Viva Las Moscow | Transcript |
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SAMIR KAT: Golan, or the Al Qunaitra province, enjoys a very strategic position because it was considered to be the linking point between Syria and the other neighboring countries— Lebanon in the north, Palestine in the west, and Jordan in the south.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the importance of the Golan Heights in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
KEITH PORTER: Plus, the booming Russian casino industry.
IAN LIVINGSTON: There is nowhere in Europe right now where you have the type of action that Moscow casinos see and it is quite a high level.
PORTER: And the global citizenship of a British musical icon.
JOAN ARMATRADING: You hear the expression “citizen of the world.” I definitely feel like that. The world isn’t a stranger to me.
MCHUGH: These stories—coming up next.
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PORTER: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. As the Middle East peace process idles along the Bush administration’s so-called road map, much attention is focused on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. But there are many other actors in the Middle East that have crucial interests at stake whenever any meaningful peace negotiations finally get underway. Prime among them, Syria, which is determined to retake possession of the disputed Golan Heights. Seized by Israel in 1967, the Syrians re-took control of around one third of the Golan back in 1973. Common Ground‘s Simon Marks visited some of the villages on the Syrian side of the country’s border with Israel in a bid to understand their strategic importance.
[The sound of birds singing]
SIMON MARKS: If beauty alone could be valued, the Golan Heights would probably be priceless. Just 45 minutes drive from the Syrian capital Damascus, lies a verdant valley overlooked by Mount Hermon. The snow-capped peaks of the mountain mark the start of the Golan Heights—1,700 feet above sea level. When the snows melt the water slips down the mountainside and begins its 40 mile journey south to Lake Tabrius. The water, a valuable resource in this part of the world, is just one reason the Golan Heights is such a contested piece of territory. Topography is the other. By the time the water flows into the Lake, the shoreline is 40 feet below sea level. It’s a dramatic plunge from the mountain range where the Golan begins. Over just 40 miles, the Heights enjoy all four seasons on any given day, and whoever controls the Golan enjoys an enormous strategic advantage.
SAMIR KAT: We will go now to the roof of the hospital to see the city from above.
MARKS: Samir Kat is the man who welcomes foreign visitors to the ghost town of Al Qunaitra. Laid waste, the Syrians say, when the Israeli army retreated in 1973, the Syrian government has not permitted Al Qunaitra’s residents to return.
[The sound of a vehicle driving down a road]
MARKS: Instead the Syrians unashamedly use Al Qunaitra as an emotional testament to what they insist was naked Israeli aggression in 1967, when the entire Golan Heights was seized and declared Israeli territory. A drive around Al Qunaitra reveals a small city that is effectively shuttered. Buildings that once served as stores and offices have been closed for nearly 30 years. Homes lie in ruins and what was once the city’s main hospital is a pock-marked shell. The Syrians say Israeli forces used it as a target range.
KAT: Golan, or the Al Qunaitra province, enjoys a very strategic position because it was considered to be the linking point between Syria and the other neighboring countries—Lebanon in the north, Palestine in the west and Jordan in the south. So it’s enjoyed a very strategic position.
MARKS: A very strategic position that the Syrians once again want to dominate. In 1973, the Syrian army managed to retake one-third of the Golan. But today, the Israeli border lies right on the edge of Al Qunaitra, and Israel still controls the remaining two-thirds of the disputed territory. From a watchtower, United Nations personnel keep an eye on the Israeli and Syrian border guards who stare uncomfortably at one another across a small strip of no-man’s land.
KAT: It’s a Syrian land. And as you know we make peace as a strategic choice for Syria. So, all Syria wants is her own land. This is Syrian land under Israel occupation since 1967.
MARKS: The Israelis, of course, see things differently. They argue that Syria cannot be trusted with control of the Golan Heights since they claim Damascus has designs on Israeli territory. And they accuse the Syrians of allowing militants with Hezbollah—the Party of God—to launch attacks on Israel from the Golan Heights. The Golan, then, is, in the literal sense, disputed territory, and the issues surrounding it color Syria’s view of the Middle East peace process.
ALI JOMANO: [via a translator] There is a major problem between Syria and America over Israel.
MARKS: Ali Jomano is a rare thing in Syria—an independent journalist not associated with any of the government’s publications. His passion on the issue of the Golan Heights exemplifies a viewpoint that’s widely shared across the Syrian spectrum.
