On Trojan horses and Greeks bearing gifts

lindos-view-2009The proverb tells us to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. This dates back to the legend of the Trojan horse, when something that was apparently benign, perhaps miraculous, and surely harmless, turned out to contain all manner of nasties. The gullible Trojans willingly pulled the horse into their city, only to be overrun by the Greek forces hidden within.

Appropriately enough all of this took place on the Aegean shore, where today refugees arrive in large numbers, assembling in the Turkish city of İzmir, not far from the ruins of Troy, to attempt the sea crossing to the Greek islands, toeholds in the EU. The refugees, many of whom hail from Syria, are sometimes portrayed as a modern-day Trojan horse – feigning refugee impoverishment but really the vanguard of an Islamic cultural inundation that threatens European identity.

Such a characterisation is utter tosh, of course, and to further turn the Trojan horse on its head this time it is the Greeks who are doing the welcoming.

In fact, the stories of generosity and compassion coming from Lesbos, among other islands and other locations on the Greek mainland, are legion. As reported in The Conversation, one fisherman from Lesbos explained, “There is not much choice when you find a boat full of scared people in the night.” Caught up in the immediacy and the drama, Greeks have responded with a largeness of spirit that The Conversation says has become contagious amongst Greek communities – but that appears to be in short supply elsewhere at present.

In Lesbos, islanders’ welcoming of refugee communities is said to be having a detrimental effect on the forthcoming season’s tourist bookings in Lesbos, but that doesn’t appear to deter the locals from their good deeds. This speaks volumes of the humanity of the residents of Lesbos. A recent article in The New York Times urges travellers not to turn their backs on the long-suffering Greeks.

It’s not as if Greece doesn’t have enough troubles of its own at the moment. For years it has been wracked by financial turmoil, but neither does this deter Greeks at large from extending a supporting hand to refugee arrivals. In fact, as the government is stretched it appears that individual volunteers and private donations are filling the breach.

Some of this generosity stems from the personal histories of many Greek families. For many Greeks the refugee experience is not that far removed – in the early decades of the 20th centuries significant numbers of Greek families were uprooted from Anatolia, where they had lived for centuries, and made their own passage across the Aegean as refugees to forge a new life in cities such as Thessaloniki and on islands such as Lesbos. The memory is fresh and their empathy (which comes from the Greek ἐμπάθεια, meaning “physical affection”) is strong. In fact, one Greek woman in the mainland town of Idomeni remarked that lending a hand to refugees is a “moral obligation”.

This all stands in marked contrast to the reactions of countries like Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia, which have thrown up razor wire fences to prevent refugees moving northward into Europe. It was these very countries that not so long ago languished on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and who hankered for the freedom that the West offered. That they offer no passage to refugees now is nothing short of mean spirited. They appear to have forgotten that geopolitical fate operates without mercy and sometimes leaves the deserving on the wrong side of artificial boundaries.

But the Greeks at the rocky fringes of Europe are fully aware of the power – and necessity – of the humanist gesture and they seek no recourse in cheap retellings of Trojan Horse allegories. And as this video demonstrates, the refugees arriving are not warriors with evil intent hidden within any metaphorical horse, but people who are filled with hope and gratitude for the hospitality and benevolence that the Greeks are bestowing upon them.

On borders, or the crossing thereof

Gjirokastra-01

Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]

epirus-01

Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]

van-train-station

Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]

 

[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1

 

 

On football matches: to mark silence or to boo

Greek-Turkish-trinkets

FOOTBALL IS known as the beautiful game. There are plenty of people who like to see sport as metaphor for life. Like many things, football is really just one of many *parts* of life, so perhaps we should recognise it as such and not read too much into it.

Still, based on several recent incidents, I can’t help but wonder if people’s behaviour at football matches doesn’t offer a perspective on societal dynamics, perhaps on a nation’s psyche or even the deeper workings of the human spirit.

Last Friday, a football match in the Greek city of Larissa was delayed when players, coaches and officials sat down as a protest to urge authorities to work harder to cater to refugees coming to Greece and as a mark of respect for refugees who had lost their lives in recent days attempting to cross the Aegean.

