Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Time to talk about Caucasian self-determination ?

Following  Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 and its subsequent recognition by the US and most EU and NATO members, various Cassandras told us that this would provoke an avalanche of copycat independence-declarations by secessionist territories all over the world. This did not occur, so following the International Court of Justice’s ruling last month that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not contrary to international law, the Cassandras then told us it was actually this ruling that would trigger the avalanche of secessions. We are still waiting, and I would advise readers not to hold their breath. But there has been one copycat response to our recognition of Kosovo’s independence: in August 2008, Russia retaliated by formaly recognising the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However insincere this recognition of the ‘independence’ of what are effectively two Russian colonies may be, Moscow has at least formally broken with its traditional policy, pursued since Tsarist times, of suppressing the independence of the Caucasian peoples, as well as with its insistence that the borders of the former members of the Soviet Union should be respected. This may ultimately prove to be rather more of a trigger for further secessions than the case of Kosovo, which was the only such entity of its kind in the Balkan peninsula. Unlike Kosovo, the former autonomous republic of Abkhazia and autonomous oblast of South Ossetia are entities of a kind with the autonomous republics across the mountains in Russia’s North Caucasus region. One of these republics, Chechnya, already made a bid for independence in the 1990s that Moscow drowned in blood, and the armed insurgency that began there has spread to neighbouring North Caucasian territories. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s bloody-minded attempt to punish the West for Kosovo by formally sanctioning the dismemberment of the US’s Georgian ally may yet prove to be a spectacular own goal.

The main problem with the model of ‘independence’ for Abkhazia and South Ossetia as championed by Moscow is not that these entities should not enjoy the right to independence in principle. A reasonable case could be made that all autonomous entities of the former Soviet Union should be able to exercise the right to self-determination, irrespective of whether they are located in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan or elsewhere. The problem is that Moscow only recognises the right for such entities that have seceded from its enemy, Georgia, but not those that have attempted to secede from Russia, or that may wish to do so in future. Such double-standards cannot be justified on any democratic grounds.

The democratic case for Abkhazia’s independence is highly problematc, given that the ethnic Abkhaz constituted only 17.8% of the territory’s population before the war of the 1990s, whereas ethnic Georgians comprised a plurality of Abkhazia’s population of 45.7%, with Russians, Armenians and other smaller groups comprising the balance. On 17 March 1991, Abkhazia’s electorate actually voted against independence; 52.3% participated in a plebiscite on the preservation of the Soviet Union, of which 98.6% voted in favour. This undoubtedly represented a vote against inclusion in an independent Georgia on the part of the ethnic Abkhaz and of some of the minorities, and a conservative vote in favour of the Soviet status quo on the part of some ethnic Georgians, ethnic Russians and others, but it scarcely represented an unambiguous mandate for independence. Since the war of the early 1990s, the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia, and the emigration of many of the rest of the territory’s inhabitants, have reduced the population to 215,972 according to the last (2003) census, down from 525,061 in 1989. The number of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia who remain dispossessed is not much less than the total population remaining in the territory. In such circumstances, whether self-determiantion can have any meaning is a moot point. Certainly, there can be no possible grounds for granting self-determination to Abkhazia while denying it to Chechnya – a country with the same former constitutional status (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic – ASSR) and two and a half times the population, which in 1991 declared independence on the basis of a solid demographic majority in favour.

Moscow’s double-standard over South Ossetia represents a still more interesting case. Its population of just under a hundred thousand in 1989 was split mostly between ethnic Ossetians and ethnic Georgians roughly 2:1 in favour of the former, giving it a respectable demographic majority in favour of independence, though in terms of viability, a rather weaker case than Abkhazia, Chechnya or Kosovo (the South Ossetians are a community approximately one thirtieth the size of the Kosovo Albanians, and smaller than the Bosniaks/Muslims in Serbia or the Albanians in Macedonia). However, Moscow is paradoxically recognising the right to independence of the autonomous oblast of South Ossetia, but not of the Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia – Alania within its own borders – despite the fact that North Ossetia has a higher constitutional status (autonomous republic as opposed to autonomous oblast) and a population of ethnic Ossetians that was five times as high as South Ossetia’s in 1989 and possibly as much as ten times higher today. It is as if the US and its allies would recognise the independence of the Albanians in Macedonia, but not of Albania itself.

