Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Proposal: compromise in Crimea

How do you solve a problem like Crimea? The optimistic answer is that Russia’s annexation was wrong, that the sanctions are right and that the West should continue putting pressure on Russia until it grudgingly relents and returns Crimea to Ukraine. The pessimistic answer is that Russia’s annexation was wrong, but that this is seemingly what Crimeans want and that Russia won’t return Crimea to Ukraine, so we had best — grudgingly — accept it.

I believe there might be room for compromise.

Crimea has never been very Ukrainian. As Russians like to point out, it only became part of Ukraine by personal fiat of Khrushchev and most of its inhabitants don’t identify as Ukrainian. In this light, proclamations of Crimea as Ukrainian soil that must be restored ring hollow.

On the other hand, Russia’s campaign to frame Crimea as quintessentially Russian is imperialistic and colonial. If Crimea has a Russian majority now, then only because of successive waves of ethnic cleansing of its Tatar (and Jewish) population by the Tsars, Stalin, Hitler and again Stalin. Since annexation, Russia has suppressed the rights of anyone who disagrees with its Russianness, including most of the remaining Tatars.

Crimea is not just Ukrainian, not just Russian, and first and foremost Crimean. Therefore, the West should offer to recognise Crimea as an independent state and lift sanctions, if it adopts a constitution that enshrines power sharing between Tatars and Russians on all levels, as well as protection of Ukraine’s cultural and economic interests. In addition, this agreement should be contingent on Russia’s active cooperation towards the reintegration of the Donbass into Ukraine.

Both sides would profit from this compromise. Resolving the Donbass conflict is Ukraine’s principal medium-term concern. Crimea would become less of a financial burden for Russia, while it would retain a degree of control, allowing it to keep its naval base in Sevastopol. Both sides would be able to present Crimean independence as partial vindication.

Filed under: Crimea, Donbass, Russia, Ukraine,

Book review: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony

the horse, the wheel, and language - coverThe Horse, the Wheel, and Language — How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

David W. Anthony

Princeton University Press, Princeton
November 2007
566 pages
ISBN: 978-0-691-05887-0

Probably the first great achievement of historical linguistics was the discovery of the Indo-European language family. We now know that Germanic, Romance, Slavic, Baltic, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Iranian and Indic languages all descend from a common source: Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Most Indo-Europeanists today think that the speakers of PIE lived in the steppe north of the Black Sea, that the different sub-branches were formed when the speakers of PIE started to spread out around 4000BC, and that this process was fueled by the domestication of the horse.

However, there are alternative theories, the most prominent of which claims that the speakers of PIE lived in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), and that the split occurred around 7000BC, propelled by the spread of agriculture. Proponents of both scenarios agree that while many of the sub-families of PIE formed around the same time, one branch split off first: the now extinct Anatolian languages, the best known member of which was Hittite. Either the speakers of Anatolian moved to Anatolia from the steppe, or the remaining speakers of PIE moved out of Anatolia before splitting up into the other branches.

In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, David W. Anthony explains in detail why most Indo-Europeanists favour the first option, using both linguistic and archaeological facts and showing how they reinforce each other (thus demonstrating the benefit of close cooperation between the two disciplines). The initial argument is linguistic. The reconstructed vocabulary of PIE contains terms that indicate that its speakers lived in a steppe environment. More to the point, it contains terms related to horses and chariots. We know from archaeological excavations that the horse was not domesticated until about 4000 BC, and before that it lived in the wild only in the steppes.

Anthony also provides a direct argument against the Anatolian origin-hypothesis. The speakers of Anatolian (attested around 2000BC) appear to have constituted a relatively small elite living among a mass of peoples that spoke non-Indo-European languages, including Hattic (possibly related to the North-West Caucasian languages). This makes sense if they were relatively recent newcomers, but it does not if they were the 5000 year old remainder of the culture that brought agriculture to the region. Furthermore, we know that agriculture came to Anatolia from the Middle East, but there is no trace of Indo-European there.

In themselves, these arguments may not appear insurmountable. But Anthony buttresses them by tracing the spread of Indo-European in the archaeological record, making use of many new excavations from recent years, published in Russian-language literature. In particular, he shows how Indo-European languages could reasonably have spread into Europe without directly replacing the population, through a series of patron-client relationships, in which successive groups of non-Indo-European speakers adopted Indo-European language alongside Indo-European culture and technology. Another highlight is the correspondence between funerary customs described in the Family Books of the Rig Veda, the oldest extant Indo-Iranian literature, and those practiced in archeaological sites of Sintashta and Arkaim, to the south-east of the Ural Mountains.