It was the Greeks, after all, who gave us the concept of philanthropy (φιλανθρωπία), which translates literally as “love of humanity”.

Apparently in Greek, there are four different words for love, one of which is agápē (ἀγάπη) from whence we get “agape”, but which translates as a sense of brotherly love and charity. Thomas Aquinas saw agápē as the wishing of good upon another.

I can’t help but compare the actions of the footballers in Larissa with the Turkish football fans in Istanbul who booed and jeered during a pre-game minute of silence for the victims of terrorist attacks in Paris last November, just as fans at a match in Konya had earlier disrupted a minute’s silence for the (mostly Kurdish and leftist) victims of the Ankara bombing in October.

Observing a moment’s silence as a mark of respect is not a commonly recognised practice in Turkey, but the actions of the Turkish crowds raised eyebrows around the world, to say the least.

In considering the Turkish crowds, the uncouth behaviour of a portion of a football crowd should not be taken as a reflection of an entire nation or people. The Greeks and the Turks have much more in common – in cultural, social and culinary terms – than nationalists of either strip would ever admit. But for a fleeting second I wondered if, after years of living, travelling, working and researching in Turkey, perhaps I should have been spending my time on the other side of the Aegean…

Until I stumbled across the reaction of Fatih Terim, the manager of the Turkish national team, who decried the “cruelty” of the booing Konya crowd and said better that Turkey had lost the match (after which it qualified for UEFA 2016) and not one life had been lost.

 

 

Remembering İsmail Gaspirali: Tatar man of letters

IT HAS BEEN a big year for anniversaries. It’s a hundred years since the outbreak of WWI, of course, and recently we saw the 13th anniversary of September 11, a date which must be nigh-on globally recognised. That particular day this year also marked a centenary, one that received little attention. On September 11, 1914, İsmail Gaspirali (Gasprinski) passed away after a lifetime as an intellectual, educator and politician.

A great man of letters and polymath, Gaspirali was a Crimean Tatar. The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Eurasian people living, as their name would suggest, in the Crimean Peninsula. Another of those fabled/clichéd crossroads, Crimea through its history has seen Greek and Genoese colonists, Armenians, Bulgarians and nomadic peoples including Scythians, Cumans, Kipchaks, Khazars and the descendants of Genghis Khan, the Golden Horde, all of whom to different degrees have contributed to the Tatar gene pool. They are counted as a Turkic people, speaking a language that is related to Turkish.

Gasprinskiy-headshotWith all those comings and goings, the Tatars have had a complicated and torrid history. They established themselves in the Crimea and the northern littoral of the Black Sea in the 13th century, before creating a khanate in the 1440s then becoming vassals of the Ottoman Turks in 1475. Under the Ottomans, the Crimean khans enjoyed a degree of autonomy, with their capital at Bakhchisaray (from the Turkic bahçe saray, literally ‘garden palace’). The Russians, under Catherine the Great, then annexed their territory in 1783, sending thousands of Tatar refugees to Ottoman Turkey, where they were largely assimilated into the Turkish nation.

Born near Bakhchisaray in 1851, Ismail Gaspirali pursued a modernising mission for his people and fellow Muslims of the Russian empire. He was inspired by the vision of the Islamic Modernists a movement that sought the betterment of Muslim societies through the employment of science, technology and education in a delicate coupling with and accommodation and reinterpretation of Islamic rulings and cultural norms.

Gaspirali became an eloquent and effective proponent – and exponent – of the Modernist vision. He saw education and the emancipation of women as the most important and immediate paths to progress. He also saw that it was necessary to educate and publish for people in their mother tongues rather than the Russian spoken by the educated elites across the Caucasus and Central Asia. Gaspirali is also credited as the founder of the Jadid movement (from usul-i jadid, meaning ‘new method’), which established new schooling models for Muslim populations across Central Asia.

