Red Line: Osama bin Laden, the royal wedding and Lobsang Sanjay

Prince William and his new wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Source: Reuters/Vostock photo

Prince William and his new wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Source: Reuters/Vostock photo

Each week, Voice of Russia hosts Red Line, a discussion about the events of the week, as seen from Moscow. This week, the death of Osama bin Laden, the royal wedding, and a new leader for Tibet.

Participants: Ekaterina Kudashkina, Sergei Strokan, Mira Salganik, Nicholas Gvozdev, Christina Patterson, Nandan Unnikrishnan


Ekaterina Kudashkina: This week we will start with the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, which may be the news of the year; we will then switch over to lighter, but no less historic news—the royal wedding in Great Britain, and finally, we shall look into yet another historic event—the election of a new Tibetan leader.


Now, Beyond the Headlines, in which we will discuss a milestone in the global war on terror. President Barack Obama’s announcement that “justice has been done,” noting that Osama bin Laden is dead, sent his popularity rating—as well as the world stock markets—soaring.

Sergei Strokan: The public mood is changing rapidly, but the initial reaction was positive. The news was quickly hailed by world leaders and governments in a rare moment of unity.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: In his televised address to the nation, President Obama, who initially positioned himself as a “president of peace” and received a Nobel Peace Prize, also commended his predecessor. He said that George W. Bush deserved some respect and some credit for what actually came out of the decade-long hunt. And, what’s even more important, he called on the nation “to think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11,” adding: “I know that it has, at times, frayed.”

Mira Salganik: We have been talking of this expression of good will, unity of nations, but it didn’t last long. It started evaporating just hours if not minutes after President Obama’s speech, in which he thanked Pakistan for cooperation. As for the information shared, it is getting more and more questionable, but what I wanted to bring to your attention is that immediately Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was very quick to remind the world audience that it was “deep inside Pakistan” that Osama bin Laden was killed. Then he went on to add that this adds to the constant concern that Pakistan has become a harbor, a safe place for every terrorist organization.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: But in fact there has been hardly any unity between India and Pakistan, so that is a natural reaction coming out of India.

Sergei Strokan: What I want to elaborate on is not the India-Pakistani relations and not the Republican response, but Mr. Obama’s remark about Osama bin Laden being “a mass murderer of Muslims.” This is true, although it is only a part of the truth. My point is that Osama bin Laden started as murderer of my compatriots–Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, and this was some two decades before Sept. 11. Moreover, it is an open secret, though seldom mentioned in the Western media, that it was with the American support that transformed a son of a wealthy building contractor from Saudi Arabia into the world’s most wanted man, the ideologist and the leader of Al-Qaeda.


Anyway, the liquidation of Osama bin Laden sounds like good news both for America and for the whole world, including Russia.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Nicholas Gvozdev, Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College, has joined us to share some of his views on the relations between the relations between the United States and Pakistan.

Mr. Gvozdev, do you think this situation will somehow affect the relations between the United States and Pakistan?


Nicholas Gvozdev: It can affect them because of the role of the public opinion and pressure groups in both countries, as we have seen in the United States. While the executive branch, the Obama administration, has stressed that the partnership with Pakistan continues and goes on, and the relations are good between the two countries, you have Congress as an actor intervening being much more skeptical about the relationship with Pakistan, raising questions about what the government of Pakistan knew or didn’t know regarding bin Laden’s ability to hide in that country for many years. Congress could end up creating a situation where it forces a reexamination of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship from Washington’s perspective. In Pakistan I think you have a civilian-led government that is anxious not to disrupt relations with the United States, but at the same time will also resist efforts to try to have greater clarity in what the intelligence agencies in Pakistan knew, what the Pakistani military knew. Pakistan has been very concerned about protecting its sovereignty. Now, to have a special forces operation in Pakistan launched, that will raise these questions about whether the U.S. is respecting Pakistani sovereignty.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Yesterday I was talking to some Pakistani experts, and they were telling me that the ISI was involved in planning the operation. Now they are kind of backtracking back on those statements, and there is a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan that it all came as surprise. Which version is more viable?

