Same old story, 100 years on – “100 Yıllık Terane”

dscf0497I’ve been cruising past the sign for a week or so now – a huge billboard strikingly designed in red and black and white, located near a busy intersection on Istanbul’s Baghdad Avenue. It’s a long way from Baghdad, Iraq, of course, but once upon a time this road was probably the main route to that legendary city of the Near East. These days, Baghdad Ave, at least around where that billboard is, is the premier shopping district on the Asian side of the city – and a popular strip for young unattached wealthy males to prowl in their Porsches and Lamborghinis searching for an impressionable and willing young lass to whisk off to designer paradise.

The local council is unapologetically CHP – meaning they, and the citizens who elected them, are implacable foes of the AK Party that governs the country and manages the broader Istanbul Metropolitan region. So I suspect there are a few locals gnashing their teeth over this billboard – if they’ve actually noticed it, or managed to work out what it’s all about. I don’t want to undervalue the intelligence of those implacable foes – but sometimes I wonder whether their brains are actually engaged with their mouths.

The huge red and black billboard is advertising a book. That in itself is something of an oddity in a culture not especially given to reading for information or pleasure. I passed it several times myself before deciding to take a closer interest. I checked it out online, and then, my curiosity aroused, dropped into a nearby bookstore and purchased a copy: “100 Yıllık Terane” by Taha Ün – subtitled “This kind of coincidence is only seen in films”.

Well, I’m still a slow reader of Turkish, and the introductory pages are pretty heavy going – but Mr Ün, a journalist and amateur historian, I gather, has found a very interesting thesis. He is revisiting the closing years of the Ottoman Empire, in particular, a period of 33 years from 1876 to 1909 when Sultan Abdulhamid II was on the throne. He wasn’t the last Ottoman Sultan, and by no means a major threat to Europe, but he has possibly the worst reputation among the 36 scions of the House of Osman. Taha Ün has looked back on how that Abdulhamid was depicted in the Western press – and drawn 180 pages of fascinating parallels with the 15-year tenure of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Prime Minister first, and now President of the modern Republic of Turkey.

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Crusaders conquering CHRISTIAN Constantinople in 1204

It’s a subject that needs airing – and not only to a Turkish audience. In fact I suggest that the determination of Western opinion-leaders to blacken the image of Turkey and earlier Islamic civilisations is centuries-old. For two hundred years after the first Crusade in 1095 CE, Western “Christendom” launched wave after wave of ruinous invasion on sophisticated civilisations in the Near East, with little concern as to whether they were Muslim or Christian.

There was a period of two centuries or so after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 when Western powers, not yet in the ascendancy, were obliged to find ways of getting along with their powerful Muslim neighbour. That began to change, however, after a coalition of European forces won a decisive victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Thereafter Ottoman power went into slow decline – to the delight of rising Western Empires eager to add its territories and wealth to their own expanding spheres of influence.

Tourists in Istanbul tend to spend much of their time visiting historical sights in the Sultanahmet area. Ahmet I reigned from 1603 to 1617 and was responsible, among other achievements, for commissioning the famous “Blue Mosque”. He is not to be confused with Sultan Ahmet III, who ruled the Empire for twenty-seven years at the beginning of the 18th century until deposed by a military coup.

Ahmet III’s reign is commonly known to historians as the “Tulip Era”, in reference to a craze for the bulbs and flowers among Ottoman court society. The uprising of Janissary soldiers that overthrew Ahmet in 1730 is generally portrayed in Western histories as a popular revolt against “the excessive pomp and costly luxury” of the Sultan and his court. The figurehead of the uprising, Patrona Halil, a Janissary officer of Albanian extraction, apparently found time and leisure from his insurrectionary duties to pose for a romantic portrait by the French artist Jean Baptiste Vanmour.

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Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Perhaps surprisingly, then, Ahmet III had actually been doing his best to cultivate good relations with France – incidentally at a time when that nation was not notable for democratic treatment of its own citizens. Apart from growing tulips, and living in the lap of luxury – a lifestyle not altogether shunned by his French contemporary, Louis XIV – the Ottoman Sultan “left the finances of the Ottoman Empire in a flourishing condition . . . without excessive taxation or extortion procedures”. He was probably the first of his line to look Westward with an eye to emulating European progress. He was a patron of literature, architecture and the arts in general, promoted commerce and industry, and authorised the introduction of printing presses for producing books in the Ottoman language. During Ahmet’s reign the Ottomans came close to destroying the power of the emerging Russian Empire – and it is perhaps here that we may seek the reason for his negative portrayal in the West.

Apparently King Charles XII of Sweden was given sanctuary by the Ottomans after his army had been defeated by the Russians in 1709. Refusing to hand over the Swedish monarch brought Ahmet into a war with his northern neighbour, which was going badly for the Russians until the Safavid Persians attacked the Ottomans in the east. At least one historian has argued that the resulting peace treaty possibly turned the course of history, in that it saved Tsar Peter, who subsequently went on to become the Great Emperor of Russia, from possible capture and imprisonment.

That looks like quite an impressive list of achievements for a guy who ascended the throne at the age of 13; and it might seem a trifle unfair to write him off with a belittling reference to tulips and luxurious decadence. Russia had had close diplomatic relations with Persia since at least the middle of the 16th century. As their power increased, it is likely that they saw benefits accruing from stirring up conflict between the two Muslim empires to the south – and not impossible that the Shi’ite Persians hoped to win favour with Russia and territorial gains for themselves by striking the Sunni Ottomans while they were otherwise engaged. It is also possible that Western interests were served by fomenting internal strife against Sultan Ahmet when he looked as though he might be turning the tide of Ottoman decline. But it’s just a theory, you understand.

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Selimiye Barracks – still an Istanbul landmark

Anyway, let’s move forward another hundred years. By the beginning of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was really struggling. Western Europe was well into its industrial revolution; the Big Three, Britain, France and Russia, were expanding on all fronts; and military defeats by their troublesome eastern neighbour had become a thing of the past. Selim III ascended the throne in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, with reform on his mind, particularly in the fields of education and the military. The landmark four-towered army barracks on the Asian shore of the Bosporus near Kadıköy stands as a symbol of his efforts. They were cut short, however, by forces of conservatism within the Empire, the Janissary army, religious leaders and the hereditary elite, who, fearing the loss of their traditional power, joined forces to overthrow and murder him. Selim’s two successors both had brief reigns and came to nasty ends, before his great-nephew Mahmud II took over in 1808.

Bucking the trend of recent years, the 30th Sultan managed 31 years on the throne and died of natural causes. He carried out far-reaching reforms in administrative, fiscal and military matters. One of his major achievements was abolishing the Janissary corps, once-feared symbol of Ottoman military might, that had long since become more active as a force of reaction, overthrowing and sometimes assassinating reform-minded Sultans. Mahmud went on to set up a more equitable taxation system; curb the power of local governors; establish a modern army and navy; and institute clothing reforms that brought his subjects more into line with Western conventions. Interestingly, it was he who introduced the fez in place of the traditional turban – though that headgear itself later came to be seen as a symbol of Ottoman backwardness.