The then-new technology of mass printing, in particular newspapers, was central to Gaspirali’s modernisation project. In 1883 – another centenary, this one marking the Russian annexation of Crimea – he established his periodical Tercüman (from the Turkish/Turkic for ‘interpreter’), publishing it in Russian and a modified Turkic. In many respects the underlying philosophy and intellectual bases for Tercüman served as a model for Molla Nasreddin, the celebrated Azeri satirical periodical established in Baku in the early 20th century, which adopted a much more scathing tone but which covered similar intellectual territory including advocating for women’s rights, curtailing the influence of conservatives clerics and championing reason over retrograde custom.

tercuman-imageThe vision of the Islamic Modernists appears entirely reasonable, laudable and practicable even today, all the more so in comparison to the nihilistic apparitions that so many modern-day jihadis espouse. But the Islamic Modernists of imperial Russia’s domain were smothered by the flow tides of history, not least among them the Bolsheviks. Tercüman ceased publication in 1918, four years after Gaspirali’s death. The Jadidists were largely purged and their innovations brought to an abrupt close. So began all manner of horrors.

As for the Crimean Tatars, the travails that began under Catherine the Great did not cease under the Soviets. This year marks the 70th anniversary of their enforced exile from their homeland by Josef Stalin on the pretext that they were Nazi collaborators. A quarter of a million Tatars (as well as other Crimean minorities including Armenians, Greeks and Bulgarians) were deported en masse to Uzbekistan, with thousands dying in transit or, later, in squalor and penury abandoned to the extremes of the Central Asian climate. Stalin’s allegations were entirely false something that the Soviets recognised in 1967. From the mid-1980s Tatars began returning to their homeland, with numbers accelerating after the collapse of the USSR. Still, as of earlier this decade, the Tatars constituted less than one-fifth of the population of the Crimean Peninsula.

The palace at Bakhchisaray

The palace at Bakhchisaray

With events earlier this year as Russia once again annexed the Crimea the Tatars are once again in a precarious position. It is generally understood that the Tatars supported the Euromaidan protests that shook Kiev, that they continue to see Kiev, rather than Moscow, as the capital city they should rightfully owe allegiance to, that Ukraine’s drawing closer to Western Europe would be in their best interests. Since the annexation Russian officials demanded that Tatars cede their land to Russians.  Many Tatars feared that a new round of ethnic cleansing may be in the offing and others are taking it upon themselves to leave before they are forced to do so, fleeing to the safety of Lviv, near the Polish border.

How Gaspirali would weep at the predicament that his people have found themselves in, how circumstances could have gone so spectacularly awry, so far from the optimistic, progressive, enlightened ambition that he had, where he saw the benefits of ‘modernity’ being shared and enjoyed across ethnic and religious and cultural divides by all the peoples of Eurasia… Still, Gaspirali stands as a beacon, proof positive that people of passion, of commitment to the betterment of humankind, of heart, of vision, of compassion are not restricted to any one faith or ethnicity or ‘civilisation’ but might emerge anywhere.

Would that there were more of them, and fewer shitty, malevolent idiosyncrasies in the unfurling of uncaring history and heartless fate…

The interminable, unfulfilled spring: is it Bosnia’s turn?

sebilj-may-2008CLICHÉS ABOUT POLITICAL SPRINGS are looking a bit shopworn at the moment; recent events in Ukraine and Crimea show how so-called springs can go spectacularly off track and with entirely unforeseen consequences.

Of late, talk of springs, of the political kind, if not of seasonal shifts, has been associated with popular protest. The last year or so in Mediterranean Europe has seen protests in GreeceSpain and France and of course the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in June last year.

Popular disaffection with the political status quo isn’t just confined to these EU-member or EU-aspirant parts of Europe.  Recent years have also seen protests and mobilisations in the Balkans, but these have been protests that haven’t attracted the spotlight of international media attention.

The Balkans are, generally speaking, stuck in the recesses of the popular imagination as an unstable region of ‘ancient hatreds’, so perhaps uprisings here are seen as unremarkable – after all, as received wisdom has it, this is a region prone to gratuitous violence.