Anthony’s command of the archaeological literature is impressive, sometimes overwhelmingly so. The middle of the book contains a number of chapters that are filled to the brim with statistics of archaeological finds, alas leaving the reader struggling for guidance as to their significance with respect to his main argument.

The author also gives a good account of Indo-European linguistics, despite not originally being a linguist. There is a quibble to be had with his Indo-European language tree, which is unbalanced: very specific in some branches (Germanic, Slavic, Celtic), very coarse and incomplete in others (Romance, Greek, Armenian, Indo-Iranian). There is one moment of confusion when he suggests that there exists an empirical question (the ‘Indo-Anatolian hypothesis’) as to whether perhaps Anatolian should be considered a sister-language to PIE, rather than its eldest daughter. But this is purely a matter of definition: do we define PIE as the most recent common ancestor of the Indo-European languages with or without Anatolian? In either case there is a stage of PIE before and a stage after the split of Anatolian, and both stages are relevant. There may well be a real linguistic issue here but Anthony fails to make clear what it is.

Essentially, The Horse, the Wheel and Language is one long argument to substantiate the steppe-origin of Indo-European. What leaves most to be desired is that more time is not spent on competing explanations of the facts as Anthony presents them. It would have been satisfying to be informed at various junctions of the narrative whether alternative accounts exist at all, and if so, why they are to be discarded. That said, Anthony has succeeded in constructing a convincing history of the Indo-European languages and peoples, which is a great accomplishment. In particular, he shows how linguistic knowledge can open up prehistory, allowing us to learn about the history of peoples before it is written down.

Filed under: Book reviews, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Wider Region, , , ,

Book review: Black Sea by Neal Ascherson

black sea - coverBlack Sea — The Birth Place of Civilisation and Barbarism

Neal Ascherson

first edition:

Jonathan Cape, London
June 1995
320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-224-04102-7

second edition:

Vintage Books, London
October 2007
320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-099-52046-7

Black Sea is a wonderful book. Not a conventional history that chronologically works its way through the centuries up until the present day, but a fragmentary collection of people, peoples and historic episodes, interspersed with accounts of visits on the ground by the author.

To say that the Black Sea is the main character in these stories would be a cliché, and not a very useful one. Rather, the common theme that Ascherson investigates is the question of national identity, of national belonging.

Black Sea covers such diverse subjects as Crimea and the (mostly tragic) fate of its Goths, Karaites and Tatars, 19th century Odessa, the Polish aristocracy’s belief that it descended from Sarmatian invaders (Sarmatism), Adam Mickiewicz and other Polish intellectuals who dreamt of restoring Poland’s independence, Wolfgang Feuerstein’s attempts to emancipate the Laz people and Abkhazia’s struggle for independence. It starts and ends with the Black Sea’s ecology.

Ascherson’s personal experiences include the sudden, chilling death of a handicapped girl during a nightly bus journey on the Turkish coast and a family reunion of descendents of Mikhail Lermontov, who did not really have a family.

With so much diversity, the reader could find themselves stuck in a topic of lesser interest — which they could easily skip.

Perhaps the largest part of Black Sea is devoted to the interaction of Greek colonists and Iranian steppe peoples (Scythians and Sarmatians, ancestors of today’s Ossetians) that started 3000 years ago, and that, Ascherson argues, gave birth to the contrast between civilisation and barbarism in the European intellectual tradition. A more superficial work would have contented itself with highlighting the many differences between Greeks and Iranians. Ascherson instead considers to what extent individual identities were actually fluid, finding that in particular cases (the Bosporan Kingdom) cultural distinctions were all but overcome.

But Ascherson is careful not to romanticise the past, arguing that the peoples of the Black Sea have in fact always lived together in distrust, and that they cannot serve as a multi-cultural ideal. However, he also points out that when violence erupts, it is often not instigated by the communities themselves, but by conationals living in far-away metropolitan centres. Thus, the sense of Greek ‘civilised’ superiority was not developed by the Ionian settlers who lived among Iranian ‘barbarians’, but by the famous Greek playwrights of Athens.

