Wednesday 20 March 2019

What's driving President Erdogan's shameful exploitation of the New Zealand massacre?

[A slightly edited version of this article appeared on The Telegraph's website on 20th March, 2019. See]

Turks were high on the Christchurch killer's list of hate figures. Both in his internet manifesto and engraved on his weapons were the dates and names of victories of Christians over Muslim Turks like the sea-battle of Lepanto in 1571 or Catherine the Great's defeats of the Ottoman armies in modern-day Ukraine two hundred years later.
Traumatised New Zealand does not share the self-proclaimed crusader’s animus against the ghosts of the Ottoman Empire. But Turkey’s President has lent a perverse helping hand to the murderer’s twisted myth-making.
In blaming New Zealand for the deaths of 50 Muslims and the video of the carnage in Christchurch at rallies for Turkey’s looming local elections, Mr Erdogan not only antagonised a grieving country on the other side of the world but also scorned a rare example of historic reconciliation between previous warring parties.
Like Australia, modern New Zealand’s nationhood was formed by the brutal experience of tens of thousands of ANZACs fighting the Turks in the grisly Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. That war helped shape their identity. But the same battle was also a founding myth of modern Turkey, whose first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became a national hero for leading his men in thwarting the Allied invasion. Out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk emerged as his country’s saviour and founder of a new republic.   
Ataturk sought reconciliation with his former enemies and set up a memorial to the fallen enemy buried at Gallipoli, assuring them that their bones now lay among “friends.” Attending ANZAC Day every 25 April - and seeing the Turkish Army salute the war dead of both sides - has now become a rite of passage for young New Zealanders and Aussies. Yet this year President Erdogan had a bloodcurdling warning for any visitor taken for an enemy after Christchurch. Should they come to Turkey "with bad intentions", he declared, following criticism from New Zealand for his decision to screen footage of the Christchurch massacre "they will return in coffins as their forefathers". 
Decades spent combatting the negative image of Turkey left by the mass deportations of Armenians from eastern Anatolia near the frontline with Russia to a grisly fate happening simultaneously with the defence of gates of Istanbul by Ataturk and his men are undermined by callous and threatening comments like President Erdogan's response to the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand.
Tarnishing his country's international image seems mad, but there may be method in Erdogan's apparently counter-productive comments. 
Turkey’s recent experience of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has not only cost hundreds of lives but also depressed tourism very severely. With an economy already stalling, the President’s remarks seemed to promote economic suicide in addition to inflicting gratuitous injury. It seems a long time since the centenary in 2015 when Mr Erdogan welcomed huge numbers of ANZAC visitors, but then he was seeking integration into the EU and was presenting Turkey as a bastion of the West.
The Turkish President’s rhetoric muddies the water between Islamist extremists and his government. Hardly surprisingly, this puts off Western visitors. Overall tourist numbers are sharply down on 2014’s record year.
Economic and tourist downturns don’t seem to have weakened his grip on power so far. If anything, hard times reinforce his party’s faithful in the need for a hard man at the top. Blaming foreign speculators for the general economic squeeze plays well to enough Turks to rally them behind their president. Throwing in claims of a new Christian crusade might cost a few thousand more waiters and hotel cleaners their jobs but it seems a plus for Erdogan’s poll numbers where it counts.
In Erdogan’s electoral heartland, the Asian bulk of Turkey, blaming foreigners who are also unbelievers for any ills plays well. Turks of course can of course point to cases of anti-Turkish prejudice and Western double-standards. However, when it comes to “Do as I say not as I do”, President Erdogan can beat all comers at that game. His indignation at Assad’s bombardment of residential areas to root out rebels is matched by silence about his own repression of Kurdish districts in the south-east.
Worse still is Erdogan’s capricious habit of switching from praise to blame and vice-versa. The Turkish president used to condemn Russia’s president as a Muslim-killer from Chechnya to Syria before he fell out with his NATO allies and started referring to Vladimir Putin as a friend and put in an order for Russian anti-aircraft missiles rather than US ones. 
New Zealand is the last place to look for new crusaders. It is the poster-child of post-modern embrace of diversity. By contrast, Erdogan risks trapping Turkey forever in a state of antagonism with the wider world over historic grievances which can never be reversed because they happened so long ago.
Turkey has too rich a heritage, valuable to the whole world, to let itself become reduced to a weapon of an embittered and self-isolating president. But, sadly, a nationalism manipulated to put emotional resentments ahead of rational self-interest can still come up trumps in Turkish politics.  

Tuesday 14 August 2018

"One Trade War at a Time, Mr Trump." Is the US President ignoring Abraham Lincoln's Wisdom?

[An edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 14th August, 2018: "Trump risks creating an unholy 'axis of the sanctioned' between Turkey, Iran, China and Russia":]

