Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category
“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time”-Homer, The Odyssey
Thira- Back on Santorini after two months in Barcelona doing some long form writing and not near the bustle of any major city, although some of the drivers here think they’re racing to beat a red light in Athens. I’m keeping my head down from the constant news out of Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, West Africa or even Scotland or Catalunya.
My Magyar friend Patrik gave me an impromptu motivational talking to in Barcelona mid-summer. He’s off to Turkmenistan this week to see the Darvaza Crater a.k.a. the Door/Gate to Hell and view the absurdities of Ashgabat. When I was in Turkmenistan 13 years ago I didn’t dare take my camera out of the hotel due to the pervasive paranoid there. That’s one place, like Damascus pictured above, I’d very much like to return to.
I read yesterday that cruise ship traffic to this island is down because of “political instability in the eastern Mediterranean.” Santorini is nowhere near Syria. Are people worried about Achille Lauro redux? It kind of reminds me of being in Budapest in 1999 and the drop in tourism was credited to the NATO campaign in Kosovo. I understand people being risk averse. But sometimes boundless precautions are a bit over the top. I doubt IS is going to suddenly overwhelm Tartus and then begin a Somali pirate economy. But what do I know.
The shooting down of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine may have seemed unlikely until it happened. Weird to think a place as tranquil as this is somehow affected by Syrian chaos in a butterfly effect for lack of a more original term.
On an unrelated note, my 2011 biography on Khalifa Haftar was cited in Libya: from Repression to Revolution: A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, 2011-2013 edited by M. Cherif Bassiouni, Emeritus Professor Law at DePaul University. A 2012 article I authored from Mali for CNN was cited in Fragile Stabilität – stabile Fragilität (Fragile stability – stable Fragility) in a chapter written by Scott G. McNall, professor of sociology at the University of Kansas and George Basile, Professor of Practice, School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Very pleased to learn of these citations.
New York- I recently interviewed Ambassador Vlad Lupan, Moldova’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, here in his Manhattan office for IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required). Though the finished product was a succinct summary of the present day challenges Moldova faces between Putin’s incipient Customs Union project and the hopes of its Western-leaning coalition government of joining the EU’s common market, our discussion went far beyond the first half of 2014 and the upcoming signing–along with Georgia–of the EU Association Agreement this week.
Our lengthy discussion into some detail on the ‘frozen’ Transdniester conflict along Moldova’s eastern frontier with Ukraine as well as the nature of the Turkic Gagauz minority’s autonomous politics in Moldova’s southeast. Moldova is a country often little understood in the broader Western mind (and is still referred to by some rather anachronistically as ‘Moldavia’ which can result in a degree of collective confusion).
One of Ambassador Lupan’s concern’s involved the influence of pro-Kremlin or outright Kremlin-controlled media outlets. As his country grapples with the prospect of broader European integration, Moldova’s separatist-minded peoples or those hailing from rural or elderly demographic cohorts holding on the the vestiges of what he termed “Soviet nostalgia” may feel that they have much to lose should their state turn its back on Russia by leaning too far West too rapidly. s We’re witnessing to this wistfulness for a Soviet time gone by to some degree in swaths of Ukraine’s industrial and mineral-rich Donbas region in a good many media reports this year.
Ukraine is currently plagued by an incredibly unhelpful lexicon that draws from everything from the battle for Stalingrad to the Russo-Chechen wars. With competing sides painting their opponents as ‘fascists‘ and ‘terrorists’ respectively, a civil society-based solution to the crisis-cum-conflict seems increasingly unlikely from a pessimistic-inflected vantage.
The Republic of Moldova most certainly has a stake in the outcome of events in Ukraine. The port city of Odessa is Transdniester’s oxygen valve to the wider world. After Crimea, Tiraspol’s retrograde Soviet-esque authorities have made known their separatism for accession to the apparently now expanding Russian Federation.
