Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Friday, December 4, 1998 Published at 16:24 GMT

Allan Little answers your questions

Allan you've seen some pretty terrible things over the last few years, as a reporter, how do you deal with it?

I think you have to believe in what you're doing, that's the truth of it. If you believe that it's important that the public in, what we used to call, the free world and the democratic world are well informed about the world in which they live then it becomes worth it. But the hardest thing actually was beginning to feel like an atrocity tourist and many of us who covered the Bosnian war, in particular, began to feel as though we were on some kind of grotesque safari and that is the hardest thing of all. You've got to keep at the front of your mind at all times, this is worth it because in a democratic country justice eventually prevails and if you lose sight of that conviction, regardless of the evidence to support that conviction or not, if you lose sight of the conviction it becomes more and more difficult to do.

Is there not a danger, though, that the more atrocities you witness, the more cruelty you report on, in order to protect yourself you become callous?

I don't think you do of necessity, although I know some colleagues who have clearly become callous and enjoy the buzz of a marketplace bomb or the resurgence of a war. But if you believe in that humanist tradition in which no man is an island and each man's death diminishes us all then that is, in my view, sufficient; if you like, moral or spiritual motivation to do it in a way which enables you to keep hold of a sense of humanity, and a belief in each individual as sacred.

An email questioner from the United Kingdom is interested in the time you spent as a correspondent in South Africa, Rwanda and the former Zaire. He wants to know what was your worst experience while reporting from that continent?

Worst experience, I think, if he' s talking about personal experience, the most difficult and dangerous time was about half an hour I spent on the border of Rwanda and the then Zaire, and realising that the invasion by Rwanda of east and southern Zaire had begun and I was on the border and I was caught between two armies and that was very frightening and I began to ask myself why I was in this business at all. We were trapped and there was an artillery bomb- there was about six of us there - there was an artillery bombardment coming from inside Rwanda and the artillery shells, weapons of direct fire, were screaming low overhead and exploding a few hundred yards away. And we had to make a decision about whether to try to take cover in very open ground or to make a run for it and in the end we ran for it and it was a very dangerous thing to do. And actually it illustrates one of the hardest things and that is the burden of making decisions in difficult spots and it's very easy to delegate your decision making to others. But you've got to decide what's in your best interests. And that was a very, personally, if the emailer is talking about personally difficult situations, that, I think, was probably the most difficult.

Andrew Kline is calling from Stanford in Connecticut. Andrew you've got a question for Allan. Yes my question is, how powerful is the Russian Mafia and as well what has been done to fight the corruption of the Russian Mafia?

The Russian Mafia's very powerful and not only in Russia but abroad as well, all over the place, in North America, in Israel and in parts of Europe as well. So I think this is a problem that cannot be understated in a way. The Russian Mafia is close to achieving some kind of oligarchical rule now in Russia, in which it controls not only most of the business interests and the economy but also the institutions of the state. It's well know for example that Boris Yeltsin's election campaign was funded by the most powerful, the richest new Russian tycoons in Russia. So it's a huge problem and as to what's being done about it, in effect, not very much. The police, as a service, are run down, dependent for their livelihoods on bribing motorists, for example, for minor motor offences. And increasingly if this trend continues there will never be a sufficiently powerful constituency within the state to take it on because it will be in the state's interest to perpetuate the interests of the Mafia as well. So it's a very dangerous situation.

Andrew is that what you thought?

Yes, thank you.

Ok, we have a call from Cologne in Germany. Hi, first I'd just like to say that I'm a great admirer of your work Mr Little, I've heard your reports from all over the world and I think you're doing a fantastic job. I was witness to the fall of the Berlin wall and I was also among the crowds in Czechoslovakia back in November '89, so I can really relate to what you're talking about. What I'd like to ask you is, after the collapse of communism there was some inspired and rather idealistic discussion about a, so called, third way which aimed to, sort of, marry the best aspects of both socialism and capitalism. There was a lot of talk about it in Germany because there's a very strong sympathy for socialism here but before too long the whole thing just fell apart and after a while anyone using this term, especially journalists, was almost laughed at and I'd like to ask you, what do you think went wrong? Was it just the force of the dollar that took over the former East blocs so powerfully that there wasn't a chance for any kind of socialistic outlook any more? Or was it something else? Did people just give up on this ideal and say we don't have time to work this out?