Axis of the Sanctioned

“Trade wars are easy to win, “ President Trump reassured Americans when he launched stiff tariffs on Chinese exports. Then in rapid fire he re-imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, ramped them up on Russia and sent Turkey’s currency into a tailspin with tariffs on steel and aluminium exports.
So far first blood to the United States. Even China has found that its huge trade surplus makes it more vulnerable to American measures than  the US economy is to any counter-measures from Beijing. The sharp falls in the rouble, Iran’s riall as well as the Turkish lira are all testimony to America’s status as the world’s financial heavyweight.
Yet maybe things have gone too easily. For all the economic costs inflicted on Trump’s targets, the primary reasons for his measures have been political not economic. Just as the US President had seemed to bring North Korea to heel with a potent mixture of threatening “fire and fury” plus tightening the economic noose, so Iran’s mullahs and the Kremlin were supposed to concede to Washington on the policy front as their currencies and economies were tipped into recession. Turkey too was under pressure to release a US citizen held for alleged collusion with the 2016 coup there as well as the Kurdish PKK guerrillas.    
But isn’t the point of economic sanctions to isolate a state? Creating a swathe of sanctioned pariahs from the Bosphorus to Beijing could backfire. Donald Trump’s scatter-gun approach to sanctioning rogue rivals risks creating an axis of the sanctioned.
Taken individually, Iran, Turkey, Russia and even China are vulnerable to American economic pressure, not least because everyone else’s banks can’t afford to flout the role of the almighty dollar in international trade. But if these countries are pushed together, then their mutual support and capacity to cause geopolitical turmoil could make Washington’s measures counterproductive.
Maybe a coalescing of Iran and Turkey under dire financial pressure for mutual support could be dismissed as no more viable than two drunks leaning on each other under the illusion that they’ve found a lamppost for support, but with Russia and China they suddenly have a new geopolitical hinterland.
Turkey’s President Erdogan more than hinted at geopolitical reorientation when he reacted to US tariffs by saying his country could find new friends and got on the phone to Putin. Even before the sanctions spat, Erdogan had been reviling Washington for not extraditing his foe, Gulen, for alleged coup plotting in 2016. Turkey had been cosying up to the Kremlin ordering the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in a clear departure from NATO’s integrated air defence. 
Turkey is the linchpin because until now it has been inside the US-led NATO tent. Its position at the junction of Europe and Asia, bordering Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria was one reason why Washington always wanted Turkey in NATO. It is also why Russia sees huge gains despite the economic costs to Trump’s double-sanctioning of both Moscow and Ankara.
Both Turkey and Iran face domestic turmoil as their urban populations see the value of their savings evaporate with sudden plunges versus the dollar, but their governments have shown that they can face down protests. Iran saw off the Green Revolution in 2009 and Erdogan squashed protests in Istanbul in 2013.
With Russian and Chinese backing as well as ideologically reliable security forces both Iran’s Rouhani and Erdogan probably judge that a mixture of the riot police and anti-American rhetoric will see them through. 
Unless one of Donald Trump’s targets blinks quite soon, the pain threshold might be passed through without either regime-change or a regime reversing course.
Already Imran Khan’s Pakistan which is so dependent on Chinese inward investment has announced its support for Turkey vis-à-vis America – and it has received an offer of Russian military assistance to replace blocked US training and supplies. That could put another geopolitical piece onto the board linking Turkey and Iran to China.
It could well be that Donald Trump’s simultaneous confrontation of the axis of the sanctioned is bringing clarity to international relations. The US President is making everyone choose where they stand.
But he is forgetting the wisdom of his great predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, his secretary of state, Charles Seward, suggested the Union should invade Canada to punish Britain for its sympathy for the South. “One war at a time, Mr Secretary” Lincoln admonished him and concentrated on beating the main enemy.
Donald Trump would be wiser to target his principal opponent and stick to one trade war at a time. Afterwards he could find the others more amenable when they have fewer friends.  

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Is Turkey's Erdogan a control-freak who is losing his grip on the nation's security?

In times of crisis when violence stalks the land people cry out for a strongman to get a grip on the problem. But what if terrorism spawns chaos in a country already under the thumb of a strong man?
Turkey is in a uniquely awful position.
It now has its strongest president since the military coup in 1980, possibly since Ataturk himself ninety years ago. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s extraordinary skill in consolidating his power has not been matched by an ability to solve the country’s problems.
While Erdogan was drawing together all  the threads of authority in his hands in a still democratic Turkey, random killings, suicide bombings and civil war with the Kurds in the south-east have been spiralling out of control. 
Bizarrely, Erdogan is a control-freak who is not really on top of the threats facing his society. If anything his capricious style of government has bred them.
By arming and encouraging radical jihadis to fight Assad’s regime in Syria, Erdogan ignored the risks of blowback. When Assad’s regime was weak, the Kurds in Syria began to assert themselves. Erdogan moved to stop them establishing a Kurdish mini-state south of Turkey as threat to his country's integrity given its millions of Kurds, but the price demanded by the West for turning a blind eye to that was that Erdogan started a crack down on IS in Syria too. Previously, Turkey had in effect allowed IS and other radical anti-Assad but also anti-Kurdish forcesuse its border region as a safe area.  These two crackdowns set off terrorist attacks in Turkey. Kurdish groups primarily attacked the army and 
police but IS has targeted civilians.
His foreign policy too has veered from confrontation with Russia and Iran to partnership with them and public allegations that his chief Western ally, the USA, is behind the terrorism afflicting Turkey.
The economy has gone from boom to bust under Erdogan. Once he seemed to have achieved the miracle of successful mixing Muslim politics with the market economy. But the backwash of conflicts in Syria and Iraq plus terrorism terrifying away tourists has tipped Turkey into recession.
In the past a military strongman has acted to restore order in Turkey (usually brutally).
Back in September, 1980, General Evren launched a military crackdown on the bloody civil war raging between gunmen of the radical left and the radical right. At a heavy cost the army restored order and even promoted economic development – and a return to democracy. But after the fiasco of the Putsch last July, another military coup – at least a successful one - seems improbable.
The crackdown since the attempted coup hit the security services hard. The Presidential Guard was disbanded showing how insecure Erdogan feels. But more problematic for Turkish society at large has been the evident falling off in the efficiency of surveillance by Turkish intelligence and police.
Erdogan alleged that supporters of his bete-noire, Fetullah Gulen, had infiltrated police and intelligence. They had but with his approval until the two fell out so spectacularly. That split leaves the armed forces and internal security deeply divided, some under suspicion, others promoted for loyalty not ability. That is no recipe for effective counter-terrorism even if it makes another coup unlikely.  
Of course it would be desirable if there was a democratic way out of the current impasse. But Erdogan’s opponents in parliament are divided and their support base stuck among certain minorities like the secularists  gunned down on New Year’s Eve or Kurds under assault as treacherous separatists in Erdogan’s eyes.
Is Turkey becoming a sick man on the edge of Europe? A kind of Pakistan with the radical jihadis of Syria providing its own Taliban-threat? 
Sadly, after decades of promoting Turkey as a model for it to follow, the West sees that the country now risks slipping down the road pioneered by Pakistan, whose sponsorship of jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s backfired horribly after 2001 rather as Erdogan's backing of anti-Assad rebels regardless of their fundamentalist agenda has blown back into Turkey since 2015. 