JOMANO: [via a translator] There is clear American bias towards Israel. Israel has unconditional US support. How can you ignore something like that? Israel occupies Syrian lands, just like it occupies Palestinian lands and Lebanese lands. Should the Syrians give up their lands and their rights so easily, just because they want to have a better relationship with America?
[Sounds from a busy Damascus bazaar]
MARKS: And stop people in the ancient bazaars of Damascus and ask them their opinions of the situation, and you’ll hear even more intemperate language.
DAMASCUS MAN ON THE STREET #1: Well, I’m sorry to tell you that our opinion about the Israeleannes [sic] is that they are just killers. Just killers. Because they came and they occupied a country and they took it from their own people and this is completely wrong. And nobody likes what is going on now.
[The sound of birds singing in the Golan Heights]
MARKS: Tempers run high in Syria over Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights, and the Syrian government is not averse to playing to the gallery on the issue. That makes it even harder to envision a compromise over possession of this beautiful and strategically vital territory—and makes it likely that the Golan Heights will continue to be a significant irritant even if progress is made on the road toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. For Common Ground, I’m Simon Marks in Al Qunaitra on the Golan Heights.
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PORTER: While world attention focuses on the possibility of Israelis and Palestinians implementing the road map for peace, a settlement is more elusive along the Israeli-Lebanese border. So far, Middle East negotiators haven’t tackled the tougher, but no less vital issue of returning occupied Arab land. Common Ground’s Reese Erlich reports from Khiam, Lebanon, near the border with Israel.
REESE ERLICH: Taxi driver Mohammed Ahmad frequently makes the drive from Beirut up the winding mountain roads to the ancient town of Baalabek.
MOHAMMED AHWAD: We are going to be going to Baalabek. There is about five checkpoints for the Syrian Army and the intelligence of the Syrian Army.
ERLICH: And what do they do at the checkpoint, the Syrian checkpoints?
MOHAMMED AHWAD: You know, sometimes they, when, where there is, there is you know, a small van, you know, small cars, cargo cars, they took some money from them.
ERLICH: So basically they’re taking bribes from the, from the drivers?
MOHAMMED AHWAD: Yeah.
ERLICH: Ahwad is a Shi’ia Muslim. For many years Lebanon’s Muslims supported the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon to counterbalance the political dominance of right-wing Christian parties. But that support is shifting.
MOHAMMED AHWAD: Of course, of course, of course. They should leave. You know, because they are destroying our economy, they are destroying our tourism, they are destroying, you know, our life.
ERLICH: The position of the Lebanese government, which includes both Christian Muslim parties, is that it wants Syrian troops to remain in Lebanon in order to maintain stability. That’s also the official position of the Syrian government. Hashem Akhad is a member of Syria’s National Assembly and a former member of its Foreign Relations Committee.
HASHEM AKHAD: Syrian troops could leave Lebanon immediately if the Syrian government received an official request from the Lebanese government to help the Lebanese government to have security in Lebanon. Most of the Lebanese people want the Syrian troops to remain there.
ERLICH: The controversy began back in 1975 when Lebanon erupted in civil war between right-wing Christian militias and a coalition of leftist Muslim parties and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Syria, under mandate from the Arab countries, sent in peacekeeping troops in 1976. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and initially occupied a wide swath of territory. The invasion had a deep impact on Syria, according to Haifem Kalani, a former Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.
HAIFEM KALANI: [via a translator] In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and they occupied the route between Damascus and Beirut. That’s why the Syrians do not want this experience to be repeated again, do not want Israel to occupy Syria.
ERLICH: The US sent peacekeeping troops to Lebanon in 1982 to evacuate the PLO and facilitate an Israeli withdrawal. But the US became embroiled in that country’s complicated civil war, siding with the right wing Christian forces. The US was forced to withdraw in 1983 after a truck bomb killed 241 Marines in Beirut. Israel continued to occupy the southern part of Lebanon until 2000. Ambassador Kalani says all these events make Syria wary about withdrawing its 20,000 troops from Lebanon.
HAIFEM KALANI: [via a translator] The Syrian presence in Lebanon is to maintain stability in Lebanon and at the same time to prevent Israel from attacking Damascus. The Syrian presence in Lebanon will prevent some of the Lebanese and Israeli to meet together at, as it happened in 1982.
ERLICH: But many Lebanese disagree. Farid Al-khazen is Chair of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut. He knows that under the Taief Agreements which ended Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, Syria was required to deploy all its troops to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon—something that never happened.
