Category Archives: History

The “Mariupol Standoff”, or the developement of new relashionship between East and West

“You can say things which cannot be done. This is elementary. The trick is to keep attention focused on what is said and not on what can be done.”

(Frank Herbert, from “Whippinng Star”, 1969)

A map of the situation in the eastern region of Ukraine, by Business Insider Intelligence

Welcome back to Unpredictable Past,

some time has passed since the last writing, but, as it is natural that it is, and as I often repeat, some events need the right time to be looked at and analyzed: and this is what I intend to do in this writing, whose processing time went into looking at things as they are, minimizing guesswork and finding as many facts as possible to support my claim.

In this paper I would like to start from the latest episodes that took place on the eastern border of Ukraine and then get to analyze with you the new course that the global geopolitical situation seems to have taken since the beginning of 2021. The event I am talking about has been defined as “Maripol Crisis”, from the city in the Donetsk Oblast, on the shores of the Black Sea, close to the borders of the Occupied Territories (or Separatists, depending on the point of view), which is generally referred to by the acronym ORDLO (Okremi Raioni Donetchkoi ta Lughanskoi Oblastei) and which has recently been the subject of clashes between separatists forces (ie the Russian army) and loyalists of the Ukrainian army, causing fear of a new escalation of violence in the region in the near future.

The “frozen” conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for eight years, and dates the last escalation of this importance back to 2015, when, following the Ukrainian Revolution of the previous year and the beginning of the internal conflict with the separatists in the southeast of the country (in the regions of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and Donbass), the Russian armed forces “disguised” as civilian personnel carrying humanitarian aid invaded the country, occupying, in whole or in part, the aforementioned territories. On March 26 of this year, the tension begins to rise again: four soldiers of the Ukrainian Army were killed in Shumy, a village in the Mariupol area, very close to the border of the Occupied Territories, in which, in the meantime, as pointed out by Kirill Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the troops of the Russian Federation have massed for a total of about 110,000 effectives. Budanov asserted that these movements of the armed forces have a specific purpose: “[Its] goal is to keep Ukraine in the sphere of [Russia’s] geopolitical influence, force it to abandon Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and resolve the issue of the occupied territories [in the Donbass] on Moscow’s terms“.

On April 12, the Russian government takes a further step, and through the spokesman of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Peskov declares that: “[Moscow] will not remain indifferent to the fate of Russian speakers who live in the southeastern regions of Ukraine“. A clear reference (typical of the rhetoric of recent years, which used the term “Russophone” instead of “Russian” to pursue territorial claims without bringing up ethnic issues that could sound like the “reasons” adducted by Adolf Hitler during the Anschluss of the territories with a population of German origin into the Third Reich), to the policy begun two years ago by the Russian Federation regarding the granting of a “facilitated” passport to residents of the Occupied Territories who had requested it (to date there are about 400,000, out of 3 million of residents) for “humanitarian reasons”, behind which obviously lies the veiled threat of being able to have an easy casus belli should an armed intervention needs to be justified.

In response to this veiled threat, the following day April 13 at a meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Both Ukrainian and American diplomats agreed that they needed to take action in order to “demotivate Moscow from further escalation“; the same day, US President Biden called his counterpart Putin to propose a meeting in which to discuss the issue in its entirety, but , when Moscow seemed to have achieved a “normalization” of the situation, the expulsions of diplomats and the implementation of new economic sanctions on the Sovereign Funds of the Russian Federation began in the US (officially relating to the case of Alexey Navaly and his treatment in detention), but which in my opinion had more the flavor of an appropriate response: “you-are-not-the-only-ones-able-to-use-humanitarian-pretexts-for-other-purposes“.

A declaration of intent absolutely not misunderstood, which has aroused a series of diplomatic reactions on both sides, as well as, obviously, within the European Union. The question arose spontaneously: “is it really a new line or is it just a way of pointing out a heavy question of internal politics?“. As we know, the four years of the Trump presidency were characterized by suspicion of interference by Moscow into the internal politics of the United States, a suspicion fueled by the “benevolent” attitude held by the former president regarding the relations between the two countries. I have often said it, but it is good to reiterate it: the Russian elites, out of conviction or opportunism, continue to feed the mythology of the Cold War, in the hope of being able to return to the table of the Great Powers and at the same time preserve their position of power, showing themselves to the eyes of the public opinion in their country as the only way to avoid falling prey to alleged “Western conspiracies”.

But let’s start from the beginning, since this situation is one of the results of other events that have occurred in recent months. The first and foremost is certainly the change of administration in the United States, with the beginning of Joe Biden’s mandate at the White House: shortly after taking office, the President, and his entourage, overturned the line of laxity towards the Russia: in February, at the Munich Security Conference, the American President peremptorily stated: “America is back“, making it clear that Russian interference (from propaganda to cyberwarfare) in the West would no longer be tolerated, reiterating then the concept in an interview with ABC, calling his counterpart Vladimir Putin “a killer”. Following that, the combined efforts of the Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Secretary of the National Security Council Oleksiy Danilov, leads to Ukraine’s “new approach” towards Russia, and managed to “give a shake” to the President Volodimir Zelensky, who, due to inexperience and lack of external support, left Russians do essentially what they wanted, using the Minsk Agreements as a lever to move Ukraine’s internal politics at will.

Here, in the West, if the global pandemic hadn’t made us deaf and blind, we’d be talking about front page stuff. Despite those facts, fortunately, a military escalation seems unlikely at present, for several reasons.

At first glance, disparity of forces in the field is evident, clearly in favor of Russia, and this fact alone could immediately make one think of the worst. But, as several military analysts have rightly pointed out, this deployment of forces does not necessarily have to be the prelude to a large-scale offensive. It could be configured, for example, as a “response” by the Russian Federation (together with Belarus) to the large military exercise carried out by NATO since the beginning of March, under the evocative name of “Defender-Europe 2021“, in which 27 Countries took part, including Ukraine, representing the largest coordination maneuver in 25 years, with a similar maneuver named “Zapad-2021” scheduled for September. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, stated the following: “a sudden check of the combat readiness of the troops of the Western and Southern military districts was carried out as part of [Russia’s] control measures and exercises during the winter period of training.