Maybe, inside the ruling party, there are men ready to defy the president’s grip on power and anxious to replace him and his increasingly capricious way of ruling.  But I doubt if they have the numbers or the courage to take President Erdogan on. Turkey’s agony looks set to continue. Failure to stem the terrorist tide could lead to bitter splits in Turkish society as the blame-game for the violence and the insidious economic consequences begins. But given the country’s sensitive geopolitical location, chaos in Turkey means instability for the West too.

( A version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph (2nd January, 2017) and online:

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Trump Effect? Voters in Bulgaria & Moldova Dish Local Hillaries and the Euro-Atlantic Consensus

13th November was as unlucky for stalwart backers of the foreign policy-line embodied by Hillary Clinton just as 8th November was for her domestic supporters. In both Bulgaria and Moldova, the voters rejected women candidates for president who had been openly endorsed by Washington and Brussels. Despite this patronage and boosting by the Euro-Atlantic power-centres neither woman broke through the glass ceiling. Or was it both were seen as token females put up for the highest office by shadowy male oligarchs anxious to keep power in countries blighted by poverty and corruption?
Do Bulgaria or Moldova matter?
Having witnessed how small states with tiny electorates but vital Electoral College votes dealt body- blows to Hillary Clinton's hopes of winning the US Presidency, it would be short-sighted and arrogant - as the Euro-Atlantic establishment has so often been - to dismiss voters in small East European states as irrelevant.
Having presumed that Bulgaria was irretrievably anchored in the Euro-Atlantic power-structure by its accession to both NATO and the EU, the choice of an openly pro-Russian candidate for president of the country is a wake-up call to Brussels and Washington. Similarly, the Moldovan elite had seemed locked into an "irreversible" course as its premier put it to integration - better said subordination - to the Euro-Atlantic model. In both cases, the majority of citizens thought different.
Until the implosion of the neo-con regime-change foreign policy embodied by Hillary Clinton and her attack-dog for Eastern Europe, Victoria Neuland, we could have been confident that the heavy-hands of Washington and Brussels would have pressured both Bulgaria and Moldova to reverse such results. Yet even cash inducements like the IMF's sudden dole of US$36 million to the Moldovan regime just six days before the poll could not buy enough support . Even more striking was the Bulgarian public's rejection of the pro-EU candidate who had boasted about how much EU aid to the poverty- stricken Balkan EU member was at stake. What ordinary Bulgarians and Moldovans know, and what the Euro-Atlantic elites and media never admit, is that EU funds have been a motor of the corruption suffocating their economies. Precisely because of the easy pickings EU and IMF cash provides to the ruling elites, they have no incentive to act in the majority's interests. Real reforms are tough to enact and make the people richer not the insiders in the political class.
Until Trump's election, the USA and EU deployed their massive power and influence to making any vote against their policy-options seem futile despite popular recognition of how they had gutted the productive aspects of both the Bulgarian and the Moldovan economies. Sunday's elections in both countries may be straws in the wind. They are victories for the genuine people power of the ballot box, not the street-based populism of crowds favoured by Washington and Brussels to impose "people power" on the people. It is striking that the Bulgarian premier, Borisov, who is often criticised as "authoritarian" by state media in the EU like Deutsche Welle and the BBC as well as by Euronews, immediately resigned. He drew the democratic consequence of the defeat of his own candidate, the lady speaker, Tsetska Tsatcheva. But the premier of Moldova, Filip, who has been boosted by Euronews etc. as a model European, immediately said the popular vote against his candidate, the ex-World Bank official, Maia Sandu, would have no effect on his policies!
Even so, the election of advocates of better ties to Russia is a small geo-political earthquake in states NATO and the EU saw as securely-controlled bases for launching anti-Putin policies. No-one has died in these tremors in Bulgaria and Moldova. But the fact that the upheaval has been peaceful through the ballot-box leaves only violence as a viable way of reversing the will of the people. Both Bulgaria in 1997 and Moldova in 2009 saw violent Putsches from the street enthusiastically endorsed in Brussels and Washington as "People Power". If the kind of Soros-sponsored protests Americans themselves are now witnessing at home against Trump are switched on in the East European dissident states the counter-explosion could destabilise the whole EU-NATO project in the vast post-Communist region which had seemed willing to lick the West's hand no matter how often the West had imposed destructive poverty-promoting policies.
But now it would be unwise to think that the East European dogs can be kicked with impunity. They could turn vicious as the French say and bite back. A change of course in Washington could re-earn the pro-American consensus squandered over the last twenty-five years by the cynical Euro-Atlantic consensus. But can Western elites swallow their pride and learn the lesson of popular alienation. Or will they sink into denial and double-down on the policies which have rendered them despised by ordinary folk who see through phony rhetoric about swallowing touch economic medicine for their own good. East Europeans know that playing the reform politician not the entrepreneur is the way to get rich in their societies. Sadly, a lot of people in the West are coming to a similar conclusion.
So the Trump Effect has emboldened the ordinary voters of Eastern Europe to demand that their elite put the people first. Maybe the Donald didn't mean that to be the outflow of his victory in the USA, but that's how people there see it. If the rigid and impoverishing policies promoted by the US-EU consensus cannot be revised, then more results like those in Bulgaria and Moldova can be expected.
What should worry the US-EU establishment is that elections are coming in countries which won't be so easy to ignore as small East European states. Next spring, the Dutch and the French vote. The anti-establishment tide in those two important EU and NATO states is running strongly. Years of rhetoric about reform and anti-corruption strategies across the New Europe of the old Soviet bloc coincided with rampant influence-peddling and bribe-taking.