PROFESSOR FARID AL-KHAZEN: Over the last decade or so Syria has come really to dominate Lebanese politics. And Syria, Syrian-Lebanese relations have been totally uneven, giving Syria of course almost full access to Lebanon. And this imbalance in the Lebanese relations is not confined to politics but it has to do with the economy, with trade, with, in fact every single issue this relationship is really very much in favor of Syria.
ERLICH: Gebran Tueni, publisher of the conservative Al-Nahar newspaper, goes even further. He says that Syria manipulates Lebanese elections to make sure its allies stay in power.
GEBRAN TUENI: The way that Syria is dealing with Lebanon is exactly like a country which is occupying another country. Our government is not free to decide what it wants to do. The governments are formed in Syria. The elections are prepared in Syria. If you want to take the smallest decision it’s the Syrians who, who will give you order.
ERLICH: Secretary of State Colin Powell has recently emphasized the US demand for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. But even publisher Tueni admits that the Syrian troops and intelligence agencies have been in Lebanon so long that their immediate withdrawal could cause political instability.
GEBRAN TUENI: No, we’re not asking, you know, to see the Syrians leave tomorrow morning. What we are asking is for a clear agenda of the withdrawal of Syrians from Lebanon. What is asking for is a normalization of the relations between the Lebanese population and the Syrians. Like I told you, we don’t want to go into a war against Syria. And I hope that the Americans would be serious.
ERLICH: Yet Syria continues to have support among some Muslims and among the 350,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon, who make up about 10 percent of the total population of the country. The Palestinians still vividly recall the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982. They blame Israel and the right wing Christian militias for those killings and see Syria as a force for peace.
[The sound of children playing in a refugee camp]
ERLICH: Here at the Shatila camp children play soccer on a rutted field. Poorly constructed concrete block apartments sit in the sweltering heat, not much changed since the 1982 massacre. Grocer Mohammed Afifi says the Syrian presence here is an issue for Lebanese to resolve but indicated that he, like other Palestinians, doesn’t want them to leave.
MOHAMMED AFIFI: [via a translator] There is a land occupied by Israel, so two armies is better than one.
ERLICH: Syria also has the backing of the major Christian and Muslim parties such as Amal And Hezbollah. They say Israel continues to occupy Syria’s Golan Heights and a sliver of Lebanese land called Shebaa Farms. They say the Lebanese Army isn’t strong enough to resist Israeli attacks, so they see the Syrian troops as a form of protection, according to Mohammed Raad, a member of parliament for Hezbollah.
MOHAMMED RAAD: [via a translator] The Lebanese government which won the support or the approval of all the, of most of the MP’s in the Parliament views or sees that or considers that, the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon, is temporary and necessary. We are with the government with this stand.
ERLICH: But Professor Al-khazen argues that while the lack of security was a genuine issue in the early 1990s, conditions have changed.
PROFESSOR AL-KHAZEN: Lebanon has rebuilt its army. Today the Lebanese Army is three times the size of the pre-war army. It’s been retrained, reequipped, etcetera, and is in a position to take control. And in fact the reason why we have this large army is because to fill the vacuum. And now the Lebanese Army is in a position to do so.
ERLICH: But diplomats say the withdrawal of Syrian troops has less to do with conditions inside Lebanon than with the overall politics of the region. Ambassador Khalani?? says Syria won’t withdraw until there’s a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, including return of the Golan Heights.
AMBSSSADOR KALANI: [via a translator] When Israel withdraws its forces from the Golan Heights and the Shebaa Farms, the door will be open for the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon.
ERLICH: That doesn’t make many Lebanese happy. But so far neither the US nor Lebanese pressure has changed the reality of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Erlich in Beirut.
MCHUGH: Russians stake their claims at the casinos, next on Common Ground.
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MCHUGH: Investors who have put their money into Russia over the past 10 years have often felt that they were taking a gamble. Today, with the Russian economy slowly recovering, many Russians themselves are feeling the same way. Anya Ardayeva took a roll of the dice and reports now from Moscow on a new trend sweeping the city.
ANYA ARDAYEVA: Every night Moscow is lit up with numerous neon signs and filled with the sounds of slot machines. Welcome to Las Vegas Russian style where dozens of casinos open their doors daily for the city’s high rollers.
IAN LIVINGSTON: I think that there is a very strong future for the gaming industry in Moscow.
