Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Russian journalist of Armenian origin Zurab Nalbandian shares his views on UK election and life in London

The Observer asked few foreign correspondents based in London on their views re upcoming (6 May) UK general election. Among them was Russian journalist of Armenian origin Zurab Nalbandian.


Russia: Zurab Nalbandian

foreign-correspondent-nalbandianZurab Nalbandian, London bureau chief for Moskovsky Komsomolets. Photograph: Antonio Olmos
The London correspondent for two Moscow daily newspapers – the mass market Moskovsky Komsomolets, and the broadsheet Vremya Novestei. Nalbandian, 65, has been in London for 11 years.
Zurab Nalbandian has recently written, for a Russian audience, a book about "the changing face of Britain". It takes in, he tells me, the royal family (of course), our obsession with cookery programmes, Tesco ("where the British buy their stuff"), the expenses scandal ("Russians were so happy"), and binge drinking – shocking even to an Armenian newspaperman. "I remember going to Maidstone on a Friday night," he says. "People drink in Russia, of course, but steadily, never like that. The people who lived in this small town were just terrorised every weekend…" The book has already been reprinted four times.
When it comes to British politics, however, he admits there is much that his readers find hard to grasp. "Most Russians would not know that there is a Labour party even, or at least any of its history. You have to remember that for 70 years we were told nothing about how democracy worked. I would say Russians just know Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Stalin wrote to Churchill, Thatcher was friendly with Gorbachev and Blair was friendly, to start with, with Putin."
He has lately been introducing his readers to David Cameron – "very English" – and Nick Clegg, who, with his mother's Russian heritage, is a somewhat easier sell. "We had the same thing with Boris Johnson and his Russian ancestry," Nalbandian says. "It makes Clegg a slightly more understandable figure to a Russian reader but, to be honest, they will wait to see who wins before they get particularly interested."
The process itself, with its hung parliaments and vestigial royal consent, is even more arcane. "I tried to at least explain the TV debates. As a foreign correspondent, you are always trying to say how things could be at home. What is hard to explain is how a couple of phrases from Nick Clegg, about the two other 'old parties', seems to have changed the mind of so many of the electorate. The Russians would find it intriguing that the British public could be so persuadable."
Is his "how things could be" a mostly positive view of our democracy? He smiles. "It is more: this is one of the ways that democracies work."
When he was first posted to London, in 1999, after long stints in the Middle East and South Africa, Nalbandian was somewhat daunted at the prospect. "For me, London was the mother of all journalism, and for Russians of my generation there is always something epic about this city. I had all these romantic ideas."
And have those ideas matched up to reality? "I have not been disappointed for a minute. I came here in an effort to understand, and if you come with that approach then even when a yob confronts you in the street, or whatever, and tells you exactly what is on his mind, you find it curious. Like everything else, those things help you understand this unusual country."

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