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Archive for January, 2019

Trump and Erdogan: Bringers of Chaos

16 January 2019

“Where America retreats, chaos follows,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo last week. It’s not the sort of remark you’d expect from an American diplomat only three weeks after President Donald Trump declared that US troops were pulling out of Syria. Is it possible that behind Pompeo’s severe and even pompous exterior there lurks a secret ironist?

Probably not. Pompeo truly believes (like many American evangelical Christians) that the United States is engaged in a struggle of good against evil in the Middle East. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture,” he said three years ago. He may just be angry at Trump, in a passive-aggressive way, for abandoning Syria to the (evil) Iranian and Russian forces that back Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.

At any rate, Pompeo is right about the chaos that will follow, but it would be wrong to blame it all on Trump. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is much better informed than the American president and probably a lot smarter too, but he is just as impulsive, just as ruthless, just as much a bringer of chaos.

It was Erdogan, in a telephone conversation in mid-December, who persuaded Trump that pulling all the US troops out of Syria would be a good idea. Turkey would be happy to take the strain instead.

Trump has always opposed America’s endless Middle Eastern wars, so he swallowed Erdogan’s suggestion hook, line and sinker – and tweeted his decision to pull the US troops out without discussing it with anybody. Only later did the remaining grown-ups in the White House explain to him that Erdogan planned to subjugate or kill America’s main allies in Syria, the Kurds.

To his credit, Trump hated the idea of betraying the Syrian Kurds, whose militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), suffered thousands of deaths while helping US forces to defeat the fanatical jihadis of Islamic State.

Trump still wanted to bring the US troops home, but now he had one condition. The Turks must promise not to invade north-eastern Syria and crush the YPG as soon as the US troops leave.

Erdogan replied that nothing Trump said or did could stop him from destroying these Kurdish ‘terrorists’ (who have never attacked Turkey). At which point, on Monday past, Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

All clear so far? Good.

You’d never guess, from the story thus far, that the United States and Turkey have been close allies for the past half-century, but the alliance is fading fast. Erdogan has been playing his own hand in the Middle East, and playing it quite badly.

The ‘Sultan’, as his admirers call him, wants to secure his own one-man rule and re-Islamise Turkey, which had evolved into a secular and democratic republic over the past eighty years. He also wants to promote Sunni Islam throughout the region. The two goals are not fully compatible, so he shifts position a lot.

When the revolt in Syria broke out in 2011 during the Arab spring, Erdogan supported it because Bashar al-Assad’s regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia Muslim sect. He kept the border open and let supplies and recruits flow into the rebels, including even the Islamic State extremists.

When Russia intervened militarily to save Assad in 2015, Erdogan was so angry that he even had the Turkish air force ambush and shoot down a Russian bomber. But he was almost equally angry with the United States, which had made a an alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria to fight against Islamic State.

The Kurds gradually choked off the aid coming in to Islamic State from Turkey, and IS (aka ‘Isis’) has now lost almost all its territory. So Erdogan told Trump he could bring the US troops home now, and Trump believed him. But what Erdogan actually wants to do is crush the Syrian Kurds, which he can do once the US troops leave.

Erdogan thinks the Syrian Kurds are allied with the Turkish Kurds, who make up one-fifth of Turkey’s population, live just across the border from Syria, and are currently at war with Erdogan’s regime. (That’s why he calls them ‘terrorists’.)

The weird thing is that four years ago Erdogan was on the brink of making peace with the Kurds. There was a ceasefire, the Turkish Kurds were no longer demanding independence, and he was negotiating a compromise settlement that enhanced Kurdish rights within Turkey.

But then he lost a parliamentary election in 2015, mainly because the Kurds stopped voting for him. So he re-opened the war against the Kurds, wrapped himself in the Turkish flag, and won the next election on an ultra-nationalist platform. All Kurds are now the enemy, they are all terrorists, and they must be crushed.