That said, this rugged, mountainous corner of Europe is slowly gaining recognition as a place not just seething with inter-communal tensions and not solely physically riddled with 1990s-vintage bullet holes. Even Bosnia & Hercegovina, the country most closely tainted by this sort of thinking, has recently won some kudos, gaining a star rating from National Geographic Traveler, no less.

Nat Geo coverage doesn’t automatically foster a happy political arena, however. In February protests erupted in the northeastern city of Tuzla, said to be one of the powerhouses (all things are relative!) of the Bosnian economy. It also happens to be one of its most ethnically diverse cities: it retains an Orthodox cathedral and Franciscan monastery amidst it mosques, as well as an active Jewish community.

Protests in Tuzla were triggered by public discontent, disillusionment and frustration at political shenanigans that have bedevilled the country and forestalled reform and economic development since the peace accords of 1995. After three days, protests had spread to more than 30 cities and towns across the country, with Sarajevo becoming the epicentre of protest and public displeasure. As if to live up to Western (mis)conceptions of the region, protests in many instances became violent, with public offices torched and phalanxes of police bringing in tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.

Three months on protests may have cooled, yet popular mobilisation and the voicing of political complaints and demands are ongoing. The political arena in Bosnia is fiendishly complex: where else is there such a small state that entertains two distinct political entities, five presidents, 10 cantons and a mind-boggling array of political parties and bureaucratic organs? Getting anything done in such circumstances is a tall order indeed.

Aside from the resulting stupefying political inertia, what appears to have finally sparked your average Bosnian-on-the-street is mounting frustration with the political framework put in place after the peace negotiations of the mid-90s, one that has worked to the advantage of political elites and their cronies, but done nothing for aforementioned average Bosnian Joes. The upshot of the protests, and a direct response to this democratic quicksand, has been the formations of ‘plenums’ across Bosnia. These are public forums where people gather to enunciate concerns and articulate demands, which may then be addressed to administrative bodies. ‘Plenums’ have been lauded as a mechanism that will demonstrate to Bosnians how democracy *really* works.

Giving the people a voice may generally be applauded, and it appears that there are many voices wishing to be heard. Top-down, elite-driven political development is often fraught. James C. Scott, the noted political scientist from Yale, argues that the standard top-down approach to instituting ‘high modernism’ involves enforcing legibility – that is administrability(!) – on society; such a process is feasible, but comes at the cost of local knowledge, Scott contends. And without taking account of local conditions and building on local knowledge, he continues, attempts to improve societal conditions are bound to fail. This is all the more so in Bosnia, where it appears that political actors have demonstrated few aspirations to the more enlightened aspects of high modernism, but plenty of aptitude for shoring up their own positions and feathering their own nests.

library-night-may-2008In many regards the internecine killing in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s was a top-down initiative. Rogers Brubaker in his landmark collection of essays, Ethnicity without Groups, speaks of ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’, ie those who manipulate – indeed, in some instances manufacture – ethnic tensions and conflicts to their own advantage, to serve their own usually political agendas. Brubaker’s model describes with pin-point precision the circumstances of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Such manipulation of circumstances can have very real implications, in this case serious episodes of inter-communal blood letting. So significant were these that the political quandaries of Bosnia continue to be viewed by many solely through an ethnic prism. ‘Ethnic  hatreds’ are taken to be part of the very landscape, thus creating an environment where said ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’ can play on fears of new wars breaking out, manipulating events to their advantage, thus extending the political doldrums that Bosnia has languished in for so long. Indeed, it has been remarked that various Bosnian politicians tried to put an ethnonationalist spin on the protests as they broke out earlier this year, blaming, of course, *other* ethnic groups for fomenting the troubles.

In fact, without downplaying the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, there is a long history of intercommunal fraternity at a workaday level across Bosnia, and other parts of the Balkans. Cooperation, despite religious and ethnic diversity, has been the modus operandi for a long time in the region, even during the horrors of the 1990s, as recounted by Svetlana Broz. This continues to the present, an example being the village of Ustibar in Republika Srpska, where townspeople of all faiths come together to work on building projects in concert. As reported in SE Times, locals remark that, ‘For us in Bosnia, this is so normal. We live together, indeed.’