ARDAYEVA: Ian Livingston manages one of the biggest Moscow casinos, Metelitsa. He says Moscow is a dreamland for gamblers and gambling enterprises alike.
LIVINGSTON: And this is really all based upon how, how Russia and Moscow is developing itself. And as business continues to boom, only good things can happen to the casino industry.
[Sounds of rolling dice at a busy Moscow casino]
ARDAYEVA: The average stakes in his casino are not exceptionally high, although gamblers can bet up to $4,000 dollars per game—and often they do. Casino managers say Russians are more than willing to take a chance. In a country where the economy is still cash-driven, rich Russians account for 99 percent of casino visitors. Most are already wealthy enough to own their own homes and cars. With little to invest in here, they have plenty of cash-in-hand. It’s a gold mine for casino owners.
LIVINGSTON: I would say that there is nowhere in Europe right now where you have the type of action that Moscow casinos see and it is quite a high level. I would put it at the highest in Europe.
ARDAYEVA: However, not many Russians can afford an evening in a classy casino like Metelitsa. That doesn’t mean they can’t gamble. There are plenty of smaller places in Moscow that position themselves as gaming enterprises for general public, or simply slot machine arcades.
[The sound of slot machines]
ARDAYEVA: Like the Golden Joker. You don’t get free drinks or food on the house, but the buzz is certainly here. Even an average Russian salary of 4,500 rubles—about $150—will get you through a relatively pleasant evening here.
RUSSIAN GAMBLER #1: [via a translator] I like spending time here, even if I lose. The stakes here are much smaller then in big casinos. I bet only two rubles here while in a bigger casino I’d have to put at least 50 rubles on a game.
ARDAYEVA: Gaming experts estimate that Moscow will remain a promised land for casinos for another two or three years. So if you feel lucky and eager for an easy buck—ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. For Common Ground, I am Anya Ardayeva in Moscow.
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PORTER: Joan Armatrading is one of Britain’s musical icons. She’s been recording for over 30 years, has twice been nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Vocalist and she has been honored by the Queen of England. This week she is our Global Citizen profile. Joan Armatrading is widely considered one of Britain’s most influential performers. She was the first black female singer/songwriter to truly compete with white female singers. She was born in the West Indies and brought up in the industrial city of Birmingham. Recently on tour in the US to promote her latest album, Lovers Speak, Joan Armatrading talked to Nina-Maria Potts at Washington, DC’s Lincoln Theatre during a sound check about her music and her sense of self.
[With sounds from the sound check in the background]
POTTS: What does global citizenship mean to you? You tour and perform everywhere. Do you feel part of a global community, and if so what does that mean to you?
ARMATRADING: I suppose I do, because as you say I do a lot of traveling and I’m known in a lot of countries. And I think it’s that known in places that can make you feel as if you belong. Because where ever I go, people say “Hello,” and they kind of feel as if they know me because they know my music. It kind of makes it a bit closer I think, and that would apply I would say to all artists, or performers, all authors—again, people who have a certain connection, so when you go to a place—and also I get lots of letters from all over the world, so I’m constantly being connected to people in different countries to the one that I live in.
POTTS: In times of crisis, what do you think the role of the musician should be?
ARMADRADING: Well, first and foremost, just a person who’s concerned. The role of a musician isn’t necessarily to bring a message. You just have to be who you are. If your message is political then put that out there; if it’s just a message of love and peace then, you know, put that out there. And if it’s a message of “just have fun,” then that’s what you should do. And that’s the role of the musician, to be truthful, first and foremost to themselves, and then they can put that message out to other people. What I do is write about people’s relationships person-to-person, which obviously involves love; it could be conflict; could be just having a laugh; could be, you know, all sorts of things. But it’s how when two people are in certain situations, how do they deal with each other.
POTTS: You write about as you’ve just said, the universal and the personal. Do you get different responses in the States from, you know, say other parts of the world?
ARMATRADING: No. People in America or Britain, Germany, Holland, Australia, Japan, wherever—if they hear a song like The Weakness in Me, which talks about somebody who kind of finds themselves in a situation of being in love with two people and not being able to decide which of those people they should be with—everybody says the same thing if they’ve been in that situation. It doesn’t matter whether their first language is English or Spanish. They say, exactly the same thing. And that’s actually the great thing about music and writing lyrics, that it’s expressing people’s emotions.
