Predictions: Expect the unexpected - the safest bet of all

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The Independent Online
It is fashionable at this time of year to predict events in the months to come. But even the most respected analysts are likely to get things wrong.

It is probably best to start with a reminder of the most spectacularly impressive performer in The Independent's stock market tips for the past 12 months: three-year-old Amber Stevenson, who, with the judicious use of a pin, put the performance of the panel of invited experts to shame.

In politics, the story is often the same. Over the years, the most dramatic events have rarely been predicted. The small handful of observers who predicted the fall of the Shah of Iran were dismissed as lunatics, especially when they also suggested that the little-known cleric Ayatollah Khomeini might be his successor. In January1989, leading analysts famously suggested that the prospects for substantial change in eastern Europe were slim. By the end of the year, the Berlin Wall was down, and Communist regimes had collapsed across the region.

As it happened, The Independent got it sort-of-right on that occasion, suggesting in a special report in January that goalposts were on the move across the region. Most events come almost out of the blue, however, such as the demonstrations and slaughter in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, followed by the Gulf war.

There are some mistakes that become familiar, over the years. Everybody makes them, in turn. Living in Germany at the time of the last federal elections, I held out for what seemed like a long time against the conventional wisdom of the German press, which insisted Helmut Kohl would soon be gone. I had, after all, lived through the "John Major, the man who hasn't a hope" campaign of 1992. Eventually, I, too, wrote my political obituary which confidently buried Mr Kohl. Shortly afterwards, the the tide began to turn. And, come October 1994, Mr Kohl, the only man in the chancellor's office who had never doubted his own victory, cruised back to power.

Four years later, the same pattern has been repeated. For the entire German press, it was time for Kanzlerdammerung "twilight of the Chancellor", in the headline writers' phrase. Now, as the election later this year draws closer, the commentators have again begun to accept the likelihood of yet another victory by the Great Survivor. He might still lose; but don't bet on it.

Boris Yeltsin is another man whose political death has been predicted so many times that even the most confident obituary writers have turned shy. As the first part of the BBC's Tsar Boris: The Yeltsin Years dramatically showed last weekend, this man is a survivor against all odds. In 1993, a colleague in Moscow was astonished at my rashness in betting that President Yeltsin would survive in power until the end of the year. Three years later, I joined the ranks of those who believed he was now mortally wounded. And then, a few months later, Mr Yeltsin came bouncing back centre-stage, as though he had never been away. One day - it is a fact of life - he will go. Even then, however, he will probably take us by surprise.

Conflicts, too, erupt and vanish in an unpredictable fashion. It was possible in general terms to predict the Yugoslav wars (Misha Glenny, then BBC correspondent, was rebuked by his employers for scaremongering when he predicted bloodshed). But it is usually difficult to guess which conflict will erupt, and which will continue to simmer without an explosion.

When things in Northern Ireland have looked most optimistic, hopes have promptly collapsed. Equally, when the situation has looked most bleak, it has sometimes proved that this is the moment when things are beginning to get better. In the Middle East, the same agnosticism may be appropriate. Everything seems to indicate that the prospects for the peace process will spiral downwards. But then, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin came at a time when there was greater optimism than ever before. It is at least theoretically possible that the time of greatest pessimism may also be the time when the political market begins to turn.

The chaos theory applies to nothing more than to politics. A single event - a death, an accident, a suppressed demonstration - can have dramatic knock-on effects elsewhere. All sorts of surprises can occur. In Cuba, Fidel Castro will die one day; what then? Will the regime survive his death? In North Korea, the economic and political pressures continue to build: when and how will they finally explode? In Nigeria, the regime shows no sign of heading for democracy - what changes will come?In Russia, will Mr Yeltsin's eventual successor be a democrat or a nationalist? We know that there will be change. But we cannot know when or how.