Friday News & Propaganda: May 22 Edition

Friday, May 22, 2015

Life has been proceeding apace up here in the northern Rockies, where upcoming travel plans have sent the Borderlands Lodge staff into a flurry of preparations. Mainly, I'm just trying to find ways of keeping my backpack from turning into a bookmobile.

Uncle Gabor and I are preparing for our upcoming night flight

While there's still a fair bit of work to be done, don't think that I've forgotten your N & P. As a matter of fact, we've got some of both...

Turkey: Erecting Change

A story making the rounds in Turkey in recent weeks relates to the unveiling, in the Black Sea city of Amasya, of an odd selfie-taking statue of an Ottoman prince. The statue's creation, and near-immediate vandalism, has prompted the Turkish Daily Tattler to publish photos of similarly strange artwork in cities throughout Turkey. 

Selfie fun in Amasya

This phenomenon of provincial Turkish municipalities erecting odd statues is hardly new. Neither is the practice of making fun of them. There's a Tumblr page about this that has been up for several years carrying photographs of these odd creations. And here's another very good site about local statues that's been up for a while--the comments beneath the pictures on the site are pretty hilarious, and the photos below are mostly taken from there.  

Compared to most of these other statues, the selfie statue of Amasya is, I think, actually pretty clever.

Soccer playing crocodiles in Bursa

Many of the statues are quite simple--representations of fruits, nuts, or other commodities that are grown or produced in a particular area. Others are more abstract, and appear to be efforts to represent principles like democracy or human rights. Still other statues are downright bizarre, and don't seem to have any concrete (ha!) connection to the places in which they were erected. 

 Municipal statues in Turkey: a sampler

I know I'm probably reading too much into this, but it's worth pointing out that, until a short time ago in Turkey, almost every statue everywhere was of one person: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This was certainly the case when I lived in Turkey in the 1990s. Other than the occasional Ottoman historical figure, or maybe a Turkish writer or artist in front of a house-museum, there were hardly any non-Atatürk statues to be found in most forms of public space. Most of these statues, like the portraits of Turkey's founder that are still ubiquitous in the country's public buildings, were stern, disapproving, and designed to instill, I think, a sense of fear and obedience in the people viewing them.

A reminder of who's in charge


So should we really see it as a coincidence that absurd little renderings of fruit, cartoon characters, or other objects would proliferate at a time when the more rigidly ideological Kemalism of an earlier era in Turkey is now on the defensive? I'm not arguing that the people behind these statues have been consciously trying to diminish Ataturk's legacy or anything like that--though I bet some people see it that way. However, I do think that, in earlier decades, the choice of what or who to put up on a pedestal was seen as a much more serious--and political--decision than is the case today. In the 1960s or 1970s, authorities in Turkey were still intently focused upon reinforcing Kemalist authority and ideology in the public square so putting up something more lighthearted was not, I reckon, as much of an option back then.

A smiling tooth, wearing shoes, in Konya

While the statues that we see now might look silly or just plain weird, I think that there actually is some meaning behind them. Some folks, I imagine, would probably prefer to see something more whimsical in their traffic circles, as opposed to the more nakedly ideological forms of public art that were dominant in Turkey until the 1990s.

Giant cat w/fishing pole and headband, Ankara

Ideological relaxation in Turkey has therefore been, I think, the major factor behind this proliferation in this sort of kitchy public art. Whereas forty years ago maybe no one would have had the guts to suggest anything other than yet another Ataturk statue for a particular location, today people feel more comfortable putting up something else instead. And if their ideas are not always very good ones, maybe at least we can take into account the fact that, up until relatively recently, no one in Turkey had to think very hard about what kind of statue they were going to put up. 

This Audrey-esque artichoke graces the Istanbul district of Bayrampaşa

So maybe we should see this proliferation of silly statues as an issue that has parallels with the politics of de-Kemalization in Turkey more generally. In both cases, I think, individuals are struggling with the question of how to replace something that has always been automatic--whether you're talking about statues or ideology. 

After all, it's one thing to find faults in and move away from stricter forms of a certain ideology. It's another job entirely, however, to figure out what you're going to replace that ideology with. 

Mission Confusion in Syria

The US continues, it seems, to be simultaneously fighting the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Syria. This is interesting, mainly, because these two sides are also fighting each other. 

The Obama administration's dual policy of fighting the Assad regime and ISIS simultaneously has contributed to the making of a busy week for the US in Syria. On the one hand, there was an announcement last Saturday morning that US special operations forces had killed a senior Islamic State leader inside Syria. I'm guessing they didn't bother to get their passports stamped.  

Recent map showing holdings of Syrian gov. (red), IS (grey), FSA (green) and Kurds (yellow), among numerous others

Meanwhile, the US is engaging in a train-and-equip program with the government of Turkey for Syrian fighters looking to fight the Islamic state. Or else fight the Syrian government. Or maybe both? 

It depends who you ask. Whereas the Obama administration apparently wanted the forces trained by the US-Turkish teams to be used to fight the Islamic State only, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu thinks otherwise:
Çavuşoğlu replied that the first group composed of 300 rebels arrived on May 9 and their training started last week. He added that the vetting process was implemented together with Turkey and the U.S., which had been in longstanding disagreement on the target of the program. Washington wants the rebels to fight only against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while Ankara wants them to struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 
“Of course at the moment the first and foremost target is ISIL. However they will struggle for the stability, security and peace of Syria. Hence, they will struggle also against al-Assad’s forces. We have reached consensus on that,” Çavuşoğlu says.
I wonder: is it really in anyone's interest for the US and Turkey to be sending still more fighters into Syria? As bad as things are now there, I think the violence there will increase exponentially if the Assad regime falls. Moreover, at a time when Assad's principle opposition in the country is made up of the Islamic State, it's seems hard to believe that ISIS wouldn't benefit from the emergence of this new US-Turkish force of fighters against Assad. 

