectors and security cameras, as well as bomb sniffing dogs have been placed inside the theater. The main hall has been completely renovated to insure there are no reminders of October’s tragedy. The seats, previously dark red, are now navy blue and the orchestra pit that hostages were forced to use as a toilet is now level with the stage.

[The sound of a Nord Ost performance.]

ARDAYEVA: The show itself has changed as well. It has new actors to replace the 17 who died in the siege. Actor Andrey Bagdanov has been with the Nord Ost cast from the very beginning. He says when he goes on stage, he leaves his memories in the wings.

ANDREI BOGDANOV: [via a translator] This is my job and I like doing it, I love my job. It’s not difficult for me because I have overcome this already. It’s all in the past, I prefer not talking about it. We are doing our job, we are working, we are giving people happy emotions and not bad memories.

ARDAYEVA: The renovation of the building cost two-and-a-half million dollars, most of which was taken from private sources. The city of Moscow provides police patrols and K-9 teams to make audience members feel safe. But despite all these efforts some people are still too frightened to come. And those who are brave enough to do so say they are lured by more than just plain curiosity.

LARISA VALUEVA: [via a translator] We came here because we want to see what had been done, to support the case, and demonstrate that in spite of everything, the enemies can’t win.

ARDAYEVA: However, Nord Ost producer Vladimir Vasiliev says he hopes that theatergoers will return not only because they want to show the terrorists that life goes on, but to enjoy the performance itself.

VLADIMIR VASILIEV: [via a translator] We put several years of our lives into this show. Some [of] its songs were written 20 years ago. It’s a huge part of our lives and we can’t abandon it. Also, I can see that people—audience members, Muscovites, and Russians—need this musical. The poll showed that 80 percent of people wanted the musical back; we can’t go against the will of the people.

ARDAYEVA: Tickets to the premiere of the new and improved Nord Ost sold out, but the show has not completely regained its former popularity. Many of the first visitors say they came here mostly to show their support to the cast. Those who refused to come say even the name of the musical still reminds them of the bloody hostage taking last October. And it may take a while before the Russians can brush off their fears and once again enjoy the country’s first musical. For Common Ground, I’m Anya Ardayeva in Moscow.

MCHUGH: Coming up next on Common Ground, Russia meets Nashville. And later, a cinematic tribute to South Africa’s Freedom Fighters.

PORTER: You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

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Bering Straight

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MCHUGH: Every year, hordes of would-be country stars come to Nashville, Tennessee, hoping to catch someone’s eye and be catapulted into the spotlight. And not one of them would argue that it’s easy to make it in the music business. But the hurdles have been even higher for one country group, Bering Strait. They’ve come all the way from Russia to try to make it in the country music world. As Judith Smelser reports, they may be well on their way.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music.]

JUDITH SMELSER: They’re a hot new country act out of Nashville. They’re hoping to be the next big thing. Their sound is best described as a blend of pop rock and classic American country. But despite being part of a music scene that’s known for it’s All-American patriotism, this group’s red white and blue comes from a different flag. The seven members of Bering Strait are from Russia.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music.]

SMELSER: Since the late 1990s, they’ve gone from providing entertainment at a Mexican restaurant in Moscow to playing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. And this year this song from their self-titled debut CD was nominated for a Grammy.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music.]

SMELSER: The story of Bering Strait begins in a music conservatory in a small Russian village about 65 miles from Moscow. One of the school’s teachers decided to put together a bluegrass group, believing that the intricate techniques involved would help his students with their classical studies. One of those early members was Ilya Toshinsky, Bering Strait’s guitar and banjo player.

ILYA TOSHINSKY: [via a translator] I still don’t know why I reacted this way, but when I heard the sound of the banjo for the very first time it was a shock and a discovery for me. I fell in love with this instrument and begged my teacher to give it to me.

SMELSER: Ilya was just 11 years old when he joined the group in 1988. Over the next several years, three other young students were recruited, and three of those original four are still in the band. Over the years, the act grew to seven. They toured in Europe for awhile and even traveled to the US several times on cultural exchanges. And eventually they were introduced to music manager Mike Kinnamon.

