Right-Wing Terror Strikes Norway.

I had intended this blog to be mostly about political issues in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which are my main areas of interest and concern, but extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. First I have to say that I express my grief for those who were killed and wounded in the combined bombing and shooting in Oslo and at Utøya Island not far from the capital yesterday, and that my thoughts and condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims. These acts of terror came as a great shock to me and everybody else, although given the current era and the international situation Norway finds itself in, I have suspected something like this would happen eventually.

However, recent information coming to light about one of the probable assailants behind these attacks has confirmed a hunch I have had since the beginning, that these attacks were not committed by Islamic radicals with ties to international terror networks like Al-Qaida as initially suggested by most commentators and media, but rather by homegrown right-wing extremists. It now turns out that 32-year old ethnic Norwegian and self-styled nationalist Anders Behring Breivik has been arrested for the shootings at Utøya, and that he is also being connected to the bomb blast taking place earlier outside the main government building in Oslo. According to the police, Breivik had taken on ultra-conservative leanings in his late 20s, and had recently posted various extreme opinions on the internet attacking Islam and multiculturalism.

From the very first moment I heard about the terror attacks in Norway, it struck me that the attacks did not fit very well the profile of an Al-Qaida attack. Firstly, the bomb which blew up outside the government HQ was designed to go off on a Friday afternoon in the middle of the holiday season, a time when both the city centre and government offices would be largely empty. This does not correspond well to the signature Al-Qaida attack, which is typically carried out in crowded places during rush hour to maximise civilian casualties. On the other hand, the bomb attack did a large amount of property damage to symbolic political targets in the blast radius, damaging both the main seat of the current Centre-Left Norwegian government, the centres of Norway’s economic and state power in the form of the Minstry of Finance and Ministry of Oil and Energy, the Supreme Court, and also the buildings of the so-called “A-pressen” an agglomeration of the largest left-wing and liberal news outlets in Norway.

The choice of the second target was also quite peculiar, as it involved a shooting at a youth camp organised annually by the governing Labour Party. This camp is seen in Norway as the main yearly gathering of the future Norwegian left-wing elite, and it does not make sense as a target if the main grievances of the attackers were Norway’s pro-American foreign policy or involvement in the wars in Afghanistan or Libya. Exactly the choice of a such a peculiar target and the mode of operation – a shooting spree by a lone gunman – (not typical Al-Qaida modus operandi to say the least) was what alerted me to the notion that these attacks might not actually be related to Islamic radicalism at all, but rather to homegrown right-wing extremism.

It is clear that the ultra-nationalist right has been on the rise in Norway over the last few years. A recent threat assessment by the PST, the main Norwegian domestic intelligence agency, identified growing Islamic radicalism and right-wing extremism as the two main areas of concern. Appart from recent attempts to revitalise neo-Nazi groups in Norway, it states that right-wing radicals in Norway have been particularly active in the new social media, and indicates that individuals and groups mobilising around an anti-Muslim agenda have been receiving increased support.

The current left-wing establishment in Norway is often reviled by many on the right as being too permissive towards immigration, in particular from Muslim countries, and for the alleged failure of the Norwegian multicultural experiment. In light of this it now seems very likely that yesterday’s attacks was an attempt by extreme right-wing elements to strike directly at the “socialist” underpinnings of Norwegian domestic policy, and was designed to make a definitive statement in the “culture wars” of contemporary Europe. I surely hope that more details on the motivation and background on what now looks like Norway’s Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices will be forthcoming shortly, and that this tragedy will not turn out to be the beginning of a new trend in the debate about Islam and multiculturalism in Norway and Europe. 

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The Gali Obsession.

The New York based human rights organisation Human Rights Watch recently published a report on the situation in Gali, a district in breakaway Abkhazia which has a mostly Georgian population. The population of the Gali region was largely displaced as a result of the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia, although most have spontaneously returned since, with the current population numbering between 40-47 000 according to estimates made by the organisation. Among the main issues discussed in the report are the alleged violations of the rights of the Georgian population of the territory at the hands of the de facto Abkhazian authorities, including violations of the right to free movement, right to citizenship and Georgian-language schooling.

