Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Of Sports, Oligarchs, and Localism; Or, Why I think Alisher Usmanov (or Timur Kulibayev) should buy the Buffalo Bills

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Alisher Usmanov – he even looks like he could be from Buffalo
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Usmanov or any other post-Soviet oligarch would not get this kind of reception from a Buffalo crowd (as long as they are not letting their two best stars escape to free agency)
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The charging Buffalo could be replaced by a Marco Polo sheep or a nomadic warrior as long as it represents Buffalo.

One of the joys of blogging is being contacted “out of the blue” by people working on similar issues from whom one can learn additional tid-bits of information leading down a certain path one had not contemplated before. Such contacts drive the synergy of information sharing across borders in today’s world of rapid communications. Recently, I got such a call on my cell phone from a British journalist wishing to speak about the Uzbek billionaire from Russia, Alisher Usmanov . From this resourceful journalist, I learned that Usmanov has become quite famous, or perhaps infamous, in England as of late. His new-found fame, however, is not related to the rumors of him being a potential heir to Islam Karimov as president to Uzbekistan nor due to the fact that he took over the influential Russian newspaper Kommersant from Boris Berezovsky. It is also neither because Usmanov is now the 142 wealthiest billionaire in the world nor due to his position as president of Russia’s Fencing Federation. Rather, Usmanov has become famous for his attempts to buy the controlling shares of the north London football club Arsenal. As the journalist who contacted me explained, Usmanov’s drive to take over Arsenal is seen by many loyal fans as an act of globalization displacing localism.

While Roman Abramovich has been able to court the fans of Chelsea, Usmanov has been subjected to something of grassroots campaign against him and his football ambitions in Britain. Not surprisingly, a leader in this campaign is the controversial former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who has great distaste for anything or anybody with ties to Islam Karimov. After Murray published a post on his blog accusing Usmanov of being a “vicious thug, racketeer, heroin trafficker, and accused rapist,”, Usmanov's allegedly used legal threats to get Ambassador Murray's post taken down at least temporarily began a libel suit against Murray. Unfortunately for Mr. Usmanov, this only had a reverse effect, and the post quickly began popping up all over random British blogs as a sign of support for freedom of speech on the internet. This scandal has led to a variety of anti-Usmanov posts to be found in blogs scattered throughout cyberspace, including these, these, and these. At the same time, Usmanov, as a media mogul himself, is also fighting back at Murray through the media by cultivating loyal journalists and promoting his legitimate business successes.

To me, however, Usmanov’s battles with Murray are not nearly as interesting as the issue that the Uzbek Billionaire’s desire to own a controlling share of Arsenal is perceived as a threat to localism in the U.K. Among the hardcore Arsenal fans, the football club represents their identity as being from north London, and they feel the team should be owned by somebody local. The biggest issue in this debate at present is whether Usmanov should be able to take over the controlling interest in the team. He is already the second largest share-holder, but there are reports that he is buying every available share to make himself the primary owner. These actions are drawing significant attention to the Russo-Uzbek oligarch and making him a staple figure in the British tabloids. Furthermore, Usmanov’s take-over attempt is drawing significant criticism and even active protests from Arsenal’s fans.

Usmanov’s ethics as a businessman and alleged past wrong-doings aside, I can’t help but wonder if the fears of Arsenal’s fans are not a thing of a passing era. Sports in the age of globalization have been substantially withdrawn from their moorings locally, at least in terms of personnel and ownership. But, when a Japanese pitcher leads the Boston Red Sox to the World Series or the “franchise player” of the Washington Capitals is a young Russian hockey star, does that make local fans any less enthusiastic for them? In fact, there are very few big-time pro-sports teams today that have any local players. The truth, however, is that this phenomenon does not deter from the power of sports teams to serve as one of the strongest sources of local pride for people around the world. If anything, the bond with local sports teams has become even stronger in the recent past as people seek something local with which to identify in today’s increasingly disorienting global reality.

After discussing Usmanov’s attempts to take-over Arsenal with the British journalist, I began to ponder how I would react to this situation if I were a football fanatic from north London. Then it dawned on me that my own favorite football team (American football that is) from my hometown was facing a very different dilemma related to ownership and localism. The Buffalo Bills are facing an almost imminent sale once its one-and-only aging owner, Ralph Wilson, passes away. Wilson, who is 89, has already said that his family will not take the team over after his death. Having bought the franchise for a mere $25,000, Ralph Wilson would leave his family a serious inheritance tax debt if they were to take over the team, which is now worth a whopping $821 Million according to Forbes magazine.

The fear for Bills fans is that if the team is bought by a random billionaire in North America, there is a good chance the new owner will bring the team to a new city. Having already lost its professional basketball team, the Buffalo Braves in 1978 (they are now the Los Angeles Clippers), Many Buffalonians already fear that a planned Bills regular season game next year in Toronto is intended to be a sales pitch north of the border. And, if it is not Toronto, it could easily be another “football-less” city in the United States that could be the next home of the Buffalo Bills.

