Tag Archive for 'Turkey'

Russia, Georgia, the Caucasus

Inspired by this piece in the FT by Martin Wolf …

“I am feared; therefore I am.” This is more than a restatement of Machiavelli’s celebrated advice that, for a ruler, it “is much safer to be feared than loved”. Vladimir Putin, the latest in the long line of autocratic Russian rulers, would agree with the Italian on that. But the war in Georgia is not just a re-assertion of Machiavelli’s principles of statecraft; it is a renewal of Russian national identity. It is yet again feared. In the eyes of its rulers, therefore, it exists.

… a friend asked why, if Georgia started this whole thing, we’re necessarily viewing Russia as the bad guys.  This was my attempted reply:

First the background. The area of the Caucasus (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and bits of southern Russia) is viewed as generally important for a few reasons:

  • Geographically, it represents the land-bridge between the Caspian sea to the east and the Black sea (which connects to the Mediterranean sea through the Bosphorus (the body of water that splits Istanbul in half)).
  • Economically, it is traditionally a very important trade route between Europe and the east. In today’s world, that means that oil pipelines run through the area (the Bosphorus is the world’s busiest stretch of water for oil (the English channel is the busiest overall)).
  • Politically, it has been a focal-point of conflict for centuries, since it represented the junction of the Russian, Ottoman (Turkish) and Persian (Iranian) empires. Since World War I for sure and arguably before, the area has been seen as Russia’s “backyard” – the equivalent of Mexico and central America to the USA.
  • Militarily, the three previous reasons join to give it enormous strategic value. Commanding the Caucasus enables you to project power all over the Middle East and eastern Europe.

All of this is complicated by the fifth point:

  • Culturally, the area is enormously diverse and filled with distrust. The various national boundaries are really pretty arbitrary and only loosely represent the various ethnic, religious and linguistic groupings. Note, in particular, that the Armenians were on the receiving end of an intensely brutal killing spree by the Turks back when the Ottoman empire was coming apart. Asking whether or not to call that event genocide is a good way to get people’s tempers from perfectly calm to screaming rage in milliseconds.

On to recent history:

Given that Russia had “owned” the area for the best part of a century, it was enormously shameful to them to lose it when the Soviet Union broke up in the early Nineties. It was, in a way, the ultimate demonstration of their descent (however temporarily) into mediocrity as a world power. Imagine if not just Cuba, but the entirety of Central America had switched to Soviet-inspired communism over the space of two or three years in the late 1980s. America would have shat itself.

From the point of view of the rest of the world, though, the move to independent statehood for the three little countries represented a victory over Soviet communism and a triumph for (hopefully democratic) liberalism. That is the backdrop to the Georgia conflict. It’s Russia-at-the-core-of-the-Soviet-death-machine that is seen as the bad guy and Putin as the ex-KGB nutjob that’s pulling the strings and taking Russia back to the Bad Old Days ™.

To a certain extent, this is partially the West’s fault. When the Soviet Union fell, we didn’t do the sportsmanlike thing of offering them our hand to help them stand up. We kicked them while they were down. The Shock Therapy that we foisted on them through the voice of Jeffery Sachs might arguably have helped the Soviet satellite states like Poland and the Czech Republic, but in Russia itself it really only served to cause massive unemployment, the dismantlement of healthcare and other forms of state aid and worst of all, the pillaging of anything of economic value by the now-infamous oligarchs. On top of that, Nato simply started marching east. Russia was admitted to the G8 only grudgingly, was ignored utterly in Kosovo and has never been recognised as a grown-up on the post-Cold War stage.

Telling Georgia that they could ultimately join Nato just after Russia had finished bludgeoning Chechnya into submission with a nail-studded bat was the equivalent of deliberately spilling red wine on Russia at a fancy dinner party and then saying loudly so everyone could hear “Oh dear, and that’s your only suit. Well, I’m sure you can scrub it out in the kitchen” before turning your back on them to talk to the Austrians about how their music was always so much more inspired than that brutish Russian peasant noise.