MIKE KINNAMON: I called my wife and I said, “Honey, I found some kids that need help.” And she said, “I can hear it in the voice already, you want to bring them home, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Oh, it’s okay, bring ’em home..” I said, “Well, there’s, they’re a band.” And she said, “Okay, how many are there? Two, three, four?” And I said, “Seven.” She said, “We have a three-bedroom house. You and I sleep in one room. One room is an office. Where we gonna put ’em?”

SMELSER: The Kinnamon’s did find space for those kids in their Nashville home and Mike Kinnamon became not only the band’s manager, but a surrogate father for its members. He’s given them significant financial support because immigration restrictions make it impossible for them to earn extra cash. Keyboard player Lidya Salnikova explains.

LIDYA SALNIKOVA: [via a translator] How are we supposed to make a living? Our visa allows us to only do music. We can’t work as waiters. We can, of course, do it illegally. But it would be very problematic if they found out. We would be deported then. In the end, we came here to play music and not to work as waiters. But it’s very difficult to make money as a musician in Nashville.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, with Natasha Borzilova doing the lead vocals.]

SMELSER: But most band members agree, it’s been worth it. Natasha Borzilova is the group’s lead singer.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, with Natasha Borzilova doing the lead vocals.]

NATASHA BORZILOVA: [via a translator] To me country music is like a dream. I mean, it’s my American dream. I listened to this kind of music in Russia and now I came here and I am working with people I used to listen to, who I used to learn how to play this kind of music.

SMELSER: But she admits she’s a little worried about the fame that might come with success in her chosen field.

BORZILOVA: [via a translator] I have changed a lot in these 14 years, I like to spend time at home with a cup of coffee and a book and I am scared that I will be kicked out of my normal life into some kind of tornado. These interviews are very tiring. Much more tiring than standing on a stage and singing. It’s like you have to keep that face for the people all the time. You have to be pretty all the time. I don’t like putting on make-up. I like it when someone does it for me. Normally, I just get up in the morning and put on the very first outfit I find and go outside. And if I’m famous I won’t be able to do that anymore.

SMELSER: It may be awhile before the members of Bering Strait have to worry about superstardom. But it’s true that many things have happened at once for them in recent months. First, the release of the group’s debut album—also called Bering Strait—in January. Then their nomination for a Grammy. They didn’t win, but they figure it’s a great start. And finally, the release of a documentary film, The Ballad of Bering Strait which chronicles their unusual story. Indeed, it may be that story that puts them ahead of the field. Tim DuBois is a producer with their record label, Universal South.

TIM DUBOIS: In this case the media plays a big part. Just because the story is so incredibly rich. It’s such a wonderful story. And the kids are so endearing when people learn their story and get to meet them, they, they love them and they want to hear their music.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, with Natasha Borzilova doing the lead vocals.]

SMELSER: Some critics say they wish Bering Strait had been a little more adventurous with their debut album—that the music had matched their story in its uniqueness. But they’ve also been struck by the fact that the band members are excellent musicians. Leading country music critic Robert Ormann says that may allow them to do what no foreign group has done before.

ROBERT ORMANN: What Bering Strait is trying to do is something that no one has been able to do. Not a German band, not a Japanese band, not a Finnish band, not a Swedish band. You know, no non-English speaking country music act has ever made it. So they are trying to make history, is what they are trying to do. And the reason they might succeed is simply by sheer level of musicianship. Their, they have raised the bar for a country band to a new height. They are really, really gifted.

SMELSER: Music industry analysts say it’s important for the group to be more than a novelty act. More than just “that country group from Russia.” And Bering Strait is taking that advice to heart. Members have worked to conquer their Russian accents and adapt to the American country music style. But they haven’t completely turned their backs on their roots.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, but cut with a Russian flair.]

SMELSER: One track on their CD is a traditional Russian folk song, Porushka-Paranya, with a bluegrass twist.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, but cut with a Russian flair.]

SMELSER: It’s been a hit with live audiences—and a reminder that these rising country stars came from the other side of the world to embrace a quintessentially American dream.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, but cut with a Russian flair.]