Once again, however, the machinations of European powers worked against Mahmud’s positive moves. “The Eastern Question” assumed increasing importance as a motive behind the foreign policies of Western governments. The essence of the question was: “When will the Ottoman Empire finally collapse and disintegrate – and which of us will get what parts of it when it does?” British, French and Russian governments might, of course, have different answers to this question, with the result that sometimes they worked together against the Ottomans; and sometimes supported the Ottomans against each other, bolstering them up to suit their own interests while doing their best to undermine them and assist the break-up of the Empire from within.

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Prince Otto of Bavaria – King of “independent” Greece, 1830

The Greek War of Independence that began in 1821 illustrated the complexities of the Eastern Question. Russia, always keen to get access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, saw advantage in championing the Sultan’s Eastern Orthodox Christian subjects to rebel, and bring the Bosporus Straits and the Aegean Sea under Russian control. Britain and France wanted to keep Russia bottled up in its frozen wastes. A compromise was brought about when the navies of the three Great Powers combined to smash the Ottoman and Egyptian navies, and create an “independent Greek” state. Just how “independent” became clear when a Roman Catholic Prince from Bavaria was installed on the throne of the new kingdom, whose finances were supported by loans from Britain and the Rothschild bank.

The very name “Greece” in fact carried little or no significance for the “Greeks” themselves, who preferred (and still prefer) variations on the theme of “Hellas”. British aristocrats supporting the “Greek” struggle had confused ideas about returning modern-day locals to the pagan glories of mythological ancient times they remembered hazily from their Etonian school days. Modern Hellenes laboured under the misconception that they would be permitted to re-establish a Christian Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople. Dream on!

Nevertheless, a precedent was set for the Great Powers to support downtrodden Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, encouraging them to rebel and bring down the wrath of the Ottoman government on their heads – whereupon said great Powers would be justified in getting involved with a nationalist struggle on humanitarian grounds.

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So, which empire showed more humanity?

This new strategy of the Western powers proved a major nightmare for Mahmud’s son, Abdulmejid (Abdülmecid), Sultan from 1839 to 1861. The new monarch is remembered in Turkish history as the initiator of Tanzimat (Reorganisation), an ambitious programme of reforms encompassing finance, the civil and criminal law, the establishment of modern universities, equal treatment for religious minorities in the Empire, and the abolition of slavery. According to Wikipedia, he had “plans to send humanitarian aid of £10,000 to Ireland during its Great Famine, but later agreed to reduce it to £1,000 at the insistence of British diplomats wishing to avoid embarrassing Queen Victoria, who had made a donation of £5,000.”

His attempts to combat the rise of separatist nationalist movements, however, by legislating for equal rights, and promoting “Ottomanism” as a unifying doctrine were undone by Great Power support for Christian minorities. While Britain and France were lending support in the Crimean War to contain Russian expansion, the Russians themselves were driving out the Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus, and, following the example of “Greek independence”, inciting Armenian Christians in eastern Anatolia to rise up against their lawful government.

Abdulmejid died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 and was succeeded by his brother, Abdülaziz. Despite his continued attempts to modernise the Empire, Ottoman travails continued. He attempted to cultivate ties with France – which was undermined by France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Britain, as always, proved an untrustworthy ally, by this time more interested in acquiring Ottoman territories after the construction of the Suez Canal. The British Government originally opposed the French project but, later took over the canal, and extended its influence into Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Increasingly desperate, the Ottoman government turned to Russia for assistance, but Russian support for nationalist independence movements in the Balkans meant there was little hope to be gained from that quarter. Abdulaziz struggled on for fifteen years before mounting crises at home and abroad led to his deposition in 1876. There is some disagreement over his subsequent death – did he top himself, or was he “offed”?

Whatever the case, the once mighty empire was in an almighty mess. Abdulaziz’s nephew lasted 93 days on the throne before being ousted on the grounds of insanity. His younger brother was crowned Abdulhamid II on 31 August 1876. Within fifteen months the Ottomans had fought and lost a disastrous war with Russia, whose forces were massed at the very gates of Istanbul/ Constantinople. Only last minute interference by the British Navy averted total defeat – but most of Ottoman territory in the Balkans was lost, and the Brits made off with the island of Cyprus.

Which brings us back to that book. There seems to be some revision of history under way in Turkey these days. Of necessity, the founders of the Republic dissociated themselves from the Ottoman Empire, on whose ashes they hoped to build a new nation. In looking to the West for inspiration and guidance, they took on board Western perceptions of Ottoman history depicting its rulers as corrupt, decadent and brutal. An unfortunate side effect of this process was a loss of identity, a feeling of inferiority that manifested itself in attempts to leapfrog 900 years of history and establish a semi-mythological connection to Turkic forebears in Central Asia. All of which bolstered Western stereotypes of swarthy, camel-riding barbarians not fit to be granted entry into Europe.

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Sultan Abdulhamid II

An important new industry in Turkey is producing television drama series that have been finding surprisingly enthusiastic audiences, not only at home, but in the Middle East and as far away as South America. Yesterday the first episode of a new historical drama was screened: “Payitaht: Abdülhamid”. The title is somewhat cryptic – possibly implying that, for better or worse, this guy WAS the sole governing power of the Empire at that time. Apparently the series deals with the last thirteen years of that controversial Sultan’s reign, from 1896 to his deposition in 1909. Another sign, perhaps, that Turkey is no longer satisfied to be defined by Western stereotypes.

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A Stroll through Nature and History – Yıldız Park and Abdülhamit II

The storks are back. I saw a muster of them a week or so ago. Or it could have been a phalanx. According to Wikipedia, the terms are interchangeable. Whatever, there were hundreds of them circling in the sky over the financial district of Levent as I headed home from work. In fact the birds don’t nest in Istanbul, but they gather here twice a year as they depart for, or return from their annual migration to warmer climes for the winter.

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Spring tulips in Yıldız Park

So another spring is with us in Turkey. The swallows flew in a week before the storks, Persephone is on leave from Hades, and at least two ‘cemre’ (djemreh) have fallen. What’s a ‘cemre’, you may ask. Well, despite its being a Turkish word, I have yet to find anyone who can actually give a definition. Nevertheless, three of them are said to fall in the spring time, warming the air, the water and the earth – and then it’s summer.

In recent years the Istanbul Metropolitan Council has sponsored a tulip festival, and this year they’ve planted 8.5 million bulbs in parks around the city. This man-made riot of colour supplements the display of the ubiquitous erguvan (Judas tree) that splashes both banks of the Bosporus with dense bunches of purple blossom. You’ve got a brief two-week window of opportunity, so if you’re in town, you need to get out and feast your eyes. This year our choice settled on Yıldız Park.

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Yıldız sincabı – Check out the squirrels

Yıldız is an interesting and picturesque area located on the slopes above the coastal districts of Beşiktaş and Ortaköy on the European side of Istanbul. Despite hysterical claims three years ago that the government was destroying the city’s last green areas, Yıldız Park is just one of its many beautiful natural reserves. These 29 hectares (73 acres) of semi-wilderness and ordered gardens are what remain of a forest formerly used for hunting by Byzantine and Ottoman aristocrats. Probably what saved this remnant for posterity was being chosen as a safe haven by one of the last Ottoman Sultans.