Though a non-contiguous sliver of land that cannot connect to Russia unless all of Ukraine were to somehow become a constituent region in a kind of Crimea scenario writ large, perhaps Transdniester elites imagine their unrecognized state as an outpost of Russian rule akin to Moscow’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. Kaliningrad currently sandwiched between EU and NATO member states Poland and Lithuania. exists today essentially as a geopolitical relict of the aftermath of the Second World War
Between the agreement to be signed this week and elections scheduled for the end of November coupled with no end in sight for the violent conflict in its eastern neighbor, Moldova may be entering a period of heightened uncertainty as its pro-EU leadership attempts to move toward Brussels while Putin’s Customs Union awkwardly coalesces.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
Barcelona- The above title is a line from the remix of M.I.A.’s Paper Planes single with Bun B and Rich Boy. It kind of capture’s my day today in a way. Sitting in the First World which seems at points in danger of slipping in the Second and writing and wondering about the volatile politics of the Third in Mali that verges on Barcelona’s own Manuel Castells‘ Fourth World in the north. I know Alfred Sauvy’s Third World is supposed to be long out of fashion in the post-poltical correctness era of the Global North and South or Majority World not to mentions the BRICS but maybe that’s why I continue to use it. Sometimes I simply like a passé expression out of sheer sentimentality. Other times it’s just a more evocative term than something bland-sounding coined by a present-day economist, demographer or sociologist.
I have a new article out from my trip to Sévaré the other week in today’s Christian Science Monitor. Despite a nuisance of a government minder, a confrontation with a fearsome man from the security forces and close to 100º F temperatures, I’m somehow managing to get some work out into the internet-o-sphere this week. The eurozone is in what seems like constant crisis and Spain here is chief among the economic enfants terribles. Well after Greece that is…
Nonetheless summer is here and things are plodding along. Unemployment is at record levels but at least there’s a beach. And at least the perennial post-Franco nationalism and separatism here in Catalunya is confined to flags, football, and mostly civil politics unlike dear Mali from where I’ve come in recent weeks.
The cliché goes that Mali was West Africa’s [lone?] success story under ATT in terms of democracy, good [or decent?] governance, corruption, and rule of law. Some Malians I spoke with over the weeks there strongly disagreed with all or parts of that characterization when describing day-to-day life under the “Soldier of Democracy” ATT’s rule but dissatisfaction was setting in even amongst some in the pro-coup camp as the weeks turned to months and the politics went from roller coaster to quagmire.
There was a report today in a Bamako paper (Français) that Malian forces began an assault on Monday on a very northerly garrison called Taoudéni not far from the Algerian and Mauritanian borders. The logistics for such an operation would seem impossible without the direct military assistance of either Algiers or Nouakchott. But one report in one local paper doesn’t necessary cut it. If there was renewed war in Mali, I’d think others would be breaking the story. Could just be a bit of regurgitated propaganda from Kati. We’ll see if anything else filters through in the coming days.
Farewell- Yesterday I awoke to tragic news in my inbox. My editor at Asia Times Online, Anthony ‘Tony’ Allison, died of complications from a heart ailment in Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand. He was 59. I immediately wrote an email expressing my condolences and proceeded to mostly put it out of my head for the rest of the day. I was busy finishing up some edits on the CSM article featured in the box above and alternately worked on a piece for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst stemming from my trip to Mali. I then busied myself with petty tasks like doing laundry and went skateboarding at my favorite neighborhood spot at the entrance to the Barcelona zoo at the end of an incredibly hot day.
But today, in reading his obituary and tributes from us hacks, the news is really sinking in. Life is entirely unpredictable. When I saw Tim Hetherington standing outside the entrance of the hospital in Ajdabiya, Libya last year, I could never have guessed that just a few weeks later a guy of his stature in our industry would be killed. It’s partly a product of getting older I suppose. The longer you live, the more likely it is people you know (or have been in the presence of) will die. I have this idea about when I was in my 20’s, nothing in life seemed to change that dramatically. You could not talk to a friend on the opposite side of the country or the world for six months or even a year and the odds were their life had changed little in that interim. In the 30’s, all that went to pot. Unromantic, dull-sounding terms came into play like “marriage track relationships.”