The report does not differ substantially from previous reports written by various rights organisations about the Gali region in recent years, which, in my view, has received disproportionate attention compared to other conflict areas and minority populated areas (such as for example the Armenian populated Javakheti or the Azerbaijani populated Kvemo-Kartli region) within the internationally recognised borders of Georgia. The report in general is also symptomatic of the skewed viewpoint of the international community on this and a multitude of other minority related issues in Georgia and its breakaway republics, which I will deal with in further detail below.

Firstly, the HRW report fails to mention that most of the Georgian inhabitants of the Gali region are actually ethnic Mingrelians, who belong to a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture. The Mingrelian language, despite having about 300 000 – 500 000 speakers concentrated mostly in western Georgia, has no official status, and is not taught in schools in Georgia. In fact, the official Georgian government position is that the Mingrelians are an ethnic sub-group of Georgians speaking a Georgian dialect, and has therefore declined to grant Mingrelian status as a regional or minority language.

Georgia even refuses to sign the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which is part of it commitments as a member of the Council of Europe. It is quite peculiar that HRW considers Georgian-language instruction to Mingrelians in Abkhazia to merit more attention than the status of Mingrelian in Georgia, a language which is under pressure, and which without some form of official recognition and support will probably become extinct in the course of a few generations, along with much of the Mingrelian cultural heritage.

Secondly, the two main problems in Gali, which the HRW report chooses not to deal with in much detail, are poverty and organised crime. Gali is a mostly agricultural region where the economy largely depends on cultivation of cash crops such as nuts and tangerines and on subsistence farming. Especially the cash crops are subject to various criminal groups which control the sale and distribution, and which operate on both sides of the de facto border. There are also periodic low level clashes and incidents such as bombings, kidnappings and disappearances in Gali which might either be related to organised crime or aspects of the continuing Abkhazian-Georgian conflict.

In the last couple of decades there have been numerous infiltrations of Georgian supported guerrilla groups across the border, including the now defunct “White Legion” and “Forest Brethren”, and currently also suspected elements of the Georgian security services. While the HRW does mention that the clashes in 1998 which led to a renewed wave of fighting and displacement from the region in part resulted from the actions of of Georgian paramilitaries, there is little discussion of these or other similar events in the report. Instead, the HRW chooses to criticise the de facto Abkhazian authorities for limiting the number of crossings over the de facto border with Georgia, ostensibly for security reasons.

The HRW argues in its report that the decision of the de facto Abkhazian authorities to restrict crossings of the de facto border to a single crossing point amounts to an unacceptable restriction on the right to movement of the Gali population, but again declines to mention that Georgia, on its part, currently conducts a full blown blockade of Abkhazia, designed to restrict all political, economic, educational and even social interaction of citizens of the breakaway republic with the outside world. The Georgian Law on “Occupied Territories”, signed into effect by the Georgian parliament in October 2008 ensures that the only legal crossing point into Abkhazia is across the river Inguri at the de facto border between Abkhazia and Western Georgia, and that crossing into Abkhazia from any other border is considered illegal and subject to either a fine of several thousand USD or up to four years in jail.

So far, several violators of this law, mostly of Russian and Armenian origin have been sentenced, illustrating the arbitrary and discriminatory application of this law in practice. The above mentioned law has also been subject to significant criticism from the Venice Commission, especially since it threatens to limit the activities of NGOs and humanitarian organisations in Abkhazia which are not explicitly approved by the Georgian authorities. Since January 2010 the “Georgian state strategy on Occupied Territories”, which was presented by the Georgian authorities in western capitals as a confidence building measure, appears to  further curtail the scope for direct international engagement with Abkhazia.

Furthermore, the HRW report also comments on the problems encountered by the Gali population when it comes to obtaining passports and citizenship in de facto Abkhazia. In particular, the policy of the Abkhazian authorities regarding dual citizenship ensures that only dual Abkhazian-Russian citizenship is considered legal, meaning – in theory at least – that Georgians/Mingrelians living in Gali would have to renounce their Georgian citizenship in order to obtain an Abkhazian one.  Picking one or the other would either cut them off from receiving benefits from the Georgian government,  or from exercising their civil rights in de facto Abkhazia. However, the extent of this problem seems in reality to be somewhat exaggerated.