Abdülhamit II was the 34th Padishah, and one of its longest-reigning, ascending the throne in 1876 with the empire facing external threats on all its borders, as well internal rebellions, and managing to survive until deposed in 1909. In spite of, or possibly because of, holding a beleaguered fort for 33 years as the Ottoman Empire crumbled around him, Abdülhamit is regarded in the West as some kind of devil incarnate – and his time on the throne, even in Turkey, as a period to be quietly avoided.

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Sultan Abdülhamit II, 2nd from the right

Nevertheless, I have to tell you, I’ve got some sympathy for the man. A little like George VI of England, Abdülhamit ascended the throne somewhat unexpectedly. However, George’s rise to monarchic splendour came as a result of his older brother’s infra dig marriage to an American divorcee. Abdülhamit’s elder sibling was forcibly removed from office after a brief 93 days on the throne. This was the second such event in a matter of months, the royal princes’ uncle, Abdülaziz, having been deposed by his ministers earlier in the year. Uncle Aziz was found dead five days later – whether by his own hand or that of another, history does not tell us. So it was an inauspicious beginning for the 34 year-old Abdülhamit, and the fact that he retained his throne for 33 years is testament at least to his commitment and determination.

Things were not going well for the Ottoman Empire, and had not been for some time. The Great Powers of Europe, in particular, Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire (where are they now?), and Russia, were keen to see it disappear, and to pick up the pieces for themselves. After 1870, two Johnnie-come-latelies, Italy and Germany, appeared on the scene, with similar intentions. All that really stood between the Ottomans and final dissolution was the self-seeking determination of each of those European powers to see that they got the best bits and the others didn’t.

So the Ottomans survived Russia’s expansionist plans in the 1850s because Britain and France decided it was in their interests to help out. They were fast losing interest, however. Russia’s pretext for starting the Crimean War, its ‘altruistic’ desire to champion the Ottoman’s oppressed Christian minorities, was recognised as a clever ploy, and that was the beginning of the end.

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Yıldız Palace and Hamidiye Mosque – fading glories of the 600-year Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire had for centuries been an obstacle to European incursions into Asia, and to Russian desire for access to the Mediterranean Sea. When the Suez Canal was opened under French control in 1869, that region suddenly assumed even greater importance for European trade. John D. Rockefeller founded his Standard Oil Company a year later, and ‘black gold’ slowly began to assume crucial significance. Put two and two together, and you can see why the downfall of the declining Ottoman Empire was pretty much signed and sealed. – and why its 34th Sultan was on a hiding to nothing when he got the big job.

Interestingly, despite his reputation in some circles for despotism and bloody massacres of innocent minorities, there had been expectations that Abdülhamit would continue the modernisation and democratisation processes set in motion by his father Abdülmecit (ruled 1839-61). Circumstances were against him, however.

  • In 1860 Christian-minority Maronites rose up in Lebanon and established a peasant republic. Pretty advanced stuff for Middle Eastern peasants in those days! Britain and France threatened to intervene on their behalf, and the Ottomans were obliged to accept a Christian governor in Lebanon.
  • In 1860 there was a rebellion on the island of Crete in support of enosis – union with the recently established ‘independent’ kingdom of Greece. ‘Christian’ Greeks claimed that Muslims had massacred Greeks, in spite of which, the latter managed to seize control of the island with the assistance of thousands of Greek troops from the mainland.
  • The Russian invasion of the Caucasus saw Crimean and Circassian Muslims massacred and displaced, and hundreds of thousands of them sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after the Russians final victory in 1864.
  • The ‘Balkan Crisis’ began in 1875 as the Habsburgs and Russia attempted to annex Ottoman territory. Public opinion in Europe was aroused by reports that the Ottoman administration was using bashi-bazouk troops to commit atrocities against the innocent local Christians. In fact there were atrocities committed by both sides, of course. The bashi-bazouks admittedly had a long-standing grudge since most of them were recently settled Crimeans and Circassians who had seen first-hand what Christians did to Muslims.
  • In June 1876, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire with the tacit support of Austria-Hungary and Russia. The European Powers held a conference in Istanbul/Constantinople to sort the issue out, but neglected to invite the Ottomans.
  • Meanwhile, in 1877, the Russians opened a new front threatening the Ottomans in the Caucasus. Their forces, led by Armenian commanders, captured several Ottoman towns in the east, and laid siege to others. What happened to the Muslims out there is generally overlooked in Western historical accounts – but it may well have contributed to later events when the Ottomans regained control.
  • Back in the west, Russian forces were at the gates of the Ottoman capital, whatever you like to call it (Constantinople? Istanbul?), and it was only the threat of intervention by the British Royal Navy that brought about a truce. And while everyone was looking the other way, the Brits grabbed the island of Cyprus.

The cost of all this to the Ottoman administration was disastrous: great losses of territory, not to mention prestige; a huge influx of impoverished refugees from the new ‘Christianised’ countries; enormous expenses leading to crippling debt; and a reputation in the West for savagery and barbarity Turks are still struggling to live down.

So poor Sultan Abdülhamit was up against it right from the start. Other supposedly enlightened nations have resorted to a state of emergency and suspension of freedoms with less reason – and yes, our man did suspend the recently introduced constitution. Well, I guess there are times when democracy just doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. And it was obvious that even his own ‘loyal’ governing classes were all-too-ready-and-willing to depose their monarch in times of trouble.

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Judas trees flowering in Yıldız Park

But what about Yıldiz Park, and Istanbul in the springtime? What happened to that story? Well, the new sultan clearly felt that his father’s palace, Dolmabahçe, designed by his Armenian architects, and beautifully located on a spectacular Bosporus-shore location, was a little vulnerable. Consequently he took the decision to built a new home for himself a little further from the sea higher up in the forest. Possibly by this time, Armenians were shifting their loyalties, and responsibility for the royal building programme had been handed over to an Italian, Raimondo D’Aronco.

The palace complex comprised a number of buildings including accommodation for visiting dignitaries, a theatre and opera house, and a porcelain factory. Most of these buildings are now open to the public, apart from one retained by the government for receptions and office space. The Chalet Pavilion, where the sultan lived with his family, is now a museum, as is the carpentry workshop. Among Abdülhamit’s many hobbies and interests, he was a skilled carpenter/cabinet-maker and much of the furniture in the palace was made with his own hands. The porcelain factory still produces exclusive pieces for the high-end market – though more European than Ottoman in design, and they don’t appeal to me much.

In spite of his evident interest in Western technology and culture, Abdülhamit began to turn increasingly towards the practice of Islam, and his role as Caliph, leader of the world’s Muslims. This is hardly surprising, given that Christian subjects of the empire, despite having been allowed to build their schools and churches, practice their religion, speak their languages, educate their children, hold important positions in the empire, make pot-loads of money, and generally mind their own business for centuries, were beginning to seek support from foreign imperialists.

Interestingly Abdülhamit, in his capacity of Caliph, is said to have supported the United States’ conquest of the Philippines by requesting that Muslims there accept and support US sovereignty – which they duly did, and scant thanks the Ottoman Sultan got in return. It just goes to show, huh?

