N & P: Trimming the Tree Edition

Friday, December 11, 2020

This past Sunday I participated in one of my favorite Montana traditions: cutting down a tree and decorating it. 

The practice up here is to buy a permit for $5 at the hardware store, then go to a national forest and saw down a tree. Growing up in a pretty suburban neighborhood in Ann Arbor, and then really only living in large or large-is cities since then, I'd never experienced something like that. The first time I did it in Bozeman was on Christmas Day, 2009, when I went north of the Bridgers to cut down a tree with a group of local Russians. For the last several years I've been cutting down my own tree to the south of Bozeman, usually with a group of friends with whom I picnic, drink, and stalk trees. 

This year, of course, things are different. But there was a pandemic bonus: rather than the $5 that the rapacious hardware store extorted from us, now Montanans pay just $2.50 to get our permit online. Merci buckets, Recreation.gov!

It was nice to see some friends, outside at a quite socially distanced space. I brought a couple of beers and a turkey club sandwich and joined in the conversation with friends I hadn't seen for months. Then I borrowed a saw and cut down my tree, which I then dipped into an enormous vat of hand sanitizer. 

All in all, a nice day. And there was a strange feeling of nostalgia associated with it as well, as I had kicked off my quarantine back in March by taking down last year's tree. I wonder what the world will look like by the time I throw out this one. Better, I hope. 

And yes, that is a Santa Claus hat on top--purchased on the streets of Istanbul many a year ago. I've never been one for putting crosses or stars on the tree. Loyal readers of the JMB should know, at any rate, that the Borderlands Lodge is one of the last remaining outposts of secular Kemalism in Gallatin County. 

It's good to be in the mountains and, for the moment at least, healthy at the Borderlands Lodge. It's nice to have a tree, and even better to have friends willing to lend you a saw and set up a bonfire. 

And in the Eurasian Borderlands? What is going on there? Well, I thought you'd never ask...


There was an interesting interview with Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal this week on Radio Free Europe. The interview focused mainly on Nagorno-Karabakh. I found the following exchange to be particularly eye-opening: 

RFE/RL: What is happening on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh? It seems that Armenia has lost its status as a sponsor or guarantor of Nagorno-Karabakh security. Russians are in full control on one hand. But on the other hand, the Russians admit that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan -- as Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said. We see now that Azerbaijani soldiers are even going shopping in Stepanakert. It's an unbelievable situation. What is your interpretation of all this?

De Waal:
 It's true Russia now emphasizes that the area of de jure Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. But de facto, it's now a Russian enclave. There are Russian peacekeepers there. Russia has become the security patron, not Armenia. They're even talking about making Russian the language of Karabakh. I guess Karabakhis already speak Russian. So yes, Karabakh is now basically under Russian control. And for Russia, it's a strategic asset in the Caucasus which they don't want to lose -- even though they say that technically, of course, it's part of Azerbaijan.
Without Russian troops having fired a shot, Nagorno-Karabakh is "now basically under Russian control." As I observed in my post from last week, Moscow has invested years of diplomacy in the southern Caucasus. Carrying on good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia was in a position to step in and be trusted by both sides. 

Protesters in Armenia continue to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian over the peace deal he signed with Baku. 

Some 20,000 protesters gathered in central Yerevan, chanting "Nikol the traitor" and "Armenia without Nikol,” and then marched to the prime minister's official residence.

Armenia was plunged into political crisis in the wake of a Moscow-brokered deal struck on November 10, ending a 44-day war between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces that left thousands dead on both sides.

Under the deal, Azerbaijan took back control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and all surrounding territories in what amounted to a capitulation in the face of Armenian battlefield defeats.

But, as Eurasianet.org points out, without a clear alternative, Pashinyan "has managed to cling to power." 

Turkey, meanwhile, will be basing some of its troops in a command center in Azerbaijan--but not, apparently, within Nagorno-Karabakh itself. 


Speaking of Turkey and Nagorno-Karabakh, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived in Baku this week to toast Azerbaijan's success in the fighting. 

According to Radio Free Europe
Erdogan is expected to attend a military parade in Baku on December 10 to mark Azerbaijan's victory in the war. Turkish military personnel who arrived in Baku earlier this week will also take part in the parade.