Kerry in Sochi

There was plenty of criticism this past week regarding John Kerry's brief visit to Sochi, where the US Secretary of State met with Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. It's not surprising that the Wall Street Journal groused about Kerry being "so nice to Vladimir Putin," but even the NY Times called the meeting "a diplomatic victory" for for the Russian president.  An editorial on CNN dismissed the visit altogether as an exercise in "pointless diplomacy." 

No word yet on what Kerry's hotel was like

But what exactly did Putin "win?" at the Sochi meeting? Yes, Kerry did raise the prospect of the US and EU lifting sanctions on Russia. But EU sanctions are due to end in July, and there's a lot less support in Europe for continuing with such measures. I think the Obama administration is simply recognizing that, barring unforeseen developments, the sanctions are going to end soon. They're trying to get ahead of this by extracting whatever concessions they can from Russia while they still have some leverage.

Ultimately, however, it's important to recognize that Ukraine means a lot more to Moscow than it does to the United States. No matter how far Washington is willing to escalate matters with Moscow, the Kremlin will be willing to go farther. "Winning" in Ukraine, as far as the United States is concerned, should be about working out a longer-term understanding with Russia over the division of influence in former Soviet space.  

All in all, it was a pretty good weekend for Putin. While in Sochi, the Russian president also participated in an exhibition hockey match. Playing alongside former NHL greats, Putin scored an amazing 8 goals. After the game, the Russian president further impressed onlookers by tearing the puck into tiny pieces with his bare hands.

One thing seems certain: the Russian national team could have benefited from the president's goal-scoring prowess the other day, when the Canadian national team pasted the Russians 6-1 at the world championships in Prague.

Falling just shy of a triple hat-trick, Russia's president resolved to practice more and try harder next time

Beyond hockey, however, there's a more serious question here regarding the question of US-Russian relations more generally. The US and Russia need, I think, to figure out a civilized way of dividing up influence in former Soviet space. 

The US and EU have expanded their influence considerably since the end of the Cold War in 1989. All of the former Warsaw Pact countries from central and eastern Europe (the GDR, Poland, Hungary, Czech-Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria) are now in NATO and the European Union. So are three former republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) of the USSR. The richest and most economically valuable regions of former Soviet domination are now securely locked into the American and European spheres of influence. Washington and Brussels are already playing with house money at this point. 


Shouldn't the government of Ukraine be allowed to decide for itself whether or not it wants to be allied with Russia, the US, or nobody? In an ideal world: of course. In the world we live in, however, that's not necessarily going to happen. 

At this point, maybe the most that the US should be hoping for in Ukraine would be the "Finlandization" of the country. As the term "Finlandization" suggests, this wouldn't exactly be the first time that a country in Europe was obliged to defer to a powerful neighbor with respect to the formulation of foreign policy. Better the Findlandization of Ukraine, I think, than its Yugoslavification.

Putin's Disunited Nation? 

And still more about Russia! On Tuesday of this past week I saw an interesting NY Times op-ed written by someone whose work I've admired for a long time: Loyola-Chicago university professor Michael Khodarkovsky.

Here's the beginning of the piece: 
During those tense days in early March when Vladimir Putin disappeared from public view, the Russian president issued only one official statement: He instructed his prime minister to prepare a blueprint for a new federal agency that would work toward “consolidating the unity of the multiethnic nation of the Russian Federation.”
The move passed relatively unnoticed, but it raises provocative questions. Why suddenly create a new arm of government when funding for other departments is being frozen or cut? And why did the choice to lead the agency fall upon Igor Barinov, a member of Parliament and a retired colonel of the Federal Security Service with experience in special operations in Chechnya and counterterrorism?
For Mr. Putin’s Kremlin, religious and ethnic diversity remains a troubling security concern. The new federal agency is charged with solving one of the major challenges of the Putin era: how to mold a unified Russia from such a vastly diverse population while Mr. Putin pursues his neo-imperial ambition to recoup large swathes of the old Soviet Union.
It's a convincing argument, and one that connects to a point that I've been hammering away at here for some time: the fact that Putin's adventures in Ukraine could end up bringing on unintended consequences within Russia. 

Republics of the Russian Federation

With dozens of mini-republics and other federal units created around non-Russian populations located within Russia, messing around with the mini-republics of your neighbors--like the Crimea, or South Ossetia, for instance, as I first wrote about back in 2008--could eventually turn into a dangerous game indeed. 

On the Road

As I mentioned earlier, the borderlands staff has been working feverishly in recent days, preparing my valise and carriage for an upcoming journey. I too have been busy, trying to take care of business here in the greater Gallatin county regional area place. 

The weather has been rather blustery here lately in the northern Rockies. Mist envelops the mountains. When the clouds part, however, they reveal a brilliant blue sky against bright white peaks. I therefore felt inspired the other day to make some coffee, pick up a bagel, and drive around for a few hours to admire the scenery. 

Good morning, Montana!

Driving north of town

On my way out toward Bridger Bowl...

On the Madison River, south of Norris

On the way home



Just as I'm preparing to leave, the weather in Montana is starting to get amazing. I'm sorry to be missing it for now, but I guess that's the price you pay for being a Turk across empires. 

109 libraries can't be wrong! Ask yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or from Amazon

More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge.  

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