SMELSER: For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser.

[The sound of Bering Strait’s country music, but cut with a Russian flair.]

MCHUGH: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

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South African Documentary

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PORTER: Nine years ago South Africa became a multiparty democracy for the first time in it’s history. Despite overwhelming odds the country was able to dismantle the apartheid regime relatively peacefully and emerge as an example for the rest of the continent. Now a powerful new film celebrates that transition through the music that helped inspire generations of freedom fighters in South Africa stand up to racism and fight for a better country. Amandla mixes politics and song in a documentary that aims to inspire the heart as much as the head. Nathan King reports from New York

[The sound of a South African freedom song by Sifiso Ntuli]

NATHAN KING: It’s the story of a nation finding strength and hope through song. Amandla—which means power—is perhaps best described as a musical documentary. Internationally renowned artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela tell of the message behind South African freedom songs and explain how song was used to spur on the anti-apartheid movement. During the dark years of apartheid the majority of South Africa’s population were banned from the political process, banned from publishing critical articles, and banned from speaking out against the regime. Music and song written in Zulu, Xhosa, Sothu, and other indigenous languages often skirted the restrictions because the white authorities didn’t understand the words. The songs had great melodies but often their message was blunt. In the film, singers Sophie Mgcina and Dolly Rathebe remember singing Meadowlands.

[The sound of Sophie Mgcina and Dolly Rathebe singing Meadowlands. Then they describe how the words to the upbeat melody were “We will kill you. Be careful what you say.” Then they laugh.]

KING: Amandla is a very personal, sometimes funny, and finally uplifting South African story, told with all the verve and enthusiasm and wit that the country is renowned for. So it is perhaps remarkable that the film was devised, directed, and produced by an American duo. Director Lee Hirsch is from Vermont and worked on this film for nine years. He first became interested in South Africa’s struggle when in the 1980’s he was still a student and learned his school had investments in the country at the height of the apartheid regime. After traveling to South Africa and hearing and singing the music he was smitten.

LEE HIRSCH: Song was like, you know, the glue. It was that thing that was so critical to the liberation struggle in South Africa. It was almost like—it’s sort of like—it’s like that yeast that makes the cake rise.

KING: Hirsch’s perseverance has paid off. Amandla won the Audience Award and Freedom of Expression Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. It is now showing in the US and has had great critical success. The film is a political statement and Hirsch says the effect on audiences has been marked.

HIRSCH: There’s so many struggles. Right now, Americans—thousands and hundreds of thousands are engaged in an antiwar struggle. And where is the song? Where is the energy? Where is the life? It’s not there. So people seeing this film walk out feeling like totally inspired, like they can grow this movement. They can connect in that way.

KING: The film also explores the huge steps South Africa has taken in first moving to democracy and then reconciliation. Amandla features an interview with former prison warden Johan Steinberg who once escorted African National Congress prisoners to their deaths.

JOHAN STEINBERG: You’ve got power over life. Now you’re walking up with this guy. He’s alive. He’s well. He’s fit. Five minutes after seven he’s dead. So there’s a little bit of power feeling in it.

KING: After appearing in the film Steinberg attended the show’s premiere and danced away with former freedom fighters. Amandla is also a testament to the long struggle South Africans had to endure. The feelings of sadness following the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela or after the murder of activist Steve Biko are perhaps best summed up by the sounds of the Sabe choir.

[Sounds of the Sabe choir.]

KING: Making the film has had a profound effect on the American producer of Amandla, Sherry Simpson, one of the few African American women working as an executive director in the US music business. By discovering South African music Simpson says she has found a new and irresistible sound.

SHERRY SIMPSON: While I love that the American music industry is able to, you know, put product out and it’s all around the world in a moment, the heart and soul of the music of South Africa is just a phenomenon.

KING: And that’s what Amandla aims to achieve. By telling the story of the past through music the producers hope to get people interested in South Africa’s future—both political and musical.

[The sound of a South African freedom song by Sifiso Ntuli]

KING: For Common Ground, I’m Nathan King in New York.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security

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