Nicholas Gvozdev: It is very difficult to tell which versions are correct, which ones are not; we have so much information out there. I think it is difficult now to tell what is the official story, as an observer sitting here in the United States looking at Pakistan, and it may reflect that the government of Pakistan, which we talked about it as if it is a single united entity. In fact, it is made up of different components, there are different agencies, there are different groups within it, who may be very easily pursuing different policy lines, and the right arm may not know what the left arm is doing.

I think the death of bin Laden and the operation that occurred will be similar in a way to what happened immediately after 9/11 itself. Pakistan and the government of Pakistan will have to make some fundamental choices. It will have to balance its desire to, on one hand, be close with the United States, and on the other hand, not to irritate some of the militant groups that are operating there.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now we are turning to Red Line’s second heading, Between the Lines, where we usually discuss what we consider to be the most notable publication of the week. This time we have selected a beautiful editorial piece from the reputable, though lesser-known Belfast Telegraph. It is called “Joyful day of love that we'll all remember,” and sums up the first impressions of the royal wedding of Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton, who are now called the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

According to the Belfast Telegraph, “this was an occasion for great joy at a time of relative gloom when the nation is experiencing a difficult economic downturn, and is embroiled in distressing conflicts abroad.”

Mira Salganik: I think the whole of Russia perceived it as a fairytale. And a similar perception of the royal wedding was voiced by The Sun, one of Britain's biggest-selling newspapers. The front-page story was just a huge photo of the unforgettable, unprecedented double kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony. The paper wrote that the wedding had given the country a lift at a time when deep public spending cuts and economic austerity were on everybody’s mind.


Sergei Strokan: I have seen this editorial, and it also said: "Britain showed the world that it is in good heart, capable, and open for business."


Mira Salganik: So, the nation owes William and Kate for giving them the case to show their good spirit and readiness for business.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: Exactly. And this is also the reason why “every detail was impressive, from the magnificence of the very British music, to the classic simplicity of the wedding dresses,” as the Belfast Telegraph put it. It also noted: “the traditional church service underlined the majesty of the occasion, as well as the Christian teaching on marriage.” I have read a number of reports, and I had a general impression that people were missing those small moments of fairytales in their gray lives.


Ekaterina Kudashkina:  Of course now British anti-monarchists are attacking the BBC for what they call a "complete lack of impartiality" in its coverage of the royal wedding. The group Republic, which campaigns for the abolition of the monarchy, said that the BBC compromised its high standards of journalism in favor of PR on behalf of the royal family while covering the monarchy in the run up to and during the royal wedding. Graham Smith, Republic's campaign manager said: "The BBC has gone completely into promotional mode. The tone and content of its coverage has gone way beyond sycophancy to the point where it is acting as a public relations channel for the Windsors." Now they want to file complaints with the BBC's director general, along with the BBC Trust, which oversees the corporation and acts in the interests of license payers.


Sergei Strokan: I may sound too philosophical, but reality is the thing that doesn’t let parties last too long, even royal parties. Now it is reported that the royal couple had to delay their honeymoon because of the bin Laden liquidation.

Ekaterina Kudashkina:  Now I’m happy to introduce our guest, a well-known British journalist with the Independent newspaper, Christina Patterson.

What was your impression of this brilliant day?

Christina Patterson: It was really a very happy day, really, what was strange is to see all those kinds of people who one wouldn’t expect to be enthusiastic about the royal wedding, many were just caught up in the whole thing. I think people just found it a very touching, lovely spectacle, and it didn’t seem as if it had anything to do with the monarchy, or the aristocracy, it was just celebrating the wedding of two people who as far as I can tell seem really nice.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: To me it actually seems a very beautiful spectacle.

I just wanted to ask – you wrote a good phrase in your story— “We were not here because we believed as we wanted to believe in fairytales, but because we wanted to believe in happiness.” Do you think there is still some place for a fairytale in our lives?