"Drain the Swamp!" was one of Trump's most effective slogans. Across Europe, it echoes powerfully precisely because of the hypocrisy and cynicism of domestic and Brussels-based elites who talked so loudly about their commitment to the right kind of anti-corruption strategies but, as East Europeans say, have their left hand cupped behind their backs. 

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Strange Silence of Neo-Con Trolls as Saakashvili Stabs His Patron Poroshenko in the Back

The sudden resignation of Mikhail Saakashvili as Governor of Odessa and his accompanying tirade of accusations of corruption and treason against the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko and his coterie in Kiev came as a bombshell for the Western media on 7th November. But it was a strangely bland bombshell.
Yes, the voices of the West - the BBC, CNN, Wall St. Journal, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – mentioned that the former Georgian President, who had been brought in to combat corruption in Ukraine’s key port and one of its major Russian-speaking cities, had resigned, even that he criticised his patron and old university chum, Poroshenko, for being on the take. But the reportage has been strangely opaque.
Remember both Saakashvili and Poroshenko had been routinely characterised as the epitome of anti-corruption campaigners by Western neo-con voices whose echo-chamber is the supposedly liberal media, CNN, NBC in the USA and BBC and Channel Four News in the UK. No mention of Poroshenko’s past service to the “notoriously corrupt” regimes in Ukraine before 2014 is permitted, nor reference to his alleged business dealings with pariahs like Iran before he came on board for the regime-change of the decade in February, 2014. As for the reality that to most Georgians their ex-president, President, Mikheil Saakashvili,  was the personification of a brutal, loud-mouthed demagogue that too was passed over in silence by those who boast that “they tell truth to power” from the editorial suites of Western newsrooms and newspapers.
Saakashvili’s  own people remember how it was exactly nine years ago on 7th November, 2007, that his Western equipped para-military police smashed demonstrations against him in Tbilisi with a mixture of high-tech ultra-low frequency disorientation weapons and good old-fashioned swagger sticks and jackboots. The anniversary of Lenin’s seizure of power ninety-nine years ago has strange fascination for Saakashvili as his day for decisive coups.
After his fall from power in Georgia four years ago, Saakashvili had become a kind of post-Communist Flying Dutchman albeit inverted. Abandoned by his Dutch wife after revelations of the crudest kind of tax-payer-funded infidelities on the Georgian presidential jet, he roamed the West trying to find sanctuary. Even the USA quietly but firmly denied him a haven as revelations that underneath his glass-fronted police stations – much-vaunted in the Guardian and Transitions online as model reforms - secret dungeons housed torture and sexual abuse against his opponents have shattered his reputation at home and were known to insiders abroad.
Saakashvili has of course embarrassed his US sponsors before by launching unilateral action without consulting them and getting full permission in advance. Remember how in August, 2008, he thought he could overrun South Ossetia before Russia could react and would earn the plaudits of the neo-cons in the West for his “courageous leadership”. Instead, he provoked a Russian backlash and the disintegration of his army. In a grand strategy worthy of Mussolini’s placement of his best troops in Ethiopia before invading Greece and Libya with badly equipped conscripts, Saakashvili had sent his 6,000 US-trained troops to do garrison duty in Iraq for his American sponsors when he decided to provoke Russia in 2008.
The worthless adventure shattered Saakashvili’s value to the West less than a year after it had ignored his brutal suppression of opposition and had endorsed yet another rigged presidential election in his favour.
Ousted by even some of his ex-cronies after 2012, it was his old university contemporary, Petro Poroshenko, who threw a lifeline to the ex-Georgian President and a slew of his ex-enforcers from Georgia. Rather as the old Soviet Communist Party had deployed loyal apparatchiks from outside each republic to enforce the Kremlin’s will on the multi-ethnic population of the USSR, so Washington now backed a strategy of parachuting outsiders from other ex-Soviet republics and of course the children of Nazi-era emigres from Ukraine itself into key positions to control the Ukrainian people themselves in case they took it into their heads to take democracy seriously.
The Americans often overlooked the internal contradictions of this parody of Comintern tactics. Saakashvili was notoriously anti-Armenian in power in Georgia, when he bulldozed scores of ancient Armenian buildings in Tbilisi to make way for his Reichstag-look-alike presidential palace. So it wasn’t by chance that he got into a brawl with the ethnic Armenian interior minister of “independent” Ukraine last year.
Saakashvili’s arrival in largely-Russian-speaking Odesa was a red rag to the locals. They resisted his attempt to massage local elections in favour of his preferred candidates for mayor and so on as he had done back home in Georgia. He denounced the opposition as corrupt but at best this was the pot calling the kettle black. Saakashvili’s own tarnished reputation went before him across the Black Sea even if seminars in Oxford or Harvard took his credentials as “Mr Clean” at face value.
Now his wrestling match with the Ukrainian mafia and his attempt to impose his own Georgian clan in Odessa has come into the open.
The publication of the Panama Papers was supposed to tarnish Vladimir Putin but in reality the dirt spewed out of Poroshenko for his murky Caribbean cash pile. Just as the revelation of David Cameron’s family ties to offshore accounts fatally undermined his standing in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. Poroshenko’s claims to represent Westernization for Ukraine were not without an ironic plausibility.
Then to compound Poroshenko’s credibility gap as an anti-corruption campaigner, an MP of Soros-sponsored Afghan Communist background got a bill passed with American backing requiring politicians and officials to publish declarations of their wealth. The published amounts commonly enraged ordinary, poverty-stricken Ukrainians even if they were often a shadow of the real wealth stashed away by the representatives of the people.