Since there are no computerised records of citizenship available to the de facto Abkhazian authorities, and Abkhazian and Georgian authorities do not exchange citizenship records at any rate, there would be no practical way for the Abkhazian authorities to verify if the population of Gali retained Georgian citizenship or not. Evidence from my own fieldwork in Abkhazia suggests that dual, or indeed multiple citizenship is in fact not uncommon among either Georgians or other nationalities living in Abkhazia, and that various informal coping strategies are also utilised to deal with the problem.

Lastly, the suggestion by HRW that the population of Gali might leave permanently as a result of the lack of Georgian-language schooling and other problems encountered in Abkhazia is somewhat of a red herring, since a considerable part of the population of the region are actually not permanently resident there, but live in the neighbouring Samegrelo district in Georgia and commute back and forth on a seasonal basis to harvest crops or the visit their families or graves of relatives. It is also questionable how HRW supposes that more Georgians/Mingrelians could return to Gali or other parts of Abkhazia, when the organisation itself acknowledges that the Abkhazian authorities have limited resources to provide for even the current population.

The increased return of refugees to Abkhazia which HRW advocates would also have to be premised on the solution of a multitude of other problems, including the settling of property rights, provision of housing and security of the returnees – not to mention a resolution to the disputed status of both the Gali region and Abkhazia proper – neither of which the report discusses in any detail. In order not to create an unmanageable situation for the returnees – or increase the potential for renewed conflict – it is imperative that a solution to the above mentioned problems be found first. Sadly, a realistic and thorough analysis of these problems is not likely to be forthcoming from HRW.

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4th of July 1776 seen from today’s perspective on Secession and International Law.

Yesterday was 4th of July, the Independence Day of the United States of America. On this day, in the year 1776, the European colonists in North America, led by a George Washington, issued their declaration of independence from Great Britain. This was followed by an armed conflict where the would-be secessionists managed to successfully break away from Britain in large part with French and Spanish help. While the 4th of July is widely celebrated as a national holiday in the US, and by many Americans and friends of the US abroad, it would be interesting to conduct a thought experiment exploring how the US declaration of independence would have played out today, considering all the changes in international law and world opinion which have taken place since the 18th century. It would also be very interesting to relate the US declaration of independence to any of the secessionist conflicts that have arisen in other parts of the globe in recent years, most notably in the Balkans and the Caucasus, but also elsewhere.

So, how would the world be likely to look at the US declaration of independence if it happened today? My first guess is that it would most likely be negatively received. Why is this? Well, for starters, the US declaration of independence was unilateral, and not immediately recognised as valid by its parent state, the United Kingdom. In the international community today, such unilateral declarations of independence are generally frowned upon, and independence resulting therefrom is considered invalid, since it does not involve mutual consent between two sovereign entities. Moreover, the American colonists ultimately had recourse to the use of force to achieve their de facto independence, which runs against the today’s commonly accepted principle of the inviolability of state borders, and the impermissibility of changing these borders by force.

Also, the fact that the secessionists received ample French and Spanish support would probably not go down well with the mainstream media today, at least the part of it that would have been sympathetic to British motives. If we assume that Great Britain then would have had the same influence over international media like the US does today, it is likely that it would have described the American secessionists as “separatists”, and “puppets” of “Spanish and French imperialism”, similar to how the media and commentariat in the West has been conditioned to think about Russia’s support to the Abkhazians and South Ossetians in their conflict with Georgia.

Then what about the justification for US independence provided by the colonists themselves? Did the American colonists have legitimate grievances that made their continued existence under British sovereignty untenable? Apart from some disagreements regarding taxation, it is hard to conclude that this was the case. Certainly, the British, even during the Revolutionary War, neither conducted any repression of American colonists like that which Milosevic subjected ethnic Albanians to in Kosovo, nor did they carry out any mass killings, rape or other atrocities similar to what the regime in Khartoum has perpetrated in Southern Sudan.

Could the colonists have claimed to act within the scope of decolonialisation in order to justify their claim to self-determination? Possibly, although in today’s world it is more likely that the regime in Washington would have been viewed as white minority rule similar to Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, which did not satisfy basic tenets of liberal democratic governance, in particular ignoring the voices of Blacks and Native Americans. If international recognition of US independence would have been forthcoming at all under such conditions, it is highly likely that it would have happened under the aegis of policies similar to “standards before status” practiced today by the EU, and the US been given the same “supervised independence” which today applies to Kosovo.