At the parade, Erdoğan had plenty of bellicose rhetoric to share with his audience. 

As the Turkish Daily Tattler reports

Relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia should be rethought by the Armenian people and politicians, as nothing can be gained under “Western imperialist goading,” Erdoğan said.

I get the fact that most readers of this blog probably aren't big fans of Erdoğan or İlham Aliyev. There have also been a number of disturbing allegations of war crimes, mostly with respect to the conduct of Azeri forces, during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

At the same time, people seem to be forgetting that Nagorno-Karabakh has, since the breakup of the USSR, more or less generally been recognized as Azeri territory that Armenian forces had been illegally occupying since the early 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were terrorized into fleeing from their homes by Armenian soldiers--people who were often, in fact, their neighbors or former classmates. 

None of this makes anything that happened to Armenian or Azeri civilians this year okay. But I wonder: maybe if politicians in Yerevan and elsewhere had shown the slightest bit of interest in negotiating from a position of strength during these last three decades, the fighting from this past fall wouldn't have taken place. 

There are lots of ugly stories coming out of Karabakh now--as was the case in the late 80s and 90s. The difference now lies in the winners or losers: not so much their fates, but rather their ethnicity.


Also regarding Turkey, the US House of Representatives voted this week to impose sanctions upon Turkey, a NATO member, for its purchase of a Russian missile system in 2017. 

According to Balkan Insight

The US House of Representatives on Wednesday adopted the National Defence Authorization Act, NDAA, which includes the defence budget and sanctions against Turkey. The bill was passed by a big majority of 335 votes in favour and only 70 against.

The 740-billion-dollars-sized NDAA bill plans to expand sanctions against the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the Turkish Stream pipeline, further arms sales to Ukraine, a ban on US-Russia military cooperation, and sanctions against Turkey over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence systems.

However, US President Donald Trump has said that he will veto the bill and Ankara seemed unruffled, saying it would take the matter up with Trump’s successor.

So, the bill--which includes much more than just the sanctions against Turkey--will be vetoed. Still, I found noteworthy the bipartisan makeup of the vote--there are only 233 Democrats in the House right now. 

It will be interesting to see how US-Turkish relations develop after Jan. 20. During the final years of the Obama administration, in particular, the state of relations between Ankara and Washington declined considerably. Trump and Erdoğan, meanwhile, are often described as sharing a good relationship personally. Without question, I think that the Biden administration will be more inclined to exert pressure on Ankara with regard to matters like Turkey's role in regional conflicts--especially in Syria and, now, Azerbaijan. 

On the heels of last week's sentencing of hundreds of (mostly) military officers to life sentences for their alleged roles in the coup attempt of 2016, Turkish police have arrested another 304 current and former military personnel. 

From Balkan Insight: 

Police and gendarmerie operations on Tuesday morning in 50 cities across Turkey saw the arrest of 304 people, 295 of whom are still serving in the country’s military.

Prosecutors in the city of Izmir ordered the arrests because of the suspects’ alleged of links to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Ankara of mounting a failed coup in 2016.

Well, I guess you can never arrest too many people. According to Al-Jazeera, "some 292,000 people have been detained over alleged links to Gülen, nearly 100,000 of them jailed pending trial," with approximately 150,000 civil servants fired or suspended from their jobs after the coup attempt. An additional 20,000 individuals have been expelled from the armed forces. 


Question: What did Turkey gain from the Armenia-Azerbaijan war

Answer: We're not sure. 

From Eurasianet.org: 

In the Caucasus, Ankara sought to replicate its formula for low-cost, high-impact interventions that it had already applied in northern Syria and Libya. A key difference is that Azerbaijan was a far stronger partner than the Turkish proxies in Libya and Syria, and so Ankara was able to achieve even more dramatic short-term gains. Nevertheless, it still faces the same unresolved questions and lingering risks posed by its previous interventions.

Turkey's assistance took many forms, including some--such as arms sales--which had obvious benefits to Ankara. 