Given Erdogan’s ruthlessness and Trump’s volatility, I have no idea how all this works out. Badly, I suspect. But I actually admire Trump’s refusal to betray his allies, once he realised what Erdogan was up to. You don’t see that much in the Middle East.

Of course, it probably won’t last.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 16 and 17. (“The weird…crushed”)

Macedonia: What’s in a Name?

13 January 2019

The Congo Republic (pop. 5 million) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (pop. 88 million) manage to share their name quite amicably. Russia and Belarus (White Russia) don’t seem to mind either. Sudan and South Sudan don’t get along at all, but their quarrel was never about a mere name. Whereas Greece and Macedonia….

After 28 years of argument and anger, the two Balkan countries signed an agreement last June that changed Macedonia’s name to ‘North Macedonia’, because the Greeks said they couldn’t use the original one-word title. Greece could and did blackball the Macedonians, saying they couldn’t join the NATO alliance and the European Union until they changed their name – and eventually the Macedonians gave in.

The Macedonians jumped through a lot of constitutional hoops to keep their end of the bargain, and last Friday their parliament officially changed the country’s name to ‘North Macedonia’. So the Greeks got what they wanted, and now it is the Greek parliament’s turn to ratify the deal and lift its ban on ‘North’ Macedonia joining NATO and the EU.

But no. A small ultra-nationalist party called the Independent Greeks, whose seven seats Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras depended on for his majority in parliament, walked out of the coalition on Sunday.

Tsipras has betrayed Greece, they say. No foreigners should be allowed to use the sacred Greek name of Macedonia, even in the phrase ‘North Macedonia’, and what those foreigners really secretly want is to take over the whole of northern Greece. So Tsipras now has to hold a vote of confidence, and if he loses it there will have to be an early election.

He may well lose it, because most of the people in the main opposition party, New Democracy, are also paranoid nationalists. Or more precisely, they know that paranoid nationalism is the way to maximise the right-wing vote. Some of them are privately quite reasonable men and women, but they know what they have to say to win, and they will say it.

How has this nonsense come to dominate the politics of two entire countries for more than two decades? When the old Communist regime in Yugoslavia lost power in 1991 and the six ‘republics’ that made it up became independent countries, the southernmost one was called the Republic of Macedonia.

It came by the name honestly. From the Roman empire 2,000 years ago down to the Ottoman empire only a century ago, its territory was always part of a larger province called Macedonia. No other country was using the name, so independent Macedonia kept it.

There was, however, a region in northern Greece that also used to be part of that province, and also called itself Macedonia. No harm in that: the people in the Republic of Macedonia weren’t claiming that the Greek region called Macedonia belonged to them. But the Greeks insisted that they were, and wouldn’t let them join any organisation that Greece belonged to.

So the Republic of Macedonia was frozen out of NATO and the European Union (and all the EU’s subsidies for post-Communist countries in eastern Europe). It only got a seat in the United Nations by agreeing to call itself the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM) for UN purposes. And the foolishness dragged on for a generation.

The Macedonians themselves – sorry, the ‘North Macedonians’ – eventually developed their own ultra-nationalist crazies, who insisted that they were the true heirs of the Alexander the Great. Skopje, the capital, is littered with monuments and statues extolling him, put there by the previous government basically to yank the Greeks’ chain.

It’s not clear why you would want to claim descent from Alexander the Great, whose main achievement was conquering a lot of countries, killing a lot of people, and dying at thirty, but then the people of Mongolia take pride in having Genghis Khan as an ancestor. At any rate, the Macedonians did what they did, and the Greeks rose to the bait. It was really ugly for a while.

But finally the wheel turned, and both countries ended up with grown-ups in charge at the same time: Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Zoran Zaev in Macedonia. Both are social democrats who have other fish to fry, and just want to get rid of this issue that the nationalist right exploits endlessly. It hasn’t been easy, but they are almost there.