Perhaps on the ground it is apparent to adherents of different faiths that they share a great deal of history and have much in common. Indeed in the early days of the Bosnian protests, Serbs across the border went out in sympathy with their Bosnian neighbours, gathering in Belgrade and chanting ‘Brave Bosnia, we are with you.’ Such an expression of solidarity is perhaps recognition that the peoples of the region may be connected by issues other than ethnicity.

In the last few days, both Serbia and Bosnia have been beset by disastrous floods. (Too much spring rain, perhaps…) It is to be hoped that in the face of such a natural disaster that the two peoples can be a support to each other, that they can cast aside earlier differences and work through the mire together. Already, the plucky Macedonians are mucking in to bring supplies and succour their neighbours.

Meanwhile, a significant event in recent weeks little noticed in the mainstream press was the reopening of Sarajevo’s City Hall. Destroyed by Serb artillery fire in 1992, the building’s decrepit and bombed out appearance seemed to symbolise Bosnia’s troubled plight. It is now fully refurbished, revelling in all of its neo-Moorish glory – could this possibly be a harbinger of spring for Bosnia?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘colour revolutions’ continue: Tbilisi, Kiev and beyond

IT IS WELL documented that Georgians love a drink, and it appears that they’re pretty keen on a demonstration, too. Georgia saw a peaceful transition of power with the Rose Revolution in 2003, the first civilian uprising that led to the downfall of an authoritarian and undemocratic regime in the 21st century. Here was an example of popular resistance – citizens brandishing roses, no less – to an out-of-touch regime leading to the ouster of said regime and the bloodless shifting of power and a, seemingly, bright new era of democracy, political openness and development.

Sadly, things didn’t quite turn out that way. Putative wunderkind-president Mikheil Saakashvili grew increasingly autocratic during his years in power, spurring Georgians to returned to the streets and squares in 2009, 2011 and 2012 to remonstrate against his despotic ways. Georgia might now get a chance for a fresh start after the electoral victory of new president Georgi Margvelashvili in October this year.

Georgia was the first of the ‘colour’ revolutions to have unfurled over the last 10 years, first starting in the post-Soviet realm, other notable ones being the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and the Tulip Revolution in Kirghizstan (2005). This penchant for mobilisation amongst diverse and predominantly youthful segments of society was also apparent in the Green Movement that arose in Iran after the disputed presidential election of 2009 and which, to my mind, despite its lack of success in bringing about positive political change, provided template and inspiration for the uprisings across the Middle East since 2011 that have been characterised as the Arab Spring.

tbilisi-squareBut the dream that these revolutions fostered and fed on was greater and brighter and sunnier than the everyday realities that eventuated. Despite successful removal of regimes in Ukraine and Kirghizstan, most of the uprisings haven’t yet amounted to lasting, substantive change. Political change is a gradual process, on a road strewn with pitfalls and unforeseen backtracks, particularly so when institutions are arthritic and when those calling for change come from diverse backgrounds, with often radically different agenda and divergent ideas of how a political future should be constructed, and when new political stakeholders fall into the same traps that befell their predecessors. So it is that Foreign Policy rated the outcomes of the colour revolutions as ‘terribly disappointing’.

The reasons for such ‘terribly disappointing’ results could bear some intense scrutiny and in-depth analysis (looking for a PhD research topic, anyone?) but a quick and dirty analysis might put them down to a lack of robust civil society organs, inability to construct robust democratic institutions, a lack of an educated middle class. Perhaps most telling has been a propensity for the victors to not heed the rule of law, or, alternatively, to appropriate the revolution to their own ends, riding into the presidential palace on a wave of populist enthusiasm which they then ignore or override, pushing through their own agenda once ensconced in the corridors of power. No doubt there is many an Iranian who would describe the events and aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran in just those terms.