Ascherson also very keenly analyses the workings of diaspora identity, pointing out that for the most part, identifying as part of a diaspora is easy, as one can “remain in the relative comforts of Chicago, New York or Melbourne with the extra sentimental empowerment of a second passport and a flag to carry on the old country’s independence day parade”, while “the cultural gap between diaspora and ‘homeland’ coud widen very rapidly indeed”. But under exceptional circumstances, “these cheques on the Bank of Symbolism are presented for payment”, and diaspora members make use of their identity, like the Pontic Greeks, who “return home”, and “by ‘return home’ […] mean modern Greece”. Ascherson rightly notes that “even Zionist Jews cannot match the extravagance of this statement, as a remark about history”, since their ancestors emigrated almost three thousand years ago, from the Ionian coast (in modern-day Turkey). “And yet now their descendents head for Athens or Salonica as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”

It is striking how straightforwardly the processes at work here seem to translate to other communities. For years, nothing seemed to indicate that more than a handful of the small Abkhazian diaspora in Syria would ever heed the Abkhazian government’s call to repatriate. Then came the Syrian civil war, and last year hundreds have ‘returned home’.

Ultimately, what makes the book such a pleasure to read is Ascherson’s learnedness and his well-written prose. The former manifests itself as a treasure trove of stories embedded in a nuanced narrative, the latter can best be demonstrated by way of more citation.

On Ascherson’s inadvertent witnessing, in the Crimean night, of Mikhail Gorbachev’s detention during the failed coup of August 1991 (p13):

What I had seen was the conspirators’ candle, the spark carried through the night by men who supposed that they were reviving the revolution and saving the Soviet Union. Instead, they lit a fire which destroyed everything they honoured.

On Stalin’s repression of the academic discipline of archaeology (p76):

Archeology tunnels into the deep foundations on which the arrogance of civilisations and revolutions rests. When the tunnellers enter foundations which should be rock but are merely sand, the floors of the state apartments high above them begin to tremble.

On the initiative by Don Cossacks to occupy a pre-revolutionary Cossack industrialist’s city mansion and present it to his modern-day descendent (p105):

Madame Nathalie Fedorovsky was born in Belgium, raised in Katanga and now dwells in Roissy, near Paris. But her Russian is perfect. More important, this wise and polished lady possesses a French sense of proportion. She was aware of all the ironies: that Cossack male machismo should be constructing a cult round a woman; that pre-capitalist steppe horsemen should be making a shrine out of an industrialist’s city mansion. She walked through the streets of Rostov like a queen, with a small, fluttering retinue. Madame Fedorovsky was not to be manipulated.

On the ideology by the Polish nobility that it descended from Sarmatians (p234):

At the end of the eighteenth century, Sarmatism collapsed under its own stupidity. But in its fall, it also destroyed Poland itself, and the independence for which the nobility had fought so fiercely for so many centuries.

Only very rarely does Ascherson’s approach misfire, when introducing rather vaguely the thesis of the artist Krysztof Wodiczko on modern-day migration, without establishing its relevancy, or when introducing the Laz with a description that is overly romantic. Occasionally, an exceptional statement ought to have been supported by more details or references, such as the claim that a ring found near the mouth of the Danube belongs to the same Scythian prince Scyles who prominently features in a story by Herodotos, or the story that in October 1993, 3000 Ussuri Cossacks spontaneously began to patrol the Russian border with China. In one case, Ascherson is simply mistaken, namely when he states that the Empire of Trebizond was founded when the son of the Roman Emperor, Alexios Komenos, fled the Crusaders’ conquest of Constantinople. (In reality, Alexios Komnenos was the grandson of a previous Emperor, grew up at the court of his aunt, Queen Tamar of Georgia, after his grandfather was deposed and his father blinded, and declared himself Emperor (of the whole empire, but from Trebizond) a few months before the Crusaders entered Constantinople. That event meant that his claim for the throne was never resolved through civil war, but rather led to the establishment of a separate empire in Trebizond.)

While Black Sea was originally written just after the fall of the Soviet Union, a second edition has been published in 2007. The differences are relatively minor, and the fact that so little needed to be updated is a testimony to its lasting relevance. The one exception is the welcome addition of an afterword on the impact of post-communist transition on the state of the Black Sea’s ecology. The second edition of Black Sea also comes with a new, beautiful cover, although sadly it has only been published in pocket format (although a hard cover edition has since been released by the Folio Society, with yet another cover).