This represents a degree of hypocrisy simply inconceivable for democratic Europe. The international community did not exactly cover itself in glory in its reaction to the break-up of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, under the leadership of the EEC/EU, it applied the principle of self-determination consistently. Thus, in the early 1990s, the right to independence was recognised for all the republics of the former Yugoslavia (and for the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia) equally. The recognition of Kosovo in 2008 meant that the right was extended to all the former members of the Yugoslav federation; in most respects, Kosovo possessed all the rights of the f0rmer-Yugoslav republics, therefore recognition of its independence was ultimately a matter of consistency. And in contrast to Kosovo, which was a member of the former Yugoslav federation, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not members of the former Soviet federation, therefore Western leaders are not being hypocritical in rejecting any parallel between the two cases.

For all Moscow’s opportunistic attempts at equating its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the West’s support for Kosovo, there really is no parallel. In contrast to the Western alliance’s reluctance acceptance of the break-up of Yugoslavia and reluctant intervention in the conflict, Russia’s constant intervention in the Caucasus since the 1990s has represented the efforts of a colonial power at retaining at least some grip on its former colonies, and at punishing one of them – Georgia – for its rejection of Russian colonial rule. Moscow’s support for Abkhazian and South Ossetian nominal ‘independence’ is a figleaf for its policy of limiting as much as possible the real independence of the entire region. Meanwhile, its colonisation of the two countries is proceeding rapidly. Those looking for a parallel in the West’s own neo-colonial past should not look to the former Yugoslavia, but rather to the policies that France has sometimes pursued in parts of Africa, or that the US sometimes pursued until recently in Latin America. US collusion in the Guatemalan genocide in the 1970s and 80s, or French collusion in the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s, represent episodes of a shameful legacy that we should continue to repudiate. And we have every right and reason to expect Russia similarly to abandon its own colonial legacy in the Caucasus.

Rather than allowing Moscow to paint us as the hypocrites vis-a-vis Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is time for Western leaders to call Putin’s bluff; to show that, unlike the Putin-Medvedev regime, we stand for the consistent application of universal principles. Let us state, loudly and clearly, that the principle of self-determination for the peoples of the Caucasus, and for the former Soviet autonomous entities, cannot be selectively applied. Let us invite Moscow to discuss with us whether a set of principles can be agreed upon to determine whether and on what basis these entities should be able to exercise the right to self-determination. But this would require that all such entities be treated on an equal basis, irrespective of whether they are located within the borders of Russia, Georgia or any other former member of the Soviet Union. In principle, there is no reason why we should fear such a discussion, provided it is held without prejudice to the final outcome, and the voices of all interested parties are heard – including both the existing post-Soviet independent states, their autonomous entities - whether they are currently attempting to secede or not – and representatives of any refugees.

Such a discussion could consider recognising the right of all such entities to full independence, or other options that fall short of this, such as granting them the right to complete autonomy – virtual independence – within the borders of their parent states. The latter option, indeed, would not amount to a very great departure from the status quo, in which Tbilisi has lost control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moscow has effectively ceded control over Chechnya to its president and despot, Ramzan Kadyrov. Were Moscow to agree to such a discussion, it would open the door to a solution of the remaining national conflicts in the European and Caucasian parts of the former Soviet Union – including the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. But if, as seems inevitable, Moscow rejects such a discussion out of hand, its hypocrisy over Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be exposed for all to see.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010 Posted by | Abkhazia, Caucasus, Chechnya, Former Soviet Union, Georgia, Marko Attila Hoare, Russia, South Ossetia | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Echoes of a Genocide: The Turkish prime minister’s anti-Armenian outburst

For all the criticisms that I and others have levelled against the chauvinism of Balkan states such as Serbia and Greece, it must be conceded that such chauvinism has one redeeming feature: it is the chauvinism of relatively small states, hence always somewhat ridiculous. The nationalist posturing of such states, replete with references to mythologised glorious histories, is the posturing of the little man who walks into a bar and brags about how big he is. In this sense, such chauvinism and posturing can never quite compare to that of a really large, powerful state. The threat of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to expel 100,000 ethnic Armenians from Turkey, is therefore uniquely terrifying: ‘There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country. Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country.’ The threat was made in response to moves by the US Congress and the Swedish parliament to recognise the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Such posturing is that of a thug who really is one of the biggest and strongest in the bar. At the same time, Erdogan has not only rejected the term ‘genocide’ in relation to what happened to the Armenians in 1915, but denied that Turkey had even every been guilty of atrocities: ‘Our warriors always respected ancestral laws and did not kill innocent people even on the battlefield. I should underline that this country’s soldier is bigger than history and that this country’s history is as clean and clear as the sun. No country’s parliament can tarnish it.’