I don't know. When the bi-polar world collapsed there remained one economic orthodoxy and it's no accident, I think, that that all occurred at a time when, in the West, so-called Reaganomics or the Thatcherite revolution had established its ascendancy. And so when the regimes that replaced, the democratic regimes that replaced socialism, took power they had one, if you like, rabbit to chase, they had one holy grail to pursue and that was the holy grail that was defined by the Bretton Woods twins, the IMF and the World Bank and increasingly what we're seeing is economic policies, not only in Eastern Europe and in Russia but in all over Africa, we're seeing the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank dictating the terms of economic policy and putting those countries on austerity regimes. And there is no alternative ideology in the frame being discussed. In some parts of Africa they look to the East, for example, to the Asian tigers and say, "Could we experiment with that?" but that doesn't get very fa r. At the end of the day the Bretton Woods twins, it seems to me, are dictating policy all over the world. And it doesn't really cut much ice in Russia I must say.

Alex do you regret the disappearance of the third way?

Well I try to be realistic. I regret it simply because there's so much poverty and oppression all over the world and I'm very cynical of even how the German revolution was hijacked by the Deutschmark, I mean that's what a lot of people say, "What happened in regard to the unification of Germany?"

Thanks. Let's take some more emails. From Britain, Gary Mackley Smith comments that it's time, it seems, that President Yeltsin is one man against the rest of Russia's politicians. He wants to know, from Allan, how isolated Yeltsin really is? And are his opponents wary of providing too much opposition because that could lead to the withdrawal of Western aid?

I don't think it's the Western aid that matters because Yeltsin is still the darling of the West. And I think the way in which the Parliament caved in to his demands to have Kiriyenko appointed Prime Minister shows that Yeltsin still, very much, has the upper hand. He's a mercurial figure, he enjoys, he refers to himself almost as Czar Boris and he enjoys that, kind of, autocratic, indulging that autocratic impulse. But I think what is truly isolated in the Russian body politic now is the entire ruling establishment, the entire ruling elite, those people within the walls of the Kremlin who enjoy all the privileges of the governing class, the oligarchy if you like, and the people outside the Moscow ring road, in that vast expanse of Russia, they are feeling not only an isolation and sense of alienation from the Government of the day and the specific regime of President Yeltsin but an alienation from the entire political establishment, communists, agrarians, Peasants Party, nationalists and so on.

Allan someone has brought up the role of religion in Russia. A correspondent from South Korea has asked how will religion, especially the orthodox church and Islam, influence the future of Russia? Will they remain one of the most important factors to bring about change in society?

That's also a very interesting point and it's now a matter of political life, a fact of political life in Russia that if you want to be a successful politician you must go to church and even the communist leaders go to church on Sunday and on Christian holy days to establish their religious credentials. But there are a million Muslims living in Moscow alone and much of southern Russia is very heavily influenced by Islam and so that is an extremely important factor for any would-be Russian ruler to observe. And the Russian Orthodox Church historically has played a very important role in patterns of Russia autocracy and Russian autocracy down the centuries has been given some kind of moral and religious justification by the incorporation of Russian orthodoxy and orthodox Christianity and all its autocratic impulses into those structures of rule.

There's another question for you Allan on the phone. From Yorkshire in Northern England. Asha what's your question? Hello my question is for Allan. I am totally and utterly confused at present to think that the way that goes on in Russia is it a socialist is it communist or is it capitalist? There are so many magical people, scientists and various other members of the workforce, working for months without salary. Now how can you justify that, what's happening there?