POTTS: Has the Internet changed your relationship with your listeners at all?
JOAN ARMATRADING: The Internet has been absolutely brilliant, I love computers. I’ve always been very, very into computers, since the early ’80s. And the Internet allows for much better communication from the people who enjoy my music, directly to me. I mean they would be able to write letters anyway; they used to, would write letters and come and see the shows and get their stuff signed and everything. But this way there’s a quicker backwards and forwards communication, they can write an e-mail and get a response.
POTTS: How do you get your news?
ARMATRADING: Well, in America, you’ve gotta really have to search for it. [laughing] Because, you know, you have to, if you want world news that isn’t kind of American-focused, then you have to search for it. But the Internet is a great place for getting news, because you can just go anywhere, just go to any country, look at what, you know, they’re saying about different situations around the world, and that’s, the Internet is really is the thing that I think is, that is the global community, that really does bring people together, allows people to find out about all the different cultures that are there, all the different problems and joys in the different societies. I’m pretty sure it can help people to come together better.
POTTS: In terms of your own global concerns, looking at the world today, what matter most to you?
ARMATRADING: Children are very, very important. And you hear that all the time and you think, you know, “Why do people say that?” It’s ’cause it’s true! [laughing] It’s ’cause it really is true. And you see little children, and that total innocence and the fun and love of just being here, you just think that’s something to protect and nurture, and help to grow up to be good people. I don’t have children of my own, but I do absolutely love children. And obviously that we would have less violent conflict. I don’t say there’s conflict at all—you know, no conflict at all, because you need a bit of tension sometimes. But that the violence sometimes it’s, it’s just really hard to understand.
POTTS: Can you tell me the story of your first guitar?
ARMATRADING: My father had a guitar that he used to play and he didn’t want me to play it, so he used to hide it. And then I saw a guitar in a pawn shop and it cost three pounds. And I said to my mum, “Can I have it?” And she said, “Well, she hasn’t got any money. Would the woman in the shop exchange it for two pram strollers,” they call them there. So the woman exchanged the two strollers for the, for the guitar and that’s how I got my first guitar, which I still have.
PORTER: This week’s Global Citizen, Joan Armatrading, spoke to Nina-Maria Potts in Washington, DC.
MCHUGH: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: I’m Kristin McHugh.
KEITH PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, the burgeoning Chinese sports market.
DARREN SIEGEL: The Chinese people are very loyal to the Chinese athletes, so if you have an athlete that’s associated with a team then very quickly that team becomes China’s team.
PORTER: Plus, a look back at the Velvet Revolution. And one man’s personal fight to save an endangered turtle population.
OGUST: These are chora trifaciata, sometimes called Golden Coin. There’s a belief in China that these cure cancer so they will sell for $1,000 an ounce. They’ve been stripped from the wild.
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MCHUGH: Communist China used to be dominated by Soviet-style sports schools, which primed athletes for Olympic competition. However, things are quickly changing as Western commercial sports compete for the attention of the newly affluent Chinese middle class. Celia Hatton reports from Beijing:
[The sound of a cheering crowd]
CELIA HATTON: In a sold-out stadium in Beijing, an enthusiastic crowd has gathered to watch Spanish soccer team Real Madrid take on a ragtag team of Chinese players.
[The sound of a cheering crowd]
HATTON: In nationalistic China, it’s unusual for spectators not to root for their own country. But when British superstar soccer player David Beckham, or Be-ke-ha-mu as he is known in China, was introduced to the field, it was obvious that he was the one that most people had come to see.
[The sound of announcer broadcasting a soccer game while the crowd cheers in the background]
HATTON: Even a few years ago, it would have been strange for a Spanish soccer team dominated by English, French, and Brazilian players to be incredibly popular in China. Of course, the globalization of sports is not just a phenomenon in this country. Sports fans from all over the world are increasingly likely to watch a national or international sports game that is shown on TV than a local game that is played just down the street. But the promise of China’s 1.3 billion-strong population and its growing middle class is enough to make the marketing heads of western sports leagues work especially hard to get Chinese fans turned on to their sport. Darren Siegel, general manager for S2M Sports Marketing in Beijing, says that the groups that are pushing western sports are hoping to get Chinese kids hooked while they are young.
DARREN SIEGEL: If they can convince them that this is the sport that they should spend their money on, then they are going to grow up with this sport. And if you can sell them in the beginning on a trading card or something like that that has a picture of Michael Jordan, then later on you can get them to buy the NBA basketball or the NBA shirts or the, or the shoes that are the people that are sponsoring the NBA.