Erdogan’s chauvinistic outburst proves that the extreme Turkish nationalism responsible for the Armenian Genocide and for the killing or expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Greeks during the 1920s (many of whom were Turkish-speaking Anatolians deemed ‘Greek’ only by virtue of being Christians) still very much dominates the mind-set of the Turkish political classes. It is a nationalism born out of the decay of the Ottoman Empire, in which repeated interventions by Christian Europe on behalf of the Ottomans’ Christian subjects and the resulting Ottoman territorial losses gave rise to a genocidal Turkish impulse vis-a-vis Anatolian Christians, identified as they were as agents of foreign enemies and threats to the territorial integrity of the state. The Turkish War of Independence of the 1920s was at once a legitimate war of national liberation against West European imperialism and Greek aggression, and a murderous assault on the remaining Anatolian Christians that culminated in the burning of the city of Smyrna in 1922 and the massacre of its Greek and Armenian inhabitants. The Turkish victory in that war and the establishment of the Turkish republic halted the Ottoman/Turkish territorial decline, but the readiness to attack and expel members of Christian nationalities remained. As late as 1955, the Turkish government of Adnan Menderes orchestrated a massive anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul, as a way of pressurising Greece over the Cyprus question, resulting in the virtual disappearance through emigration of Istanbul’s up-till-then large and thriving Greek community. Against this background, Erdogan’s anti-Armenian outburst needs to be taken seriously.

Ironically, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), to which Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul (who recently won the Chatham House Prize for 2010) belong, represents the moderate wing of traditional Turkish nationalism. The AKP government has improved the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority and pursued detente with Cyprus and Armenia. On the other hand, the AKP government has developed a populist Islamic chauvinism of its own, involving demagogic diatribes against Israel, flirtation with anti-Semitism and support for Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s genocidal Islamist regime in Sudan. Erdogan has denied that the latter is guilty of genocide in Darfur, claiming that ‘Muslims don’t commit genocide’. This Islamic populism has gone hand in hand with increasing government assaults on the media, most notably the imposition of a $2.5 billion fine on Dogan Yayin Holding, Turkey’s biggest media group. Meanwhile, Ankara is developing increasingly close friendships with authoritarian states in the region hostile to the West, above all Russia, Iran and Syria.

The AKP regime’s drift away from the West and from Western values must be blamed in large part on Ankara’s increasing loss of confidence in the prospect of EU membership, above all on account of French and German opposition. The appointment of the strongly anti-Turkish and anti-Islamic Herman Van Rompuy as President of the European Council last autumn has only increased the justified impression in Turkey that Europe fundamentally does not want it. ‘Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe’, said Van Rompuy in 2004; ‘An expansion of the EU to include Turkey cannot be considered as just another expansion as in the past. The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey.’ This is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The carrot of EU membership was a major catalyst for the impressive democratisation of Turkey that took place during the early years of the AKP government. With the carrot apparently unattainable, a major incentive to democratise has gone. The Western alliance is now paying a heavy geopolitical price for French and German selfishness and narrow-mindedness, and for Islamophobia of the Van Rompuy variety.

For all its increasing authoritarianism and Islamic populism, the AKP government remains in one respect a driving force behind further democratisation: it is successfully taming the Turkish military, which has been responsible for overthrowing several democratically elected Turkish governments in the past. The Turkish government has every right to pursue and punish elements in the military that plot coups and internal disorder. Yet there are reasons to fear that the huge ‘Ergenekon’ investigation of these elements is also being used to hound the AKP’s political opponents. The democratically elected AKP government is successfully overturning an old authoritarian order, but threatens to establish a new authoritarianism in its place. In the struggle between the old Kemalist establishment and the new Islamic middle class represented by the AKP, a total defeat for either side would be bad for democracy; the two sides should rather become the two wings of a pluralistic Turkey – like the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Germany, or the Republicans and Democrats in the US.