Well it's not any of the above. What Russians say is that we all know what Russia is in transition from but none of us really know what Russia is in transition to. What the, if you like, the Western-oriented liberals want is for Russia to become a normal Western style parliamentary democracy with a regulated market economy but what's much more likely is that you're going to see more and more, the hijacking of Russia's economy and state by powerful business interests - and powerful business interests moreover who will not invest the profits they make in Russia and develop the Russian economy but remove the money from the country altogether. And you will see this situation in which there is this vast difference between the vast majority of Russians who will be trapped in a spiral of poverty and a stagnating economy and this super rich, very wealthy, tiny elite able to charter aeroplanes to Paris to go shopping for the weekend, based in Moscow. And that is very much what's happening. I don't have an 'ism' to apply to that. That's where I'm confused. I don't know, is it socialist? I mean I would call it more capitalist probably isn't it? Because some of them have got it, others haven't. It's a kind of Robber Baron capitalism and somebody else used the term on this programme that I haven't heard before, a Mafiocracy, which is a new one on me. But it is, at the moment, what Russia has is a kind of half way house between old fashioned state control because many of the industries, of course, are still in state control and most of the workforce are dependent on the state for the wages, if and when they ever get their wages. But this tiny elite has - it's a kind of oligarchy, if you like.

How do they survive in the meantime? Surely the family and all are put to perils isn't it?
People survive because ... I'm often asked why, if people haven't been paid in nine or 10 months or a year, they keep going to work? Well with the Soviet legacy you went to work because your workplace was your whole life and you went there when you were - you were educated by the factory school, you were educated by the factory college, you were married in the factory palace of weddings and you worked in the factory all your life and so did your parents and your brothers and sisters. And people can't be expected to break with that tradition all at once. People know that if they leave their place of work and things then get better they will be shut out in the cold altogether, so they continue going to work in the hope that things will improve.

Allan let me ask you a question about you going to work in Moscow. There's a question here, an email from John Topolesky who's written in from the US. He says, "Is Moscow as dangerous a place for foreigners as the news leads us to believe? I sometimes get the impression it's a bit like the Wild West in the late 1800s".

That's, I think, a terrible misrepresentation. Moscow, to me, feels very safe. I lived in Johannesburg for two and a half years and I sleep much more easily in my bed at night than I did in Johannesburg. Moscow is crime ridden but one of the characteristics of the crime wave in Moscow is that it's organised crime and by and large if you don't meddle with it, it won't meddle with you. There is petty crime, of course, as there is in any major city and there are certain places that you wouldn't go to at night but I feel very safe in downtown Moscow at all hours of the day and night. A common way to travel around the city, in the middle of the night, is to simply stand on the side of the road and wave down a car and somebody will stop and pick you up and take you to where you want to go for the equivalent of what you would pay a taxi driver. Now I would never do that in Johannesburg because it's really cruising with disaster. I mean in the old days, in the old Soviet Union, foreign journalists worked and walked in fear of the KGB didn't they? I mean that was also the risk.

And an email saying "Is the KGB's new guard that different from the old guard?"

Probably not. Now the truth is that none of us really know. It probably isn't all that different but in the old days you had a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred foreigners including the journalists and the diplomatic core, a few hundred foreigners to keep tabs on. Now there are 200,000 foreigners living in Moscow. There are enough foreigners living in Moscow to see the opening up of Western-style supermarkets, restaurants, bars, all the trappings of a, kind of, Western capitalist consumer society which tend to be frequented by, either people with hard currency reserves, like the Mafia and the people to whom Mafia money trickles down, and the new Moscow business class, if you like, and foreigners. So it's not, one doesn't feel that the KGB is on one's tail all the time. In fact it's impossible to know how any kind of intelligence organisation can keep tabs on 200,000 people, the way they did in the old days.

No knock on the door at 3 o' clock in the morning that you worry about?

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage |




In this section

Jane Standley

Jim Muir

Bridget Kendall

Andrew Whitehead

David Eades

Carrie Gracie

Mark Doyle

Fergal Keane

Philippa Thomas

George Alagiah

Allan Little

Rob Watson biography