At present, most Buffalo Bills fans (or at least those not from Toronto) are desperately hoping that one of Buffalo’s embarrassingly few oligarchs will come to the rescue and buy the team while others are begging Ralph Wilson to keep the team in his family. Personally, I think these hopes are remnants of an age past. Buffalo should be thinking globally. Why not invite Alisher Usmanov to Buffalo to buy the Bills? He has no reason to move them, and Buffalo will welcome him as a hero unlike the Arsenal fans. Furthermore, given Buffalo’s sordid history of corruption and organized crime links, these issues are not likely to taint Usmanov’s image among the city’s citizenry. Even better, why not convince Timur Kulibayev to buy the Buffalo Bills? He has yet to have a big-time sports franchise, and why not make a bigger footprint for Kazakhstan in the U.S. I am sure Bills fans would concede to have exhibition games in Astana. We could even change the name to the Buffalo Nomads - a small price to keep the team local. We could also invite Borat to sing the national anthem! In Buffalo’s case, a Central Asian oligarch would not be a threat to localism, but a savior. It may sound a little crazy, but it would be a “win-win” situation for Kazakhstan and Buffalo. Where is James “Mr. 5%” Giffen when you need him? He could probably pull this deal off. Of course, in his absence, I would gladly volunteer to facilitate the deal for a mere 2% of the franchise (and maybe a private luxury box).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Speaking with Edil Baisalov about Kyrgyzstan’s Elections, his Career, and U.S. Democracy Promotion in Central Asia

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Today, we have another exclusive interview for the readers of the Roberts Report. This time it is with Edil Baisalov, the well known political figure and democracy activist from Kyrgyzstan. While only born in 1977, Edil has already established himself as one of the most important political figures in Kyrgyzstan and one of Central Asia’s most vocal activists for democracy. For several years, he led the country’s Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a coalition of NGOs promoting democracy and practicing election observation. His skill as an organizer of election observation missions was recognized in 2004 when he was chosen to lead an international observation mission of NGOs from Europe and Eurasia to the historic Ukrainian presidential elections that led to the Orange Revolution. Obviously inspired by the activism he witnessed in Ukraine, Baisalov returned to Kyrgyzstan to lead the Coalition’s election observation to the 2005 Kyrgyz parliamentary elections and to eventually play an influential role in the events following that election that led to that country’s Tulip Revolution. Since March 2005, however, Mr. Baisalov has not ceased his activism. He has been a key figure in the movement to hold President Bakiyev accountable for his promises of democratic reform and has been a voice of reason during the many protests that have taken place since Bakiyev became president. He has also paid a price for this activism. In April 2006, he was attacked by an unknown assailant, and he has been subjected to frequent smear campaigns accusing him of being a tool of the U.S. Recently, he left the fold of civil society organizing to join the Social Democratic Party led by Kyrgyzstan’s present Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev and will be number 13 on the party’s list for the upcoming elections. Edil is representative of a new generation of political figures in Central Asia, and he is likely to continue to have significant influence on Kyrgyzstan’s political development. Furthermore, as a representative of Central Asia’s new generation, he is also a fellow blogger. As he prepares for Kyrgyzstan’s first full party-list parliamentary elections, I convinced him to spare some time to answer questions about his career path, Kyrgyzstan’s upcoming elections, and the U.S. agenda of promoting democracy in Central Asia.

SR: You were very much involved in the March 2005 “Tulip Revolution.” Since 2005, many both inside and outside of Kyrgyzstan have lost enthusiasm for the revolution and believe that it has changed very little in the country. Do you the spirit of the “Tulip Revolution” is still alive in the country and can still lead to democratic reform?

EB: The spirit is certainly alive and you hear references to March 24 in almost every political speech or article. That being said, there is clearly a sense of fatigue from the great upheaval we have had over the past two years. Without a doubt, there is a very clear disillusionment in Bakiev and his administration – everybody understands that he is no better than Akayev or may be even worse in certain respects. Nonetheless, the lessons of March 2005 still loom large and are a major political factor. I assure you that this is not my wishful thinking – people have not forgotten why March 2005 happened. What went wrong in March was that the events developed too quickly - nobody expected Akayev to flee in a matter of hours. There was really no time for a new social contract to be struck between the elites and the people. Even if there were a few pronouncements – they didn’t sink deeply enough in the national consciousness. So, yes, what was supposed to be a popular revolution prematurely ended with a coup d’etat.

SR: You told me last year that it would take new parliamentary elections to begin realizing the next stage of democratic reform in Kyrgyzstan. What is your prognosis for how these upcoming elections will transform the political landscape of the country?