HATTON: At the moment, China’s sports industry is only worth about $5 billion US dollars per year, compared to $250 billion in the US. But that could soon change. For the first time, a large number of Chinese kids have money to spend on leisure items and western sports are rising in popularity. NBA basketball and European soccer have long been the dominant commercial sports in China but now a whole range of sports—from NFL football to tennis to Formula One motor racing—are pushing for face time on Chinese TV.
[The sound of a Mandarin language sports commentary]
HATTON: Chinese TV networks now understand that they will get more advertising money from sponsors if they show foreign rather than domestic games. International companies like Coca-Cola and Nike would rather sponsor a foreign game that will air globally than domestic games that will only be seen in individual countries. Many in China’s sports industry believe that this is one of the main reasons that money is soaking away from domestic sport.
The popularity of Western sports has also lead to a new type of hero in China—the Chinese athlete who made it big overseas. Seven foot six [inch] Shanghai native Yao Ming, who now plays basketball for the Houston Rockets, is the prime example. His face is on billboards all over China, marketing everything from Pepsi to mobile phone services. As Darren Siegel explains, Western sports are eager to take advantage of Chinese athletes such as Yao Ming to gain recognition with a Chinese audience.
SIEGEL: The Chinese people are very loyal to the Chinese athletes, so if you have an athlete that’s associated with a team then very quickly that team becomes China’s team. Wherever Yao Ming is, that’s the team that the Chinese support.
HATTON: Although Yao Ming learned to play basketball in China’s state-run sports system, it’s unclear whether the same system is healthy enough to produce future star players. Perhaps the most long-lasting effect of the influx of commercial sports into China is the decline of the mainland’s domestic sports program. For the past 20 years, the Soviet-style program has hand-picked kids with athletic talent and primed them for professional sporting careers at boarding schools all over the country. Yang Hong Jian is the manager of the Beijing International Sports Exchange center, a Beijing native who studied physical education in the US. He says that the state-run sports program is getting by financially through parents who are willing to pay to keep their kids in school, regardless of their talent.
YANG HONGJIAN: Maybe half of them are potentially good athletes so they are funded by the school. And the coaches went to different places to pick them. And the other half were sent by their parents. The parents just say, “Okay, we pay this amount of money, you just train them and see how well they can get.”
HATTON: The domestic leagues which pick athletes from the schools are also suffering. China’s Southern Daily newspaper reports that China’s Soccer League is losing $48 million a year. The Real Madrid team made more money in one game in Beijing than the annual turnover of all 15 of China’s first division soccer clubs.
[The sound of children playing a game of basketball]
HATTON: These kids playing basketball on one of Beijing’s outdoor courts may never remember a time when the NBA wasn’t on TV nearly every weekend. Although the state-run sports system may not survive past the Beijing Olympics in 2008, it is certain that China’s love for sports will continue well into the future. For Common Ground, I’m Celia Hatton in Beijing.
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PORTER: What’s known as the Velvet Revolution occurred 14 years ago, ending the communist dictatorship of the former Czechoslovakia. The country became the Czech Republic and a democratic government called the Civic Forum replaced the communists. Common Ground‘s Cliff Brockman talked to Martin Palous, who was a founding member of the Forum about that historic time and about issues currently facing the Czech Republic.
MARTIN PALOUS: I have to admit that the revolution later, or later what was called the Velvet Revolution came to us a kind of surprise. It was two, three weeks after the Berlin Wall fell down that people simply didn’t think, could not imagine that anything like that could come also to Czechoslovakia in the coming days. So when the public demonstrations started we felt ready to participate in that Civic Forum that you mentioned, was founded second or third day after it started. But we had no idea, no way of knowing that this would be it. That this would be the end of the regime.
CLIFF BROCKMAN: Then later Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. What are some of the milestones in the last 10 years?
PALOUS: People can say that 1989 the revolution was the end of the 20th century venture of totalitarian regimes. Then it collapsed down and we were finding ourselves in a new beginning. And obviously we didn’t know what we would have to experience on the way. And after the relatively short period we discovered that there will be some bumps on the way. As you know after the period of unifications, fragmentations came. I think the war in Yugoslavia was maybe the most tragic chapter of that history. For us it worked relatively well. The split of Czechoslovakia was not a pleasant thing. But now when I look back from our perspective today I think that our relations with Slovaks are better than have, they have ever been before. We have achieved basic goals, at least what we have set ourselves as a Forum, political main objectives. We are members of NATO. We will be in the European Union soon, hopefully. We have a very good relations with the United States. And obviously now the Iraqi situation, crisis, it is I think a major crossroads. And I hope that our transition will go on.