In other words, I have to conclude that the US would have had trouble achieving its independence had it been declared in 2011 and not in 1776. Indeed, there is one last observation that bolsters my belief to that effect, and that is the behaviour of the Great Britain and the colonists towards Britain’s de facto loss of sovereignty over the United States as a result of the American Revolutionary War. As it turned out, the British finally let the Americans have their de jure independence out of bare necessity, recognising that winning back the American colonies was too costly and difficult an endeavor to pursue. Not only was the attempt to reintegrate the United States into Great Britain militarily a grand failure, but the prospect of having to continue to govern the increasingly resentful locals, which were receiving substantial support from other great powers at the time, was undoubtedly seen as a loosing proposition by the cooler heads in the British administration.

On the other hand, the mutual recognition of sovereignty between between Britain and the colonists resulted in relations between the US and Britain eventually improving, which in turn led to normalisation and ultimately to today’s “special relationship” between the two states. It is sad that such clear-sightedness and pragmatism,  not to so say magnanimity, seems to be lacking among the conflicting sides of most secessionist conflicts today.

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More folly from The Economist.

This article over at EuropeanVoice.com discussing Georgia-Europe relations has recently come to my attention. The author of the article purports to be a Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for the The Economist magazine but declines to give his full name. Still, the article does indeed read a lot like the typical article on Georgia at The Economist lately, which seems to have foregone even a thin mantle of objectivity and factual reporting, and resorted to printing fawning eulogies of the Saakashvili regime which sound like they were made to order. A typical example of this particular genre can be found here.

The central message of the above mentioned article is that Europe should ignore Georgia’s many human rights violations, democratic shortcomings and unpredictable foreign policy, and instead close ranks with its errant Caucasian “ally” yet again. If Europe refrains from backing Georgia we are told, this will amount to “appeasement” of Russia, which according to the article, will set a “dangerous precedent.”Apart from peddling this simplistic, zero-sum geopolitical narrative coated in Cold War-esque language, the article itself is also so full of omissions, distortions, half truths and downright falsehoods about the current political situation in Georgia, that I don’t really know where to start.

For example, the author starts out by describing the reaction of the Georgian government to recent opposition protests which culminated in a violent crackdown and several dead protesters on the 26th of May as “exemplary”, and goes on to tow the government line that casualties were wholly to blame on the activities of the opposition, despite available evidence to the contrary. While the author is right to dismiss the outlandish claims by the Georgian opposition that the country is a dictatorship, the author nonetheless ignores Georgia’s falling ranking with regard to democratic openness, freedom of speech and corruption, as recorded over the last couple of years by Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and Transparency International.

Moreover, the author praises Georgia’s “diplomacy” towards its breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while declining to mention that it was cut short by the 2008 August War which Georgia fought with Russia and the separatists over these territories, a war which even an independent EU inquiry of the events has concluded was initiated by the Saakashvili regime. Apart from nearly leading to a full blown crisis in relations between Russia and the West, this war also extinguished what little trust there had been between Georgia and the populations of the two breakaway territories, making the prospect for Georgia to “win back” the “loyalty” of these territories a near impossibility for the foreseeable future. Georgia’s latest efforts to meddle in the volatile North Caucasus has also caused considerable concern among Georgia’s Western partners, in addition to apprehension in the North Caucasus about Georgia’s true motives.

Furthermore, the author’s insistence that Georgia is a “free-market, law-governed, multi-party success story, the next stop after […] South Korea” is very hard to take seriously. This is especially since the Georgian government is known for its heavy handed state-led approach to economic development, including pressuring private investors with extraordinary tax claims and entrapment in politically motivated anti-corruption stings. The courts in Georgia are also bedeviled by a lack of independence and have a near 99% conviction rate, unheard of in any developed democracy. Instead of having a vibrant multi-party political system, Saakashvili’s United National Movement dominates the parliament of Georgia, making the country a de facto one-party state. Smear campaigns against the political opposition are also increasingly commonplace, and a string of bombings in the capital Tbilisi and other towns ostensibly blamed on Russian security services operating out of breakaway Abkhazia might actually turn out to be a false flag operation involving the Georgian government. If that indeed turns out to be true, it would not be the first time.