Filed under: Abkhazia, Book reviews, Crimea, Lazistan, Poland, Pontic Greece, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Wider Region

Some thoughts on the Ukrainian crisis

For what it’s worth:

  • There can be no doubt that Viktor Yanukovich and his government are autocratic and corrupt, and that the opposition has faced harassment and worse. Simultaneously, Yulia Timoshenko in particular has been unduly martyrised by some. Her trial was politically motivated, but that does not in itself mean that she is innocent accross the board. She should receive proper medical care and a fair retrial, but not immunity from all future prosecution.
  • Ukraine is a deeply divided country. Despite the enormity of the protests, it cannot be taken as a given that the opposition enjoys the support of a majority of Ukrainians. Therefore, the most desirable outcome is not a change of government per se, but good elections and a political system that is not winner-take-all.
  • Strangely, as popular uprisings go, the protesters do not have an overly strong case. Occupying and damaging government buildings (indeed entire city centres) has a revolutionary quality to it, which can be acceptable as a protective measure when the government is itself acting illegally, for example in the case of election fraud or police violence (like on 30 November). But failure to sign an international agreement, however symbolic, does not legitimise revolution. At the same time, the protests are hugely important for planting the seeds of structural reform.
  • Given the economic choice Russia presented him with, Yanukovich’s decision not to initial the association agreement with the European Union may have been rational. The European Union must itself avoid presenting the issue as a choice between being a European country and being with Russia. Ukraine is European even if it never associates itself with the EU. If it wants to associate Ukraine, the ultimate goal for the EU should be to sign (the equivalent of) an association agreement with Russia itself.

All open to correction by anyone better informed.

Filed under: European Union, Russia, Ukraine, ,

Book review: Eight Pieces of Empire by Lawrence Scott Sheets

eight pieces of empire - coverEight Pieces of Empire — A 20-Year Journey through the Soviet Collapse

Lawrence Scott Sheets

Crown Publishers, New York
November 2011
336 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-39582-5

The publication of Eight Pieces of Empire is good news, because Lawrence Scott Sheets — currently South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group — is one of the few Caucasus journalists deployed on the ground during the conflicts of the early nineties. Unlike his close colleague Thomas Goltz, Sheets has decided not to issue separate monographs for each conflict area — Eight Pieces of Empire is Sheet’s memoire of the whole of his reporting days.

As the title makes clear, Eight Pieces of Empire is also an overview of the fall-out of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The chapters cover the following ground:

  • Saint-Petersburg in 1989 to 1991, the coming apart of Soviet society
  • Early 1990s Georgia and the war with Abkhazia
  • Early 1990s Azerbaijan and Armenia
  • The two Chechen wars
  • The reburial of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family; the conversion of (former) security service members to Christianity
  • Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in late 2001
  • Eduard Shevardnadze during the Rose Revolution; a visit to the Ultas of Sakhalin; current day residents of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl; the Beslan hostage crisis

This amounts to seven chapters, and it is not immediately clear why the title speaks of eight pieces (the number of territories covered is actually greater than eight).

It is possible that Sheets considers himself to be the eighth piece. Throughout the book, the number of corpses accumulates steadily, some those of Sheet’s friends. Sheets more or less became a war reporter by accident, and in a moving passage at the very end of the last chapter, he expresses the damage inflicted upon himself due to his work, comparing the process to the sustained exposure over a long period to low-level radiation. This is the Faustic pact of war reporting: the most gripping parts of the book are those where Sheets is most deeply involved himself — besieged Sukhum, Beslan, and especially the shocking, surreal and deeply intense chapter on Chechnya.

Eight Pieces of Empire gives neither a full overview of the unraveling of the Soviet Union, nor of Sheets’s work — he alludes to several events he covered as a journalist that are not included in the book, like the Orange Revolution and the hostage crisis in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre. This is a pity for the mere reason that Sheets would surely have had sensible things to say about them. But on the premise that Eight Pieces of Empire should cover precisely those events that Sheets can bring a unique perspective to, the selection of episodes may have been exactly right.