BROCKMAN: Your country as you said will join the European Union next year. What will that mean for the Czech Republic?
PALOUS: As I said, it will mean a lot. We will have to accept all provisions of so-called a key combinant era. We will have access to the European market. We will be part of the process of European integration. We will be asked to play an active role in this process. Again the European integration is an open-ended process. Now as you know there is the ongoing debate on the future European constitution. There should be an inter-government conference relatively soon to decide about the future shape of Europe with new members. Because it’s a very significant step forward and Europe with 25 members has to be definitely different what it used to be in the past. So again we have a good expectations. We are in internal debates in the Czech Republic because not everybody is 100 percent. There are some people who obviously raised the question, “What this step will mean for me?” But I think that’s again, it is an open future and we are very happy that we’ll be part of that because we don’t see any meaningful, reasonable alternative to that process, to the European integration.
BROCKMAN: Along those same lines, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has urged your government to curb its spending before joining the EU next year. They say your taxes are five percent higher than other lower income member countries. What’s the government doing to reduce the deficit?
PALOUS: The Czech government now is composed of three parties and the major player is Social Democrats. So they always have concerns about social ethics, consequences of their policies. But this government now I think is discussing the measures to be taken because I think that they are committed to really do something about the growing deficit because public spending has to be put under certain control. I think there is a consensus among all major political players. Obviously the general consensus does not mean that everybody agrees as far as the concrete steps to be taken. But I think that by the end of this year we will see what the concrete scenario of deficit reduction is going to be. So I think that these comments as you mentioned are taken very seriously in the Czech Republic.
BROCKMAN: A question now about the Roma. Three percent of the Czech Republic is Roma. And they face numerous challenges including high unemployment, racist attacks. What is your government doing to improve that situation?
PALOUS: Actually before I joined the government I was the chair of the Czech Helsinki Committee, I would say the leading human rights organization, or one of the leading organizations, in this field. And we spent a lot of time with this particular question. I would like to be realistic. Obviously we can be definitely self-reflective and self-critical and recognize that many steps should have been taken sooner, that the time the government has needed to recognize that there is a serious problem here, was too long. But the problem has all sorts of dimensions. It is a historical problem. It is one of the consequences of the fall of communism. And we are trying to cope with that one. It is something similar to maybe the process of American society, too, with the civil rights movements and process of emancipation here in the United States. So I think that we are learning. The situation has changed quite a lot in the past five, six years. Unemployment as you said is still a serious problem. But there are some programs, some initiatives trying to cope with that. We have already a growing number of leaders emerging from Roma community with university education. I think the matter of education, the problem of education is one of the key elements of any meaningful strategy. But obviously, speaking about education, it is something what takes time. So I think things are moving ahead. There are still many prejudices in the population, lack of communication, difficulties in both sides. It’s not only a majority population but also Roma minority itself that has to change a lot. I think they are struggling also with the problem of their political representation. You like to talk with those in charge but sometimes you may be confused who is who. But it’s a very dynamic process, learning process, and I think that I am also quite optimistic in this area.
BROCKMAN: Martin Palous is currently Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States.
MCHUGH: Coming up next, saving the world’s turtles. You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.
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MCHUGH: It’s a truly global issue, the world’s turtle population is disappearing before our eyes. Sea and land turtles are traditional delicacies in Asia. Chinese folklore claims turtles have mythical healing qualities. And the booming Chinese economy means many millions of that country’s citizens can afford for the first time to eat turtle meat. The results are cataclysmic. One estimate says 40,000 turtles are caught in the wild and killed every week. The problem is beyond the reach of zoos and traditional conservation societies. In fact, much of the rescuing and rearing of turtles is done by a band of highly committed private individuals. Nathan King caught up with one of these so-called private rescuers at his central Manhattan apartment.
[The sounds of footsteps on wooden stairs]
NATHAN KING: [speaking while climbing the stairs] So it’s nine flights?
RICHARD OGUST: Nine flight walk-up.