Last but not least, the author overestimates the fiscal soundness of Georgia’s economy, declining to mention that Georgia’s relative robustness in the face of the Financial Crisis has largely been based on massive external borrowing and plentiful economic aid from Western countries, amounting to a one off payment of 4.6 billion USD in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 war, in addition to several hundred million USD on a yearly basis. The impact of this aid has been highly distortive on domestic politics in Georgia, helping to increase the longevity of the Saakashvili regime long past the point where it should have fallen due to its own political mistakes. Reckoning might be fast approaching however, as financial aid by the West is starting to run out, and the mushrooming Georgian sovereign debt, which now exceeds 9 billion USD or about 25-30% of GDP, might become difficult servicing in the near future in the light of lackluster FDI and an increasing import/export imbalance.

All in all, the unconditional support that the author advocates that Europe should once again show Georgia, or in practice more correctly the Saakashvili regime, would be highly misplaced, and ultimately reinforce a host of negative trends in the country today. These range from the deteriorating democracy and human rights situation in the country, to its prolonged dependence on foreign aid, and the continuation of a foreign policy based on unpredictable political gambits and dangerous brinkmanship. This is an atmosphere of tension which neither Europe, nor the population of Georgia, is likely to be well served by in the long term.

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International law and the Russian “occupation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the aftermath of the 2008 August war and Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, Georgia has intensified its efforts to convince the world that these territories are being occupied by the Russian Federation. On the 28 of August 2008, just two days ofter the Russian recognition, the Georgian parliament passed a resolution to the effect that Abkhazia and South Ossetia were occupied territories. This was followed later in October the same year when Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili approved the Law on Occupied Territories. Since then, resolutions to the effect that these territories are under Russian occupation have been put forward by several of Georgia’s closest allies, including Lithuania, the NATO parliamentary assembly, and most recently, in a draft resolution by the United States Congress on the 11th of May. However, the question remains how well the Georgian claim of Russian occupation confirms to international law and the actual facts on the ground. A preliminary analysis concludes that it does so poorly.

First off, the Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia does not satisfy the definition of occupation set by the the Geneva Convention of 1907, article 42 which states that: “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army,” and article 43 which states that: “The authority of the legitimate power having in fact passed into the hands of the occupant, the latter shall take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.” In Abkhazia and South Ossetia authority is in fact placed in the hands of the de facto partially recognised authorities of the two breakaway territories, and not in the hands of the Russian military. The breakaway territories themselves have their own parliaments, governments, army, police force and other state institutions which are in charge of governance and the day to day running of their self-proclaimed republics.

The authorities of both breakaway republics also enjoy broad legitimacy and support by the current populations of the respective territories, which overwhelmingly consider Russian troops to be liberators and allies, and not occupiers. Although the legitimacy of these de facto governments is disputed internationally, it is important to note that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognised as independent by four UN member states, Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru, and that international law does not specify a lower ceiling on the number of states recognising an entity before it can be considered a legitimate member of the international community. Russian troops in both territories do not exhibit the behavior characteristic of an occupying army either.

For example, the Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not patrol the streets or set up checkpoints to control the local population, and are mostly confined to their bases. Although limited housing projects for Russian troops and their families near the bases have been constructed, there is no construction of settlements or other forms of colonisation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by ethnic Russians, akin to, for example, Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Russian control of the de facto borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is also not an arbitrary development, but has been negotiated in accordance with bilateral agreements between Moscow and the de facto authorities of the breakaway republics.

The decision of Georgia and some of its allies to recognise the breakaway republics as occupied by Russia is therefore wholly political, and does not have a particularly strong foundation in either international law or the actual facts on the ground. While the Georgian government hopes that its diplomatic effort to have these territories recognised as occupied will increase the pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops from both regions, the effort is mostly cosmetic, and unlikely to meet with much tangible success. The designation by Georgia and its Western allies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “occupied” is also designed to reinforce the Georgian narrative of the conflict of being exclusively between Georgia and Russia, and not with the Abkhazians and Ossetians. However, this approach will likely only contribute to the further objectification and alienation from Georgia of the populations of both territories, which will again hamper any real effort to reach a settlement in to these conflicts.

Posted in Abkhazia | 2 Comments

Beware of Greeks bringing gifts.