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Abdülhamit’s personal spiritual teacher

Anyway, the Sultan, as one might expect of an educated man, was interested in the mystical aspects of religion, and in fact was a follower of one of the Sufi dervish sects. The Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque, on the right as you walk up the hill from Beşiktaş, was dedicated to the Shadhili (Şazeli) Sufi order, and the Sultan’s personal spiritual guide, Sheikh Hamza Zafir, is buried in the grounds[1]. The mosque itself is named for Ertuğrul Gazi, father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Further reflecting Abdülhamit’s focus on his Ottoman roots, another mosque in the grounds of the Central Military HQ further up the hill, bears the name of Orhan, son of Osman, and the Empire’s second sultan.

A third mosque, grandest of the three, and worth a visit, except that it is currently undergoing extensive restoration, is the imperial Yıldız Hamidiye, completed in 1886 in a combination of Neo-Gothic and traditional Ottoman architecture. The long, narrow Serencebey Park that now isolates these historic buildings from the frenetic traffic of Barbaros Boulevard used to be a public square, and was the site of an assassination attempt on the Sultan in 1905 by Armenians seeking revenge for the much publicised ‘Hamidian Massacres’ – which perhaps need to be seen in the context of our earlier historical discussion.

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Turkey’s President Erdoğan hosting Germany’s Merkel at Yıldız Palace

I suggest a walk starting from the ferry buildings in Beşiktaş, up the hill through the Serencebey Park where, apart from the mosques, you will pass the statue of Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, revolutionary poet, politician and diplomat, who spent some years in voluntary exile in Paris because of his opposition to Abdülhamit. Clearly there is ambivalence in Turkey about their Ottoman heritage. After passing the campus of Yıdız Technical University, take a right at the traffic lights and cross over the motorway leading to the Bosporus Bridge. You’ll catch some intriguing glimpses of the bridge and the strait before arriving at the gate of Yıldız Park. Enjoy the peace, the trees, the flowers and the wildlife. Visit the porcelain factory shop. Stop for a coffee, a snack or a meal at one of the several cafes and restaurants. Pay a visit to the Chalet Museum. Emerge at sea level beside another stylish little mosque of the period, Küçük Mecidiye, opposite the gates of Çırağan Palace, now a five-star Kempinski hotel. Stroll back to Beşiktaş to complete your circuit. It’ll be a day well spent.

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[1] As an aside, Sheikh Shadili, founder of the sect, is reputed to have discovered coffee drinking in the Arabian town of Mocha, way back in the 13th century, whence the practice journeyed slowly westwards, eventually reaching America – another thing they don’t seem very grateful for.

Many Russians feeling nostalgic for communist past

An ‘Aha!’ moment. Wondering why Vladimir Putin has been so keen on military involvement in Syria? Why he’s been bombing the sh** out of Bashar el Assad’s opponents? And why he’s rattling his sabre so aggressively at Turkey?

Looks like he may be taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher’s book on political survival. Without that victorious mini-war against Argentina back in 1982, Britain’s Iron Lady might well have a been a one-term has-been. This little piece from Al Jazeera:

b7a846c80df04ff5534a041efa13dd75Amid a worsening economy, Kremlin seems concerned about potential resurgence of Communist party as elections near.

Moscow – Saturday marks the 63rd anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death, but while the infamous dictator is dead and gone, communism in Russia is not.

A worsening economy has many Russians feeling nostalgic for the Soviet days of old. Recent polls suggest half of all Russians still think they were actually better off under the Soviet system.

Maria Krechatova, a curator at a Moscow exhibition of Stalin-era art, said: “Interest in Joseph Stalin is increasing. It is understandable. We celebrated the 70th anniversary of the World War II and we should not forget who was at the helm of the country and under whose leadership the victory was achieved.”

With parliamentary elections looming, a possible Communist party resurgence is starting to worry the Kremlin.

Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, singled out the party recently, saying it is the main electoral threat to the ruling United Russia party.

For his part, President Vladimir Putin surprised many recently with a rare attack on Lenin, saying he planted “an atomic bomb under Russia” with the way he had stitched the Soviet Union together.

Black Propaganda Against Turkey

I have some sympathy for Vladimir Putin. He inherited a Russia on the bones of its bum. They’d lost the Cold War, were suffering from runaway inflation, and the USA was crowing about being the last remaining superpower. Putin, with his manly pecs and his uncompromising attitude to the West was the iron tonic his people needed to give them back a modicum of self-respect. I could totally see his point in Ukraine. Not that I support the Russian position, but access to the warm waters of the Black Sea and the Aegean has been the driving force of Russian foreign policy for 300 years, and there’s no way they are going to let the gnomes of Brussels create a Euro-zone barrier in that region.

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Reputation built on machismo

I couldn’t suppress a chuckle when the Russian president thumbed his nose at the Obama administration by giving sanctuary to Wikileaks hero Edward Snowden. I can understand his chagrin at the shooting down of a Russian military aircraft on active service by a Turkish F16. Turkey? The last time they beat us was 1710, and the last time we fought a war with them in 1878, we were outside the gates of Istanbul when the British intervened to save them. Putin’s charisma is heavily based on machismo – which has been somewhat tarnished by having that plane shot down, and Putin isn’t happy.

I have been blizzarded recently with links to blogs purporting to prove conclusively that Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan and his family are making ‘gadzillions’ of dollars out of an illicit oil trade with ISIS/Daesh, thereby funding that organization and allowing it to continue its dastardly fight against the free world. Well, I don’t have the time or inclination to read all those chatterers. If I had a dollar for every lie disseminated about Turkey’s AK Party since they became the government in 2003 I might not be as rich as Carlos Slim, or even Mr Erdoğan, but I’d have a good wallet-full for a night on the town.

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Enlightened twitterers bringing tolerance and democracy to a troubled world

One article I did read recently purported to ‘trace how some more authoritarian countries and groups have used the freedom of social media to control their populations’. The four ‘baddies’ were China, Russia, ISIS, and, top of the list, Turkey. The bright spot, according to Time correspondent Ian Bremner, is India, whose ‘Modi government loves social media—and the Indian public loves them for it.’ Proof of this, allegedly, is that India has 143 million social media users. Well, I’m sorry to tell Mr Bremner that that represents a mere one in every nine Indians, compared to the impoverished 23% of the population who subsist on less than $1.25 a day.

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There are far worse, but I couldn’t bring myself to show you

So I question the wisdom that suggests the number of Facebook and Twitter users accurately reflect the level of democracy in a country. Social media and ‘flash mobs’ were credited with bringing democracy to despot-ruled countries in the Middle East and North Africa during the so-called Arab Spring. Five years on, what’s changed? Egypt’s brief flirtation with democracy was quickly stamped out by the military. Libya since the demise of Muammar Gaddafi has descended into chaos, if I can believe the Libyan students I have in my university classes.

I see very little on Facebook indicating that middle-aged White Turk matrons have much awareness of realities in their own country, let alone the world outside. In spite of that, they are delighted to repeat accusations that the Turkish government is financially and militarily supporting ISIS/Daesh – led by its president Tayyip Erdoğan and his sons and daughters raking in their ‘gadzillions’ from immoral black market activities.

