Borderland Roundup: this week's news and propaganda

Sunday, May 10, 2009

  • Yesterday, May 9, was a holiday in the countries of the former Soviet Union marking the end of the Second World War. The end of the war in Europe is celebrated on May 8 in western Europe and the United States, but because of time zone differences at the time in which Germany's surrender was concluded, the event is celebrated one day later in the lands of the former USSR.  

Tatar veteran at Victory Day celebrations in Kazan

Defeating Japan is not such a big deal in the post-Soviet historical memory surrounding the war,  so May 9 (rather than August 16) is celebrated as the war's actual conclusion--the end of an awful four-year period in which approximately 20 million Soviet citizens perished.  
Victory Day--as May 9 is known--is still widely celebrated in Russia. In Georgia, May 9 is a holiday as well, even if it doesn't seem to carry quite the  weight that it does in Russia. In any case, c праздником. 
One of the more important components of the government's constitution package relates to the closure of political parties. The government wants to make it more difficult to do this, making any party closure subject to ratification from the parliament with a 2/3 vote.

Traditionally, three types of political parties have been closed in Turkey [a move which currently needs the approval of only the country's Constitutional Court]: Marxist parties, parties which identify with Kurdish issues, and parties considered "Islamic." The new rules will make it more difficult for a party like AK [which is often considered 'Islamic'] to be closed, since for the foreseeable future such parties should be able to retain, at the very least, one-third of the seats in parliament and therefore be able to block any measures towards closure. Indeed, the AK Party narrowly survived a closure case against it in 2008, while the the Refah and Fazilet parties, which preceded the AK Party, were each closed in 1998 and 2001, respectively. Eliminating this threat to the party's existence has got to be a high priority for the AK Party leadership.

The criteria for closing a political party will also be changed if the AK Party gets its way. Currently, parties can legally be closed in Turkey for anti-secular activities. Under the AK Party's plan, parties could only be closed for being a "violent political organization." This, of course, would mean that any Kurdish-oriented party, such as the DTP [several of whose predecessors, such as DEP and HADEP, have been closed over the years] could still be closed, since the charge against these parties have always been that they are connected to the PKK. Moreover, since the Kurdish parties never manage to get into parliament in numbers reaching one-third of all deputies, such a party would not have enough votes to block closure.

Another proposed constitutional change, one that is a little reminiscent of FDR's "court-packing" scheme, would increase the number of members of the Constitutional Court from 11 to 21. Parties in parliament today [and again, the AK Party has a large majority] would be able to nominate new members according to their current size in parliament. Under the current make-up of parliament, this would allow the AK Party to nominate seven new members, with the opposition CHP and MHP parties nominating two and one member, respectively
Without question, many of the problems between the United States and Russia have emerged as a result of the mini 'Great Game' which developed between Moscow and the Bush administration with respect to influence in the Balkans, Central & Eastern Europe, and in former Soviet republics like the Baltics [which joined NATO in 2004], Ukraine, and Georgia. The Bush administration's approach was to fast-track NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, call for the overthrow of Russian ally Lukashenko in Belarus, and consolidate American influence in the Balkans through the recognition of Kosova's independence last February. The Russian government also suspected the United States of playing a hidden role in the 'colored revolutions' taking place in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2004-2005, as well as for anti-government disturbances in Uzbekistan and Bashkortostan in spring-summer of 2005.

In recent years and especially since the brief war that Georgia and Russia fought last summer, the Caucasus region has been a major sticking point in Russian-American relations.
In my opinion, the Russian government would be considerably less interested in maintaining a presence in the Caucasus if the United States had not seemed determined, under Bush, to establish a foothold in the region through Georgia. The United States, on the other hand, is keenly interested in preserving the independence [that is to say, maintaining governments friendly to the United States] of the countries through which the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline runs. For now, that means Georgia, but as I speculated in a recent post, an interest in developing an alternative to Georgia as a transit route for Azeri oil is certainly at least one reason why the United States is pushing for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and the opening of their border.  
The winding path of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Normalizing relations between Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Armenia might mean no longer having to rely on Georgia to transport oil from Baku to the Mediterranean.

In particular, American championing of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine is a major irritant in American-Russian relations, not to mention a potentially destabilizing force in Ukraine (particularly with regard to the Cimrea) and a total non-starter for the leaders [and, I suspect, most residents] of Georgia's breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Without question, the Georgian government has as much right as anyone else to establish whatever kind of relations they want with whomever they want. But it's hard to imagine conservatives in the United States sitting pretty while Russia offered, say, Mexico, an opportunity to join a mutual defense pact with them.

I've written about this before, but if the United States and Europe had really wanted to lock Georgia and Ukraine into the west, by far the best way of doing this would be through EU membership, rather than NATO.

What? You don't think these two countries are ready for the EU? Well yeah, they're not. But I was in Romania and Bulgaria in 1992, and if you had told me then that those countries would become EU members within fifteen years, I never would have believed you. Prior to last August, at any rate, Georgia was in much better shape than Romania and Bulgaria had been in back in 1992.

Sure, Romania and Bulgaria joined NATO before the EU, and that seems to have worked out. But the big difference is that there was not a region within either or these two countries that was vociferously against joining NATO. In the case of both Georgia and Ukraine, NATO membership is a complete non-starter for regions of the country which already have, to say the least, very troubled relations with the national center. Even without last August's war, the prospect of Georgia's joining NATO would have severely weakened the possibility of Abkhazia and South Ossetia ever being re-integrated into the national structure. And offering NATO membership to the Crimea could very well lead to a crisis in the Crimea, where both the republic's leaders and a large portion of its citizens are adamantly against joining an American military alliance. 