Having come to power by decrying Viktor Yanukovich’s alleged “orgy of corruption”, the Poroshenko crew looked odiously bloated with inexplicable wealth.
Into the scandal stepped the unpopular, alien governor Odessa. Despite being appointed by the President, Saakashvili chose to denounce him personally for betraying the Ukrainian people, Western values and the anti-mafia crusade which Saakashvili claimed to personify.
Western media express surprise at the ferocity of Saakashvili’s attacks on the integrity of his old university friend, Poroshenko, who had rescued him from exile and given him his new lease of political life in Odessa. Don’t these hacks remember how Saakashvili had been raised up by Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze, who became godfather to his protégé’s son, Eduard, while he was Minister of [In]Justice in that cruelly corrupt regime, before Saakashvili turned on his patron and ousted him in the so-called “Rose Revolution” in November, 2003? Now thirteen unlucky years later, Saakashvili has bitten the hand that fed him in Ukraine.
Part of the Western media’s amnesia is of course that until yesterday both Saakashvili and Poroshenko were portrayed as model reformers, anti-corruption campaigners and so on. Suddenly, one paragon of civic virtue smears the other. CNN, BBC and Wall St. Journal can’t compute it. Clearly, no-one in the Central Information Agency had distributed the script in advance of this crisis – so unlike the well-signalled abandonment of a Western darling like Shevardnadze in 2003 or the preparations for the Maidan uprising in 2013-14. Then of course, the Amanpours et al. were on hand with the moniker and mood music to encapsulate the propaganda line. Yesterday’s hero was now a villain but forget about Shevardnadze or Kuchma, here comes an English-speaking motor-mouth spewing out all the New World Order guff about civil society, anti-corruption and, of course, Russophobia.
The Saakashvili-Porodshenko spat not only casts a garish light on the sleazy reality of Western-backed regime change on either side of the Black Sea – Georgia as well as Ukraine – but more importantly it illustrates the dangerous tailspin into which the casual promotion of corrupt and unstable post-Soviet politicians as paragons of civic virtue has plunged Western policy in Eastern Europe. The recent uptick in sabre-rattling by NATO reflects the bankruptcy of the political options promoted by the Euro-Atlantic regime-changers. Having toppled and re-toppled post-Communist regimes, promoting and then pulling down successive corrupt and brutal “heroes of the street”, the West now faces the grim reality that its reputation is as tarnished by this sleazy process as much as its former local heroes.
Maybe one of the youthful Najibullahs of Kiev will be pushed to fill the void. But don’t underrate the ability of Ukraine’s oligarchs to navigate the storms of post-Communist politics and never ending flow of embarrassing revelations of hypocrisy and corruption which the Dnieper can never wash away. Saakashvili has declared war in a most Hobbesian environment on the most powerful and odious characters in the country. Above all, he has denigrated the President of Ukraine himself whose authority cannot survive allowing his former protégé to abuse him with impunity.
This cannot end well for both men. No-one should be surprised if Saakashvili and Poroshenko are suddenly reconciled, but any embrace of these two old comrades from the Komsomol can only follow Lenin’s dictum: put your arms around the enemy’s shoulders so you get your hands closer to his throat. Saakashvili may be counting on the Americans to save his bacon. He seems to have forgotten what President Sarkozy told him in August, 2008: “The Seventh Cavalry is not coming over the hill to rescue you.” Ultimately, even the global nation par excellence does not believe that a Georgian political clan can takeover Ukraine and rule it for Washington against the will of the Ukraine’s own mafias.
Saakashvili’s impulsive detonation of this crisis might lead other Ukrainians to pose as champions of probity against Poroshenko, but the West’s international brigade of reformers who failed at home sent in to transform Ukraine have had their day. Some slink back home to the Baltic States or Chicago, but Saakashvili has no homeland anymore.
With his Georgian citizenship revoked, and Tbilisi demanding his extradition for a host of alleged crimes in office from 2003 until 2012, Saakashvili has few places to run to. Remember the USA wouldn’t give him permanent residence which was why he jumped at the chance to serve Poroshenko’s bogus anti-corruption but very real anti-Russian drive in Odessa. With the boss-of-bosses’ backing in Kiev, Saakashvili could find himself facing extradition back to Georgia – or even to Russia which accused him of genocide for killing so many civilians in his madcap invasion of South Ossetia in August, 2008.
The West can afford to throw away Saakashvili. Poroshenko and his prime minister, Groysman – godson of Poroshenko’s father – have been Washington’s key allies in Kiev. If they were to fall, or, if fearing Washington was about to push them, they jumped ship back to their old comrades in Moscow, the neo-cons’ house of cards in Eastern Europe could collapse.
Maybe the strange silence of the West’s normally vocal media analysts about Saakashvili’s bombshell reflects their bewilderment that the best-laid plans for domination in the East are beginning to crumble like one of the stale cookies handed out in Kiev by that pin-up for regime-change, Victoria Neuland. After all the hullaballoo about Donald Trump being the cat’s paw of pro-Russian interests who had backed Viktor Yanukovich in the swirling crisis in  Ukraine three years ago, that none of the hacks decrying his “hidden Kremlin links” have explained how Saaki and Porky Poroshenko fell out so spectacularly or what it means for Western grand strategy. Their silence is very revealing. Even Google’s Orwellian approach to news-management has rarely been so crude: the story was a bombshell, headlined with “live updates” – but not anymore.
Amnesia not analysis is increasingly the Western media elite’s response to the crisis besettin its most cherished policies. Does this silence imply retreat or will the West lash out after Tuesday’s US Presidential election? Maybe Saakashvili’s tantrum will set the Seventh Cavalry in motion, not to rescue him today any more than in 2008, but to mask the failure of regime-change with open war in the East. Now that is something the Western media has been talking about a lot recently.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Erdogan: The Irresistible Rise of Turkey's Democratic Dictator