When fighting began, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey would continue to support Azerbaijan “with all its resources and heart.” That included a spike in arms sales: $77.1 million in September alone, Reuters reported. Chief among the weapons sold were Turkey’s indigenously produced drones, which, coupled with Turkish training and tactics, significantly bolstered Azerbaijan’s ability to inflict damage on Armenian forces. Turkey also transported hundreds of Syrian rebel fighters to the front lines to fight for Azerbaijan, though in the end this seemed to generate more international outrage than benefits on the battlefield.

Ultimately, in my opinion, Ankara does not appear to have gained much in concrete terms from the conflict--other than through weapons sales. However, it does seem noteworthy that Turkey provided decisive backing to the "winner" of this small war. While Moscow managed to benefit considerably through the decision to place Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey's assistance to Azerbaijan in Baku's successful re-taking of its territory certainly bolsters Ankara's credibility as an emerging regional power.   



In Russia, legislators have passed a bill prohibiting ex-presidents from being prosecuted.  

From Radio Free Europe: 

The legislation approved by the State Duma on December 9 is part of a package of constitutional amendments approved in a referendum earlier this year that could potentially see President Vladimir Putin stay in power until 2036.

The draft stipulates that any former head of state and their families automatically obtain lifetime immunity from criminal or administrative charges. They also cannot be detained, arrested, searched, or interrogated.

The only exception is for treason, which must first be approved by the State Duma and the Supreme and Constitutional courts.

Under the current law, former presidents are only immune from prosecution for crimes committed while in office.

Somewhere in Washington right now, an orange blob is railing at the unfairness of it all. 


In other post-Soviet news, Estonia is beefing up its border with Russia. 

According to The Moscow Times

Estonia has installed a barbed-wire fence along an 8-kilometer section of its border with Russia in the first installment of its three-year border infrastructure project, media in the Baltic country reported Monday.

Estonia began construction of border infrastructure stretching 23.5 kilometers from the Estonian-Latvian-Russian meeting point to the Luhamaa border crossing further north in July. In addition to a barbed-wire fence, the EU and NATO member plans to build patrol roads and surveillance equipment along the border.


In Belarus, the government has announced that it is closing its borders on December 20 in order to fight the Coronavirus. Opposition leaders are not impressed. 

According to Radio Free Europe: 

Belarus has since been hit by near-daily protests demanding Lukashenka resign, the release of all political prisoners, and a new election.

Security forces have violently cracked down on the protest movement, with more than 27,000 detentions, according to the United Nations. There have also been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment, and several people have died.

Opposition leaders, who say the August 9 election was rigged, immediately accused Lukashenka of using the COVID-19 measures as an excuse to impose restrictions on the movements of activists.

Belarus, of course, is something of an extreme case, as protests have been taking place there for months. At the same time, however, I don't think this story is that much of an outlier. My sense is that, even after the pandemic is over, authoritarian political figures will use memories of the pandemic as a pretext for closing doors and keeping them closed. 


In the Crimea: a Tatar activist has been sentenced, in absentia, to 19 years in prison. 

According to Radio Free Europe: 

Investigators in Crimea claim that Islyamov was one of the organizers of the Noman Chelebidzhikhan battalion of Crimean Tatar volunteers that operates in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region bordering the Crimean peninsula.

Islyamov, who has resided in Kyiv since 2015, told RFE/RL earlier that he would not take part in the trial, and rejected the charges against him while calling the judicial process a mockery of justice.

During a trip to Kazan that I took in 2017, I noticed that a number of my (Volga Tatar) scholarly friends who live there had taken part in conferences and other forms of scholarly activity in the Crimea. It struck me that, in some ways, Moscow was employing Kazan Tatars as a means of attempting to establish contacts with Crimean Tatar scholars and other elites. 

This form of soft power was discussed in an article published by the Jamestown group in March of last year. Unsurprisingly, given the source, the article paints these efforts in a nefarious light--as does Radio Free Europe, which describes Moscow's efforts to recruit Crimean Tatars via their connections to Kazan Tatars as a "divide-and-conquer" approach to administration.

In fact, this use by Moscow of Kazan Tatars as a means of engaging with other Muslim communities is a very old practice. In my book Turks Across Empires the title of the chapter focusing upon elite Muslim families in Kazan in the late 19th century is "Insider Muslims," because I trace the role of Kazan elites as intermediaries between Moscow and Muslim communities in the Crimea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. 