Friends who were in these forced-sounding social constructs suddenly seem to drop off the face of the earth. People began to say predictable things with increasing consistency about buying houses and cars, sonograms and painting nurseries. New friendships then grew out of the commonality of those who eschewed such societal norms (ie those who were still out at the bars on Tuesday nights at 2am). No amount of pseudo-security or inherited wealth of one form or another can prevent the inevitable. We all eventually end up in the same place. It’s what we do until then that matters. No one I’ve known or met who died in the decade of the 9/11 wars ever thought as they were packing their bags, “OK, this is my final trip.” The first guys I knew who died in my field died in 2002. That was a decade ago. And somehow I am fortunate enough to look out at the brilliant blue skies over northeastern Spain 10 years on with what seem like endless possibilities still laying ahead.
Istanbul, Köln, & New York- It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do an update after about three weeks of nonstop travel and work. I’m just going to post a mishmash of backlogged things of no particular importance. After leaving Antakya I spent a couple of incredibly cold, expensive days in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet tourist district. Long gone are the days of Istanbul being a cheap tourist destination. But in its core, the town hadn’t changed a lick. The dudes who work in the tourist hustle still tell the European and Australian tourists that their names are incongruously things like “Steve” or “Johnny” whilst explaining that they’ve never been outside Turkey in their lives. In that sense it reminded me of my first trip to the city in the summer of 1998. Turkey seemed to have changed a bit in the era of the AK Parti and the Gulen movement and I felt like maybe the Efes didn’t flow as freely (and definitely not as cheaply) as it once did. But no matter what ideological trends are sweeping across the Anatolian plains, Turkey is still a relative bastion of accommodation between Islam and global modernity.
I made the observation that Turk Hava Yollari (Turkish Airlines) is sort of a de facto foreign policy arm for Ankara yet again. A decade ago the Turkish national carrier was part of the pan-Turkism policy that reconnected Turkey with its distant Sovietized cousins in Central Asia. When I was at Ataturk Hava Limani (Istanbul’s main airport) the first thing I noticed when I walked in was that the first destination on the departures board was the formerly besieged Libyan city of Misurata. Not Tripoli or Benghazi but a direct flight to Misurata. This intimates Ankara’s soft power desires and influence in the shattered Libyan state across the Mediterranean.
I’m still swamped with work related to my Syrian adventure and corresponding interviews with Syrian opposition figures in Turkey. I want to list a couple of things if nothing else than for my own personal archives. My speech from the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique September terrorism conference titled “Western boots on Eastern ground: A Comparison of Western Interventions in the Muslim World in the post-9/11 decade” is now available in PDF form (en Français) on the FRS site. I was quoted twice last week on CNN.com in “No Libya play for the West in Syria” and “How Syria differs from Libya.” This time last week I was presenting my work at an annual security conference comparing the scenarios in Libya & Syria and NATO’s supply lines in Central Asia in Wesseling, Germany which I will post more about when the CIOR site is updated and I have more time.
Paris- It was an extraordinarily busy week in the French capital to say the least. Before heading back to Aeroport Charles de Gaulle, I managed to make a mad dash to the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the Seine whose owner George Whitman died a couple of days before. I read the US Embassy’s Twitter feed of Ambassador Rivkin mentioning it and decided a visit to the legendary store was worth my last few hours in the city of lights. I didn’t have much time to loiter as I would have liked but picked up a Arundhati Roy’s fantastic, impassioned new book on one of my absolute favorite subjects, the Maoist war in central India. In my sleepless stupor I tore into Walking with the Comrades on the flight home and it did not disappoint. I only wish I could have written it myself. Roy writes about the Maoist issue with the same vigor as her outstanding work on Kashmir.