Second, an attempt at normalization has been carried out both in Europe, which began on April 16th, with France, Germany and Ukraine on the one hand and Russia (not represented at the summit, but nevertheless present) on the other, and, of course, by the United States, with Biden’s proposal to Putin of a meeting aimed at discussing the Ukrainian situation “on a broad spectrum“. Although these negotiations are currently at a standstill, the very fact that they exist implies that the military option is considered, even in the Kremlin, as something to be used as a threat but to be avoided at all costs. Further proof of this attitude, especially on the Russian side, is an apparently banal but interesting episode: in an interview with Rossiya24, a “government” broadcaster, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia was ready to “break relations with the European Union “on the Ukraine question. These statements were immediately followed by a quick denial by Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, who denied the Minister and backtracked very quickly, citing justifications of circumstance. Taking into account that Lavrov is certainly not a minor character or just any politician, the fact that he was so abruptly denied from above is indicative.

Is it all a matter of “flexing muscles” then? Not exactly, in my opinion.

A map of the Northern Crimean Canal as reported by BBC.com

Indeed, there is a goal that a possible offensive could aim at: the Northern Crimean Canal, recently closed by the Ukrainian government and source of supply of 80% of the country’s drinking water, which has caused many problems for the regions under control. Russian. The question is whether the Kremlin is ready to take this risk: if on the one hand the superiority of means could make a “blitzkrieg” conceivable, on the other hand this could turn out to be a move with decidedly catastrophic consequences, compared to a possible “gain” in territorial and resource terms. In fact, it would be necessary to fight on Ukrainian territory, where now there are about 300,000 veterans of the Donbass, motivated, benefited by the knowledge of the territory but who above all would be immediately supported by the West. Making the decision to attack to “send a signal” could prove to be the most counterproductive the Russian government has done in recent years.

Two problems face the Kremlin. First of all, as I have explained several times, the image is everything for the elite of the Russian Federation: how would the regime be able to explain the enormous cost in human lives, or a possible military failure (the army is still one of the few institutions in which the population trusts) in the context of that confrontation / clash that propaganda has been carrying out for years? The second problem concerns the economic repercussions that the decision to force the hand would have on the country: if on the one hand Europe must limit itself to warnings, the United States is planning a series of very heavy economic sanctions, for now stopped in Congress because the result of a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats whose internal tensions have not yet subsided after the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, but which in the eventuality of armed aggression would immediately come into being (who would risk, after the scandals of the previous four years, to support the soft line with Russia?), and that would be a very hard blow for the whole country. Also in this case, maintaining the image of “prosperity” would be very complex, and probably it will not be enough to “pull out nationalism when you run out of money” to get out of it, also because this would seriously risk triggering a further chain reaction. from which it would be impossible for the central power to escape unscathed.

At that point, the possible scenarios would be two: withdrawing and losing face, trying not to arouse excessive media hype and finding a way to justify the “setback” with public opinion (changing the game and reporting external problems within the country , downloading them, for example, on the non-organic political opposition to the system, such as that of Navalny for example), or to go straight and decide to tighten even more clearly the relations with the only other ally of weight on which Russia can count: the People’s Republic of China. This last hypothesis, in spite of those who have spoken for years of a common front between the two countries with an anti-Western function, is actually the result of a reasoning that was firm at the time of the Cold War, which seeks to replicate patterns known, making up for the inability to explain reality.

In fact, as I happened to underline on other occasions, the most concrete (but never manifested) danger that the Russian elites absolutely want to avoid running into is precisely an increasingly close relationship with China. The reason is obvious: if it is true that the export of raw materials to Chinese factories is among the most important components of the Russian economy, on the other hand, those in charge are clear that the more the country moves to the East, the more it risks becoming an appendage of Chinese power. With the exception of the military sector (of reduced size only by Beijing’s choice) all the cards are in favor of the Asian giant, which in recent years has extended its influence even on those countries that Russia normally considers “its own” (yes think of Central Asia, or, lately, some Balkan countries that have opened up to the Chinese vaccine market, but that’s another story), without anyone in Moscow being able to do anything about it or daring to risk criticism of any kind.

This time the situation seems to be decidedly more serious, even if some other events, apparently distant, can offer the explanation of the escalation.

And it is at this point that it is necessary to take a step back, and take a closer look at the foreign policy undertaken by the new American administration: as mentioned, if on the one hand it has all the appearance of a provocation against Russia, a retaliation for the precedents years of interference in American politics, it is not necessary to forget that the objective of the United States has long been another one. In fact, further east, precisely in the Pacific, a game is being played that the United States considers much more important than any confrontation with Russia, namely to contain the influence of the People’s Republic of China on the region. For years, the overwelming US military supremacy has kept the Asian giant’s ambitions in what it considers “rightfully” its own zone of influence at bay, but lately things have changed and Chinese naval forces have begun to accompany the economic expansion of the country in the Indo-Pacific area. It is no coincidence that one of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to preside over the first meeting of QUAD, an alliance of the four democratic countries that have interests in the Pacific Ocean (India, Australia, Japan and United States) and who do not look favorably on China’s expansion to their detriment, that, as already reported on this site, could sign the beginning of significant changes in the area.

All those facts leads me to ask: what if these maneuvers, apparently aimed at striking Russia, were instead a way to put the country’s leadership in front of a choice between West and East?