Ahead of the anniversary of the mass killings and forced exile of the Circassians from their ancestral lands in the Caucasus at the hands of the Russian Empire in the second half of the 19th century, which will be marked on the 21st of May, the parliament of Georgia has again mooted the possibility of recognising these events as genocide. The Circassian genocide has had a profound impact on Circassian history and national identity, and the process towards its recognition is given huge importance by many Circassians, especially among the diaspora in Turkey and the wider Middle East. However, until recently, no state has shown willingness to officially recognise the Circassians genocide as such. This changed in late 2010, when following a speech by president Mikhail Saakashvili, the process towards recognising the Circassian genocide was begun by the Georgian parliament. This process further sparked a conference on the Circassian genocide held in Tbilisi in March 2011, organised by the Jamestown Foundation and with the participation of the so-called American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, both known instruments of the US foreign policy establishment.

Since its failed bid to recapture the breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 2008 August War, the Georgian overture towards the Circassians has formed part of a charm offensive to shore up support for Georgia among the peoples of the Russian North Caucasus, and drive a wedge between Russia and the peoples of the region. As seen from Tbilisi, the conflicts in the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are merely the result of Russian efforts to destabilize an independent and sovereign Georgian state, and Georgia reckons that two can play this came. Ostensibly under the aegis of pan-Caucasian unity and solidarity, Georgian president Mikhal Saakashvili has ordered the abolition of visas to Georgia for citizens from North Caucasus republics, as well as the establishment of the Russian-language satellite TV channel “First Caucasian” or PIK in Russian. The idea was to give the inhabitants of the North Caucasus more possibilities for education and trade in Georgia, and also provide them with a source of “unbiased” information that is not controlled by the Russian government.

While Russian authorities have universally condemned Georgia’s moves, many in the North Caucasus republics themselves have been cautiously optimistic or supportive. However, there is considerable lingering distrust of the Georgian actions and their motives in the North Caucasus for historical and ideological reasons. The Circassians especially point to the role played by Georgia in the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus, where the Georgian nobility participated on Russia’s side against Circassians and other highlanders in the Great Caucasian War, which events eventually led to the Circassian genocide. Circassians also note what they see as double standards in Georgian dealings with them and their “brother nation”, the Abkhaz, especially in the light of Georgia’s attempts to suppress Abkhaz national aspirations during the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia. In any case, it is widely believed that the Georgian conception of Caucasian unity is designed to further Georgia’s ambition to become a regional leader, a role which the other Caucasian peoples, fiercely independent and assured of their own position in the region, would naturally be wary to grant it.

There is also notable cause for concern when assessing the renewed Western interest in the Circassians and their predicament. Some Western opinion formers and policy makers acting through organisations such as the Jamestown Foundation have primarily the national interests of the West and the United States at heart, and seek to use the Circassians and other peoples of the North Caucasus as tools to further their own geopolitical agenda. This turn of events has historical precedents in British interest in the Circassian cause in the period running up to the Cirmean War, which even included pledges of military support to the Circassians in their fight against the Russian Empire. However, Circassian hopes in the British eventually turned out to be misplaced, as Britain abandoned all aid to the Circassians following the end of the war. Current Western support for the Circassians is not likely to be more reliable.

It is not at all clear either that recognition of the Circassian genocide by Georgia or other third parties would have the positive effect that Circassian nationalists, especially in the diaspora, are hoping for.  Rather than force concessions from Moscow on cultural or political rights, or exact some form of apology and reparation for past wrongdoings, it is more likely that recognition will only harden the front between Russia and the Circassians and worsen the lot of Circassians currently living in Circassia. Examples here can be readily drawn from the efforts of many countries to recognise the Armenian genocide, which so far has failed to make Ankara relent on its position. In addition, the stubbornness by which recognition has been pursued, especially by the Armenian diaspora, has actually helped to further complicate the relationship between Armenia and Turkey, forestalling beneficial economic and diplomatic steps like the reopening of the Turko-Armenian border. Consequently, those among the Circassians who are prepared to accept outside support for their cause would do well to ponder who their allies are, and which possible consequences recognition could entail.

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Anti-geopolitics in Azerbaijan.