Zaev had to hold a referendum on the deal in Macedonia, and got 90 percent ‘yes’ votes – but the nationalists boycotted the ballot, and so invalidated the outcome because fewer than 50% of the potential voters took part. That meant Zaev had to get a two-thirds majority in parliament instead, which required him to bribe some shady members of parliament with amnesties for their alleged crimes.

Tsipras will face an uphill fight to win a confidence vote, and if he loses that he may also lose the election. He has spent a lot of his political capital in his struggle to rescue Greece from its financial plight. But these two men deserve to succeed. Maybe they will.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The Macedonians…while”)

Brexit Chicken

9 January 2019

There’s no need to practice bleeding, as the soldiers say, but the British government didn’t get the message. On Monday, it paid 89 truck-drivers £550 each ($930) to simulate the immense traffic jam that will happen in Kent if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal at the end of March.

The drivers had to bring their vehicles to Manston, a disused World War Two-vintage airfield in Kent, where the government is planning to park 4,000 big trucks if a ‘no-deal Brexit’ on 29 March leads to new customs checks on trucks heading for Europe. Every extra two minutes’ delay at customs, say the experts, would mean another 15 km. of trucks backed up on the roads leading to the cross-Channel terminals.

So the drivers parked their trucks on the airfield, then drove down to the port in convoy while the traffic-control experts measured…what? This wasn’t the 10,000-truck gridlock jamming the roads that might happen in late March. It was a single file of 89 trucks driving sedately along an uncrowded road. It looked like an exercise in pure futility, a Potemkin traffic-jam.

Yet it did have a rational purpose – a political purpose. It was being staged to persuade the British public, and especially the British parliament, that Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government really will take the United Kingdom out of the EU without ANY deal if parliament does not accept HER deal.

May’s deal is almost universally disliked. The Remainers hate it because they don’t want to leave the EU at all, and the Brexit hard-liners in her own party hate it because it keeps Britain too closely tied to the EU.

Never mind the details – they are almost theological –but the upshot is that May cannot get parliament to pass the exit deal she made with the EU, which would at least keep the trade flowing. She just doesn’t have the votes. And she can’t get the EU to amend the deal either.

The opposition to her deal in parliament is so strong that she cancelled a scheduled vote on it a month ago because she was bound to lose it. She is now committed to holding the vote on 15 January – but she still doesn’t have the votes. So she is threatening to jump off a bridge, and take everybody else with her, if they don’t back her deal. It has become a game of Chicken.

The charade in Kent is part of a government show-and-tell campaign to prove that she really means it. So are the predictions that the chaos at the Channel ports will be so bad that Britain will have to charter planes to bring scarce medicines in, and that supermarket shelves will be bare (Britain imports 30% of its food from the EU), and that zombies will rule the streets. (I made that one up, but you get the picture.)

The problem is that nobody believes her. May has manipulated the parliamentary rules and schedules to make it appear that there are no legal alternatives except her deal or a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, but she just doesn’t convince as a suicide bomber. Indeed, there was a vote in parliament on Monday night that blocked the government’s ability to make tax changes connected with a no-deal Brexit without parliament’s “explicit consent”.

That doesn’t actually mean that it cannot happen, unfortunately. Parliament can block her deal, but unless it can agree on some other course of action Brexit happens automatically on 29 March – without a deal. And that really would be nasty.

How nasty? William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party, summed it up well in the Daily Telegraph: “I don’t know what will follow a rejection of [May’s] deal…a constitutional shambles, a second referendum shambles, a no-deal exit shambles, a Corbyn [Labour government] shambles. I just know that it will be an abysmal shambles.

“People who say that the deal is the worst of all worlds haven’t understood how bad things might get,” Hague concluded. As May herself admits, a no-deal Brexit is “uncharted territory.”

So what will really happen when parliament starts voting later this month? There will almost certainly be more than one vote, as the 650 members of the House of Commons, no longer constrained by party loyalty – it’s too important for that – swing this way and that. But there may not be a majority for any specific course of action, in which case parliament will probably end up voting for a second referendum.

