Talking a way out of chaos

THE MAIN IDEA of this blog is to highlight the comingling of cultures and peoples across Eurasia, and the creative tumult that said comingling spawns. There is little that could be called creative occurring at the moment, however. The tumult is of a decidedly nasty bent.

The journalist Christopher de Bellaigue described the Ottoman Anatolian heartlands as ‘chaotically cosmopolitan’, but at present a jaded observer may comment that there is not so much cosmopolitanism as unadorned chaos. Cases in point:

*a roadside bombing in Gaziantep kills nine including three children; variously blamed on the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), or the Syrian regime

*a re-energised PKK kidnapping a parliamentary deputy, Hüseyin Aygün, on the back roads around Tunceli, an audacious act, snatching a democratically elected official

*inter-communal violence during Ramazan as Alevis were targeted by the Sunni majority in Malatya

*Iran and Turkey at loggerheads over Syria, with some pundits claiming that the bombing in Gaziantep was a foreseeable consequence of Turkey’s meddling in Syrian affairs, the Assad regime using the PKK to strike back at Ankara.

*clashes between Kurds and police in Diyarbakir in July when a rally organised by the pro-Kurdish BDP was disrupted by police

*after some progress finally being made on the issue of the use of Kurdish names and language, a court in Diyarbakır banning, in July, the naming of a park after a Kurdish poet, as well as 19 other municipal parks with Kurdish names (who would’ve thought that dusty Diyarbakır has so many parks…)

There is a lot to be contested here: political agendas, nationalist agendas, issues of democracy and the rule of law, the clash of distinct chauvinisms, conflicting identities and conceptions of the ‘nation’. No doubt debate will rage now about how best to address a whole mess of interconnected issues that are generally lumped together as ‘the Kurdish issue’. There will certainly be those who beat the drums of war, proposing that a military response is the only way to deal with an emboldened PKK.

It’s pretty likely that in Ankara there are some who are kicking themselves that they didn’t capitalise on earlier opportunities to address Kurdish concerns and demands, when the ‘Kurdish opening’ was implemented and the PKK was less on the front foot. Turkish journalist Semih İdiz comments that had Turkey played its cards better earlier as regards its Kurdish population then recent developments in northern Syria, where Kurdish groups have gained control, would not have complicated matters to the extent that they have today.

But there will be those now who declare that any attempt at dialogue was misguided and doomed to failure – the current violence is proof enough – that making concessions on Kurdish demands for cultural and language rights is giving in to terrorists, that questioning notions of homogenous Turkishness is dishonouring the nation/founding fathers/those killed in the PKK insurgency. Pointing to ongoing clashes between the Turkish army and the PKK in the southeast, they will argue that the only way to defeat the PKK is to *defeat* it. One could counter these hawks by saying that the best way to honour the nation/founding fathers/those killed in the PKK insurgency would be to see that Turkey becomes a peaceful, prosperous nation, not one riven by ethnic tensions, insurgency and counter insurgency, not subject to martial law and military depredations.

Of course, nearly 30 years of military action has not defeated the PKK, nor has it allowed enough oxygen to dialogue or democratic initiatives or the will of the people to ensure that they have much impact, far less flourish. Even in the latest series of conflagrations, however, there is reason for hope. The PKK’s brazen kidnapping of Aygün was initially seen as something of a PR coup and taken as a measure of its authority and clout. But rather than cowing the people, the PKK’s actions – snatching an enormously popular figure in Tunceli – provoked outrage, and rather than enduring a long period of confinement, Aygün was released after only two days.

Did the mouse roar? Perhaps so. The Aygün episode may just be a sub-plot in a major drama, but it may have implications for the broader production. Perhaps this means that rather than just a two-way tussle (military vs. PKK), the contested Kurdish issue is seeing the entry of another player – the people – and perhaps now the people, for whom both military and the PKK have purported to act for three decades, are determined to have their say. If the people speak, a solution can be found, and a way out of chaos.

Perhaps the (figurative) gypsy will play, and the Kurd(s) will dance, yet…


Caucasian dominoes

FOLLOWING ON from an earlier post about the restoration/redevelopment of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, it was recently reported that the Georgian border crossing at Ninotsminda is getting a makeover. Have a look at some images here.

While Georgian architects and stonemasons have long enhanced the already stunning landscapes of Georgia with striking buildings – they have a penchant for lofty churches on hilltops – this creation is of an altogether different timbre. Georgia and Armenia may joust over which of them is the most ancient European nation, but now their border will be adorned with a structure that is futuristic. To my eye it looks like an almighty series of dominoes rippling across the border. Perhaps there is supposed to be some symbolism in that, but I can’t determine what it is.