That Joe Biden’s “provocative” statements serve this purpose? And that the “outstretched hand” of Europe, specifically of French President Emmanuel Macron, is not a simple sign of surrender, but rather a counterweight in a “carrot and stick” strategy, intended to go and see the bluff carried out. for decades now from the upper echelons of the Kremlin? In this situation, two key points of the ideology of the facade of the Russian Federation seem to begin to fail, namely that of its “peculiar identity”, neither Western nor Eastern, together with that of the Cold War which sees the country as the main pole of anti-atlantist, an idea that loses credibility even in the eyes of the Russians themselves with each passing year. That somewhere in Washington they have understood that the program of responding to Russian propaganda with other propaganda, the one centered on embezzlement by members of Putin’s “inner circle” is a fallacious and useless strategy, as demonstrated by the Navalny affair , and that perhaps the real breaking point will be to confront Russian public opinion with something far more significant? Such as “what shall we do with our lives?”

In a possible future confrontation (whose lines have already been “drawn”) to balance the relationship between West and East, there is no doubt that the side on which Russia will take sides will be fundamental, not only for geopolitical issues, but also for the future of Russian citizens themselves: to let autocratic power preserve itself, becoming more and more enveloped in a decadent spiral that will inevitably lead to a sort of vassalage condition with respect to China, or to deny itself, its image and all the propaganda rhetoric put in place to hold together the “pieces” of the country and gradually groped a rapprochement with the much-maligned West?

As Andrei Piontkovsky stated in an interview with Olga Khvostunovna on the Institute for Modern Russia website: “To ensure that Russian changes its foreign policy, the battle for the minds of Russian citizens has to be won“. And perhaps, I think as a European, it is not the only battle that must be fought and won, if we really want the future of all of us to be different, but that’s another story.

The “Eternal Gulag”, a look inside Post-Soviet Countries resistance to changes

“Speaking in London with Mikhail Khodorkovskij we said to ourselves that we realize one thing. If a person has been in the Soviet Gulag, as soon as he leaves he cannot be free, he does not know what freedom means. The bandits have taken over and we continue to live by the rules of the Gulag. We can only prepare people for the future which could be quite far away.”

(Svjatlana Aleksievich, in an interview by Fabrizio Dragosei for the italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, March 28, 2017)

Welcome Back to Unpredictablepast.com,

This article is intended to be what we could define as the conclusion of the events concerning the protests in Russia, generated by the attempted murder of the main opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his subsequent arrest and conviction, through a lightning trial with fairly motivations and questionable sentence. As usual, when I say “conclusion”, I am not referring to the fact that the movement of events is over, and that I will stop following it in detail, but that the right moment has arrived to draw some conclusions from the facts previously analyzed.

Inside there will also be some reflections on Belarus, and on other ex-Soviet countries that have experienced similar events and of which it is good to talk again, also in this case trying not to limit ourselves strictly to the facts and trying to observe everything in the most wide range possible, and every possible example will help us in analyzing the situation, and to do this, we will go through a series of points that most of the situations considered so far have in common:

Державничество (Dierzavnichestva)

An incomprehensible term for a Westerner, but one that is crucial if one wants to understand what is the heart of the problem in some post-Soviet countries, above all the Russian Federation. Often, especially in English texts, it is simply translated as statism or, at times, nationalism: an error in my opinion, not just because russian language has specific terms to indicate statism (этатизм, etatiszm), nationalism (национализм, nazionaliszm) or patriotism (патриотизм, patriotiszm).

This word has a different meaning, however, in the sense that it includes and amplifies the previous terms and can be translated with the paraphrase “Either [Russia] is great, or it is not”. A concept that could be assimilated in some way to the politics of the French “Grandeur”, with the difference that, while progressively the latter succeeded in a more or less tragic way (think only of Algeria and what was called Indochina) to come to terms with the end of a historical era, that of Imperial Colonialism, the Russian Federation, which since 1989 has inherited much of what was the Soviet Union, has not been able to do so.

The issue certainly deserves a detailed study, but, speaking of the reasons that led to the current situation, it necessarily deserves a prominent position, as essentially all the others derive from it. If you think about the most important international events in the last twenty years, you will realize for yourself how this ontological vision of a state based on its “prestige” (the term is used by George Orwell in one of his most important writings, Notes on Nationalism) was the main impediment to a “normalization” of Russia within the world context, and also within it: every attempt made in this direction (yes, even by Vladimir Putin) has crashed into this insurmountable wall created by a Past that has progressively become both Present and Future.

The desperate attempt not to lose a prominent role as a Superpower can be found hidden in every attitude of the Russian government: from foreign policy, still mainly governed by a more or less veiled hostility towards the West, to the series of murders or attacks carried out towards political dissidents. Everything refers to an image of Undisputed Power, or at least of “new bipolarism” or “new Cold War” that the ruling class wants to give of the country, making it explicit both with concrete actions (but, to note, without ever exceeding), and through the propaganda that rages especially on the web (to date, the flagship product is the infamous Sputnik V vaccine).

Even smaller countries closely linked to Russia (such as many of those of the former USSR or adhering to the Warsaw Pact) still have similar problems, albeit in a “reduced” version: Belarus is a perfect example (in the articles I have I wrote about it extensively), but also the countries of Central Asia (those that Erika Fatland wittily defined as Sovietistan) have been heavily affected by this attitude: “imitative” in domestic politics and “limiting” in foreign policy.

Centralization of Powers

The second question which, in my opinion, is an obstacle to any change is that of the centralization of powers and the consequent “messianic” vision that is generated within the population, including both “the average man” and “the ‘intellectual”.

This problem stems from both historical reasons and purely political intentions. Without the need (as is done in some cases) to go back to Kievan Rus’, to the Mongols and so on, if you look at what was the “feeling” one breathed in the few years in which the decline of the USSR took a strong acceleration until its dissolution, it can be seen that the element that terrified those who at the time lived the events in the first person, was the terror of a civil war, especially within the RSFR. Once the Central Power lost its grip on a territory of such vastness and heterogeneity, the fear was not only justified, but concretely realized: not at the level, for example, of the Civil War following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but, for example, with the birth of movements with a strong ethno-nationalistic or religious connotation, which once the Soviet “Mastiff” disappeared recalled the ancient hostilities and unleashed a myriad of local conflicts, just think of the Caucasus area, where the conflicts and animosities of ethnic, nationalistic, religious are still there to make the whole area a powder keg.

