Good Bad/Timing

BY JONATHAN FOREMAN 

The 2nd Oslo Freedom Forum has opened at the city’s Grand hotel, just opposite the parliament building. Last year, the square in front of the hotel was packed with Tamil protesters carrying posters criticizing the Sri Lankan government and supporting the Tamil Tigers.  This year there are no protesters at all (so far) in the street but the entrance to the hotel is blocked by heavily armed Norwegian police and the lobby is packed with big Slavic-looking men in ill-fitting suits and wires coming out of their ears.  Posters advertizing the Oslo Freedom Forum have apparently been taken down from the front of the hotel. This is not because Oslo’s citizens are alarmed by the Forum. It is after all merely an “alternative” human rights conference that eschews political fashion and celebrates dissidents from countries like China, Iran, Vietnam, Venezuela and Sudan (rather than alleged victims of Western oppression or Islamists like Moazzem Begg). The posters have come down because, by an awful coincidence that will probably result in some Russian Foreign Ministry bureaucrat being exiled to Siberia, Russia’s President Medvedev has come to town and he and his delegation are also staying in the hotel.

And whatever President Medvedev may think about human rights in general, he probably would not enjoy an impromptu encounter with one of the Oslo Freedom Forum’s keynote speakers, Russia’s brave chess master turned opposition leader Garry Kasparov. Nor would it be a comfortable experience if Medvedev were to find himself standing in the lobby with the Chechen lawyer Lidia Yusupova or the Soviet era dissident/defector turned Putin critic Vladimir Bukovsky, both of whom are also attending the Forum.

The organizer of the conference, Thor Halvorssen, has invited Medvedev to say a few words to the participants. It’s hard to imagine him accepting the invitation even if he had the time. In the meantime the ominous presence of his guards – most of whom have a strange Putinesque pallor as if they’ve spent years guarding subterranean dungeons – is a reminder that the regimes from which the forum’s speakers have fled are real and powerful.

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