Abdullah Gül, José Manuel Barroso, Bill Richardson and Gilead Sher respond to comments and questions from the audience at the end of their discussion at the 15th Eurasian Media Forum in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Typography

Salim Hudaifah, Political Representative of the so-called Free Syrian Army, repositions himself in his seat and pulls his head towards the microphone. He seems strangely uncomfortable in the soft white armchair. "That's not true!” he shouts. “Most of them were civilians!”

He is reacting to Syrian journalist Alaa Ebrahim’s comment about more than 300 wounded Free Syrian Army fighters being treated at Israeli hospitals before being sent back to continue fighting against the Syrian government.

Hudaifah and Ibrahim would probably not talk to each other in everyday life. They support different sides of a conflict that has torn Syria apart for more than six years. Amazingly, they have been brought to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to sit a few meters apart from each other in a panel discussion.

In addition to Hudaifah and Ibrahim, the panel includes Abdullah Gül, the 11th President of the Republic of Turkey, Kairat Abdrakhmanov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, and Kayhan Barzegar, the Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies from Iran. To have all these people, with vastly different points-of-view on the same topic, in one panel is pure intellectual pleasure. Most probably, if this panel were in Europe, Russia, or Iran for that matter, half of the participants would not be welcome. This is how Kazakhstan has been able to make use of the difficult but rewarding role of ‘middle ground’. Eurasia at its best.

Kazakhstan has played a major role in trying to do the impossible job of bringing the Syrian conflict to an end. Piece by piece!

The President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been able to achieve much more than the UN, with its Geneva peace talks, and all the other international organisations put together. Iran, Russia, the Syrian government and rebel factions have been able to agree on de-escalation zones in Syria during their time in Astana, and have also made deals that will swap civilians that are under siege. Each of these developments has been a small yet significant step towards more dialogue and less violence. The formula of success is not a secret. What Kazakhstan and president Nazarbayev see as natural is to get ALL relevant parties around one table without bias and prejudice, in an environment where they are away from political game playing.

The Syria Panel was one of several events on the programme of the 14th Eurasian Media Forum held in Astana from 22-24 of June 2017.

The opening plenary session of this year’s forum, which was titled Changes in World Order: Building Bridges or Walls, explored the new reality of a multipolar world and the role or absence of leadership. Members of the panel were Leonid Slutsky, Head of the International Committee of the Russian State Duma; José Manuel Barroso, ex-Chairman of the European Commission from Portugal; Abdullah Gül, the 11th President of the Republic of Turkey; Bill Richardson, ex-Ambassador of the USA to the United Nations; and Gilead Sher, ex-Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister of Israel and noted former peace negotiator. Veteran TV host and journalist, Nick Gowing, served as panel moderator.

Barroso, having witnessed the birth and infancy of the European Union and known for dealing with leaders like François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher, does not believe that the quality of leadership has decreased dramatically in our present time. “On average, leaders are not better or worse than before,” he comments. “It’s not true that the great times are gone. An overload of information has changed the exercise of power dramatically. Matters of reputation could destroy a politician in a very short time.”

Gül blames populism for the downfall of leadership: “Populism makes leaders take decisions which are dangerous for the people. People are depressed for being left behind.”

Richardson had a fresh and different view on the multipolarity of the new world. “The world has become tripolar. In one pole are the democracies, in another are near-democracies like Russia and China, while a third contains non-state actors such as terrorist groups, NGOs and multinational companies.”

Other panels in this year’s forum included discussions on a variety of topics, such as cryptocurrency, future energy, the secret of the Asian economic miracle, capital, labour and intellect, and even happiness!

Open dialogue and a reciprocal exchange of ideas have been the essence of the Eurasian Media Forum since its creation. “We are forced to admit that global peace is still under threat and that mankind has not yet realised the priority between dialogue and armed contradiction, between accordance and bloodshed.” So said Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev in his opening remarks to the very first Eurasian Media Forum in 2002.

The world was a different place then. The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center were a few months old, and as a result the USA had invaded Afghanistan. George W. Bush’s regime had started its “rendition” programme and was transferring prisoners to Guantanamo. Saddam Hussein was struggling to convince UN weapon inspectors that he had no weapons of mass destruction. NATO was finalising an expansion that led to seven eastern European countries gaining membership.

President Khatami of Iran, the other prominent opening speaker of the first forum, was on the same trail as Nazarbayev: “The fact is that the world is at an historical crossroads of fear and hope. It fears the dominance of the language of force, coercion, and violence in international relations, as well as a regression to the pre-Cold War trend of using intimidation and terror in order to enforce unipolar domination”.

Presidents Nazarbayev and Khatami could not have imagined how right they were in their worries. Wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya, as well as the financial and refugee crisis, were all to unfold in the near future.

The role and importance of dialogue can never be emphasised enough, and events like the Eurasian Media Forum are essential in providing the means and platforms for that. A valuable dialogue, however, is one in which thinkers of different opinions and backgrounds come together not only to talk, but also listen.

The Eurasian Media Forum, brainchild of President Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga, has been about exactly that for the last 14 years. The EMF has certainly put Kazakhstan on the map for top media professionals and intellectuals.

The 15th Eurasian Media Forum will be held in April 2018 in Almaty, the birthplace of the event. Videos of the panel discussions and forum masterclasses will be available online and are free to watch on www.eamedia.org

Alexis Kouros – 6D

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