Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kars at Cultural Crossroads?

Kars, at Turkey's border to the Caucasus, is today mostly known as the place where Pamuk's novel Snow takes place, among raging snowstorms and conflicts between the modern and the tradtional. Kars is a contrast and a crossroads - a natural anomaly in current Turkey, where it roughly symbolises "the back of beyond." Pamuk's hero Ka obviously alludes to Kafka's Joseph K - the lonely male hero entwined in a chaos of events beyond his control, which rules his life and actions. The Turkish name of the novel Kar (snow) carries that reference as well as a pun of the city name.

The real Kars lies beyond the rapid development and increasing growth of modern Turkey, but is also at the centre of its historical identity crisis and rolling borders. Pamuk's Kars bears an important likeness to reality: The situation for women appears depressing. Despite the open-minded girls that address you in English in the streets, women's organisations active in the region speak about staying customs that makes one think of the historical and mythical Caucasian bride robberies. That the city has received a university, in Turkish called the "Caucasian," naturally instills much hope for the future, regardless of evident poverty and barren highlands.

Citizens themselves speak about how local economy would benefit from opening up the border to Armenia, with an injection to local businesses as an expected effect – a northeastern parallel to Gaziantep's rise to the position of industrial hub of southern Turkey, focussing on border trade with Syria and beyond. The border to Armenia has only been kept open during 1991-93, viz. after the fall of the Soviet Union but before the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabağ conflict. Turkish-Armenian relations are infected by the echoes of history. Attempts made at regional integration, e.g. within the area of infrastructure, containing both railway lines and pipelines common between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, are apparently formed to circumvent Armenia. That it is easier to step closer to Georgia is illustrated by the fact that Turkish Airlines this year opens a domestic route to Batumi, whose new airport has been constructed by a Turkish company, in order to serve the northeastern provinces of Turkey.

Beyond Kars – literally on the border to Armenia – is Ani, a medieval city in ruins of magnificent proportions, which previously was an Armenian capital and a trade centre of importance along the Silk road. The city, during its height, was challenged only by Constantinople in power and splendour. Here the name of the princely family Bagrationi – so familiar in Russian history – still echoes, even though Ani in the course of history changed hands between Armenian, Georgian, and Seljuk rule, before the hordes of Timerlane finally laid the city in ruins at the end of the 14th century. Ever since, Kars has been the regional hub. Today, the main threat to Ani paradoxically emanates from Armenia. The quakes and splinters from a quarry on the Armenian side of the border allegedly threaten to damage and destroy remaining cathedrals, with Turkish protests as a consequence.

The architecture, culture, history, and art of Kars are characterised from having been molded over the centuries at the crossroads of three empires – the Russian, the Turkish, and the Persian – which in different ways are still present. Georgian, Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish influences are visible in the underlayer of these. Carpets and rugs bear resemblance to the Caucasian, and the Tula samovars still simmer in the cafés. The modern city plan is clearly Russian, as the city belonged to the Russian empire during 1878-1921, when there was an ambition to build a "petit Peterbourg" at the foot of the Caucasus. Straight boulevards lined with proportionate Russian 19th century architecture still remains an emblem of Kars. Above the city, the castle dating back to the Bagrationi era hovers. Beneath it, the mossy Armenian cathedral of the Apostles soars aloft, saved for posterity as a mosque, with iconostasis remaining and the addition of wall-to-wall prayer carpeting.

With Russian rule from 1878, the modern history of Kars was begun. Having been a century old bone of contention between the Ottoman and Russian empires, with recurrent Russian sieges and conquests in 1807, 1828, and 1855, Kars eventually was awarded Russia due to the San Stefano peace agreement concluding the 1877-78 Turco-Russian war. Thus, the Turks were driven out of the region until the Russian revolution.

In 1892, the population of the Kars region consisted of 24% Turks, 21.5% Armenians, 15% Kurds, 14% Azeris, 13.5% Greek, 7% Russians, and 5% Turkmen. After the 1918 peace of Brest-Litovsk, Kars faced turbulent years. At first, the region befell the Southwest-Caucasian Republic, only to be occupied by the Democratic Republic of Armenia in 1919. By the 1920 Turko-Armenian war and the Alexandropol agreement, Kars was returned to Turkey. Still, before the ink had dried, the Bolsheviks conquered Armenia and the Kars issue was yet again unresolved.

It was only by the 1921 Kars agreement, between the RSFSR and the even younger Turkish Republic, that the border was finally regulated and Turkey regained its reign over the region. In the light of history, it was an agreement between two in many ways strikingly similar new regimes that had been made: Revolutionary Russia and Republican Turkey – both infant states after the imperial downfalls caused by WW I. That this legacy is still cherished is evident by the fact that the train wagon, in which the Kars agreement was signed, still remains in the city, as a memorial to the imperial struggle over the region. A question of interest in this context is how Turkeys' and Soviet Russia's obvious ability to enter into international agreements (for Turkey this might actually have been the first as the Republic was formally proclaimed several years later) influenced world perceptions of the growing capacities of these new states.

