Fate of Meskhetian Turks

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 34-36:

When he revealed to me on our first taxi journey that he was a Turok – that is to say, a Turk – I studied his face somewhat quizzically from the side. The skullcap; the pointy, hawklike face; the salt-and-pepper moustache; the gold teeth.

‘A Turk?’ I asked. ‘You mean, a Tatar?’

‘A Turk.’

‘Really? Türkçe konuşuyor musunuz?’

His answer in Turkish was fluent, unlike my stammered question about his language skills. Having taken a Turkish course in Berlin a few years earlier, I’d been capable of ordering a kebab quite fluently ever since. Pasha, on the other hand, had grown up in the language.

It took me a few taxi journeys to understand that he and his parents were Meskhetian Turks. That is, Georgian Turks – or Turkish Georgians, depending on your point of view. The Meskhetian Turks had lived on the southern margins of Georgia, close to Turkey, since the sixteenth century. Where they originally hailed from remained an unresolved matter that only attracted their neighbours’ interest when the Turks and Georgians along the border discovered nationalism. In Turkey, they were henceforth regarded as Turks who had emigrated and assimilated to Georgia, whereas to the Georgians they were Georgians who had adopted Islam and the Turkish language under Ottoman influence. And so, both the Georgians and the Turks claimed the Meskhetians as their own while also viewing them as a bastardised, second-class people of mixed heritage. In this sense, Pasha’s ancestors shared a fate with countless ethnic minorities in the regions bordering the Black Sea. They fell through the cracks in the mosaic of emerging nation-states, and it was not they themselves but rulers in distant capitals, irked by this melee of peoples on the margins of their supposedly pure nations, who decided to which state they should belong.

One aggravating factor for the Meskhetian Turks was that Ioseb Jughashvili – aka Joseph Stalin – though no fan of nation-states, was a partisan of good old Russian-style imperialism. Scenting an opportunity to annex border areas of Turkey during the Second World War, the Soviet dictator pre-emptively expelled the Meskhetian Turks from their homeland. In light of his plans, they suddenly struck him more like Turks who might just, who knows, feel more loyal to the enemy than to the Soviet motherland. Stalin was an advocate of simple solutions. Justifiably or not, the Meskhetian Turks were a headache. No more Meskhetians, no more headaches. They had to go.

Pasha’s parents were newlywed at the time. His father was twenty and his mother eighteen when, out of the blue, one winter’s day in 1944, soldiers came pounding on their door in the southern Georgian village of Zarzma. Along with over 100,000 other Meskhetian Turks, they were herded into cattle wagons that rolled eastwards from Georgia and only came to a halt several thousand miles later. Roughly a third of them died during their deportation or shortly afterwards from hunger, thirst, hypothermia, disease, or a broken heart. Ultimately, Stalin’s planned expansion into Turkey came to nothing, but the ‘leader of peoples’ had managed to purge his mind entirely of one.

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Second Annexation of Crimea

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 12-14:

I have a very clear memory of the moment the Black Sea suddenly moved from the margins to the forefront of European perception.

I was on a pleasure cruise around Sevastopol’s harbour in March 2014. Less than a fortnight earlier, Russian soldiers had appeared in Crimea and surrounded Ukrainian barracks. Although their uniforms bore no insignia or rank, no one had any doubts about where they came from. Parliament had been dissolved and replaced with puppets under the Kremlin’s orders, a hastily arranged referendum on Crimea’s integration into the Russian Federation had been announced for the next day, and Ukrainian and Russian warships were facing off in the harbour – and yet tour boats continued to ply their trade between the destroyers as if everything were completely normal.

I had travelled to Sevastopol as a journalist to report on the act of political piracy that was taking place. I had no idea at the time that in 1773, not far from that same harbour, on the south-western coast of Crimea, Jan Hendrik van Kinsbergen had laid the groundwork for Catherine the Great’s annexation of the peninsula. All I knew was that I was witnessing Russia’s second annexation of Crimea.

The tour boat passed close to the warships’ towering grey hulls. The Ukrainian and Russian Black Sea fleets still shared the port in that tense time before the Crimean referendum, and I had hoped that out on the water I might gain a better understanding of their muddled positions. The boat was full of Russians from Sevastopol, high on alcohol and patriotism, who made no secret of the fact that they wished a plague on the Ukrainians.