The political clash between parties and factions was also very strong, fueled by both these fears and by the disastrous “economic transition” implemented by Yeltsin, leading to the “Constitutional Crisis” (in fact an attempted coup by some high grades of the Army, then used by Elstin as a pretext to center all the powers on himself, as the President of the Russian Federation) of 1993, resolved with the shelling of the Parliament, an episode that, in hindsight, became a tragic preamble of the following years.

The White House (The building in which the Russian Parliament reunites) burning after being shelled by artillery fire

Matter of fact, when Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation at the eve of the new millennium, he found the way cleared to do what he wanted, or rather, what, as we will see, the country expected from him.

His figure should have put an end to the internal clash by acting as a balance in the “redistribution” of powers, which subsequently led to the hypertrophic expansion of the presidential cabinet to the detriment of the constitutionally appointed bodies to guide the Russian Federation, which in the course of the years have become “facades”: legally they exist and their powers are constitutionally legitimized and regulated, de facto, everything passes through the presidential entourage (a body that only with the last referendum had a sort of de jure legitimacy) which imposes its decisions to all other state bodies.

“Political Messianism”

And it is precisely from this centralization of powers on the figure of the Head of State that another problem arises that should not be underestimated: “Political Messianism“.

If it is true that historically the Russians have had a very close and personal relationship with the figures in power, this is something that is more part of a medieval legacy than of a democracy (even under construction, as it was at the time). This is because in the population the conviction is created that only the apex of power can act on public life, disempowering them and at the same time generating peaks of ecstasy at every regime change and profound resignation in the following period: Gorbachev, Yeltsin and finally Putin have had all this “sacred aura”, which heralded an epochal change, then regularly disappointed. Of the three, the last is the only one who made sure that this aura was continually renewed in some way (and he did, for better or for worse).

In this sense, citizens are beginning to get used to this ambivalent thought: on the one hand, there is no alternative to the current state of affairs, or there is fear that the change will be disregarded and will lead the country towards disaster; on the other hand, the change at the top is seen as a New Advent, in the Christian sense of the term, something inevitable and that will surely open the doors to the Golden Age by sweeping away Evil. Both attitudes are the furthest away from a democratic process: they reflect an almost monarchical attitude towards power, the activity of the citizen is limited to being for or against a power that, although perceived in a highly personal, it remains something inaccessible, untouchable, but above all not contestable.

Political Messianism does not look at political figures in rational terms, but in emotional terms, which makes any public debate worthy of the name useless: everything is reduced to a Manichaeism that sees the Rightful on one side and the Damned on the other, creating a climate of perennial tension in which the entire social body is involved on a daily basis. We cannot know if Alexey Navalny will be the next President, or at least if he’s movement will led to a political change, but it does not matter as long as the centralization process is not reversed and the figure of the Man of Providence does not come to decline in the eyes of the population.

Corruption

As I have already stated, fighting corruption, especially in those countries where it is endemic, such as Russia (in fact, since the Soviet Union). But as usual, “the devil hides in the details”: perhaps few remember that, but corruption was one of the biggest problems even during the governments of Boris Yeltsin, a period in which the notorious figures of the “Oligarchs” emerged, of which “Tsar Boris” had to secure economic support especially during his second term, making many concessions to them, to the point that some went directly into the presidential cabinet or the government. Putin himself, at the time the right arm of the mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak, was embroiled in shady deals concerning the embezzlement of Western aid together with his boss, doing his utmost when he lost his power due to his own illness to make him expatriate.

St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchack and a young Vladimir Putin 
Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

This is why he was chosen as Yelstin’s successor. No machinations of the KGB / FSB, or other sort of spy-story conspiracies: two things were expected from him, a safe conduct for the President (also too ill to fulfill his duties) and for his family, and a continuity with Yeltsin’s line on power management. But those who hoped to be able to maneuver “Volodiya” at will, soon realized that they had made a big mistake.

Starting from his second term as President of the Federation, Putin unleashed the judiciary (in the meantime passed almost entirely under the control of the presidential entourage) against the Oligarchs: lightning trials, heavily mediated, found many of them guilty of financial crimes, causing them to end up in imprisonment or forcing them into exile, and, more importantly, the state seized their properties by reassigning them to the new “circle” that Putin had created in the first years of government. Thanks to this “Witch Hunt” its popularity skyrocketed, both at home and, unfortunately, in the West, a first sign, of which few realized, that the idea of ​​a democratic Russia had been set aside and that also in countries where the rule of law was not just a facade, something had changed, and liberal democracy had begun to be devoured by the cancer of the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”.

In Belarus, Lukashenko seize his personal power more or less in the same way: as we already saw in the essay on his ascent to power, he uses his position to launch a massive anti-corruption campaign, which basically cut off the head of the Belarusian State, and replace them whit himself.

Today, in both countries, the corrupt have changed, but not the system of corruption, which is inevitably linked to the concentration of power and the maintenance of a balance of forces that move under the apparently granite skin of the administration. We also have someone else who, very naively, thinks of eliminating corruption by eliminating the corrupt: whoever succeeds Vladimir Putin, tomorrow or ten years from now, will have to seriously ask themselves the question, and put it in front of the population, or the cycle will simply start again from the beginning.

Et Pluribus Unum

A third point never dealt with in a democratic way is the heterogeneity and complexity of territories, ethnic groups and religions that make up Russia, just as the relationship with the other former Soviet Republics has never been dealt with in the same way.

This attitude has mainly two reasons: the first, the more concrete one, is that many of the regions that claim more autonomy, or at least a more decentralized federal system, are strategic for the economic survival of the Federation, which is entirely based on the export of materials. the first that come largely from the transural territories, but whose control in the years passed, as mentioned, to Moscow, or, even better, to the circle created around the President. We have seen how, even during the pandemic emergency, resources continued to be drained from these territories in exchange for meager state subsidies and the burden of managing an unprecedented health crisis.