The loss of Kars for long remained an open wound in Soviet self-image. After WW II, Stalin thus prepared to reconquer the region. He was prevented in this ambition only by the determined veto of Churchill.

Kars forms part of current Turkey, but still remains in its periphery. Gradually, the city sets its imprints on the mental map even beyond the literary legacy of Pamuk. Last autumn, it hosted an international film festival on a European theme. The city takes part in cross-border cooperation activities in the Caucasus and within the Black Sea cooperation. In today's dynamic Turkey, Kars might perhaps find its own way to link its multi-faceted historical heritage to the challenges that future brings.

Text: Vilhelm Konnander & Josa Kärre
Pictures: Josa Kärre

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Горькая чаша?

During his recent visit to Sweden, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, was obliged to drink a cup of malice, literally and in terms of Russian foreign policy implementation. Attending a dinner of CBSS-ministers, the wine on the menu was Georgian. It thus seems that Lavrov took this opportunity to enjoy something banned in Russia, in a parallel to US politicians smoking Cuban cigars.

The source is none other than Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, who mentions this on his blog. Apparently, Georgian wine was served for dinner during a boat trip with foreign ministers of the Baltic Sea region, within the context of the CBSS. What Lavrov thought about this, Bildt does not tell, but at least the Swedish schnapps was a hit.

The Swedish wine monopoly, Systembolaget, recently introduced its first Georgian wine - a 2005 Teliani Valley Saperavi, which evidently was the wine enjoyed by the Russian foreign minister. The Saperavi grape is the most common in Georgian wines, which is used for brands like Kindzmarauli and Mukuzani from the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia. The Saperavi grape - often associated with one-year wines - is sweet in taste and often produces high alcohol levels. Besides Georgia, Saperavi is also nowadays to be found in Australian vineyards. Except the Saperavi, other popular grape varieties in Georgian wines are Alexandrouli and Mudzhuretuli, to be found in the famous Khvanchkara wines of Western Georgia.

Which type of Georgian wine Lavrov prefers is unknown, but it is safe to say that he did not - as generations of Russians - venture into any deeper discussion about the qualities of various Georgian wines. Probably he was wise not to, as some Stockholm malice might be better than Moscow's bitter cup, would it be known of Lavrov's wine consumption when abroad.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Gerontocrat Ghostbusters?

A spectre is haunting Eurasia - the spectre of Gerontocracy. All the Powers of new Europe are deserting a divided Union to shy away from this spectre: Bruxelles and Rome, Merkel and Blair, French anti-globalists and German Federalists.

The new Great Game over Central Asia between Russia and the West is becoming a struggle to either raise or exorcise the ghosts of gerontocratic systems. Russia's sphere of vital interests in the near abroad can only be preserved by control over infrastructure, and above all the flows of energy from the region. This is achieved by catering to the needs of a gerontocratic and corrupt system, originating from the soviet heritage, which Moscow has left the states of Central Asia with.

The West, to the contrary, has a vested interest in exploiting regional resources of oil and gas, and produce safe passages for receiving them. For long, the West was pragmatic in its approach to authoritarian regimes in the region, in order to reach the overarching goal of access to the coveted energy resources. Now, the realisation that it is impossible to work with corrupt and Machiavellian regimes is starting to dawn.

The summit between presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in May was bad news for the European Union and the United States. Presidents Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan spoke in favour of closer energy relations with Russia, and against developing the westward trans-Caspian gas project. As previously reported, the trans-Caspian gas project is the key to long-term profits for the Western alternative of transferring gas from Central Asia - the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC). Among BTC-investors are British Petroleum (BP) and American Chevron. Also, Royal Dutch Shell is about to lose its controlling stake in the Russian Far East Sakhalin-2 project, and BP is in trouble with its investment in the Siberian Kovykta gas field.

Western energy companies are certainly experiencing heavy setbacks in the FSU these days. As there is little to do as concerns Russia, the importance of Central Asian resources increase. Still, there is the question of the gerontocrat ghost - the inability to deal with the corrupt regimes of Central Asia. Then, what is companies such as BP and Shell going to do? Well, as the old movie tune goes:

If there's somethin' strange in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call - ghostbusters!
If it's somethin' weird an it don't look good
Who ya gonna call - ghostbusters!