Turkey, in other words, is a country at a political crossroads: between democracy, authoritarianism and political chaos at home and between a Western and anti-Western authoritarianism abroad. It is in the vital interests of the Western alliance to steer Turkey as much as possible in a pro-democratic, pro-Western direction. The alternative is an authoritarian, anti-Semitic regime – either in Islamist or extreme-nationalist Kemalist garb -allied to the West’s enemies abroad.

In these circumstances, parliamentary resolutions in Western countries recognising the Armenian genocide are equivalent to pouring petrol on the flames. Such resolutions are objectively anti-Turkish: many members of the Western alliance, not to mention of the wider international community, have historically been guilty of genocide or of crimes on a par with genocide, yet it is Turkey alone – alone - whose historic crimes are being singled out for parliamentary recognition by its own supposed allies. If the Armenian Genocide is being recognised by parliaments that have absolutely no intention of recognising the genocide of the Native Americans or the Australian aborigines, for example, or the European powers’ colonial crimes in Africa and Asia – some of which undoubtedly constituted genocide or were on a par with it – then Turkey has every reason to view such recognition as aggressive and hostile. Many citizens of Turkey are descended from Balkan and Caucasian Muslim peoples who were the victims of genocidal crimes at the hands of Russia and the Balkan Christian states during the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth centuries; the hypocrisy of Western states that remain silent about these crimes while formally recognising the Armenian Genocide is clear to everyone in Turkey.

The tragedy is that such Western hypocrisy discredits the cause of Armenian Genocide recognition in Turkey itself and hands a powerful trump card to the Turkish government, which has long been aggressively persecuting those Turkish citizens brave enough to speak about about what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Defying popular chauvinism and government intimidation, over 22,000 Turkish citizens signed a petition in 2008 apologising for the crime against the Armenians: ‘My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.’

This growing movement in Turkey to reject the national chauvinist paradigm and come to terms with the country’s historical crimes represents an essential part of Turkey’s democratisation. Turkey will only become a genuine democracy when its citizens are free to discuss what happened to the Armenians in 1915, and to call it genocide if they wish, without fear of persecution or arrest. The tragedy is that clumsy, hypocritical genocide resolutions actually set this process back. As the New York Times reported earlier this month: ‘Turkish intellectuals had made some progress at pushing the [Armenian] issue into the public debate. Ethnic Armenians in Turkey fear that passage of the [genocide]resolution by the full House — which would be unprecedented — would seriously harm those efforts.’ As Turkish university professor Soli Ozel said back in December 2008, ‘If they were to free Turkey of the pressures [of these bills], we would be able to talk about the issue in a more desirable way.’ So long as the Turkish government can present the campaign for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide as the work of the international Armenian lobby and hypocritical anti-Turkish governments, it only weakens the position of those brave and principled Turks who wish to wish to raise the issue at home. As Ergodan’s chauvinistic outburst threatens, there is always the danger that the AKP government, frightened for its political future, will respond to further foreign recognitions of the Armenian Genocide by retaliating against its own Armenian minority. This is quite apart from the fact that such recognitions will only further alienate Turkey and the Turkish public from the Western alliance and push them into the arms of our enemies, and that they are highly problematic from the point of view of genocide scholarship as well.

There is a simply way in which the Armenian Genocide issue can become a help rather than a hindrance to Turkey’s democratisation: instead of passing resolutions recognising the Armenian Genocide, Western parliaments should pass resolutions calling upon Turkey to permit the issue to be freely debated at home and abroad; to desist from arresting, persecuting or intimidating anyone for stating their opinion about what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Unlike parliamentary recognition of genocide, there would be nothing hypocritical about this: the US, Britain and other EU and NATO members do not for the most part recognise their own or each other’s historic acts of genocide, but they do permit these crimes to be freely discussed and debated.

A democratic Turkey’s membership of the EU would tremendously strengthen Western security. But so long as Turkey threatens its minorities and criminalises mention of the Armenian Genocide, it does not deserve membership. Turkey should be encouraged to become a pillar of Europe, rather than an embarrassment to it.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Friday, 26 March 2010 Posted by | Armenians, Balkans, Genocide, Turkey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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