Putin employs a variety of approaches and strategies from playbooks that were first developed in imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras of Russian history. So, while on the one hand there has been a fair bit of elite-level engagement of Crimean Tatars via Volga Tatar elites in Kazan, on the other hand--for those who do not wish to play ball with authorities--other methods are used. This appears to have been the case with Islyamov. 

The "Noman Chelebidzhikhan battalion" is an alleged "armed group" opposed to the Russian occupation of the peninsula. Russian authorities in the Crimea regularly accuse Crimean Tatars opposed to the Russian occupation as being members of this "battalion." 


In Kyrgyzstan a constitutional reform package has created a backlash

According to Eurasianet.org: 

After a little more than an hour of debating, lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan backed a planned referendum that could see the scrapping of decade-old reforms that handed more powers to the legislature.  

Sixty of the MPs present voted on December 10 to approve putting an overhaul of the constitution to a public plebiscite next month, while only four voted against. Dozens of other MPs simply didn’t turn up.

The proposed referendum would put more power in the hands of the president. A presidential vote in scheduled in Kyrgyzstan on January 10, the same day that Kyrgyz are set to vote on the referendum. 

The referendum is now set to take place on January 10, which also marks the date of a presidential election that is certain to confirm the ascent to power of Sadyr Japarov, a firebrand nationalist who was sprung from prison in the wake of political unrest in early October.

If, as Japarov’s allies would prefer, voters favor reverting to a presidential system – and that is the signal being strongly semaphored by state media – it would hand the incoming president sweeping powers.


The Balkans

Mass grave found in Kosovo.  

According to Balkan Insight: 

It is the fifth mass grave found in Serbia since the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, a little over a year after NATO bombs forced him to withdraw from Kosovo following a brutal counter-insurgency war. The remains of more than 900 Kosovo Albanians have been found so far, yet no one in Serbia has been held responsible for what was a systematic effort to conceal evidence of war crimes.

The process of exhuming the remains began on November 30, marking the climax of five years of painstaking research based on witness accounts and aerial images.


In Albania, clashes between protesters and police continue. 

According to Balkan Insight: 

Police patrolled the main boulevard with water cannon and protected the Municipality of Tirana, the Ministry of Interior and the office of the Prime Minister from the rage of the protesters. Large clouds of tear gas arose over the conflict zones.

Politically motivated violence is not new in Albania. But some observers said the Thursday night rioters weren’t party organised groups but teenagers eager to clash with police, raising concerns about deeper animosities existing in the country that the death of Rasha just sparked.


In Romania, a far-right party emerged "from nowhere" to capture 9% of the national vote in elections held this past Sunday. 

According to Euronews

Few had heard of the far-right populist party the Alliance for Romanian Unity (AUR) until Sunday evening when it stunned Romania at the ballot box in parliamentary elections. 

The little-known AUR, an ultranationalist party that proclaims to stand for 'family, nation, faith, and freedom,' rose from obscurity to take almost 9% of the vote. 

As JMB readers no doubt already understand, parties like this one have been making strides not only in the Balkans, but in fact all over the world. Indeed, there is much that this party's identity-based, anti-immigrant stance shares with the Trump-era GOP. These parties aren't going anywhere, Joe Biden's relatively narrow victory last month notwithstanding. 

Bear News

Bear and other wildlife-related news items this week from the greater Bozeman metropolitan area include:

Montana Cloud Pix

The skies have been pretty stunning in Big Sky country this week. Here are a few shotz from the Borderlands Lodge's veranda and through the back screen window of the Borderlands Lodge Presidential Library (BLPL): 

Independence Day

On a final, more personal, note: I'd like to give a shout-out to Dec. 11, which is one of my favorite dates. At MSU we get paid on the 11th of every month, so December 11 was the date, seven years ago, on which I finally made my last student loan payment. After making my last payment on this day in 2013, I then checked my email to make sure the payment had gone through and to, at long last, see the $0 balance on my Sallie Mae account. 

But what else did I see? An email message from a publisher offering me a contract for Turks Across Empires

All in all, it was a lot of good stuff happening in the span of just a few minutes. I shouted for joy, closed my computer, and then drove out to Bridger Bowl to take part in some celebratory skiing. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge. 

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