Christina Patterson: Actually, I wrote a column about fairytales yesterday. What I was writing about was the fact that there were three big celebrations over the weekend. One was the one in London, which was a kind of a fairytale; one was in Rome about the beatification of John Paul II, which was another kind of fairytale; and one was for the death of Osama bin Laden on Sunday night, which was another kind of a fairytale, which was kind of a “witch is dead.” What I was arguing in my column yesterday was that fairytales are dangerous and on the whole they distort things, and it is not a great idea to subscribe to them. But I think it depends what you mean by a fairytale.

In terms of the royal story, I don’t think anyone believes in it the way that we did with Princess Diana and Prince Charles. I think here we have two young people who clearly love each other and have known each other for a long time and have had their love tested, and who were going to make a go of it, and I am sure that it is very obvious to everyone that the press are not going to give them any easy time. So I don’t think it is really about a fairytale, it is about something nice that happened


Ekaterina Kudashkina: It was rather surprising for me, though, that generally all headlines seem to focus on horror stories, and this time everybody was so excited about something positive. But you said that fairytales are dangerous. Why?

Christina Patterson: Because they are distorting. Life is not made up of fairytales, and they can lead people into dangerous behavior. I mean the bin Laden fairytale—bin Laden propagated one fairytale; hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of this fairytale, and America joined in this fairytale by thinking that it was a battle between good and evil, when of course all conflicts are more complicated than that.

Ekaterina Kudashkina:  I can see your point, I can see what you mean when you are saying that clichés—to put it in another way—are dangerous, and the fairytales are clichés. There are some romantic clichés, but then being always down to earth, isn’t it a little bit boring?

Christina Patterson: Not everything in life is grim and miserable. You can believe in the happiness of people and you can believe in love without believing in fairytales. I am happy to hope for them, but we simply do not know. Fairytales are fairytales, that’s not life.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: At least the BBC seems to be suffering a little bit after their coverage of the wedding. How could a company like the BBC be partial or impartial in their coverage of a royal wedding?

Christina Patterson: People are always making a fuss of things like that. I think this is not the point, because I don’t think it was a great celebration of the monarchy, I really do not think most British people care much about the monarchy.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Perhaps they are just trying to gain some political momentum from anything that seems to be absolutely nonpolitical. Is that correct?

Christina Patterson: I think that is right. The Independent has largely been a republican newspaper, I would probably have said that I was republican, but I think the trouble is when people think about the alternative, they think about having an elected president, it doesn’t feel like a particularly appealing alternative. Apart from the cost of the royal family, they do not necessarily do much harm, given that this is largely symbolic. I don’t like the symbols of aristocracy or even monarchy, but I wouldn’t regret these people’s happiness on that day. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now we move on to Red Line’s concluding heading, Man in the News. This week it is going to be a newcomer to newsmakers: Mr. Lobsang Sangay, the newly elected prime minister of Tibet. The question is: Is there life for the Tibet movement after the departure of the Dalai Lama? Can a new prime minister, with a Harvard background and less charisma than his predecessor, represent the case of Tibet in the international community?

Sergei Strokan:  To answer this question, we need to understand what sort of a person the new leader of Tibet is and how such person was propelled to power in almost non-existent Tibet state.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: To be more precise, it was the Tibetans in exile who have elected a new political leader—Lobsang Sangay, a 42-year-old academic born in India who has spent the past 15 years at Harvard University, but has never been in his native Tibet. The result of the vote was announced last Wednesday in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based. He will take office in August, when the current government's mandate runs out. In a victory statement, Lobsang Sangay said: "I urge every Tibetan and friend of Tibet to join me in our common cause to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans in occupied Tibet and to return His Holiness to his rightful place." But wasn’t it the Dalai Lama who said that he is stepping down?

Mira Salganik: The Dalai Lama cannot step down from being the Dalai Lama, because he is a living god, but he said he is stepping down from political leadership. He put a lot of emphasis on democratic elections; he tried to show that he would like the autonomy of Tibetans to be preserved.