Some of the worst violence in Turkey’s failed coup against President Erdogan came around his presidential palace. That location is the natural focus of a coup, but what is very unnatural is the sheer scale of the recently finished Palace in Ankara.
Erdogan’s seat of government is not a modest town house like 10 Downing St. Even the French President’s Elysée and Barack Obama’s White House are housed and officered in modest surroundings by comparison. Thirty times the size of the White House, all seats of government of Turkey’s NATO allies could be contained inside its vast marble halls and endless corridors.
Being born into a poor but pious family from Turkey’s remote north-east in 1954 who had moved to one of Istanbul’s sprawling poor neighbourhoods, Recep Tayip Erdogan’s rise to the top ought to be a classic heart-warming log cabin to White House story. But his taste in mega-architecture reflects a personality that has more in common with the most grandiose of Ottoman Sultans or more recent tyrants.
The high-handed way in which Erdogan overrode normal environmental rules and budgetary procedures to push through his gigantic living memorial is typical of his style and why his critics call him an elected dictator.
It is Erdogan’s combination of genuine popularity with authoritarian disdain for dissent that marks him out from the dictators with whom he is compared. Another orphan-grandchild of the Ottoman Empire, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu is often seen as the unconscious role model for Erdogan. Ceausescu obliterated much of old Bucharest to build his Palace of the People before his fall in 1989. That vast building is seen a model for Erdogan’s palace in its mixture of ill-conceived styles and mega-scale. Both men were born into poverty and rose to the top and then plonked their monuments down on their people.
Romanians joked about the corruption in the Ceausescu family who lived at the expense of the people saying they had achieved Communism but only in one family. Turks have been known to note ruefully that Erdogan’s relatives have done well out of an ostensibly good Muslim government which has given them Islam in one family. But there the comparison with the Communist dictator fades.
When Ceausescu faced a crisis in 1989 it was because the people backed the army in toppling him. Yesterday thousands of Turks rushed into the streets to back Erdogan against the military mutiny. Corruption allegations even with evidence have bounced off him. Pictures of the bank-teller’s cash-counting machine found in his son’s home along with shoe-boxes of dollars and euros in 2014 ought to have shattered the President’s Teflon image but didn’t. It was the investigators who got it in the neck. Populist, Erdogan may  be, but such popularity is a political asset of phenomenal effect. However, the combination of an apparently miraculous rise from the bottom of society to the top of politics with a credulous majority share of population who mix Muslim piety with political naivety is a dangerous brew.
Self-made as Erdogan is, his rise did not take place in a vacuum. Decades of state-promoted secularism in largely Muslim Turkey had begun to erode before he entered politics. In fact, it was the emergence of organisations like Fethulah Gülen’s Hizmet  or “Service” movement thirty years ago which paved the way for self-consciously Muslim politicians to gain a popular base in Turkey. Although in 1996-97, Turkey briefly had an Islamic prime minister, Erbakan, whose Welfare Party backed Erdogan for his first big political role as mayor of Istanbul, the Army intervened behind the scenes to force Erbakan to resign and Erdogan was banned from politics for 5 years for reciting a poem comparing minarets to bayonets of an Islamic Turkey.
Although Gülen went into self-imposed exile in America shortly after this so-called “post-modern” coup, his movement continued to expand in Turkey and its members were key players in the promotion of  Erdogan’s newly-founded Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a Western-style  centre-right party on the German or Dutch Christian Democrat model.
Critics of Erdogan used to say he was a product of Gülen’s movement and that without the Pennsylvania-based preacher’s network of influence Erdogan would never have risen to the top. Well that maybe, but Erdogan has long since detached himself from Gülen and has been gobbling up his erstwhile patron’s network for years. It has turned out that the sorcerer’s apprentice has much more appeal on the streets than the reclusive cleric.
 Erdogan’s hypnotic appeal to so many Turkish recalls the most sinister of precedents.
People may say that no Communist ever got elected but Hitler came to power democratically. That’s true but Hitler never risked letting Germans vote him out of office. Since 2002 Erdogan has trounced his rivals in election after election.
Yesterday, President Erdogan repeatedly emphasised that he had been elected by the majority of ordinary Turks. It is his trump card. Liberals and secular Turks might scorn his self-made man’s mega-ego and vulgar buildings, but these criticisms wash over 50% of Turks.  Erdogan’s bullhorn voice and harsh rhetoric are seen by many of them as the ordinary guy shutting up the posh Western-educated elites who sneer at a president who can’t speak English.
Rather as the 48% of Remainers here were baffled and outraged by northerners and Brummies voting Leave, in Turkey the big liberal minority is very snobbish towards the bigger provincial majority who back Erdogan.
Growing up with the ambition to be a soccer professional rather than a Harvard PhD, Erdogan’s outlook on life chimes with the mentality of Turkey’s chavs. His strong religious views are as much a rejection of the secular elite which had run Turkey since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 as piety.
Erdogan came to fame when he won the mayoralty of Istanbul twenty years ago – and then lost it for reciting an Islamic poem saying the city’s minarets would be bayonets of the Turkey which he envisaged. Then the secularists were strong enough to slap him down. But not for long.
Mixing appeals to the Muslim majority to use their votes with sensible economic policies, Erdogan reinvented himself as a kind of Turkish Muslim version of  German-style Christian  Democracy. But his critics always liked to cite his comment to Jordan’s King Abdullah that he viewed democracy like a bus ride – you get off at your destination and don’t stay on board to go round again.
So long as the economy grew so did Erdogan’s popular appeal. He could trim back the influence of the military and bump up the Islamic aspects of society. The fact that he was elected to the Turkish Parliament for a Kurdish-dominated district in 2003 when his suspension from politics for making illicit Islamist statements in still secular Turkey came to an end, was taken as a sign that he could represent the alienated minority in the south-east.  The West saw him as a model for Arab states undergoing revolution in 2011. He could offer Arabs an example of how religious politicians could integrate people into a modern economically-prosperous democracy after decades of military dictatorship.
But it is precisely Erdogan’s response to the Arab Spring which brought out his capricious attitude to friends and partners. Hardly had he accepted Colonel Gadaffi’s Prize for Human Rights in 2010 than he sent aid to the rebels against the Libyan dictator. Bashar al-Assad and family were holiday companions. Then in 2011 Erdogan denounced his Syrian neighbour as a blood-soaked tyrant. 
So far so good, if Erdogan had been a model of respect for minorities and dissenters at home. But his switch from dialogue to all-out war against the Kurdish minority in south-eastern Turkey was a symptom of his most worrying personality traits: caprice ad cynicism. Sending in the Army and Airforce to crush the Kurds in the Assad-way was a way of keeping Turkey’s nationalists in uniform on side. If Turkey’s generals have been traditionally secular and suspicious of an Islamic politician they are much more ferociously nationalistic and hostile to Turkey’s minorities. By blaming the new conflict on the Kurds Erdogan rallied voters and steel helmets to his side.
A similar dirty game has gone on with his switch from backing the jihadi rebels against Assad to his new backing of the US-led war on IS. Having let Islamist jihadi radicals pour across the border with Syria as if it was a sieve, Erdogan suddenly declared himself the defender of moderate Islam against extremist terrorists. They have hit back inside Turkey, so now the country needs a strong man to defend it.
 Like many authoritarians, Erdogan is man of violent mood-swings. His affection can sour overnight and   just as quickly he can warm to someone he bad-mouthed yesterday. For instance, in the run up to the coup he was courting Israel’s Netanyahu whom he denounced as a child-killer during the Gaza war in 2010. Vladimir Putin was as suddenly back in favour as Russia had been Enemy No1 in 2015. The pilot of the Turkish fighter which shot the Russian plane down on the Syrian border nine months ago has duly been detained as a coup-plotter. The day before the coup, even Syria’s Assad was referred to in emollient terms by Erdogan’s prime minister.
Mercurial in politics and ruthless in personality, the extraordinary rise of Turkey’s genuinely popular authoritarian president is a fascinating story but also an unsettling one. Democracy is supposed to produce bland but reliable leaders. They accept their own people’s will and act as trustworthy partners with allies. Erdogan’s changeability at home and abroad as well as his imperious personality make me doubt that when his winning streak falters he will stand in front of his palace happily telling the media that he looks forward to spending more time with his family. After all his family and friends are beneficiaries of his political clout. If and when Erdogan falls, they will be the fall-guys for his regime’s many faults.