May has sworn that she will never allow that, because it would be a betrayal of the 52% who voted ‘Leave’ in the first referendum in June 2016. But in the end she probably will allow it, because she is not a suicide bomber.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“How…territory”)

Orthodoxy: the New Great Schism

6 January 2019

If you live long enough, almost anything is possible. It is now possible, for example, to hear the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, describe a former KGB agent and avowed atheist as a “miracle of God”.

The miracle in question, Vladimir Putin, made his career in the Soviet secret police before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which meant he had to be a member of the Communist Party. As a loyal Communist, he had to struggle against the evil influence of religion, the ‘opium of the people’, and as an ambitious careerist he did just that.

But the regime changed in 1991, and Putin had to carve out a new political career in a post-Communist Russia. So he got religion, or at least pretended to, and made an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. That’s why he is now warning that there may be bloodshed if the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is allowed to break away from the Moscow patriarchate.

The president of Russia got the best education the Soviet state could provide, and his private opinion about the Russian Orthodox Church is probably not far from that of Pussy Riot (although they would agree on little else). But the Church has always served the interests of the Russian state if it is allowed to, and as the embodiment of the Russian state Putin feels obliged to return the favour.

What has upset Patriarch Kirill and his colleagues is that last weekend Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted a ‘tomos of autocephaly’ to Metropolitan Epiphanius of the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Which probably needs a bit of translation.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is the head – or rather, the ‘first among equals’ – among the heads of the various national Orthodox Christian churches. ‘Constantinople’, actually now Istanbul, is still the headquarters of Orthodox Christianity although it has been under Muslim control for over 500 years.

The Ukrainians had asked Patriarch Bartholomew if they could have their own church back, and after due consideration he decided that they should. The tomos of autocephaly (independence) was the document that contained his decision. He was just putting things back the way they were.

Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, was the first capital of the Russian state, and naturally the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church as well. But Kiev was destroyed in the Mongol invasion of 1240, and for centuries afterwards the new centres of Russian civilisation were in the forests far to north.

In 1686, when Muslim slave-raiders from Crimea were still operating regularly in the vicinity of Kiev, the patriarch in Constantinople officially transferred the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church from Kiev to Moscow. All that’s really happening now is that Kiev is getting its own patriarch back.

The people who live in this area now are called Ukrainians, speaking a language somewhat different from Russian. Normal Orthodox rules say that each national group is entitled to its own national church, so what’s the problem? Politics, of course.

For three centuries after 1686, Ukraine was part of the Russia empire and its successor, the Soviet Union. It was the Russian Orthodox Church that made the religious decisions for everybody, and received the revenues from the 12,000 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine. But since Ukrainian independence in 1991, all that has been in question.

The question became more urgent with Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine since then. Moscow wanted to keep control of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, since it was a way to influence Ukrainian opinion in Russia’s favour. But for the same reason, it was a priority for Ukrainian nationalists to expel the Russian influence.

Ukraine won, and Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, thanked Patriarch Bartholomew last weekend “for the courage to make this historic decision….Finally, God sent us the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” (Is Poroshenko really a believer? Maybe, but he’s certainly running for re-election in March.)

Putin and Poroshenko are both using religion for their own purposes, but Bartholomew just did what was right. That has a cost: the Russian Orthodox Church accounts for almost half of the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and the hierarchy in Moscow has now broken off relations with the patriarchate in Constantinople. This is a schism that may take a long time to heal.

But Pussy Riot should have the final word. As they said in their famous ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012 (for which two of them did serious jail-time):

The Church praises rotten leaders

The march of the cross consists of black limousines

Patriarch Kirill believes in Putin,

Would be better, the bastard, if he believed in God!

Virgin birth-Giver of God, drive away Putin!

Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 15. (“The people…course”; and “But Pussy…Putin”)