Who does benefit from an expanded NATO? American weapons manufacturers, who gain new clients every time the alliance is expanded.

While I can certainly understand the desire of some people in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere for the security that NATO membership can bring, I think in the case of Georgia enhanced military relations with the United States ended up being an important factor in losing, perhaps permanently, two of that country's regions. The government in Ukraine, I think, would be well advised to play things more cautiously, because Sevastopol--like Sukhumi, in Abkhazia--is an important base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet and there's absolutely no way the current government in Russia is going to sit tight while it passes under NATO control.

So it's good to see Obama doing what he can to improve relations with Russia--a country that both American liberals and conservatives love to demonize. The Bush administration's backing of Kosova's independence has already dealt an incredible blow to American-Russian relations, but perhaps if Obama can take a smarter line and is a little bit lucky things will be okay.
The silly and mistranslated joke gift that Hillary gave Lavrov in March notwithstanding, there does seem to be an intention to 'reset' relations with Russia.

Hopefully it's not too late. 
Leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh are reportedly nervous over the course of the Armenian-Azeri talks.

In November of last year, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian signed an agreement in Moscow to hold further talks about Nagorno-Karabakh, but little concrete progress has been made on resolving the issue since a cease-fire was signed in 1994.

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan will be visiting Azerbaijan on May 13 and Moscow on May 16 as part of his government's critical and continued role in pursuing this multi-party diplomacy. On Friday (May 7), Erdoğan announced what many have been speculating for the last couple of months, namely that Turkey will likely open its border if Armenia and Azerbaijan can work out an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Anyone who has read this blog very much knows the questions I've raised on numerous occasions about what seems to be a creeping authoritarianism taking place in Turkey under the AK Party government. Nevertheless, I have always found Erdogan's ability to take on big and worthwhile tasks like this one to be a very admirable trait. He was my mayor for five years back in the 1990s, and I was generally impressed by his administration, and many of the specific policies his government has pursued since taking power in 2002 have been bold and forward-thinking. It's really hard to imagine any of his recent predecessors or rivals taking on a task this big. Hayırlı olsun.  
This is complete speculation on my part, but my sense is that the American position on these talks stems from a desire to link Armenia into a zone alongside Turkey and Azerbaijan which, while not necessarily allied with the United States (excepting Turkey, of course, which is a NATO ally), would at least be open for business with the west and not under Russian domination. The difference, I think, between the Bush and Obama administrations is that, whereas Bush attempted to lock in states through NATO and direct competition with Russia, I think the Obama team would be more willing to settle for a Caucasus which, while not necessary bound to the United States by treaty, would at least be a place where Europe and North America could rely upon oil imports without having to worry about Moscow controlling the tap.

Hopefully, such an approach to the region will result in both the United States and Russia taking a step back from the politicized conflicts that have taken place among the regions various ethnic and religious groups. If Nagorno-Karabakh can be worked out, then maybe there's still hope for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed. 
  • Meetings were held on Friday, May 8, between Georgian parliamentary chairman David Bakradze and representatives of the opposition in Tbilisi. The meetings lasted only one hour, but were the first of their kind to be held since the street protests began one month ago. The opposition leaders, consisting of a group of individuals selected from the very broad [and occasionally fractured] coalition which has been leading the protests since April 8, insist on face-to-face negotiations with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili called for "dialogue" at the end of April, but is thus far unwilling to enter into direct negotiations with opposition leaders, most of whom have been calling for his unconditional resignation for the last month. 
I tend to avoid the protest sites, and in any rate the archive where I spend my days during the week is located in a part of town that is far removed from any of the three main areas of protests. At the weekends, however, I work in the parliamentary library which is just down the street from the parliament, where protesters have been gathering since April 8. Yesterday I was heading to the library (which ended up being closed, because of the holiday) and noticed the crowds in front of the parliament building were exponentially larger (I'd say between 1500-2000 people, rather than the few hundred I'd seen on previous weekends, but these are really just very amateurish guesses) than there had been over the past couple of weekends. Not everyone is necessarily protesting--rather, the scene resembles a large street fair, with people milling around, talking, and buying ice cream and sunflower seeds from concessionaires. Maybe it was the great weather, maybe it was the fact that it was a holiday (albeit on a Saturday), I don't know--but the crowds are considerably bigger [and they were also big on Sunday, May 10]. I just thought I'd pass that on.
  • By now, I imagine most people reading this have heard about the horrific murders of 45 people at a wedding in southeastern Turkey this week by gunmen using assault weapons and hand grenades.
While the killings were initially written off as yet another example of 'clan violence,' the fact that the eight men arrested for having perpetrated the massacre were members of the "Village Guards" is also attracting attention in Turkey.
There are nearly 60,000 village guards in eastern Turkey today, units which were set up by the government in the 1980s, provided with weapons, and charged with fighting the PKK.

As the United States has found in Iraq, this sort of security sub-contracting can leading to bloody and unexpected consequences, especially when poorly-trained and unprofessional fighters are provided with deadly weapons and few questions are asked. 
*** More links, info and analysis can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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