Things went awry in a similar way in Ukraine in 2004. The Orange Revolution had a popular momentum. It was seen as evidence of Ukraine’s determination to ‘return’ to the European fold, however this westward lilt was derailed and aspirations to a new, open political arena were never realised. Many Ukrainians have, however, recently decided that they disapprove of the direction that the government of Viktor Yanukovych is taking. Ukrainians have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure. And it seems that a number of Georgians are joining them. Perhaps having recently experienced a peaceful election and a change of government, these Georgians are hankering after a street protest…

All glib remarks aside, it would seem that there are grounds for solidarity between Georgians and Ukrainians, and it is not just a penchant for rabble-rousing that brings people from Tbilisi to join the EuroMaidan protest in Kiev. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been cosseted and smothered by their overbearing neighbour Russia, Georgia depicted by many Russians rather patronisingly as a playground where they may enjoy the beauty of the landscape and tap into a primal spirituality, Ukraine depicted as a bread basket. Georgians bristle as such a characterisation and have shown themselves eager to throw off Russia’s jealous embrace. Georgians are keen to assert their European credentials (a categorisation which in their idiom does not include anything Russian). It would appear that many, if not a majority of, Ukrainians are similarly inclined.

It’s apparent that Yanukovych in his recent (re)turning to the embrace of Russia overstepped the mark, assuming that his own authority allowed him to do what he felt best for the country, despite what the masses wanted. The gatherings in EuroMaidan would suggest an (apparent) majority of the populace would prefer Europe. This was hubris on Yanukovych’s part, a miscalculation as to the weight of his authority. I’m tempted to draw parallels with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan response to the protests in Gezi Park earlier this year. Erdoğan’s hubris, his inflated sense of self-importance, clouded his judgement and fomented a political crisis that might have been avoided if he had paid more attention and given more credence to what punters on the street were saying.

In fact, apart from both being responses to the domineering posturing of Russia, the ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine shared other parallels. An inspiration for many participants in both uprisings was the OTPOR movement that arose in Serbia in the late 1990s as a civic youth movement that used non-violent means to protest against the regime of Slobodan Milošević and that is credited with playing a pivotal role in his eventual downfall. After their success in Serbia OTPOR members provided inspiration and training in methods of non-violent resistance for like-minded groups in the ‘colour revolutions’ that broke out in the former-Soviet realm. OTPOR also inspired activists in the early 2000s in Albania, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and more recently, having morphed into an organisation called CANVAS. Under the direction of Srdja Popovic who was central to the genesis of OTPOR, the same activists and strategies were involved in protests in countries including Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

twitter-graffitiOf course, it’s a favoured tactic of un-democratic or authoritarian regimes to espy foreign plots in any instance of local resistance or dissent. Lazily dismissing discontent as the work of pernicious outside forces is a convenient way of avoiding the hard work of addressing bothersome social and political issues or admitting shortcomings in one’s own administration; it also has the benefit of rallying loyalists to the cause. Russia saw only foreign hands manipulating the ‘colour revolutions’ in the early 2000s, rather than acknowledging that free-thinking citizens of newly independent nations might actually want to strike out on their own. (Indeed, Russia remains convinced that Western governments continue to meddle in the former-Soviet realm.) And in Turkey earlier this year, Prime Minister Erdoğan pointed the finger at unspecified and ill-defined foreign lobby groups, accusing them of fomenting large demonstrations that went on for several weeks. Whether he believed his own cant or if it was a way of galvanising his supporters is difficult to discern, but during my time in Turkey in June I certainly encountered punters who parroted his lines. (I don’t know that Erdoğan is much of a student of local geopolitics, so I’m not sure he’d be that familiar with the ‘colour revolutions’, but he was certainly aware that, at the time that the Gezi protests were continuing, people power removed his buddy Mohammed Mursi from power in Egypt.)

In fact, seeing civic movements of this nature effectively removing unpopular regimes from power only makes unrepresentative governments more stridently blame external agents and foreign governments for all sorts of problems. Such assertions may grow louder as the political equilibrium is shifted. In the various ‘colour revolutions’ and beyond, it is undeniable that foreign nationals have participated and in some instances actively facilitated and organised popular resistance, but that is not to say that foreign governments have worked to undermine rival or neighbouring states on the geopolitical stage. Rather it appears that common aspirations, shared across borders by citizens of many nations, an empathy with others suffering under heavy-handed regimes, is at work and is prompting common people to action.