KING: Nine flights up a Tribeca apartment building, whose address must remain secret for security reasons, is a steel door. Beyond that is what can only be described as a Noah’s Ark for turtles.
[The sound of a steel door opening/closing]
KING: Wow! That’s all I can say. Is, wow!
KING: Richard Ogust is fighting what many would consider a losing battle. His New York apartment is filled to the brim with tanks and tubs, each one home to a species of turtle saved from becoming someone’s meal.
OGUST: They are diamondback terrapin in these large tanks here, which were mostly Fulton Fish market confiscations. These are more heosemys depressa, a species from Burma that was thought to be extinct until 1985. On the ground are leucoephalon yuwonoi, also called the Sulawesi Forest turtle. These were first discovered by science in 1995. They’ve been on the critically endangered list for the last three years.
KING: It’s estimated that between 10 and 20 million turtles are consumed in the Chinese market a year. Species are disappearing fast.
OGUST: These are some captive born rhinoclemmys from Central America. Behind you are critically endangered chelodina longicollis from Rottnest Island. It’s a snake neck turtle. There are forcunine turtles from Sulawesi. They are found only on the same island that the yuwonoi are found on. These are stars, from a confiscation, Indian start tortoises.
KING: The apartment is home to 1,000 turtles, over 100 species in all, most of which are endangered, and some that are no longer seen in the wild. Some in the media have tried to paint Richard out as a little bit crazy but he is anything but. In fact, he’s part of the Turtle Survival Alliance, a network of over 200 individuals who dedicate themselves to taking in an taking care of wild turtles. Richard is one of the go-to guys for New York customs officials when they confiscate rare turtles. But it’s not just New York. His apartment is truly a global sanctuary. Turtles here come from as far away as China, Burma, and Vietnam. And when the turtles arrive they can be in a terrible state, having suffered months of abuse.
OGUST: Whether it’s in Asia or Africa the Mediterranean or Central Asia, is that the animals are collected at the village level by the villagers, sometimes by children, sometimes by hunters with dogs. They’re housed without food or water. They simply are not fed and not given water until a middle man arrives who will collect them from the various villages, bring them to a larger town, and then they’re finally transshipped to their market destination. Throughout this time they’re primarily not fed and not given water. This can be several months. So the lighter the animals are for transportation the less the cost of the transportation. Then when they get to market they’re sold by weight. So with some of the larger tortoises, we come in we find they’ve been gut-loaded with sand. It’s just been poured down their throats in a slurry.
KING: Many of the turtles here need years of attention to make it back from the brink of death, the sort of attention that just can’t be provided by zoos or regular conservation societies. Individual collectors have now turned into conservationists and are often a turtles only hope. But many like Richard admit they are struggling. His co-worker is Laura Mostello.
LAURA MOSTELLO: It’s a never-ending job because there’s always something to do. They have a lot of problems. A lot of the confiscated animals come in sick or mishandled, dehydrated. So what I do is, they’ve been soaking overnight. I dry them and I also check them individually for any problems that they might have. I check their weights, make sure everybody is eating. There are some who are sick so I keep a special, an especially close eye on them. You could stay here 24 hours and you could still find something to do.
KING: When it comes to turtles round-the-clock attention is not enough. With life spans of over a 100 years many turtles out live their owners.
OGUST: What we need to do is to establish an institute that exists between the zoo community and the private community that has, takes advantages of the ethos and the experience of both communities, where we can establish these animals for long-term conservation purposes. ‘Cause many of these animals hopefully will live beyond my lifetime. All of us are aware that we have to account for their disposition after our deaths and what we don’t want to see happen is what’s happened in the past, where someone dies and their collection, their group of animals, are just suddenly put up for sale and distributed. There’s high mortality and they just go to the winds and virtually disappear.
KING: That is now happening. Richard is involved in setting up the Tewksbury Institute in New Jersey which will house thousands of rescued turtles in a suitable habitats and serve as a focal point for future conservation efforts. Beyond that it’s hoped hunting turtles in the wild will be replaced by turtle farming to satisfy Asia’s growing appetite.
OGUST: These are chora trifaciata, sometimes called Golden Coin. There’s a belief in China that these cure cancer so they will sell for $1,000 an ounce. They’ve been stripped from the wild completely. They are being captive bred. They do not cure cancer.
KING: But for real success, most agree that the hardest part will be to spread the conservation message to Asian societies. They really hold the key to the preservation of the world’s turtles.
PORTER: That’s our show for this week. I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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