‘Fascists!’ they roared at the ships flying blue-and-yellow flags. For weeks now, Russian propaganda had constantly dubbed all Ukrainians fascists. The same old story, I thought. A country on the warpath in search of some barbarians to fight. One man stood slightly apart from the others by the railing, staring silently out to sea. He was the only person apart from me who didn’t join in with the shouting. As we disembarked at the end of our tour, I approached him to enquire why he was there.

‘To say goodbye to the sea,’ he said tersely.

He was a Tatar. He had been born in Uzbekistan after his parents were deported under Stalin, and only when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Crimea and the rest of Ukraine gained its independence, had he been at liberty to return to the land of his ancestors.

‘Now the Russians are taking over again,’ he said gloomily. ‘I’m not going to wait for them to expel us a second time. My wife has family in Ankara. The day after tomorrow, we’re going to put the kids in the car and leave.’ His lips twisted into a bitter smile. ‘It won’t be the first time we’ve had to start from scratch.’

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Black Sea Neighbors

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 14-15:

The Black Sea is bounded by six states. Clockwise, in the order I visited them, they are Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.

Six and a half, if you count Abkhazia, a renegade part of Georgia that is kept on life support by Russia to prevent Georgia from joining any Western alliances.

Seven, if you count Moldova, formerly known as Bessarabia, which lost its coastline in the Second World War when Stalin moved the border inland.

Seven and a half, if you count Transnistria, a renegade part of Moldova, which is kept on life support by Russia to prevent Moldova from joining any Western alliances.

Eight, if you count Poland – the old Poland at its point of maximum expansion when szlachta noblemen persuaded themselves that their country’s ruling class was descended from the Sarmatians, an ancient barbarian tribe.

Eight and a half, if you count the Donetsk People’s Republic, a renegade part of Ukraine, which… you can fill in the rest.

Eight and a half, if Crimea belongs to Ukraine. Eight and a half, if Crimea belongs to Russia. Nine, if you’d prefer to let Crimea stand alone.

Nine and a half, if you count the ruined empire of ancient Greece, whose vestiges I encountered on every shore in the form of weathered stones; in place names mangled by foreign tongues; in family stories of scattered Black Sea Greeks; on the menus of countless Aphrodite Restaurants, Poseidon Cafés, Olympus Hotels and Amazon Bars, written in Cyrillic, Latin, and Georgian letters; and in the deep-seated Black Sea tradition of always expecting the worst from your neighbours.

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Whither Europe Now?

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 283-284:

Once again, the ground is moving silently under our feet, as city- and region-states grow in importance and a neo-medievalism sets in. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the British historian Mark Greengrass (echoing Denys Hay) explains, the concept of Christendom was gradually replaced by that of Europe. Though Christendom had in the course of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages come to represent a geographical concept, it remained at root a religious identity, whereas Europe was at root all about geography. Europe’s subjugation of Christendom was complete when Christianity stopped being a political identity and became merely a private religion having to do exclusively with the soul. Given that Europe replaced Christendom, are we now in a transition period in which some concept will replace Europe? And if it does, where does identity finally settle—at the national level, at the regional level, the level of the city or town? Or will Europe revert to a religious identity, a neo-Christendom of some sort, to psychologically wall off Muslims from the Middle East? Or might Europe itself simply fade as a concept, as it dissolves into Afro-Eurasia and identities within the continent become, as I’ve speculated, increasingly local? Greengrass traces the destruction of the concept of Christendom over an arc of 131 years. So it is quite likely that the real substantive changes that are occurring now will not be apparent inside the strictures of any news cycle.

The late British-American historian Tony Judt provides a somewhat alternative view; or rather, a view focused on the immediate future rather than on the middle-term and distant one. As he explains, the integration process that culminated eventually in the European Union was in part an accident born of the realpolitik of politicians who each needed a predictable economic framework for their own national aims. To wit, France needed German coal, but at the same time needed to contain German political power; and Germany needed to hide its own national interests within a larger community in order to regain legitimacy in a post-Hitler era. The context for this realpolitik was a just-ended Second World War that was “peculiar,” in that countries were often divided among themselves and “almost every European participant lost.” Thus, everybody wanted to forget about what had just happened, so that defeatism, pacifism, and ahistoricism reigned. At the same time, the Cold War had enforced unity in the western half of the continent. It was defeatism and unity that gave birth to this new Europe. Yet, because the combination of these and other factors (e.g., the Marshall Plan) was specific to a certain moment in history, they could never be repeated in the same way, and so the European Union could not simply go on as it had indefinitely—for other factors must eventually intrude.