Neo-Ottomanism hanging in the balance

NEVER ONE alert to treading on toes, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while visiting Prizren  recently, caused a minor diplomatic furor by remarking that ‘Kosovo is Turkey’.

It’s a curious comment, to say the least, but in a region still beset by nationalist sensitivities, and in a territory that the Serbs still see as rightfully theirs, it displays a remarkable lack of diplomatic nouse. Serbia duly demanded an apology for the ‘scandal’ and declared its intention to pull out of tri-partite talks with Turkey and Bosnia, which began to great fanfare in 2010 with the aim of dispelling long-running hostility in the region.

Perhaps on some level Erdoğan has a point. To my interloper’s eye (not having ever visited Kosovo, mind), there are many similarities in landscape, architecture, artistic traditions and modes of everyday life across the Balkans/Turkey/the Caucasus.  In my experience as a visitor, the vibe(s) in Albania/Bosnia/Republika Srpska/Macedonia/northern Greece/Armenia/Georgia is/are not unlike that in Turkey. There may be more lamb and less pork on the grill in certain places, more church spires or minarets in others, but, as I see it, the pace of life, traditions of hospitality, the levels of gregariousness, neighbourliness and conviviality are remarkably consistent.

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Fortress of Old Prizren, 1905

Erdoğan riffing on affinities and/or commonalities – however clumsily – doesn’t necessarily equate to aggressive intent (which is how the Serbs have construed his comments), but it’s hardly statesmanlike talk, particularly given the traumatic history and tense geopolitics of Kosovo. Who knows if Erdoğan’s was an off-the-cuff remark, or if is just more evidence of a lack of strategic thinking, and an unhealthy degree of hubris (and thinking that he can say whatever comes into his head without repercussions).

The comment was another hiccup in Turkey’s efforts to buddy up to its neighbours, a policy begun under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and efforts to assume a leadership role in southeastern Europe. Davutoğlu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy began with what appeared self-generating momentum back in the day but has been scuppered in recent years as the Arab Spring has gone haywire. As one Turkish journalist points out, Davutoğlu can rightly claim that events beyond his control, particularly in the Arab world, have meant his aspirations are all but unattainable, but it’s also true that Erdoğan, and his bluntness, have made things less tenable in the case of Syria and now Serbia.

Whether Turkey’s ambitions to be a regional leader were ever realistic is difficult to say. As has been noted, at one time its brisk economic growth and the relative stability of its political arena certainly meant it was well placed, but it appears that any window of opportunity is now firmly slammed shut (or perhaps shattered). Some may breathe a sigh of relief at this, but ambitions on the part of Turkey in its near-abroad need not have been sinister. There has been much talk of neo-Ottomanism as either some post-modern form of imperialism, or at least a desire on the part of the Turks to exact some sort of revenge for earlier territorial and military retreats.

Implicit in such interpretations lies a degree of Islamophobia that construes any proactive Muslim-majority state to be intrinsically hegemonic or expansionary (with missionary intent). But it may be more reasonable to see that at its heart the zero-problems-with-neighbours policy is only neo-Ottoman in the sense that it involves rekindling relations with the states within what was once the Ottoman realm. These are Turkey’s immediate neighbours, so it only makes sense that Turkey enjoys good relations, cooperates on strategic issues and trades with them.

For all of the fallout from Erdoğan’s inopportune comments and the traumas in Syria and Egypt, Turkey maintains good relations with Georgia, and these look set to continue under newly incumbent President Georgy Margvelashvili. Turkey also continues to be a country of opportunity for Greeks fleeing the economic malaise in their own homeland. In recent weeks, Ankara has opened the doors for Greek doctors to practice in Turkey, and in fact it is well documented that increasing numbers of Greeks, many of whom have studied the Turkish language, are finding work in Istanbul and Izmir.

Meanwhile, in a recent diplomatic flurry, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has started patching up relations with Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the stage is now set for neo-neo-Ottomanism.