The second reason is that of the “prestige” of the “Dierzavna”: Vladimir Putin, in particular, represented, compared to his predecessor, the “champion” of the unity of the Russias, starting from the beginning of his mandate, which coincided with the Second Chechen war, passing through the war with Georgia up to the invasion of the Ukrainian territories considered “natural part of Russia”. A symbolism that is progressively decaying, due to the increasing intolerance of some Regions towards the central government, and above all because of the economic power of China, which is slowly eroding Russia’s influence on some territories, without this being able to counter it in any way.

The Russian Federation in this has inherited the behavior of the USSR in all respects, exchanging tanks and guns with threats of an economic or psychological war, but the principle remains the same and indeed, makes everything a house of cards even more shaky, with unpredictable consequences.

Smaller former Soviet republics have adopted the same attitude over the years: the confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh that I have repeatedly spoken of is the most striking example. Power is based on the ability or not of the rulers to gain prestige and superiority over the Enemy, seen as an atavistic nemesis with which there is no compromise: yesterday Ilham Aliyev was a hated corrupt autocrat, today a national hero, in the same way, his counterpart Pashinyan was the hero of the Velvet Revolution, now a traitor who lost Artsakh. There are places where coexistence is not impossible, it has been made impossible in order to rise to power and keep it at the expense of the population.

Lack of concern about Liberal Democracy

In conclusion of what has been written so far, you can understand how much the discussions made around Russia and other countries in recent months take on surreal connotations, at least as far as I’m concerned. We have pages after pages of analysis, forecasts, hypotheses with a common substrate: the constant avoidance of concrete problems.

Those who, including me, deal with these events, should try to free themselves from a debate that feeds the problems, rather than trying to solve them. This does not mean not taking a position or boasting an alleged objectivity, but understanding how much we are personally involved and why, without thinking of being immune to it just because we know a little more than the average reader. This would not only help those who try to fight seriously so that their country comes out of a situation considered unsustainable, but also to notice how much this attitude goes to question our beliefs, and personal prejudices, which contribute to fuel the problem, making it endemic.

This is the “Eternal Gulag” in which the post-Soviet countries have fallen (and they are not the only ones, but this is another story): a continuous struggle between factions that slaughter each other to divide increasingly scarce resources, under the close surveillance of guards “ideological”, armed and threatening, which do not let anyone leave the camp and do not send news from the outside world, which in the meantime is moving forward.

Out of Sight: What’s happening in Russia? – Part II

“Russia is not corrupt. Corruption is what happens in all countries when businessmen offer officials large bribes for favors. Today’s Russia is unique. The businessmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats are the same people. They have privatized the country’s wealth and taken control of its financial flows.”

(Andrei Pionkovsky, Another Look Into Putin’s Soul)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin after delivering the annual address to the Federal Assembly of the RF

Welcome Back my friends,

Last week we talked about the internal situation of the Russian Federation, and about some of the problems that are putting the upper echelons in serious difficulty, first of all, the way in which the Central Government is dealing with the Covid-19 Pandemic in the country, delegating all responsibility to the governors of the Oblasts, without however increasing the resources at their disposal, nor by granting them again the freedom of action that in recent years have been progressively reduced. The worst thing is that this maneuver was devised intentionally, with the intention of “unloading” the discontent from the shoulders of Vladimir Putin’s administration, but, as we will see, not everything is going as planned.

In addition to this, the economic crisis turned out to be much more serious than expected. From the earliest years in power, Vladimir Putin and his entourage have tried to use the proceeds from Russia’s massive oil resources to fix the serious economic problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent catastrophic “reforms” of the Yeltsin Administration. The success that this strategy initially achieved proved counterproductive in the long run: the idea of transforming Russia into a Petro-state modeled on some Arab countries has exposed the country to continuous crises, creating a much more fragile economic system than what does not appear from the outside. With the arrival of the pandemic and the slowdown in global industrial activity, the demand for energy supplies and raw materials has also decreased, leaving, as we have seen in the previous article, many Russian Oblasts with empty coffers to face an emergency situation.

Although the situation is at least problematic, even relying on official data provided by the Ministry of Health, the President and the Council of State did not miss the opportunity to do what they do best: Propaganda and further Centralization of Power.

As laboratories and pharmaceutical companies around the world worked tirelessly to find a vaccine or more effective cures against Covid, August 11 of this year, instead of announcing the usual “Doomsday Machine” or other sorts of military progresses, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was in possession and has registered the first vaccine against Coronavirus, baptized, to remember the “old days”, with the evocative name of Sputnik V. How could the Russian government miss such an opportunity, in its long string of desperate attempts to appear “on par” with Western countries? Kirill Dmitriev, the head of of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), responsible for financing vaccine research, called this a Sputnik Moment, in he’s own words: “Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik’s beeping. It’s the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first. “

Despite the effectiveness of the alleged vaccine had yet to be proven (and to this day little is known, except that on November 23 the daily infections in Russia broke all previous records, certainly not a good sign), Dmitriev has also stated that twenty countries were ready to buy a billion doses of Sputnik V: a great way not only get a substantial financial windfall from an (eventually) successful cure, but it would also gain international respect as a scientific center and frustrate the US and the European countries, in a sort of re-edition of the space race, designed to feed the memory of a past that in Russia over the years it has taken the form of a “factor of national cohesion”, obviously in its revised and corrected version (but this is a separate story).

The so-called “second wave” turned out to be even more exemplary regarding the dysfunctionality of a system that tries to make every event a foothold for propaganda: as mentioned in the previous article, the (intentional) lack of room for maneuver for the Oblasts has transformed the response to the emergency into a cacophony of discordant measures, mutual accusations and generalized discontent. The regional administrations were completely taken aback, lacking, in addition to the aforementioned fiscal autonomy, of “transparent” numbers on which to base the response to the emergency. As some analyzes show, the number of deaths from the first wave is likely underestimated by five times.