The blogosphere is buzzing with accusations that Turkey is funding ISIS/Daesh by buying oil from . . . whoever is selling it. One item I was advised to read spoke of ‘ISIS oil: the alleged Erdoğan family and UK business connections’. A key sentence said To help understand the report below, first click here to see maps of the oil routes from ISIS to outside world.’ Well, I clicked on the link, but surprisingly (or not surprisingly) none of the maps showed any oil routes passing through any part of Turkey. So if that was a key basis for the Turkey connection, it seems to be based on a falsehood. The two ‘experts’ cited as sources, Dr Nafeez Ahmed and William Engdahl, journalists both, have, it seems, aroused some controversy in the past over the accuracy and credibility of their ‘research’ and claims.

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Journeys of a barrel of Daesh oil – did NOT pass through Turkey

Another of those blogs I checked out informed me, ‘This how ISIS smuggles oil into Turkey’. Barrels of black gold are apparently pumped into underground pipes running under the Turkey-Syrian border, which are then emptied by Turks on the other side. Realistically, I can’t see vast quantities of oil being moved by that method.

Undoubtedly there is smuggling across Turkey’s eastern frontier. There is a 1,700 km border adjoining Iraq, Iran and Syria, much of it passing through extremely inhospitable and mountainous country where the rule of law has a tenuous hold at best. Critics insist on calling it a ‘porous’ border, with the implication that the Turkish government is somehow at fault. A major incentive for smuggling into Turkey is the high tax imposed on cigarettes, alcohol and petrol*. The Turkish government has long believed that income from this illicit trade goes towards funding its own local terrorist organization, the Kurdish separatist PKK. As recently as 2011, Turkey’s military attracted some unwelcome publicity after their air force strafed a donkey-mounted convoy of ‘cigarette smugglers’ near Uludere in South East Turkey, killing 35 villagers. It’s all very well to talk about ‘porous’ borders, but when you try to discourage the leaks, you get slagged off for that too. Let’s ask the US government how easy it is to control their 3,000 km border with Mexico.

Sinking boat

Greek coastguards allegedly sinking refugee boat

Who can know if fighters are crossing from Turkey to help on the other side? And if so, who are they helping? Kurds, ISIS, or the Anti-Assad opposition? And how many have crossed? Who’s counting? What we do know is that more than two million refugees have fled to Turkey from the chaos and violence in Syria, seriously challenging Turkey’s resources of money and goodwill – and Western countries have been studiously ignoring pleas for help for more than four years. Now they seem to be blaming Turkey for its ‘porous’ 8,300 km sea coast, which should somehow be closed to stop asylum-seekers reaching Europe.

A Reuters article written by a lady with a distinctly Russian name (Maria Tsvetkova) trumpets: ‘Russia says it has proof Turkey involved in Islamic State oil trade.’ 350 words of the 400-word article are devoted to what various Russian spokespersons have to say, and, right at the end, if you get that far, you can read:

“‘The United States said it rejected the premise that the Turkish government was in league with the militants to smuggle oil. “We frankly see no evidence, none, to support such an accusation,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.”

A Time article published yesterday also says Turkey is not buying ISIS/Daesh oil:

‘Analysts speaking to TIME say it’s very unlikely Ankara has anything to do with ISIS oil — and Putin’s allegation about the incident carries no weight. “To go as far to say that Turkey would shoot down a plane to protect its oil supply is unfounded,” says Valerie Marcel, an associate fellow in energy, environment and resources at London-based think tank Chatham House.

Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations in the London School of Economics and Political Science, agrees that the claims amount to a conspiracy theory. “I think it would be very misleading to say there is an unholy alliance with Turkey and the Islamic State,” he says.’

President Erdoğan says that, in fact, it is Russians who are involved in assisting the ISIS/Daesh oil trade, and names two Russian passport holders who have been targeted with sanctions by the US Treasury. Despite all the anti-Turkey hysteria circulating on the Internet, leaders of the Western allies seem to have a more positive attitude. Well, one might dispute whether that is actually a good thing, but as far as Turkey is concerned, it’s a welcome change. US administrations have long wanted their Muslim NATO ally to join with them in their Middle East activities, and they are delighted that Turkey is not only participating with military support, but is allowing them to launch raids from Turkey’s Incirlik base. It even seems that the EU is softening its position on membership for Turkey. That may also be a mixed blessing these days, especially since Montenegro has apparently received a firm invitation – but it does represent a change of heart after more than 50 years of European cold-shouldering.

Erdoğan Peres

Turkey’s Erdoğan upsets Israel’s Peres, Davos, 2009

Nevertheless, the black propaganda against Turkey continues to pour out from the digital sewers of the World Wide Web. One of the more outlandish accusations I came across this week was a suggestion that Turkey could be about to invade Bulgaria. No evidence offered, of course. Pure unfounded speculation – but that’s what’s out there, so be careful what you believe, or reblog.

Russia, I suppose, is merely the most recent entrant into the game of demonizing Turkey. Ever since President Erdoğan called out President Shimon Peres for his country’s inhuman aggression against Palestinians at the 2009 Davos Conference, the Zionist propaganda machine has been churning out lies and misinformation aimed at discrediting Turkey’s government.

The Huffington Post published a piece the other day by a Dr Joseph Olmert, a barely coherent rave attacking the ‘failed policy’ of zero problems with neighbours and the ‘neo-Ottomanism’ foreign policy; Turkey’s complicity with ISIS actions; the ‘intolerable’ support to the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt; dredging up Turkey’s relations with Cyprus, alleged invasions of Greece’s ‘airspace’, and ‘provocative’ attempts to bring aid to Israel-blockaded Gaza.

Well, there are two sides to every story, and there can’t be much doubt about which side Dr Olmert is on – ‘A native of Israel, he was formerly a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and Bar-Ilan Universities in his home country [and] served in senior positions in the Israeli government, such as the Director of Communications under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Policy Advisor to Defense Minister Moshe Arens.’ 

sephardic-migration

Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain found refuge in the Ottoman Empire

Isn’t it interesting how a crisis can bring together strange bedfellows? Armchair liberals who were only recently condemning Putin’s Russia for its aggression in the Ukraine are now seemingly eager to believe the Russian president’s outrageous accusations against the government of Turkey. Jewish people, whose ancestors were persecuted for a hundred years in Russian pogroms, are now apparently ready to side with Vladimir Putin against a people with a proud 500-year history of welcoming them and defending them against European oppression.

Back in June 2012, A Turkish F4 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down near the Turkish Syrian border. The Syrian military alleged that the Turkish plane had violated Syrian airspace, but there is no record of a warning being given. There were suggestions at the time that the F4 had been shot down by a laser-guided or heat-seeking missile from a Russian warship. The Turkish government swallowed their pride and took no retributive action. In July 2014 a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was shot down over Ukraine by a Russian-made missile.