What is particularly impressive is that Judt published this analysis in 1996, when few troubles loomed on the horizon and Europe was dull and happy. He then goes on to expose Europe’s “foundation myth”: that it must keep expanding to the east in order to improve not only Europe but the world, or else the current success would merely indicate an amoral utilitarian arrangement. Of course, as we know, Europe’s eastward expansion following the end of the Cold War occurred under different historical circumstances and so the result has been complex and not altogether a triumph. Judt concludes his 1996 essay noting again, presciently, that with postmodern life hollowing out the communal functions of family, church, school, the military, and even political parties and trade unions, all that is left now is the nation. For it is the nation that embodies a common memory and a community within an “appropriately scaled frame”: larger than that of the city, but smaller than that of a nebulous pan-European or global identity.

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Greek Travails, 1949-2009

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 272-274:

The end of World War II brought not peace but a civil war lasting until 1949, between the Communists and the ultimately victorious right-wing loyalists, which resulted in 80,000 dead and 700,000 internal refugees. Because of the brutality on both sides, particularly against civilians, Greek politics would remain polarized for decades, divided between parties of the hard Left and the hard Right, so that a modern liberalism and a modern conservatism would find little room to emerge. Thus did Greece, abetted by its geography—as close to Moscow as to Brussels—become an ideological battleground of the Cold War.

Greece’s Cold War years were marked by weak governments as well as deep, internecine political divisions, which were further aggravated by the independence struggle on Cyprus, with its consequent calls for Enosis (or union) of the island with Greece. (Of course, this itself was an echo of the Great Idea.) In 1967, junior officers staged a coup, toppling the Greek government in Athens. This led to a particularly brutal seven-year military dictatorship in which the Athens “Regime of the Colonels” bore greater similarities to those of the Third World than to any government in Western Europe. The Colonels’ regime dissolved in 1974 after their failed political intervention in Cyprus led to a Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern part of the island.

It was only with the reestablishment of democracy in July 1974 under the conservative politician Constantine Karamanlis (who had returned to Greece from exile in France) that Greek politics began slowly—for the first time in history—to stabilize and achieve a modern, Western character. Greece, the birthplace of the West, finally reentered the West. This process was helped by the country’s admission to the European Economic Community (later the EU) in 1981.

Like membership in NATO, membership in the EU and Greece’s subsequent admission to the Eurozone represented purely political decisions on the part of the Western alliance. In fact, neither Greece’s bureaucratic institutions nor its economy was ever up to the standards of core-Europe and the West. Yet, it was felt (if never publicly admitted) that leaving Greece outside European institutions, given the country’s vulnerable geographical position and its long history of instability, would pose a greater threat to the West than bringing Greece inside them. As it turned out, the Greek variant of the Great Depression, in which the country was brought to its knees beginning in 2009 by widespread poverty, a dramatically declining GDP, and mass unemployment—leading to a far-left-wing government initially close to Moscow—was directly related to the country’s abject lack of preparedness for the rigors of the Eurozone. The Byzantine and Ottoman legacies of underdevelopment, while not determinative and always able to be overcome, still counted for something in Greece in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

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Albania and Montenegro: Tough Transitions

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 247-248:

Because the decades of Communist autarky only further decimated the already weak polity, the 1990s saw massive corruption and bouts of anarchy undermine an embryonic democratic system that was buffeted by social upheaval, as masses of people deserted the countryside and rushed into the cities. But near the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, a more nuanced picture began to emerge amid dramatically higher living standards among part of the population, and a commercial transformation and revitalization of the cities. Albania had joined NATO in 2009 and was possibly on a path toward membership in the European Union. It had avoided ethnic and religious conflict and had proper, peaceful relations with its Balkan neighbors—no mean feat considering the epic and bloody past.

Nevertheless, organized crime and endemic corruption had become major elements of daily life. Albania, as I write, is still a deeply divided and weak democracy. An opposition leader has accused the government of promoting “narcotraffickers, pimps, even killers as Members of Parliament.” The U.S. State Department and Europol have declared Albania the largest producer of cannabis and the key gateway for heroin into Europe. In 2016 Albanians “came second only to Syrians as asylum seekers in Germany and France. More than 42 per cent of the population live on less than $5 a day,” reports Besart Kadia, executive director of the Tirana-based Foundation for Economic Freedom. While the long, historical ages of extreme isolation have receded, Albania remains a world removed from Italy, less than fifty miles to the west across the narrowest point of the Adriatic.