Vladimir Putin has clearly stated that he does not want to implement restrictive measures or stronger lockdowns, precisely to avoid problems of “too visible” reactions within the population, and the governors have basically obeyed him, and, in this regard, one would wonder if the numbers sent to the Central Government are true and how they are treated by it.

Moving on to the centralization of power, just before the August announcement, a Constitutional Referendum was held in the Russian Federation, already scheduled for the beginning of the year, to submit to the population the approval of some amendments to the Constitution. As in the case of the health emergency, the constitutional reform project is little more than a “painting” of a facade of a building that does not substantially change inside, or worsens further. A typical expedient of the so-called “Illiberal Democracies”: the people are given what they want but in the manner decided a priori by the government. Given the recent protests of recent years, which demanded greater participation, what better way to be open and democratic than a National Referendum (In Russian “всенародное голосование”, that can be translated as “nationwide voting”)? Obviously by putting everything in such a way that the vote can be easily directed towards the desired result (for example by including rules on the minimum wage or on the indexation of pensions among the amendments).

The results of the Russian constitutional vote in 2020. In Green, the Oblast in which the Constitutional Emendaments were approved by the majority (the majority of “No” in red, was in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and tied to territorial issues, more than opposition to reforms)

Legally, the Referendum was not even necessary for this type of constitutional amendment. The approval for the Constitutional Reforms reached around 75%, but as previously mentioned, it was not difficult to imagine, since in essence everything was little more than a giant pantomime from the beginning.

The things that most interested the enstablishment of the Russian Federation were to definitively overrule the rule that imposes a limited number of Presidential mandates (the rule that last time was circumvented by the Putin-Medvedev Tandem in the years 2012-2020), the regularization of Council of State, a body that should officially assist the President but which in fact over the years has become the only true center of power of the Federation, although not legally regulated in this sense, and finally introduce the prohibition of “alienation of Russian territories” (criminal liability for call against “territorial integrity” was introduced in the Criminal Code in 2014) and “unified system of power” from municipal leaders to the president.

To better explain how this is not just my opinion, I propose the thought of two experts on the subject:

Elena Lykyanova, lawyer, professor of constitutional and administrative law at the Higher School of Economics said in an interview with the Meduza website: “It’s a real  threat to the constitutional order. There is no expansion of the real powers of the Duma and the Council of Federation… as all of this is a word game: confirmation, appointment, etc. The president can dismiss any judge or prosecutor, so none of these [amendments] work. There will be no truly responsible government. [It] can appoint someone, but the next day the president can remove them, claiming lack of confidence. The same applies to the prime minister. The Duma approves [him], but it’s the president who appoints. Again, it’s a word game. The parliament is not gaining more control, nor is the government getting more responsibilities. All of this is a strengthening of the ‘vertical of power.’ It is the construction of a unified, non-democratic, non-federative vertical—without separation of powers and an independent judiciary, but with impairment of citizens’ rights“.

Or Victor Sheinis, co-author of the current Constitution, chief research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Russian Academy of Sciences), deputy of Russia’s First and Second State Duma, member of the Yabloko party’s political committee, that, in his interview whit the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, states that: “The majority of amendments to the Constitution have to do with the procedure for forming Russia’s government bodies and their powers—primarily those of the president. The 1993 Constitution is often called “superpresidential.” As I have repeatedly pointed out before, it suffers due to the excessive powers vested in the president (which can be explained by the political situation in the early 1990s). <…> The current draft law is said to envision a redistribution of powers between the president and the prime minister. It is not so. At best, only the procedures and the way they are spelled out have changed. <…> The government, which in one part is directly managed by the president and in another part [indirectly by him] through the prime minister, remains as it was—the president’s cabinet. Also unchanged is the procedure [of its formation]: the government resigns after the elections, and reports to the president, not to the Federal Assembly. And the president can dismiss the government at his own discretion. The terms of dissolving the Duma also remain the same”.

July 12, 2020: Thousands protest in support of the arrested governor Sergey Furgal in Khabarovsk. Photo: Youtube.

The question of the management of the Pandemic and that of the Centralization of Power were then combined in September, the month in which, on the 13th, the governorial elections were held in 18 regions and those for the Legislative Assemblies in another 11. Despite the “routinary” character that this type of voting has (as mentioned, in fact the regional bodies have little or no autonomy) this time the mood was different precisely because of the aforementioned reasons.

In past years, the strategy adopted by the Kremlin in these cases was a combination of factors given by the demotivation of the electorate, the abuse of electoral laws, the co-optation of the notorious “system opposition” and finally administrative barriers that created an insurmountable bureaucratic obstruction to independent candidates or candidates not linked to “United Russia”, the only party that has the means and facilities available to overcome this “wall”.

This time the victory, usually simpler, saw an unprecedented fact, at least as regards the Putin Era: a clearer confrontation, with widespread spontaneous protests, regarding the problems of centralization of power, especially by the regions of the Far East, which consider themselves increasingly neglected and, in this juncture, literally abandoned by Moscow: Alexey Navalny was shooting a series of documentaries on regional governments in the Siberian area, prior to his poisoning by the nerve agent known as Novičok, which forced him to repair in Germany, the only episode that had any media coverage in the West.

In all this, the same figure of President Vladimir Putin, until a few years ago practically merged with the image of Russia itself, the bogey of the West, is increasingly secluded, despite maintaining substantially the same power, is probably committed to holding up in balance the different groups of power that in situations like this begin to bite each other to maintain their influence within an increasingly restricted circle of individuals.

