Monday, November 25, 2013

Homophobia, Racism and Empire in Putin's Eurasia

As things go, the former Soviet Union is quite a homophobic place.  Over eighty-eight per cent of Russians approve of the law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’, including any assertion that homosexuality might not be deviant or morally reprehensible behaviour.  In other, even more conservative Soviet Republics, hostility against the LGBT community is even more dramatic.  In relatively ‘democratic’ Georgia, one attempt to hold a Gay Pride’ parade, in May this year, was thwarted by a furious mob egged on by extremist Orthodox clerics.  According to recent surveys, ninety-six per cent of Armenians believe homosexuality cannot be justified; and seventy-four per cent of Ukrainians believe homosexuality should ‘not be accepted by society’.   These are disheartening figures; and they provide politicians with dubious democratic legitimacy – like Vladimir Putin – with welcome ways of restoring some form of moral authority, by using a popularly marginalised group as a lightning rod.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Miracle of Empire? Sargsyan's Pauline Conversion

In the grand scheme of things, Armenia is a relatively insignificant country.  No major transportation routes traverse it.  It has minimal natural resources.  Its economy is stagnant, and its major export is, in fact, migrant workers, a steady flow of whom has depleted the population by several hundred thousand since independence.  Strategically, it is entirely dependent on Russia, which supplies most of its arms at preferential rates, maintains several military bases, guards its 'external' borders, and owns much of its economic infrastructure. 

Reports of today's sensational about-turn by Armenia’s current president during a visit to Moscow should therefore not have come as a surprise; Armenia’s long-standing insistence on initialling the Association Agreement with the European Union during the Vilnius Summit in November this year – despite of its military-strategic dependence on Moscow –  had been far more puzzling.  And yet, that policy formed part of a longer tradition, a ‘silent accord’ whereby Yerevan was allowed to participate in European integration processes by Moscow, provided it co-operated with Russia on the military front, and did not pursue actual membership of any Euro-Atlantic structures. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Pharisees of the Caucasus

Since independence, all three South Caucasus states have seen a revival in religious practice.  The Georgian and Armenian ‘national’ churches were quickly restored in their central roles within the identities of their respective ethnic groups; the Islamic denominations in Azerbaijan likewise saw the faithful return to their mosques in large numbers.  Meanwhile, as in the rest of the former Soviet Union, a large number of cults – including the Jehova’s Witnesses, and the Hare Krishnas – started infringing on what the established religions saw as ‘their’ rightful spheres of influence as ordinary Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians embraced the spiritualism they had been denied under Soviet, scientific-socialist rule, with gusto.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Syria: The Road to Nowhere?

Syria’s civil war has been raging for two years now.  And, as ever in such protracted internal conflict, the outside world is torn between responding to a heart-wrenching humanitarian catastrophe and staying outside the fray.  The images of death and deprivation, of humanity’s cultural heritage destroyed cry out for ‘something to be done’.  And yet, apart from humanitarian aid to the dramatically growing number of Syrian refugees, the provision of  ‘non-lethal assistance’ to ‘approved’ Syrian rebel groups, and the drawing of a (now muddled) red line around the large-scale use of chemical weapons, very little appears to have been done so far, eliciting accusations of indecisiveness from some Western media and of indifference from Syrian rebel groups.  Surely, now that Assad has seemingly used chemical weapons, it is time to ‘alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering’ and push yet another ruthless Baathist regime out of power?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Boston: Between Fear, Power and Temptation

America woke up to the Caucasus this week; and, unfortunately, it was not quite the awakening anyone would have wished.  In the West, Chechnya had hitherto been the purview of a select few: academics, scholars, and perhaps a journalist or activist or two with an interest in far away places with unpronounceable names.  Russia’s annihilation of Grozny didn’t really ring a bell with too many; and the tremendous horrors of Beslan had long migrated from one-minute news bites into the back recesses of most people’s memories.  But in an era when places with unpronounceable names suddenly become relevant as soon as they are connected with that ‘T’ word – you probably know which one I mean – Chechnya suddenly received its share of attention.  And for all the wrong reasons.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Barevolutionaries and Dinosaurs

And so, it is taking off.  Or is it?  Since last Monday’s elections, and following his surprisingly strong showing at the presidential polls, opposition candidate Raffi Hovhanissian has been holding a series of rallies that have, over time, morphed into something called the ‘Barevolution’, an amalgam between ‘barev’ - Armenian for ‘hello’ - and Revolution.  What are this movement’s chances of success? Will the ‘barevolution’ really be able to topple Armenia’s current political system, based as it is on deeply entrenched patterns of patronage and clientelism, with a regular dose of authoritarianism on the side?  Unfortunately, in the short term, the odds are stacked massively against this movement sweeping away Armenia’s oligarchic elite; over the longer term, however, what is happening on streets and town squares throughout the country might form the basis of something entirely new in Armenian political culture.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Democracy, Beyond Elections

Compared to the previous elections in Armenia – when ten people lost their lives during opposition demonstrations - the 2013 presidential ballot was predicted to be a boring non-event. It had actually been decided long ago, when, following what appears to have been a highly convincing private meeting, Armenia’s wealthiest man, Gagik Tsarukian, decided not to put forward his candidacy to the office.  If anyone could pose a threat to the sitting president, Serj Sargsyan, in terms of organisational capability and financial firepower, it would certainly have been the richest of all Armenian oligarchs.  Over the past few years, Tsarukian had gradually built his ‘Prosperous Armenia’ party into the second-largest in the land, with the reserves required to counter-act the blatant disparities that accompany every incumbent’s re-election campaign in the former Soviet Union.  

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Aylisli’s Artful Challenge

Akram Aylisli, the eminent Azeri writer who has stirred up a hornets’ nest with his recently published novella on the Karabakh conflict - “Stone Dreams” - is evidently a courageous man.  A ‘People’s Artist’ of the Republic of Azerbaijan, a recipient of the country’s highest state honours, he has taken upon himself to do something extremely dangerous, reckless even by the standards of nationalist conformism that suffuse politics in the Caucasus.  It takes a lot of daring to break through the taboos and manipulated historiographies constructed by subsequent nationalist governments and their subservient ‘intelligentsias’, and place oneself in “the other side’s” shoes, even for one moment.  For this, Mr. Aylisli deserves respect and consideration, and not the relentless, apparently government-sanctioned harassment of which he has been the victim over the past week.