Albania and Montenegro both are, in developmental terms, places where Europe ends and also begins. Geographically they are unquestionably part of Europe, even as their mountainous topographies have tempered the influence of the Mediterranean. Moreover, historically and culturally they have been mightily shaped by the long centuries of often weak rule by the Ottomans, whose imperial footprint was planted mainly in the Near East. These are in many respects Europe’s borderlands, which Europe cannot disown. If Europe makes any claim to universal values, it has no choice but to find a way to spiritually incorporate these two far-flung outposts of imperial Venice.

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From Ethnic to Criminal Networks

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 229-230:

A middle-aged writer, who comes to Montenegro often from an adjacent country, informs me soon after I arrive:

“The real issue here is the security problem on account of the cocaine wars between gangs located in the suburbs of Kotor. This is a function of the corruption, the nepotism, and the weak government institutions. Whoever runs the casinos runs Montenegro, so you don’t ask who runs the casinos. Criminal networks flourish at the same time as the building of resorts near the Adriatic. There is money here, I mean. Without the clans there is no mafia, but without the clans there is also no tradition. If you don’t hire your relatives, you’re a bad guy. Everyone privately cries for Tito. They want him back. Under Tito, there were almost no gangs, no rapes, much less drugs, more safety, more security, dignity to life. You didn’t have to worry about what could happen to your kids like you do now. People were not so rich and not so poor as today. And so what if you couldn’t vote every few years.”

With the exception of Slovenia, safely tucked inside Central Europe, this is the refrain that I have heard throughout the former Yugoslavia where the rule of law has sunk shallow roots and thus atavistic allegiances thrive. Of course, this is all a legacy of Communism, which Tito himself inflicted upon everyone. Except that in Montenegro I have reached a geographical juncture in my travels—far to the south and deep in the mountains—where the ethnic politics I observed in a place like Croatia has deteriorated into (and been replaced by) outright criminality.

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“Who Is Djilas?”

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 168-169:

As we are discussing books, I bring up the name of Milovan Djilas, the great World War II partisan fighter who was once Tito’s heir apparent, and later the original East European dissident, a man who wrote such classics of World War II and Cold War literature as Wartime, Conversations with Stalin, and The New Class. I interviewed Djilas every year in the 1980s in his Belgrade apartment behind the Parliament building. Through a clinical interpretation of history Djilas saw the vague outlines of the future, and specifically foresaw the war of the 1990s.

“Who is Djilas?” the students at the table exclaim, practically in unison. Though all are former Yugoslavs, these students and teachers have simply never heard of him. It turns out that the combination of censorship lasting into the 1990s, when they were young and in school—Djilas, after all, was a longtime dissident after he broke with Tito—and the constricting, often abstract, and theoretical reading lists of their university and graduate courses left no room for this great chronicler of an entire era in the second half of the twentieth century: an era that gave birth to the 1990s’ wars of the Yugoslav succession. Books and manuscripts vastly proliferate nowadays, even as less is really read, and so much of what is vital does not get passed down from generation to generation.

There is an air of depression and consternation at the restaurant table. And it isn’t just about the state of academia. Europe and especially the Balkans do not look hopeful. I am now told about how, among other things, Montenegro has become a colony of the Russian mafia and Albania the colony of the southern Italian mafia, accounting for the eruption of designer restaurants, bars, expensive hotels, and jewelry stores in Podgorica and Tirana. And there is, by now, the familiar litany about the poor and nasty ethnic climate in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. In this part of Europe at least, it seems that NATO is only a superficial layer of reality, and the European Union is simply out of gas and credibility.

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Rijeka vs. Fiume

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 160-162:

Rijeka—Fiume—was a place of conflicting sovereignties long before the 1940s. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, Rijeka was an important seaport of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, and after the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867 much of it came under the rule of Budapest, with new rail links connecting it deep into Central Europe. If Trieste is a fault zone, then Rijeka is the very border of that fault zone. In fact, following the First World War, ethnic conflicts among the urban population and the decision of foreign diplomats to hand over the city to the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes led 9,000 ethnic-Italian legionnaires to establish the vaguely anarchist and Fascist “Regency of Carnaro” here. That lasted a year, until 1920, when the Treaty of Rapallo declared Fiume a free state under Italian rule. In 1924, it became part of Fascist Italy. Through it all, the drama between Slavs and Italians nearby on the Istrian peninsula became a microcosm of the drama between East and West; between the free West and the Communist East. Though, given the cruelty and general insensitivity of the Italians towards the Slavs, something not restricted to Mussolini’s Fascists, one side was not always and not necessarily morally superior to the other.