Sergei Strokan: The decision was obviously prompted by his growing concern over who will lead the Tibetan resistance movement in the future.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now, as the BBC's Mark Dummett points out in one of his programs: “Lobsang Sangay has the daunting task of trying to keep the issue of Tibet alive while the man who embodies the struggle for Tibetan rights gradually steps back from the limelight.” How would you comment on this?

Mira Salganik: I would say that the man is quite right, and the Dalai Lama’s gradual eclipse means a great loss for independent—or at least autonomous—Tibet. I would add that the new prime minister is facing the daunting task of holding together Tibetans inside Tibet and the diaspora. Secondly, inside Tibet, where there are many sects of Buddhism, only the Dalai Lama with his spiritual authority could make them into kind of a nation.

Lobsang Sanjay’s parents were refuges from Tibet, actually his father was a monk who had to flee the same year as the Dalai Lama. They came to India and they started farming. His father had to sell a cow to pay for his school fees.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: At Delhi University, he joined the Tibetan Youth Congress.

Mira Salganik: After Delhi, Lobsang Sangay received a Fulbright grant and he became the first Tibetan to obtain a doctorate in international law, from Harvard.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Is he still calling for the independence of Tibet?


Mira Salganik: No, he has never uttered a word about it since his student days. He has moderated his views now, and he says he supports the Dalai Lama’s stance. The Dalai Lama calls upon Tibetans to try to get the Chinese to concede genuine cultural autonomy.

Sergei Strokan: To sum it up, it looks like the exiled Tibetans have elected a man who has almost no experience of his homeland and none of government. His Harvard education might help him deal with the Western supporters of Tibet, but not with the Chinese authorities, where even the Dalai Lama’s numerous attempts at a dialog brought no results.


Mira Salganik: It is important to retain the spirit of Tibetan resistance outside Tibet, because the Dalai Lama, with his Nobel Prize and his authority, could get donations, he could get support. He is a unique personality, so there is no comparison. The middle way and non-violence have always been the Dalai Lama's mantras, and it was these mantras that attracted to him plenty of supporters and sympathizers outside the Tibet. Moreover, this was the way he attracted many people to Buddhism.

Sergei Strokan: This is true, and some young Tibetan activists believe the old pacifism does not work. Although most approve of the Dalai Lama's leadership, a growing number are calling for a tougher line.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Since analysts of Tibetan politics believe that to many Tibetans, Lobsang Sangay represents the younger generation, he must be their man—with his pre-election rhetoric of "innovation, self-reliance and equality." Of course, now all depends on his performance.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now we might turn to Nandan Unnikrishnan, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Forum, New Delhi, India. 

Nandan Unnikrishnan: What is important to remember is that the Dalai Lama has laid down all political aspects of his rule until now, and has handed it over in that sense to the Tibetan government in exile, so whether there will be any changes is something we cannot predict at this stage. Undoubtedly, nobody will be as popular as the Dalai Lama, but you have to take into account that it is the Tibetan community across the world that voted in the elections, and he has come through the elections, so undoubtedly in this sense he is a popular choice.

The Chinese have reacted negatively to the election of Sangay, they view him probably as a negative influence because of his political history. He was the leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress, and the Chinese blame the Tibetan Youth Congress for the riots that took place in Tibet a couple of years ago, therefore I can understand the Chinese skepticism about Mr. Sangay’s elections, to put it mildly.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: This means that Mr. Sangay is going to find it difficult to bring together the Tibetans who live in Tibet now and the Tibetans who live around the world, the rest of them?

Nandan Unnikrishnan: I would not go to that extent, because I think that there is very strong energy between the Tibetans living in China and the Tibetans living outside. I think broadly they are all reading from the same page. But the issue that will arise is when Sangay attempts to make any tactical changes from the positions that the Dalai Lama used to take, now that the Dalai Lama has given up any kind of political rule, and if he does, how the reaction to those changes will be.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: And what do you think about that?


Nandan Unnikrishnan: This is more a philosophical question. Sangay represents the generational change, he is a completely new generation as opposed to the other political leaders of the Tibetan exile, so I suspect there will be some changes, but broadly as long as the Dalai Lama is alive, I do not expect any significant changes.

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