Ninotsminda is one of several border posts Georgia shares with Armenia. To the north, Georgian border posts with the Russian-occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are unlikely to see similar architectural embellishments.

The border crossing with Armenia that is closest to Tbilisi is Sadakhlo-Bagratashen. I wonder if this will get the Ninotsminda treatment. When I crossed Sadakhlo-Bagratshen back in 2007 it was certainly of the old-school frontier post ilk. There were no architectural idiosyncracies here, just a couple of desultory sheds and a boom gate painted in barber-pole stripes. It was an appropriately grey, drizzly day. The mood was like something out of a Graham Greene novel: lots of waiting, loitering, bored soldiers with automatic weapons over the shoulders pinching cigarettes between thumb and forefinger. Small groups of swarthy (and hirsute: Caucasians are so hirsute) men muttered in languages entirely foreign to me. I couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t some greasing of palms or deal-making going on. The boom gate was manually raised to allow us to pass at some signal that I couldn’t fathom, meanwhile a woman with a bad dye job selling sunflower seeds in twisted newspaper cones crossed back and forth with impunity. Call me Orientalist, but I enjoyed the shambolic, post-Soviet nature of it all.

I recall the the pop and crackle of bus tyres on a wet and gritty gravel road, the scent of diesel, a Turkish logo on a semi-trailer. This was the first of many Turkish trucks I was to see: trucks that had taken the long route, passing all the way through Georgia to reach Armenia, so that Turkish goods could be brought to market in Armenia, taking such a long route because the Turkish-Armenian border is closed due ongoing political fractiousness between the two nations.

Gigu and Zohrab, the two Georgians I was travelling with (along with John Noble, long standing Lonely Planet author and traveller in the former Soviet realm), laughed as we drove into Armenia and quipped, ‘Georgia is Europe, Armenia is Russia’. It didn’t look all that different to me: the same breathtaking landscapes and ecclesiastic architecture – at intervals, unexpected – breaking the skyline.

We travelled to Vanadzor through an almighty Caucasian rainstorm. In the market in Vanadzor (see the picture above), a toothless man approached me out of the blue and gave me three apples. I offered him money. I felt compelled to make some sort of reciprocal gesture. Of course, he refused it. His gift may or may not have been significant. An Armenian proverb says: ‘Three apples fell from heaven; one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for he who heeds the tale’. Oh, Armenia: poignant to the end…

We turned north again and sped out of Armenia with mighty raindrops slapping on the windscreen, then we recrossed the border as night fell, stars splintering the inky sky. Gigu turned up the radio and in an episode of roadtrip camaraderie we shared chunks of salty Armenian cheese and fistfuls of bread and passed around a bottle of Borjomi mineral water – fizzing and bitter – as we raced towards the throbbing glow of Tbilisi in the darkness. Back we came, from somewhere else, to Europe… perhaps…

Turkey’s Kurds: of roosters and men

THE KURDISH ISSUE continues to drag on in Turkey. After positive developments in June it appeared that at last the Turkish government may be making genuine attempts to address Kurdish concerns through a process of dialogue, a welcome change after decades of viewing the issue solely through the prisms of terrorism and separatism and seeking to pursue military ‘solutions’. The very persistence of the issue is evidence enough that a military approach hasn’t solved anything.

But finding a solution through dialogue has suddenly got a lot more complicated given recent events in Syria, where a Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has claimed control of various towns near the Turkey-Syria border. I wrote a piece about it which was published earlier this week on openDemocracy. You can read my article here.

There is a Kurdish proverb, ‘when there are too many roosters, the village wakes up late’, meaning that the Kurds have been hobbled over the years by a profusion of home-grown aspiring political leaders who continually lapsed into infighting thus snuffing out nascent political developments. In fact, this hasn’t been the case in the Republic of Turkey, where official government policy has long denied a Kurdish identity and has muffled Kurdish voices. The only voice that did arise was that of the PKK, a hardline Marxist group given to terror tactics.

The long-running military struggle with the PKK indeed brought the Kurdish issue into the spotlight, but it has also meant that the PKK dominates and manipulates the great majority of Kurdish voices within Turkey. Here it would seem that the Kurds have been held back not by there being too  many ‘roosters’, but too few, in particular one ‘rooster’ – the PKK – out-crowing all others.

What is needed for a political solution to the Kurdish issue is other Kurdish voices to participate in dialogue, those who aren’t tainted by the PKK’s actions over the last four decades, who can negotiate with the Turkish government in good faith, the voices of Kurds who are true democrats without any agenda other than to resolve the issue in a representative way. The Turkish government has dragged the chain and missed many an opportunity in the past to address the problem democratically, and the situation is only getting more complicated at the moment.