In the case of the Russian Su24, it was a military aircraft engaged on a bombing mission. The US State Department has confirmed Turkey’s claim that they gave multiple warnings to the pilot, but received no response. The area is a war zone; there are Turkish towns close to the border that have been hit by shells and missiles from the conflict. In this case, Turkey’s military was exercising its right to protect its own airspace, and President Putin has no grounds for anger.

_________________________

  • The people of Denmark get around a similar problem by shopping across the border in Germany. Turks have no such luxury.

Syrian Refugees in Turkey – Only Muslims after all

In September 2012 Angelina Jolie visited Turkey in her capacity as United Nations Special Envoy for Refugees. At that time the civil war in Syria had been going on for eighteen months, and there were approximately 80,000 men, women and children who had fled across the border to escape the violence. Ms Jolie and the UN High Commissioner António Guterres expressed high praise for the twelve well-organised camps set up by the Turkish Government to house the displaced Syrians. At the same time, they also urged other UN member states to recognise the need to provide tangible assistance to neighbouring countries like Turkey that were directly affected by the influx of destitute refugees.
Syrian refugee family in Istanbul 2014
That was then – this is now. There are currently 224,000 Syrians in those camps near Turkey’s southeastern border. The UN estimates that to be less than one third of the 700,000 they believe are in the country. The Turkish Government puts the number higher, at around 900,000. Whichever is correct, it is evident that those government camps, however, well-organised, are no longer able to cope with the vast numbers fleeing the war – and hundreds of thousands of homeless, jobless Syrians have now made their way to the larger cities in search of work and accommodation.
Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been in Jordan meeting with Mr Guterres and other regional foreign ministers. According to an article in Hürriyet Daily News, ‘the U.N. refugee chief criticized the international community for “not contributing enough” to solve the issue’.
“Let me be very clear, there has been very little support. There must be massive support from the international community at the level of government budgets and development projects related to education, health, water and infrastructure,” he said. He stressed that the problem of refugees was not only the responsibility of regional countries, but of “all countries in the world.”
“To share the responsibility that has fallen upon the neighboring countries, every country should open its doors to Syrian refugees,” Guterres added.’
For his part, Mr Davutoğlu suggested that what was really needed was international aid to protect Syrian citizens in their own country. While Turkey maintains an open border policy and does not turn refugees away, the huge numbers are placing great stress on the economy, and there is a danger that resentment against them will grow and lead to undesirable outcomes.
This influx of refugees, however, is by no means just a recent phenomenon. The first major wave of immigration was large numbers of Sephardic Jews fleeing from religious persecution in Spain at the end of the 15th century. The so-called ‘reconquest’ of the Iberian Peninsula involved the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews whose families had lived there for centuries. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Jewish settlers into his empire, reputedly saying “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched us”. By the 19th century, the Ottoman city of Selanik (now Thessaloniki in Greece) was home to the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Many of them relocated to Istanbul after the Greek occupation, and later to the new state of Israel. There are still, however, many synagogues to be found in Istanbul, their congregations worshipping in the archaic Spanish dialect known as Ladino.
It is generally agreed that the Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman around the middle of the 16th century, although it continued to extend its territorial reach until the armies of Mehmet IV were notoriously turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683.
From that time, the seemingly invincible Ottomans began losing battles and ground to, in particular, the rising and expanding powers of Habsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia. Habsburg expansion occurred primarily in the Balkan region, much of which had been under Ottoman rule for centuries. For the Russians, a major goal was annexing territories that would give them access to warm water ports on the Black Sea and ultimately the Mediterranean. These territories, Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus, while not directly under Ottoman control, were inhabited predominantly by Muslims and definitely within their sphere of influence.
As Habsburg and Russian forces seized control of these regions, vast numbers of Muslims were killed or uprooted. It has been estimated that between five and seven million refugees flooded into the shrinking Ottoman Empire between 1783 and 1913. More than half of these were Crimean Tatars and Circassians displaced by the Russian southward advance. Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration in the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, in an article entitled Refugees, Exiles, and other Forced Migrants in the Late Ottoman Empire, suggests that an understanding of historical context is essential in the study of refugees. She argues that  ‘by and large the circumstances, experiences, and influences of refugees and exiles in modern history are ignored’. Her article focuses on ‘the forced migration of millions of largely Muslim refugees and exiles from the contested borderland between the Ottoman Empire and Tzarist Russia’. In particular, Professor Chatty examines the plight of the Circassians, hundreds of thousands of whom sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after Russian conquest of the Caucasus was completed in 1864.
In March 1821, encouraged by Lord Byron and other romantically poetical, classically indoctrinated English aristocrats, ‘Christians’ on the ‘Greek’ peninsula began a revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Certainly there were decidedly unromantic atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict, but the end result was that Muslims, whose families had lived there for centuries, and others perceived as Ottoman sympathisers (eg Albanians and Jews) were pretty much exterminated on that side of the Aegean Sea. Those who managed to escape sought refuge on the opposite coast.
This is the context in which we need to the view the later sufferings of Armenians and Orthodox Christians in the early years of the 20thcentury. Ottoman Muslims (who had long coexisted with Christian minorities within their own borders) had learned that defeat by ‘Christian’ powers would quickly result in extermination or expulsion of Muslims from the conquered lands. They had also learned that a tactic of those powers was to incite Christian minorities to rebel, then claim the right to ‘defend their co-religionists’ from reprisals.
A sad result of Britain’s encouragement of the Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919 was the event known to Greeks as ‘The Asia Minor Catastrophe’, when, after their defeat in 1922, more than a million Orthodox Christians were forced to relocate to Greece, their places taken by almost half a million Muslims sent the other way. Other refugee flows to Turkey occurred as a result of state-sponsored terrorism in Bulgaria and Romania from the 1940s to the 1980s when Muslims were forced to change their Turkish-Arabic names. It is estimatedthat 230,000 Muslim refugees and immigrants sought refuge in Turkey from the Balkans between 1934 and 1945, and 35,000 from Yugoslavia from 1954 to 1956. In 1989 a further 320,000 Bulgarian Muslims fled to Turkey and perhaps 20,000 from Bosnia.
In the end, of course, these events are all in the past, and to be fair, some Bulgarian Muslims were able to return to their former homes after the collapse of the Communist regime. In general, however, the developing economy of Turkey (and before it, the struggling Ottoman Empire) has been obliged to deal with huge inflows of impoverished refugees displaced by events occurring beyond their boundaries and control. In large part, they have done this without complaint and with little assistance from wealthier nations. Now, it seems, they are doing it once more.
Again, to be scrupulously fair, the British Government agreed in February to take five hundred of ‘the most traumatised Syrian refugees’. The decision came, however, only after stiff and protracted resistance to UN pleas for support. Even New Zealand has offered to accept 100, which, on a per head of population basis, is about three times more generous. Still, when you set it against the numbers flooding into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (without getting into a comparison of per capita GDP) both look like token gestures.

I too feel sorry for those two hundred schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, but I can’t help feeling that anger in Western nations seems disproportionate when compared with their lukewarm response to the unfolding human tragedy in Syria. And I can’t help wondering whether, had those Nigerian girls been Muslim instead of Christian, the cries for action would have been quite so strident and widespread.

Into the Valley of Death – Another Crimean War?