Once in a while, an article comes along which so clearly underlines the raison d’être of this blog. In an article on the 27th  of April in The Washington Times (not to be confused with the more well known Washington Post),  Xandra Kayden, Senior Fellow at the School of Public Affairs at UCLA argues that the US should refrain from criticising Azerbaijan’s human rights record since this would be detrimental to Western geostrategic interests in the Caspian, including Western efforts to contain Iran. Kayden argues that the US Congress funded RFE/RL service is guilty of supporting religious extremism by reporting on the detention of Muslim clerics and the closing of Mosques by the authorities in Azerbaijan, and raises the now familiar scare of an Islamist takeover in Azerbaijan by Iran-funded militants.

Now, it is rare that I find myself agreeing RFE/RL, which I tend to view as a crude Cold War-era propaganda instrument for US national interests which does not belong in the 21st  century, but in this regard I would concede that the channel is absolutely right. The situation for democracy, human rights and freedom of speech in Azerbaijan is absolutely abysmal, and to its credit, the local subsidiary of RFE/RL in Azerbaijan, “Radio Azadliq” has done a very good job on reporting on these issues. Until “Radio Azadliq” and BBC Azerbaijani service was taken of FM band in the country two years ago, to vocal protests both from Western governments, international and local NGOs, these channels were seen as one of the few real sources of information not influenced by government propaganda and censorship.

Having previous experience from the diplomatic community in Azerbaijan, I have seen very little evidence of growing Islamic radicalism or Iranian influence in Azerbaijan. Granted, there are areas of the capital Baku which are hotbeds of religious sentiment, such as the suburb of Nardaran, which has frequently seen religiously motivated demonstrations. There have also been reports that Iranian secret services are operating in southern part of the country, especially in the city of Lenkoran near the Iranian border. However, Azerbaijan is an overwhelmingly secular state, and large sections of the populace harbor deep antipathy towards Iran for a variety of nationalistic reasons. There can also be no justification for the frequent arrests of clerics and closure Mosques which have become a trend over recent years. Rather that an effort to combat religious extremism, these actions seem more to be symptomatic of an authoritarian state which is becoming increasingly paranoid about any private independent initiative, religious or otherwise, which it cannot control, co-opt or coerce.

Overall, the situation for freedom of religion in the country is cause for concern, not only when it comes to mainstream religious activity, but also regarding the country’s minorities. Azerbaijan still operates with a Soviet era law that distinguishes between “traditional” and “non-traditional” religions in the country, which in practice means that “non-traditional” religious movements like Baptists or Muslim organisations like the Fethullah Gülen movement are looked at with suspicion or even outright hostility by the authorities. “Non-traditional” religious movements frequently experience denial of registration, confiscation of property, or other related pressure on their activities. This situation becomes even more precarious when “non-traditional” religious beliefs and ethnic minorities overlap, such as in the case of the Ingiloys and Udins. Harassment of religious communities is no doubt also grounded in the drive by corrupt local officials to exact bribes, and the threat of arrest, incarceration or other punishment is held out to those who do not comply.

Ironically, the combination of corruption and abuse by authorities, along with the suppression of legitimate and alternative means of expression, including religion, threatens to bring about the very scenario that Kayden warns about. In neighbouring Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, heavy handed treatment of the local Muslim population by the authorities and lack of political and economic prospects due to authoritarianism and gross corruption has resulted in Islamism receiving greater support, and becoming one of  the few “true” opposition movements in the region in the eyes of the populace. It seems  that if the Azerbaijani authorities continue their present policies, a similar development in Azerbaijan would also be likely. The question to ask  Kayden would rather be why the West should have an interest in supporting a regime which corruption and repression might end up actually benefiting the Iranian regime and other anti-western Islamic extremists?

The Azerbaijani government and writers like Kayden see religion exclusively as a threat, and there certainly is much to criticise in the notions of fundamentalism and religious extremism, and other dogmatic and dangerous manifestations of religious belief.  However, I would also argue that religion could play a beneficial role Azerbaijani society as whole, helping to tackle corruption, political apathy, and the lack of social capital that especially post-Soviet societies tend to be short on. During my travels in Azerbaijan and elsewhere in the Caucasus I have often met believers of diverse religions who have taken a brave stand against corruption and official abuse, often at considerable personal risk, and worked to the benefit of their communities while expecting little in return. Rather than suppressing legitimate religious sentiment which in turn might leave the playing field open to radical extremists, it seems to me that both the Azerbaijani authorities, the people of Azerbaijan, as well as the West, would benefit from upholding human rights and freedom of religion in the country.

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