Thus the book includes the final days of the Georgian army in Sukhum before the Abkhaz reconquest in September 1993. Sheets even has the tenacity to return to Sukhum via Russia mere days later, to witness the full-scale looting then underway. In February 2004, he is present during the handover of Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s body to a Chechen delegation taking it for reburial in Grozny, catching a last glimpse when the coffin is briefly opened for the purpose of double checking the corpse’s identity. Sheets is also in the Presidential Office of Chechnya in November 1994, when TASS reports that Grozny has fallen to the opposition and that the same Presidential office is on fire. He is then connected by phone by Movladi Udugev to President Jokar Dudayev, who is sitting at home, eating borscht prepared by his wife. And Sheets is in Mazar-i-Sharif at the time of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi in November 2001, the prison uprising with the first American casualty of the Afghan War, which ended in the massacre of a couple of hundred Taliban prisoners.

Originality is also the factor that warrants the inclusion of the more tranquil episodes: Sheets’s experience in late-Perestroika Leningrad, his investigation into ‘virginity reparation’ doctors in early 1990s Georgia, and his visits to the Ultas of Sakhalin, whose traditional livelihood of reindeer herding has become unprofitable after the end of communism, and to the inhabitants of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, for whom resettlement is a worse fate than exposure to relatively low levels of radiation.

All in all, Eight Pieces of Empire recalls Vladimir Putin’s infamous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. It has rightfully been criticised, because, well, WWII and all that. And WWI. Not to mention communist terror the world over. Moreover — popular sentiments in the region notwithstanding — the consensus says that it is a good thing that the Soviet Union no longer exists. But while that in itself may be true, what Eight Pieces of Empire shows is that the collapse of the Soviet Union — the way it played out — really was a tragedy in many different ways.

Eight Pieces of Empire is not a comprehensive historical account of the fall of the Soviet Union, but it does combine a thoroughly interesting and moving personal story with an invaluable insight into the situation on the ground during a number of key moments.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Book reviews, Chechnya, Georgia, North Ossetia, Russia, Sakhalin, Ukraine, Uzbekistan

Ukraine next country to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

The list of countries who recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been increasing ever so slowly over the course of the last two years – at the rate of about one country every six months – so that the question arises: who’s next?

Belarus was long seen to be the country that came closest to deciding in favour of recognition, but its parliament has delayed discussing the matter so many times now that there is no way of telling when this might really happen.

Then last December Abkhazia submitted an official request for recognition to Ecuador, something which it would not do unless it had some hopes of it being accepted. But there are rumours according to which already in the autumn, Ecuador refused a Russian cash offer, and Raffael Correa may want to run an independent international course. Be that as it may, two months later Ecuador still hasn’t decided on the matter.

There are still more candidates. Qua foreign policy, Cuba seems perfectly positioned to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Perhaps it is still waiting to get a maximal reward from Russia. And just like it wasn’t very hard to convince Nauru to decide in favour of recognition, there are probably a whole number of countries in the Pacific (the Solomon Islands) and Africa (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) who would be willing to follow suit, given the proper financial incentives. Perhaps Russia is hoping to get countries for its money that play a somewhat larger role in international politics than these.

The fact of the matter is that Russia cannot afford the recognition process to stagnate. It is uncertain whether Daniel Ortega will even be allowed to stand in the 2011 Nicaraguan Presidential election, and if so, whether he would win, given that he won the last election only with a 38% plurality. And a new President may very well discontinue Nicaragua’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if it is as controversial at that point in time as it is now – which would be very damaging to the entire recognition process. Venezuela’s recognition seems equally dependent on Hugo Chavez’s Presidency.

Of course what Abkhazia and South Ossetia really want is for a major international heavy weight to recognise them. Turkey, India and China are the most plausible options, perhaps South Africa. But that won’t happen in the short term, not with these particular countries. Instead – perhaps somewhat unexpectedly – the next country might very well be the Ukraine, which would almost be as good.

It now looks very likely that today’s Presidential election was won by Viktor Yanukovych. His party has in the past expressed its support for recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia will surely do its best to get this done. It depends on whether Yanukovych has the authority as President to make this decision himself, and if not, whether he can muster enough support in Parliament. But things look promising for Abkhazia and South Ossetia – even more so because Ukraine’s recognition would be so influential that it could pave the way for other countries from the former Soviet Union to follow, like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan or Armenia. Who knows, perhaps even Belarus.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Belarus, Nicaragua, Russia, South Ossetia, The Great Recognition Game, Ukraine, , , ,

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