What a strange education I had, or so I think now on looking back. When I was a lad in New Zealand there were still people referring to England (or Britain) as ‘Home’. My first primary school headmaster used to visit classes occasionally to brandish a leather strap he referred to as his ‘medicine’, and get us kids piping ‘Rule Britannia’ in our reedy little antipodean voices. Having pupils memorise chunks of poetry was a popular pedagogical technique. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ added to our sense of belonging to an empire on which the sun was still struggling to set, defended by men, any one of whom was worth ten or twenty of any other race on earth, and capable, when the chips were down, of staggering out into an Antarctic blizzard uttering a self-sacrificing epigram in ringing tones.
British lion defends Ottoman ‘turkey’ against
imperialist Russian bear
Well, there was one line in that immortal poem suggesting that ‘someone had blundered’, but most of it was clearly written to perpetuate the myth of men committed to facing, if necessary, overwhelming odds, and fighting or dying in defence of Empire. I have checked again and found one reference to the opposition – ‘Cossack and Russian’ – but no explanation of what those noble Light Brigade horsemen actually hoped to gain by charging into ‘the mouth of Hell’, other than death and/or glory.
In fact, the famous charge was little more than a futile sideshow in the Battle of Balaklava, the first major engagement in the Crimean War (1853-56). One might even think the whole war itself was a pretty questionable venture. I have no special reason to love Russians, but I have some sympathy for their plight, locked up in the largest, coldest most inhospitable and inaccessible land mass in the world. As the state of Russia (centred on Moscow) expanded from 1500 CE, one of its main driving forces was the need for access to warm water ports for shipping, trade and military purposes – and sandy beaches for summer holidays. Check your atlas. What would you have done if you were a Peter or a Catherine with Great ambitions?
For the Russians, it was pretty obvious that they had to have access to the Black Sea and if possible, a direct route to the Aegean or the Mediterranean. This involved fighting and conquering, or otherwise neutralising whoever was in the way – mostly Muslim Crimean Tatars, Ottomans and Circassians. An important tool in the Russians’ box of strategies was the Orthodox Christian religion which they used to enlist the support of allies, justify expansion and clear out unfriendly resistance.
Expansion as far as the Black Sea was pretty much accomplished during the 18th century, culminating in a victorious war against the Ottomans (1768-74). The Russian government formally annexed Crimea (not just the peninsula in those days) in 1783.
Again, however, a glance at the map will show that even possessing ports on the northern Black Sea coast doesn’t circumvent all your problems from a Russian point-of-view. Your ships still have to negotiate the Istanbul Bosporus and the Dardanelle Straits past the hostile eyes and guns of your resentful Ottoman neighbours. Wouldn’t it be nice to possess Constantinople/Istanbul itself, or drive a corridor through eastern Anatolia, emerging down in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean around the port of Alexandretta/Iskenderun? Of course both of these will involve further wars with those pesky Ottomans – though by now, the middle of the 19th century, they are not the fearsome military power they once were.
Still, you need a pretext for picking a fight, and what better than religion? How can good Christians allow those heathen Turks to control the holy places where Christ suffered and died? And there are Christian communities all through the region, Armenians and Syrian Orthodox for example, clearly in need of protection from the oppression and persecution of their Muslim overlords, never mind that they had all been co-existing in relative peace and harmony for centuries. Well, that protection idea caught on in Europe later, but at this stage, France and especially Britain were not about to let the Russians control the eastern Mediterranean and endanger their interests in that region and further afield in India. Hence the Crimean War. Let’s get over there, was the plan, and help our dear Muslim Ottoman friends defeat those dastardly Cossacks and Russians and keep them bottled up in their frozen wastes.
Well, international treaties and alliances make fragile bonds, and it wasn’t too many years before Britain and France were joining forces to finally erase the Ottoman Empire from the geo-political scene. Previously, however, in the 1850s and 60s, their sympathies lay more with Muslim populations suffering genocide and expulsion as a result of Russian expansion.
EGO | European History Online has this to say:Taking advantage of the favourable anti-Turkish sentiment, the Tzarist army conducted a military offensive against the Ottoman Empire in 1877/1878 which ended with the defeat of the Ottomans in the Balkans and the re-establishment of Russia in the Black Sea. In the Russo-Turkish War, Russian and Bulgarian soldiers and francs-tireurs killed 200,000–300,000 Muslims and about one million people were displaced.  After the war, more than half a million Muslim refugees from the Russian Caucasus and the areas south of the Danube, which were under Russian protection, were settled in the Ottoman Empire.’ (Paragraph 3, 2014.03.10)
But who remembers that now? Apart from the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians themselves, that is. As far as I am aware, the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi went off with little disruption despite hopes held by the ex-patriate Circassian community of using the occasion as a stage to draw the world’s attention to the above-mentioned  ‘resettlement’. ‘The world’, sadly, for the most part, doesn’t want to know. It’s got enough problems of its own, and anyway it’s hard to know which plaintive cries of genocide to take seriously these days. Add to that the fact that most First World countries have ethnic cleansing skeletons in their own historical closets, and you can see why they are reluctant to risk their glass houses by throwing stones at each other.
Of course there has to be a certain amount of posturing. Our local Istanbul newspaper published pictures of the US destroyer Truxton steaming through the Bosphorus on its way to wave the Stars and Stripes in the Black Sea. President Obama, according to reports, has been having stern words over the phone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin; and Republican Presidential hopeful, Senator Rand Paul says that ‘if he were President, he would take a harder stance against the Russian President for his actions.’

The sad fact of the matter is that it is extremely unlikely Russia will let Ukraine and Crimea go their own independent way. About as likely as the United States handing Hawaii back to the native Polynesians, or Texas back to Mexico. Probably the best Crimean nationalists can hope for is more conciliatory gestures from Mother Russia along the lines of renaming Stalingrad as Volgograd, recognising that the earlier name had bad associations for locals who remember the mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars to Siberia in 1944.

The Sochi Winter Olympics – What’s going on behind the curtain?

I’ve never been a big follower of the Winter Olympic Games. Ski-jumping, bob-sledding and the icy arts of curling were not much in vogue in the semi-rural beach suburbs of Auckland’s North Shore where I grew up. I can list the venues of the Summer Olympics in unbroken succession back to Helsinki, 1952 – but I would struggle to tell you one for the Winter Games . . . until this year.
This year, the Year of Our Lord 2014, I can confidently tell you the XXII Winter Olympic Games and the XI Paralympic Games (what is it with those Roman numerals?) will be held in Sochi. And I can further inform you that Sochi is a small city on Russia’s Black Sea coast near the Georgian border, with, somewhat surprisingly for Russia and a Winter Olympics venue, a sub-tropical climate. Two million tourists, mostly from the frozen wastes of more northerly regions, flock to the beaches of Sochi in summer – a fact that may explain some of what follows.
A little slice of Caucasian paradise
click for more

Needless to say, few of the winter sporting events will be held in the city itself. Sochi’s other major geographical appeal is its location on the fringes of the Caucasus Mountains, a lofty range with several peaks rising over 5,000 metres. Here is located the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana, and as an interesting aside, Sochi is also, they tell me, where tennis heart-throb Maria Sharapova picked up a racquet at the age of four and took her first lessons in the sport.