But this will be the subject of the last part of this excursus on events of the last year, overshadowed by the global problems in which we are all involved, or simply by issues that take priority in the newspapers, such as the American Elections. I hope that now some of my statements on topics discussed previously will be clearer, such as the Crisis in Belarus or the Nagorno-Karabakh War, when I stated that the Russian Federation had other problems, more pressing than those of Minsk or of the Artsakh and that he would have avoided direct involvement in the events as much as possible, as in fact it was.

I hope you have found the topic clearer, as well as interesting. Thanks for reading these lines and see you next week.

Out of Sight: What’s happening in Russia? – Part I

When we think we lead, we are most led.

Lord Byron, The Two Foscari (1821)

The former president Boris Yeltsin at Putin’s inauguration, 2000
Photo by GETTY

Welcome back to UnpredictablePast,

Last week we dealt with the US elections, looking specifically at the “Personalization” of politics and what happens when institutions are progressively de-legitimized. In the past elections, at the center of the debate was the question of Russian influence on the public debate and the links that the Republican candidate, later elected, Donald J. Triump, had with Moscow. In these elections the problem seems to have somehow disappeared, just as the shadow of Moscow seems to have dissolved from the Media debate, and for this reason I think it is right to try to reconstruct, at least in part, what is happening in Russia and why.

First of all, obviously, the global SARS-Cov2 pandemic takes all the front pages, but the problem is not all there: ust like other countries, Russia is hit by this global threat, but this time it seems to have taken the hit more than others.

Until shortly before the virus appeared in Wuhan, it almost seemed to be in a “new” Cold War climate: psychological warfare that sought to undermine the foundations of the Western States, the replacement of the US in the Middle East as a new hegemonic power together with Iran (even Nethanyau had inaugurated more “relaxed” relations with the Kremlin) and the invasion of Crimea, they seemed to have rebuilt a bipolarity in the global geopolitical framework. Russia was “resurrected” and ready to regain its place among the world powers.

Or at least that was the tenor of the public debate.

As usual, in all this there was a part of truth and another “inflated” by TV, Newspapers and Websites, unable to make accurate analyzes and less sensationalist headlines, which the Kremlin did not mind at all, quite the contrary. We will talk more about this topic in the near future, for now let’s focus on recent past events in the background for the reasons mentioned above.

First of all, as we said, how much has Russia actually been affected by the epidemic?

Certainly much more than what it shows. Since the beginning of the crisis, in the eyes of those of us who have been observing the country for some time, something very strange has happened: the Central Government has in fact seemed to “loosen” its grip on federal institutions, giving them free rein to manage the emergency. For those unfamiliar with Russian politics, this is not very strange, those who are slightly more into these matters know that the clash between the Institutions of the Oblast (the Federal States of Russia) and the central ones has been going on since the time of Boris Yeltsin: Russia is a vast and multicultural country, and many of its regions have a strong sense of community and autonomy, embodied by the Regional Governors, the only “thorn in the side” left in a system of power that over the years has become increasingly centralized in figure of the President and his “plenipotentiaries”.

In the course of the last ten years, in particular, the Executive Power has worked to ensure that the Governors of the Oblast remain with a margin of autonomy as narrow as possible, mindful of the experience of Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and his entourage made sure that these institutions were as closely linked as possible to Moscow, both by installing governors who were “favorable” to them (see “Puppets”) and by limiting the possibility of implementing autonomous policies, under the pretext, much felt among the population, of not compromise the territorial integrity of the country.

But in this case, the choice made by Vladimir Putin is not a concession or a truce, but rather a subtle and cunning way of offloading the burdensome responsibilities of dealing with the situation on someone else. The Regions have not obtained any “real power”, especially in the economic field (everything remains firmly in the hands of the State Council and the “special envoys” of the Kremlin), but only the responsibility of “managing” (not governing) situation, as they did before: making sure that order is maintained, ruffling the local potentates, and getting everyone to vote right. When someone wants to take an initiative, especially in the economic field, they must first wait for it to be approved by the Central Government.

The Pandemic revealed the weaknesses of Russia (and in my opinion, of the other “Illiberal Democracies”): a central government absolutely unprepared to manage the situation and, to put it mildly, very lacking in transparency, it has only one way to maintain some degree of consensus: find a scapegoat. And in this case in Moscow they hope to be able to use it, in the future, to increase their influence even more. To make you understand how serious the economic situation is, think that even before the pandemic, the National Credit Rating Agency estimated that at low oil prices 62 of the 83 regions would deplete their reserves this year.

Especially regions that rely on the export of oil and other commodities face up to 560 billion rubles ($ 7.5 billion) in lost corporate and mineral extraction tax revenues, while federal transfers to replenish their budgets barely reach 200 billion rubles ($ 2.7 billion). In 2019, by comparison, transfers from the Federal Government amounted to 2.6 trillion rubles ($ 34.7 billion), counting on projected regional revenue (excluding Moscow Oblast) of 9.6 trillion rubles ($ 128 billion) in 2020.

Vladimir putin confronts Regional Governments in a videoconference. Photo: kremlin.ru.

The Governors will therefore have only the concrete possibility of maneuvering with the money they will have in hand, while they will have to bear the “responsibility” for any discontent. For example, regional institutions can block movements within their borders, but not prohibit movements between them (those who attempted have their requests immediately rejected, even a “risk” area such as Chechnya) Despite having the highest infection rate, the citizens of Moscow can continue to move around the other Oblasts, fueling the clash between the city’s Mayor Sergey Sobyanin and the other governors, only some of whom have managed to impose limited measures quarantine for those coming from infected areas. As if that were not enough, regional governments do not have the possibility to secure areas considered economically strategic by the federal government (the case of an outbreak in a hostel that housed IKEA workers in Leningrad Oblast) or which belong to whom, like Gennady Timchenko’s Novatek, it is closer than they are to the President.