To register your interest in pre-ordering Mark Almond’s “Secular Turkey: A Short History” go to

Thursday 30 June 2016

Oxford used to be the Home of Lost Causes. Now It is Their Bunker

                  An Oxford polling station's window assures voters "I'm IN"!

Bad losers are very un-British, or used to be at any rate. Fair play used to be the essence of Britishness. But die-hard Remainers loath it like every other British tradition.  
The hysterical reactions of local Liberal Democrats in Oxford to their defeat a week ago brings Peter Pulzer’s famous definition of Fascism to mind: “Fascism is when the wets turn nasty”. Neither liberal nor democrat, the hegemonists of North London and my own North Oxford are turning into Euro-fanatics whose contempt for democracy is becoming openly Fascist. 
The cult of youth, the contempt for the elderly and the preference for direct action – albeit taken by others – over the ballot box are all too Fascistic for comfort. The hunt is on even for our own Matteotti. The Telegraph’s Catherine Gee posed a hardly rhetorical question whether her reader’s would have killed Hitler or Stalin in their cradles and wouldn’t do “the same” to Nigel Farage? On the Sunday after the referendum I sat behind a BBC TV journalist screeching, “God, I want to smash Vote Leavers in the face”! She could hardly control her venom against “that foetus” Gove. One Europhile Oxford historian of the First World War was so shell-shocked by the result that he has been effing and blinding on Twitter all week about Oxford graduate “Outers” calling them “W*nkers” or worse for not voting like him!