Russia has been handing out Russian passports to anybody old enough to hold them in South Ossetia for years so they could declare that they were simply defending their citizens. They’ve been sort-of-almost occupying the region for a while anyway under the guise of peacekeeping, but that role was never recognised by the UN or any other country in the region. Formally, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of the sovereign nation of Georgia. Their declarations of independence were – it’s widely believed – to have been encouraged, if not actually orchestrated, by Russia in an attempted loose parallel to Kosovo.

The West in general and the USA in particular had told Georgia that they had their backs. Georgia had troops in Iraq fighting with the Americans. The Georgians, stupidly it turns out, thought they were genuine allies of America. When Georgian troops started going into South Ossetia and triggered this whole mess, it demonstrated two things. First, that the USA under the Shrub [*] administration had really, really dropped the ball in its international relations. That the Georgians managed to get the idea that the US would rush to direct war with Russia over the Caucasus really says that the State and Defence departments screwed up badly. Second, that Russia was staggeringly well prepared for the Georgian move. They just happened to have an enormous mass of troops just over the border waiting to leap to the Ossetian’s defence? No. This was a trap laid by Russia and Georgia walked into it.

[*] Little bush.

I swear I’m not a junkie

My wife is American.  This has various benefits for me, but one of the best is the opportunity, at this time of year, to gorge myself stupid.  Last Thursday was Thanksgiving in the U.S., but we decided to have our little shovel-food-down-your-throat-athon on Sunday night with some of my wife’s friends from university.  The turkey was bought on Friday, the giblets removed and discarded (sorry, I just can’t handle them) and we were ready to get started with marinading it.

My wife wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps by injecting the turkey with red wine.  I’d never heard of this technique before, but a good roast is worth a lot in my book and a turkey is famously difficult to keep moist, so I was keen to try it.  I raided our travel first-aid kit to look for our syringe, but to no avail.  Okay, no worries, it’s off to the chemist we go to get another one.  The coversation, at a Boots, as it happens, went like this:

Us:  Hi.  Do you have any needles?  Syringes?

Them:  Ummm … maybe.  Is it for travelling?

Us:  No.  It’s for a turkey.  We’re going to inject it with wine.

Them:  Ahhh, no.

Us:  Okay, then.  It is for travelling. [Yes, yes, I know.  This wasn’t the most subtle of ploys]

Them:  We’ll need to order them in.  It’ll take two weeks.

Yeah, right.  The implication was pretty clear – hovering in the air, as it were.  They weren’t going to take the slightest risk of selling needles to drug users.  To really slam home the fact that they were looking out for their jobs in a big corporate chain, the conversation finished with:

Us:  Well, do you know where we might be able to find one?

Them:  Perhaps at an independent pharmacy.

… which is exactly what we did.  There’s a wonderful chemist on England’s Lane that just looks Italian (next time you go to Italy, pay attention to the chemists – they’re fantastically unique).  It’s certainly run by an Italian lady and she was fascinated by the idea of injecting wine directly into the meat.  She insisted on my wife spelling out all the recipe details as she promptly sold us a pack of 10 1ml syringes for £2.90.  It was simple, it was easy, it was friendly and it was helpful.  She’ll keep our business from now on.

I got really quite angry from the whole affair.  My wife and I don’t look particularly shabby (I hope).  We were clearly entering the Boots as a couple.  We weren’t shifting around on our feet or trying to speak quietly to avoid undue attention.  None of these seem consistent with how I imagine a drug abuser would present.  It seems perfectly reasonable – to me – to have believed that we were genuine in our request.

But even if we weren’t, I still would have been upset with them.  Yes, the UK operates a needle exchange programme, but any kind of restriction on the sale of needles simply raises their implicit price, which can only encourage drug users to share needles.  If a chain of Chemists can’t be sold on the idea of harm minimisation, we’re in real trouble.

The turkey turned out great, by the way.  We used a Malbec to inject it with, stuffed it with chopped-up apple, prunes and garlic (the bread-based stuffing was being brought by someone else) to sweaten the meat a little, sprinkled quite a lot of rosemary over the skin, roasted it with tin-foil over the top for the first two hours and without the tin-foil for the last hour.  Beautiful.