Sad to say, this small piece of heaven on Earth seems to be attracting a good deal of unwelcome attention which is why, for the first time, the Winter Olympic Games have attracted mine. On 29 and 30 December, two bomb attacks killed at least 31 people in the city of Volgograd some 600 km northeast of Sochi. An earlier attack in October took seven lives, raising some fears for the safety of spectators and athletes at the Games. There seems to be some confusion about the reason for the violence in the collective mind of news media in the West. Say ‘Muslim’ and, as with the psychiatrist’s technique of word association, the inevitable responses are ‘terrorists’, ‘Arabs’, ‘Al Qaeda’, and ‘Axis of Evil’
An article in Time on 6 January was entitledGhosts of Munich Haunt Sochi Olympics in Wake of Russia Bombings’. The writer had interviewed the Vice President of Israel’s Olympic committee in an attempt to draw a parallel with the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, when a group of Palestinians invaded the Israeli athletes’ quarters killing eleven athletes before five of their own number were killed. Only towards the end of the piece did the writer (prompted by the Israeli VP) concede that the Russian events have nothing to do with Israel, Palestine or any other Arabs. So what, you may ask, was the purpose of that Timeheadline?
Reuters, as we might expect, provided slightly more informative article. They identified the suicide bomber as a woman (or a man) from Dagestan, ‘a hub of Islamist militancy on the Caspian’. They referred to Chechen insurgents who ‘want to carve an Islamic state out of the swathe of mainly Muslim provinces south of Volgograd’and to ‘North Caucasus militants [who] have also staged attacks in Moscow and other cities, the most recent in the capital being an airport suicide bombing three years ago that killed 37 people.’  Reference was made to the fact that Volgograd was previously known as Stalingrad, with positive memories for Russians but hated by Chechens for its association with the wartime dictator who deported masses of them to inhuman conditions in Siberia. In the end however, the article seemed to accept President Putin’s attempt to relate the bombings to Afghanistan, Syria and 9/11. A White House spokesperson and British PM David Cameron expressed sympathy and solidarity with Russia, the latter offering unconditional support.
Well, we need not be surprised that the average citizens of the United States or Kingdom have no idea about the whereabouts of Sochi, or its turbulent history. The pressure-cooker weapons of mass destruction that created havoc at last year’s Boston Marathon were allegedly detonated by two brothers of Chechen extraction – and apparently generated a good deal of hate mail on social media directed at the innocent citizens of the Czech Republic. On the other hand, there is no excuse for ignorance among leaders of the ‘Free World’. For a stone-cold certainty, the Russian Government knows exactly what the problem is, even if they would prefer the rest of us to join in the festivities and/or mind our own business. They will be quite happy, I expect, if feminists in the Ukraine continue baring their breasts to the winter chills, and Western concerns focus mainly on the treatment of gays and lesbians in Mother Russia.
‘Before 1864’, Wikipedia tells me, ‘Sochi was a Muslim town’. Now it seems, of a total population of 420,589, a mere 20,000 (less than five percent) profess that faith, and the city has no mosque where they can worship. How did this situation come about? What happened in and around that town in 1864 is crucial to an understanding of the controversy surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In fact, that year saw the culmination of a process that had been going on for 300 years. The Muslim Ottoman Empire had reached the zenith of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman (the Magnificent) in the mid-16th century. As its glory days and influence receded, one of the chief beneficiaries was the expanding Empire of Russia. These two neighbours fought fourteen wars during those three centuries, resulting increasingly in Russian victories and loss of Ottoman territory. Collateral casualties, as the Russians pushed their borders towards the warm waters of the Black Sea, were the Muslim inhabitants of the Crimea and Caucasus regions who were either killed or expelled from their homes.
There’s more to this business
than meets the eye
The end stages of this southern expansion began in 1834 when Russia moved to complete its conquest of the Caucasus region. Impeding the push were various groups in Chechnya, and Dagestan, the Circassians and several other Caucasian tribes. The conflict went on for thirty years with some release of pressure when Russia was briefly diverted by the Crimean War. It eventually ended, predictably, with Russian victory in that fateful year whose 150th anniversary the losers and their descendants will commemorate as the world’s winter sports athletes gather to compete in the city which witnessed the final expulsion of Circassian Muslims from their ancestral home.
Clearly we must admire the courage and determination of the Circassians and their neighbours in holding off the Russian advance for those thirty years. Interestingly, they did receive some outside support. It seems that the British Government, while fighting the Muslim Ottomans in the Aegean to establish the independence of a Christian Greek Kingdom, were hedging their bets in the Caucasus by supplying the Muslim locals with arms and ammunition in their struggle against Christian Russia. There was actually an incident in 1836 where a British schooner, the Vixen, laden with military supplies, was detained by the Russian navy, creating an international incident that almost led to war between the two great powers.
At that stage, however, the Brits were not ready to engage in war with Russia, at least not for the sake of the Muslim inhabitants of a region few of their citizens had heard of.  The Wikipedia entry on Sochi includes a table showing population growth over a period of 123 years until 2010 when it exceed 400,000. In 1887 the total population of the city was 98!
Exactly how many civilians lost their lives is the subject of debate. The Circassian Cultural Institute claims that more than a million Circassian men, women and children were killed, and a similar number were expelled from their homeland. Bryan Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Massachusetts, suggests a figure of 600,000 deaths and ‘hundreds of thousands more’ forcibly expelled in what he calls ‘modern Europe’s first genocide’. Most of those were crowded on to ships at the port of Sochi and dispatched across the Black Sea to the Anatolian coast where Ottoman authorities attempted to cope with the vast influx of impoverished refugees.
It does not require a great stretch of imagination to make a comparison with the present-day situation in Syria, where rebels are undoubtedly receiving arms and other support from outside, and Turkey is having to deal with more than a million fugitives from the conflict. At least the Syrian refugees are able to walk across the border, and modern medical supplies are available to treat serious health problems. Back in 1864 some of the ships sank with great loss of life, and diseases were rife amongst the survivors on arrival in the unsanitary conditions of refugee camps. According to Professor Williams, 75 percent of the Circassian population was ‘annihilated’.
It is against this background that the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on 7 February. No doubt Russian security forces and the International Olympic Committee will do their best to ensure that the games go ahead – while supporters of the Circassian cause have pledged to do theirs to prevent them. David Satter, Russian analyst on CNN, accused the IOC of irresponsibility in ‘indulging [President] Putin’s desire for a propaganda spectacular’. He claimed that Putin made a direct approach to the Committee and pledged $12 billon in preparations, ‘twice what was proposed by the other two candidates’. In fact, according to Businessweek, expenditure on the Sochi games has now exceeded $51 billion, making them the most expensive in Olympic history, far exceeding the $40 billion spent by China on the 2008 summer games.

Whether or not the cost will bring commensurate benefits to Russia, only time will tell. One thing, however, is certain – the Sochi Winter Olympics are providing a golden opportunity for Circassians to bring their historical grievances to the attention of the world.