EB: These elections are indeed very crucial for Kyrgyz democracy. The announcement of early elections has already brought about real changes: we are witnessing the consolidation of parties as the politicians put aside their personal ambitions and unite. Parties are engaged in serious grassroots activism, opening offices and talking to people. They have never done that before. These elections, however, are only a first step and, of course, it will take a few cycles before we adapt to the proportional electoral system. But now, we finally have a situation where political parties are more important, influential and resourceful than NGOs. You can’t build a stable and successful democracy without strong parties – so we’re very excited and hopeful.

SR: You have been involved in election monitoring for years, and you know how past elections have been run in Kyrgyzstan. What will be the most critical issue in election implementation this time to ensure that these elections are as free and fair as possible?

EB: I think the most serious issue will be around CEC. It is already not clear how the CEC is going to resolve the controversial dispute that has arisen around the 0.5% threshold required in every oblast. Otherwise, all political parties are going to appoint observers around the country and should be able to prevent any mass scale effort to falsify the results of the elections.

SR: Before joining a political party, you were viewed by many as one of the leading personalities in Kyrgyzstan’s civil society. Has it been difficult adapting to the world of politicians?

EB: Actually, it has been a very welcome relief to do away with the “foreign-paid” stigma with which I was tagged as an NGO leader – that really cost and hurt me dearly. But it is also difficult serving as a full-time secretary to a political party, especially when this party is chaired by the current prime minister, I have to think twice before I say anything publicly. I must now stick to the party-line and defend it publicly even when I don’t completely agree with it. It has also been sad to hear some people’s comments concerning my perceived change of heart and betrayal of democratic values or whatever. Unfortunately, politics in Kyrgyzstan have become so polarized that for many it has become an atmosphere of “you are either with us or against us.” I see that some people were clearly disappointed with me joining active politics – I can no longer take many of the moral positions on issues but always must be very pragmatic and diplomatic in promoting my party’s standing. I am not saying that there is no room for morality as a political party representative, but if in the NGO world we didn’t necessarily care about being popular and could afford to go against the prevailing public mood – such behavior is suicidal in politics. I still want to lead people to change their attitudes, but I must now be more sensitive and careful about how I approach this task.

SR: How are the chances for your party in the upcoming elections?

EB: As I said, politics are very polarized at the moment. For many today, the elections are about Ata-Meken of Tekebaev versus Ak-Jol of Bakiev. We want to take a middle ground. We don’t have to prove our democratic credentials and in fact, we have declared that our Social Democratic Party will take the historic position of working to never allow authoritarian rule in our country ever again. Bakiev and his administration tried hard to make our leader Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev join Ak-Jol. Thankfully, he chose to stay out. We’re in this for the long term. We’re determined to deliver our message to every household. Perhaps, this time we won’t get that many votes but we want to become a truly all-national party with strong support around the country. On December 16, we expect to confidently pass the 5% threshold and gain at least 25-30% of the new 90-seat parliament. This is, as you understand, our most pessimistic scenario 

SR: Has the addition of Roza Otunbayeva to your party brought new supporters?

SDPK positions itself as a very aggressive modernization party. Thus, Roza Isakovna’s decision to join was a great boost. Bakyt Beshimov’s return to us from Ak-Shumkar also spoke volumes about SDPK’s efforts to unite top intellectuals with global awareness. Our task is to promote pro-poor growth and build a competitive 21st century economy through the leadership of people like Otunbayeva and Beshimov.

SR: In your opinion, which parties in Kyrgyzstan will gain seats in the new parliament?

EB: At the moment, we estimate that only four parties will obtain seats: SDPK, Ak-Jol, Ata-Meken and the Communists all have good chances of making it to the next Jogorku Kenesh. Active campaigning, however, only begins on November 26 – thus, we’ve yet to see if any of the other parties can surprise us by making serious in-roads with the public.

SR: On a slightly different topic, the Bush administration in the United States has done much (especially in the context of the Iraq conflict) to tarnish the concept of promoting democracy around the world. How has this phenomenon affected attitudes in Kyrgyzstan both towards the ideals of democracy and with regards to the U.S. more generally?

EB: I can’t even begin to describe how dramatically the situation changed. While we always have had a certain degree of anti-American propaganda and mistrust of the good intentions of Uncle Sam (after all, we are a former Soviet republic) – the debacle in Iraq and elsewhere is going to haunt both U.S. policy and democracy in the region for decades to come. The world has become very small, and it is not even just about Abu-Graib and other scandals in Iraq. You would be very surprised how deeply the Kyrgyz and others have become aware of the anti-democratic nature of the Patriot Act or the dubious legality of holding people without official changes in Guantanamo. Of course, the changes we clearly feel in Central Asia are not only due to American mistakes and miscalculations – even without them there would still be the factor of the rising power of other major players in the region who provide an alternative ideal of political development. But at the moment, there is a perception that America is discredited, distracted and weak in the region. This situation is certainly not helpful for the cause of democracy in Kyrgyzstan or elsewhere in Central Asia.

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