For example, I look up at the balconies in Rijeka and think immediately of the leader of the Italian Regency of Carnaro, Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938), a name that emerges from time to time in conversations here as a vague and occasional background noise: mentioned quickly in passing, but rarely explained. D’Annunzio was a charismatic intellectual with a lust for power and adulation, who consequently loved balcony appearances. For him, the purpose of politics was to supply an arena for glory and the erection of the perfect state. In Fiume, in 1919, with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the city the object of rival claims and protracted negotiations by Italy and the new Yugoslav kingdom, D’Annunzio seized power at the head of the far-right legionnaire movement, itself supported by flaky youthful idealists. Though he didn’t last long, this romantic thinker stylistically paved the way for Mussolini: he was a warning against hazy ideas and intellectual conceit. For lofty themes, if not grounded in moderation and practicality, can be the enemy of healthy politics.

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Slovenia, Misfit in Yugoslavia

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 149-150:

Ljubljana: known in German as Laibach, a place more historically associated with the Habsburg Empire than with any particular nation-state. Here in 1821, one of the crucial congresses was held to stabilize Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, in the very sound of its name Laibach recalls such personages as Metternich and Castlereagh. I was last in Ljubljana in October 1989, just a few weeks before the Berlin Wall fell, on a concluding trip through Yugoslavia, from where I had reported often during the 1980s. This was still twenty months before the start of the war there. But I would ultimately leave Slovenia out of the final version of Balkan Ghosts, even though it had been a member of the Yugoslav federation, while I would include Greece in the manuscript though it was a long-standing member of NATO. Greece, I had argued to my editors, was Near Eastern despite its ties to the Western alliance, while Slovenia was Central European despite being for so long a part of the largest Balkan country.

Ljubljana in 1989 has left a deep imprint on my memory. A section of my diary from the period, published as a travel essay in The New York Times, records: “Mornings are a blank canvas. Not until 9:30 or so does the autumn fog begin to dissolve. Then the outlines of steep roofs, spires, leaden domes, statues, and willows and poplars emerge like an artist’s first quick strokes. At first it is a pen-and-ink with charcoal. By mid- or late morning come the richer colors of the palette: facades of orange and yellow ochers, pinks, sandy reds, and dazzling greens. As for the architecture itself,” I went on, “it is not only baroque and Renaissance but also Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and so forth. This was partly because, with the exception of five years of Napoleonic rule, Ljubljana between 1135 and 1918 was inside the Habsburg Empire, and thus artistic influences from the far-flung domain filtered in.” Truly, I was infatuated with the city.

But there is even more from my notebooks about Ljubljana that I did not publish at the time: Men smoking in the damp and cold hotel restaurant while waiters talked and ignored customers amid loud rock music (Blood, Sweat & Tears singing “Spinning Wheel”). People had ravaged eyes under matted hair, without the blow dryers and designer glasses that were already ever-present in nearby Austria at the time, and everyone with bad-quality shoes. It was a place where people began to drink early in the day. And yet one after another of the persons I interviewed back in 1989 complicated those initial impressions. For Yugoslavia was already starting to fall apart, even if it wasn’t yet in the news. “The Serbs look backward while we look forward: away from the archaic system” of Tito’s Yugoslavia. “In Slovenia, Tito [a half-Slovene] has been completely forgotten.” “Slovenes are like conscientious objectors in the Yugoslav federation.” “We watch Austrian television, not Serbian television.” “We are a small country that looks out, Serbia is a great country that looks in.” All in all, in October 1989, Slovenia was a poor and downtrodden place by Western standards that, nevertheless, evinced a distinct bitterness about having to prop up the even poorer and yet more powerful states within the Yugoslav federation, notably Serbia. Yugoslavia had, in a political and cultural sense, dragged Slovenia southward into the Balkans, and away from its rightful place in Central Europe, to which Slovenia’s own Habsburg legacy entitled it. Indeed, it was Slovenia’s very resentment over that fact which caused it, like Poland and Hungary, to fiercely aspire towards membership in the West, and thus towards liberalism and free markets.

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