So, who might be such a ghostbuster? Who are the energy moguls going to call to exorcise the spectre - get rid of the ghosts of gerontocracy? A qualified guess might be a traveller in political revolutions, with experience of dealing with the old post-communist foe. Who then would be a better candidate than former US Ambassador Richard Miles? That ambassador Miles was posted to Serbia before the overthrow of Milosevic, and to Georgia during the Rose revolution is, by many, regarded as no coincidence. Some even claim that Miles figured in the outskirts of Ukraine's Orange revolution. After retirement in 2005, ambassador Miles worked as Executive Director of the Open World Leadership Center - headed by James "Icon & the Axe" Billington. Now, it seems, Richard Miles is a man without a mission. So, why not take pity on this old man and turn to him for advice - even give him a job? Miles might just be the ghostbuster who - with a little help from his friends - could get rid of some of Central Asia's gerontocrat ghosts. Who would be more fit to bring democracy and market economy to Central Asia and, in the process, safeguard western energy interests in the region?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Pride & Prejudice

Gay rights are human rights. It is a paradox that the same rights, that served as the moral basis of liberation from the communist yoke in Eastern Europe, are now denied a group most in need of them. Still, today this is the case in large tracts of our continent, remaining a stain on the very same shield of liberty set to protect the right of the individual.

During the last few weeks, events related to LGBT-rights have given rise to both concerns and hopes about the situation of homosexuals in Central and Eastern Europe. Developments have clearly shown that homophobia is still rampant in the region, but all the same there are promising tendencies in some countries that at least some authorities have started to respond to international critique against official homophobia. Reviewing recent events, gives a somewhat more hetereogeneous picture than was the case only a year ago.

A few weeks ago, a celebrity homosexual was beaten beyond recognition in Lithuanian capital Vilnius. The only reason was that he was openly gay. He might as well have had a pink triangle stitchted to his chest. Homosexuality is simply not socially accepted in this deeply Catholic country, and people and parliamentarians alike do not hesitate to openly condemn this "pariah to society."

Last week, Amnesty criticised Lithuania for not respecting gay rights, actively hindering an EU-sponsored campaign "For Diversity - Against Discrimination" - in celebration of the Europan Year for Equal Opportunities for All. Now, the campaign has had to be delayed in anticipation of permission from Lithuanian authorities. Last week, the Vilnius Rainbow festival was denied the right to assembly in the capital. In response to the exposed situation for the Lithuanian LGBT-community, the European section of the International Gay and Lesbian Association (ILGA) has decided to arrange its annual conference in Vilnius this autumn.

Turning East to Moscow, a group of LGBT-activists - including several western parliamentarians - were brutally beaten by anti-gay groups, when trying to hand over a petition to mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Their simple plea was to argue for the permission to march through central Moscow during the 2007 Moscow Pride festival. While being beaten by skinheads, Russian police stood idly by watching the "spectacle" afar, only to afterwards arrest some thirty gay rights' activists, including two members of the European Parliament.

However, what might be considered a slight improvement was yesterday's Pride march in Latvian capital Riga, organised by the Mozaika network. With the experiences from last year's violent anti-gay protests in fresh memory, authorities now allowed some 1,000 activists to march the streets under heavy police protection. Still, the march has created a deep rift in the Latvian LGBT-community, and ILGA-Latvia has publicly denounced organisers as provocateurs and profiteers, whose actions will only worsen the situation in the country.

Another partial success was the 19 May Warsaw Pride festival, where some 5,000 LGBT-activists were, for the first time, allowed to undertake the march. Despite massive anti-gay protests, the Pride parade went by without the extensive violence we have got used to see in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. However, Poland remains a fundamentally homophobic country, and the Kaczyński twins, ruling Poland as President and Prime Minister, are among the country's foremost opponents of gay rights. Polish homophobia is, to be quite frank, on the edge of the ludicrous. Thus, last week, Poland's Children's Ombudsman considered banning the kids' show Teletubbies. Why? The reason is laughable: Apparently, one of the "male" characters in the show carries a handbag. Such a role model might prove a negative influence on Polish children, the Polish Ombudsman argued, as it might indicate the small blue figure was - GAY! Lo and behold! It was only after widespread ridicule in international media, that the Ombudsman decided to reconsider her position.

Gay Rights are Human Rights
Protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has gradually become a self-evident part of international law over the decades. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) has been judged applicable on sexual orientation, thus safeguarding the same political rights to the LGBT-community as any other social or political movement.

In a regional context, the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms nowadays covers protection against sexual orientation discrimination, and the European Social Charter safeguards the social and economic rights of homosexuals.

In the framework of the European Union, the Treaty of Amsterdam enables the EU to fight sexual orientation discrimination as does the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The list is far from exhaustive, and serves only to illustrate how current international law protects the human rights of LGBT-individuals. Still, although many states of Central and Eastern Europe pride themselves with becoming part of Europe, prejudice prevails against homosexuals in large tracts of the region. It simply is not acceptable when politicians and people alike pursue a policy of public homophobia, as is the case in many of the abovementioned countries. Becoming part of Europe means becoming party to the humanistic social and cultural heritage of Europe. As long as this is not the case, the road to true integration remains long. The tragedy about sexual orientation discrimination in Central and Eastern Europe is however that it often is the same dissidents and democratisers who, during the soviet era, fought for human rights, that today deny one of the most exposed groups in society the very same rights they once held so dear. Obviously, the fruits of freedom are sown unequally.