Meeting and mixing in Sarajevo

HIGH LEVEL delegations have been buzzing between Ankara and Sarajevo in recent weeks. There has been a round of diplomatic activity between Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia, not in response to any faux pas or fracas requiring delicate diplomatic manoeuvring, rather it has been part of regular tripartite meetings intended to foster economic and trade cooperation between these particular southeastern European nations. As well as signing an agreement in Ankara aimed at enhancing trade links, delegates declared themselves intent on forging a common, bright future and overcoming entrenched intercommunal prejudices. That’s gotta be a good thing.

In earlier posts I’ve written about Turkey’s increasing presence in the Balkans and the whole concept of neo-Ottomanism. This a term that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu allegedly dislikes, even while he is the architect of Turkey’s reaching out to its neighbours (most of whom were formerly subject territories). Neo-Ottomanism is busy terminology – there is a lot going on in there! – and it is certainly open to pejorative interpretations, although it need not always be. The Guardian recently ran an article looking at Turkey’s re-engagement with the Balkans, deeming the whole affair a “gentle Ottoman reprise”.

sarajevo-the-loversAs noted by The Guardian, Turkish investment has increased in the Balkans, particularly in Croatia and Serbia. Significantly Turkish business investors are not interested to the same degree in Bosnia. While there is much talk of shared culture and history between Turks and Bosnians, it would seem that Sarajevo doesn’t present the same economic opportunity or certainty that its former Yugoslav neighbours do. There is however a private university in Sarajevo that is backed by Turkish business men, and this is attracting Turkish students.

And of course, Turkish soap operas are all the rage in Bosnia, and in other countries across the Balkans (as I have also posted on before). It has been reported that the appeal of these shows, apart from intricate story lines and superb acting (you know, the soapy bits!), lies in the values that they are projecting. It would seem portrayals of patriarchal families and their assorted goings-on strike a note with viewers in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and even Serbia.

The biggest hit of all remains Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), the show which depicts the life of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. He was the very embodiment of a patriarchal fellow, but it could hardly be stated that his domestic arrangements were akin to the modern nuclear family. Still, patriarchy is carrying the day amongst Balkan soap opera watchers, and I can’t help feeling that there is something of a patriarchal, or at least paternalistic, element in Turkey’s return to the region. An increasingly confident Turkey sees itself as having a leadership role to play in the region, a source of wise counsel, a model to be emulated, perhaps…

sarajevo-chessMeanwhile, another legacy of the Turkish presence in the region, Sufism, is also reasserting itself in Bosnia. The mystical branch of Islam (to use a very simplistic, reductive definition) was always a significant presence throughout the Balkans, but during the traumatic war years of the 1990s a (hardline, conservative, literalist) Wahhabi element appeared. The pendulum appears to being swinging back now, Sufism, in particular the Mevlevi order (they being the dervishes who whirl), reappearing, with a new tekke (lodge) opening in Sarajevo.

And while a gentler strand of Islam may be re-emerging, it appears that ethnic divides and strictly nationalistic identities are not quite what they were previously in Bosnia. During the wars of the 1990s, distinct identities were asserted, often vehemently, but a canvassing of opinion in late 2012 found that 35 percent of people in Bosnia identified as on a national basis as Bosnians and Hercegovinians, rather than as ethnically Serbian, Croatian or Bosniak (Muslim). This was particularly the case with younger people. Bizarrely enough, people who identified themselves as such in the census completed in April will be categorised as ‘other’ in national records.

Of course there has always been a great deal of cultural overlap in Bosnia, despite what may be imagined after the internecine wars of the ‘90s. And even then, there were plenty who conceived of an identity broader than just narrow nationalistic ones. In besieged Sarajevo, Yugoslavian national football (soccer) player Predrag Pašić established a multi-ethnic football school. On its first day, despite the threat of snipers and mortar shells, the school attracted around 200 boys from across the city. As reported in Al Jazeera, Pašić “taught a philosophy of unity and teamwork through sport”. Sport was the great leveller – despite intercommunal conflict the Bosnian boys had something in common.