I decided to make one more rushed walk along the right bank to head back to the hotel to pick up my bags. After passing by the Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité, I happened upon this magnificent victory fountain commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his campaign against Mamluk forces during the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798. In what I suppose must have been typical Bonapartist fashion, the column emulated elements of Imperial Rome, fitting I guess as the rather delusional Messr. Bonaparte saw himself a latter day emperor at the time. The Sphinx heads basked in a cold winter light as the sun moved across the Parisen sky on one of the shortest days of the year.
As I hustled along the river in the brisk afternoon sun, I saw what seemed like countless Roma (Gypsy) kids pulling this scam that a gal I met in Santorini had warned me about where they mark tourists pretending to be deaf/mute while aggressively hassling them for cash playing on Western notions of guilt. Apparently there is nothing the Paris police or courts are willing to do about it as the Roma all appear to be under 18 despite the damage it does to tourism. I either didn’t have the look of such a whale or I was walking to hard for them to pay me any mind.
A fitting end to my stay was a cool (!) taxi driver who was playing American jazz on the radio as I quietly exited the city after an incredibly hectic, fascinating week. Waiting in the American Airlines departure lounge, I overheard the conversations of American university exchange students who were all excitedly heading home for Christmas after a rollicking semester abroad that apparently included a class trip to Morocco where they slept on dunes in the Sahara and experimented with drugs for the first time. Generation Facebook crowded into the airport in Uggz boots carrying iPads and yet still found things to complain about. It kind of surprises me that there are families that in this day can still afford to send their kids off to one of the world’s most expensive cities en masse to study (read: party) for months on end especially considering how nonsensically weak the dollar still is against the euro. Either the middle class is actually in better shape than I thought or perhaps they are part of the dreaded “1%.”
Although my work on this trip entirely concerned the future of the Muslim world and the West’s relationship with both the newly post- and present-tense revolutionary Arab states, I was also consumed with the future of the European Union and the eurozone. Much of the lunch and dinner conversation revolved around the troubled future of the so-called European project and the Franc0-German alliance/relationship. As someone who has always advocated for both continued EU enlargement as well as the steadied (but calculated!!) enlargement of the eurozone, much of what was said over the course of the last week was downright depressing. Has the enlargement of both the EU and the euro currency area been reckless economic adventurism? I hope not but I may be wrong which is immensely disappointing. The unity of the West is so important for a number of reasons not least of which because many believe, myself included that the “rise of the rest” is a de facto defeat for the hoped-for primacy of human rights in the world. I definitely am already well fatigued by the tiresome rise of China/maybe-authoritariansim-isn’t-really-so-bad-after-all talk. Yes, maybe it was a disastrous idea for Greece to have joined the euro (which I said at the time) but it is too late to go back now. 2012 will be a key year for the future of political Europe as the EU is often referred to in think-tank circles. A strong, united Europe is key to the struggle against neoconservatism which is seems to be having some level of resurgence here in the US and in the isolationist/nationalist/anti-immigrationist quarters of the EU’s differing electorates. I’m still holding out plenty of hope.
Oh and to the kids I met on Rue Mouffetard who took me to the electro dubstep party on Le Batofar, thanks! It is nights like that why I fell in love with the EU in the first place and why I will always return.
Paris- Took a long, brisk walk around the 5th arrondissement tonight after another red eye transatlantic trip leaving me in a daze. After a falafel and a Delirium Tremens, I got lost on my way back to Hotel le Demeure and stumbled upon the Moroccan-Algerian styled Grande Mosquée de Paris on a quiet backstreet at midnight which made for an ill-focused Blackberry snapshot. Upon a brief Google, the mosque is much older than I would have thought and rather than being a post-war structure, it is in fact a post-Great War construction dating back to the roaring twenties. Sometimes it’s good to lose one’s way.