St. Margaret's hall polling station in Polstead Road, Oxford ("I'm IN" in upper window)

All of this hate-speech has let the virus of a post-modern anti-democratic mentalityout into our society. Deploring on the one hand the intolerance of anti-migrant views allegedly underpinnng Brexit voters' choice, before decrying the need to heed their votes, at best the embittered Remainers call for a re-run and at worse pour personalised threats out into the internet against Leavers. PC Plod and ex-prime minister David Cameron are all agog about graffiti on a Polish centre in London. But the Thought Police ignore high-profile incitements to violence like the ones from public personalities which I have quoted.
Although I have lived surrounded by euro-conformists in leafy North Oxford, this kind of frenzied rejection of the referendum result took me by surprise. I should have known better, after all the first seminar paper I gave in Oxford was about “Fascism as the Revolution of Youth”. But none of us like to think it could happen here. 
Symptoms of the local totalitarian mentality were immediately apparent last Thursday on the path to my local polling station in Polstead Road which was festooned with Remain posters and it even had a Remain banner in its front-window! The house next door was the local Remain HQ and plastered with posters. Several neighbouring Remainers coming to vote could not see anything wrong with a polling station advertising only one option. Leavers often expressed a naive faith in British fair-play when the subject of possible fraud in the voting or more precisely the counting was raised. This is England, they boasted! That sort of thing only happens in Ukraine! However, for Oxford’s blinkered Remainers, who provide the election-organising and vote-counting class, it was striking that blatant bias and illegal campaigning at the polling site was given a pass when done by the right side. After all, everyone around here is Remain as one put it to me. The referendum was a festival of unanimity North Korea-style.

UK doesn't count votes in individual polling stations like Ukraine - Obviously, no need to!

As I wandered around the city on Oxford University’s Open Day today for potential undergraduates, I lost count of the times a scholar or stooge undergraduate was holding forth about what was wrong with the Leavers or “reassured” would-be students that the university as a Remain stronghold – which from its Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor downwards it is. No debate in this home of lost causes is taking place – or permitted.The forlorn Euro-flags fluttering from the windows of colleges whose student inhabitants decamped to Glasto without bothering to vote give the city the air of a Danzig or Nuremberg at the moment they fell to the Allies in 1945 when the swastikas were still draped over balconies. Once Oxford was romantically Jacobite, now it is the Bunker of referendum denialism.
One North Oxford grande dame was furious when her two veteran cleaners admitted to voting Leave. Poles are likely to replace them. East European competition has made it possible even for dons to afford servants for the first time since the Great War. Fine for them but economic self-interest not racism makes the native servant class less enthusiastic about falling wages.
In their frenzy of rejection, the Remainers are upside-down and back-to-front. The very same liberal voices which decried “racism” in Leave propaganda are now threatening us with – to coin a term – a “swarm of migrants” from northern France once Brexit is enacted. Others decry how elderly risk-takers have stolen the future of the UK’s cautious, conformist conservative youth represented by the stars of Glastonbury bleating about whether they’d need visas to go to Ibiza.
But it is the threats of violence against Leavers which should be attracting attention. After the horror of Jo Cox’s murder, the BBC as well as much of the liberal media was filled with pious calls for a non-polemical approach to campaigning. The no-holds-barred bile directed by so much anti-social media at Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage since was soon  getting out of hand.
Bojo baiting was everywhere. Even the country house opera set can’t avoid it.  At Grange Park Opera on Sunday, its director, Wafsi (a household first-name, like Boris, at least in her own troupe) came on stage to denounce Boris. When some audience member demurred, instead of shutting up Wafsi decided she who pays the piper calls the tune and turned to her orchestra to ask them if they hated Boris. A few moon-faced violinists began to bleat two legs good, four legs bad, but other players sat stony-faced. Imagine if a Leave employer had asked employees to join the chorus of Out and Proud!
If you thought the referendum result was a classic example of Britain’s ability to make a revolutionary change without bloodshed, don’t think the Remain camp are going to grin and bear defeat. 1945 or 1979 were models of radical change through the ballot-box. 2016 should be another triumph for our way of making big decisions but the liberal elite is in denial of their defeat just as the new Fascists were after the First World War.  Remember the Mussolini’s, Lavals and our own Sir Oswald Mosley – fan of a united Europe to his dying day – were all renegade lefties eighty years ago.
Hampstead harpies and North Oxford feminists are in the forefront of the hate campaigns against Leavers. Their over-emotional response to the Out vote and hysterical calls for violence against the majority who frustrated their choice recalls the mentality of the fanatic women sitting knitting at the foot of the guillotine during the French Revolution. To most of us, they are about as seductive as Madame Defarge’s knitting-needles, but having seen one killing during the referendum campaign, let’s not discount the drip-drip effect of hate-media on impressionable or unstable young people.  
France's polarised atmosphere in the 1790s produced its Charlotte Cordays as well as its real life Defarges. 
Is the Britain now somewhere between the meeting of the Estates-General and the Terror, on the brink of the abyss? Or is our country entering the festering decay of constitutional authority as happened in Italy and much of Europe after 1918? The rhetoric of the referendum deniers sounds more Fascistic. It has none of the libertarian, egalitarian or fraternal tinge of the French revolutionaries'. Instead it is overflowing with bile against the poor, the chavs, anyone who outvoted the liberal elite. 
With a Tory leadership election scheduled to last until September and the Blairite veterans of his bloody Iraq war bent on decapitating Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, the post-Fascist frenzy to suppress anything passing for the popular will has many opportunities to burst the banks of peaceful politics.    
Wouldn’t it be a bloody irony, if a consequence of the British people voting to recover their traditional way of life was marred by the introduction of European-style political assassination? Our embittered Euro-Fascists’ bark may be worse than their bite. But who can rule out the risk of impressionable and unstable youths turning violent under the influence of anti-social media having a go at Bojo or beating up elderly people as Out voters? One thing is certain:  no-one in the broadcast media or the ancient universities is doing anything to calm the situation. But, remember, the Liberal establishment colluded with the Fascists in Italy and elsewhere  ninety-five years ago, too.