Only a few governors, those belonging to the “system” opposition (that is, linked to the Kremlin, but not belonging to the majority party, “United Russia”) have dared to publicly complain about the limited means available to public health or to use of masks. In a country where trust in institutions has always been very low, this continuous rebound of responsibility and inaction (on one side or the other) or contradictory measures have enormously increased the general confusion and mistrust. While on the one hand more restrictions and adequate measures are called for, others, in particular the men most linked to Putin (like the Governors of Tula and Yaroslavl Regions, who where President’s former bodiguards), the restrictive measures were limited to “recommendations” to avoid riots.

The diversity of treatment has rekindled many of those centrifugal thrusts that seemed to have been dampened over the past few years. In recent months it has become clear, even to less astute or politically committed citizens, that there is a clear difference in treatment and even more stringent room for maneuver, depending on whether or not one is “organic” within the entire system of power.

In a country that has so far been held together by the strong figure of the President, it is not easy to imagine how those who are now suddenly seeying that power so distant, or unprepared to handle the situation, can feel while people die near them. The construction of a system of such wide consensus, centered on a very specific figure and with peculiar characteristics, finds itself disoriented and in disarray when this “image” fails. And those who should act more concretely cannot do it, even if they want to, as they are now reduced to a figurehead of true power, who intends to preserve themselves by offering citizens other heads when they ask for them. Or at least that’s what they hope in the Kremlin rooms.

In the next part we will see how all this is already having concrete effects at the local level, and will help explain to you why the role of Russia, apparently launched (by the media) towards a new golden age, has suffered such a strong setback.

Thanks for reading these few lines, see you next week with the second part.

The U.S. Elections and the perils of the Illiberal Democracy

“In cauda venenum”

(Latin phrase traucibile as “The poison [is] in the tail”)

Protest groups have gathered outside vote counting centres across the US

Welcome back my friends,

This week, it was impossible not to deal in some way with the American elections of 2020, and as far as I am concerned I would like to do it in a particular way, exactly as this election was, which, I’m afraid, did not end here. On this blog we have dealt very often with those political systems called “Illiberal Democracies” or “Hybrid Systems”: a classification used to define those countries in which there is an authoritarian politics that for one reason or another enjoys strong popular support. We generally find this system in the countries that were part of the Soviet Bloc, but also in other realities around the world.

But this time it’s different: today we see this phenomenon at work even in completely different realities, with an important history of democracy behind it. This article aims to be a reflection on their development and on some of the factors that lead to the development of Illiberal models also in the West.

I decided to follow these elections closely for a “personal” matter: I wanted to verify as closely as possible what was happening in the United States, and, in the three days of counting required before Joe Biden was officially declared the winner, something I, and maybe nobody else, did not ever expected, happened.

Outgoing President Donald Trump announced he would give a speech, and, in unified networks, declared that the elections were rigged. Pandemonium has broken out. The television stations were even forced to interrupt the live broadcast, not being able to cross-question the president on his serious statements, and obviously fearing that there was an exaggerated reaction among the Republican electorate.

In a few minutes the word “Fraud” was on the lips of half the world, American and foreigner, for or against President Trump. Never expected such a thing, even from Trump. And it is even stranger, if I think of my country, Italy: here politicians and political parties declare electoral fraud before, during and after the elections, even if they win elections, not to mention all the times that somebody yelled for an ongoing coup d’état, obviously withouth any reason, and, needless to say, without any proof.

During the night (for us, in GMT +01) then, I came across this very good article by Professor Zeynep Tufekci published by the newspaper “The Atlantic”. In her article, Professor Tufekci highlights the “anomalies” of the Trump presidency (in the American context): its over-the-top TV star attitude, the compulsive use of social networks and the ever more striking promises, never realized. In addition, let us not forget, to far more dangerous ideas, such as his heavy abuse of presidential prerogatives, together with the diffusion of an idea of ​​State based on the concept of “herrenvolk democracy”, or rather on its ethnic-religious characterization (in this case, WASP), which should have “priority” over minorities, especially in matters concerning access to the welfare state and, in turn, to institutions.

In the article, a comparison is then made with other leaders who the professor considers somewhat similar to Trump: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Putin in Russia, Orbán in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey. The warning that is thrown through this brief comparative analysis is that a more capable, future politician, without Trump’s grotesque excesses, might be able to inherit his legacy but without discredit, carrying out identical policies but with a “public figure” which is more institutional.

And it is at this point that the question finds me both in agreement and in disagreement.

Let me explain: the warning that Professor Tufekci launches is sacrosanct, since one of the main problem of the “Trump phenomenon” lies in the identification with the person. Those who support him, identify themselves with him, rather than in a political project or view. And the silence (or, worse, the support) that in recent days many Republican leaders have given in response to his narcissistic delirious is eloquent, it shows us how they do not know how to turn back, once supported all the abuses committed in recent years, and above all how to behave with their’s own electorate, which from now on will hardly accept someone more “moderate”.

Furthermore, this is not just a problem of a political side: Biden will have, for the next four years, to deal with more than 70 million voters who consider him a President detestable at best, and abusive in the worst. At the time I write, Trump has not yet conceded him the victory, despite his lawyers being turned down in every court they appeal to.

This involves two things: first It puts us in front of the “personalization” that this electoral campaign has had (I can only vote for Him vs I whould vote for everyone except Him), and the fact that the former President has decided (he or whoever for him) to launch his latest poisoned “tail shot”, creating a very dangerous climate of institutional delegitimation. These two factors, together, are the keys that open the doors to Illiberal Democracy.

Where is my disagreement, then?

It is in the models taken for example, which, in my opinion, are strongly decontextualized and fail to give an idea of ​​what can happen within a democratic system. Don’t take it as an academic habit: understanding “where” your country is going can really make the difference. And don’t take it as some kind of “prediction” either, because it’s happening right now, in the meantime you’re reading.

The countries cited as an example, rather than having intelligent politicians who win elections, all have in common a historically undemocratic background. Putin, Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan were not necessarily “better” or “luckier” than Trump: they were instead able to exploit that illiberal streak already present in their society (even in those who opposed them) to take power. But on the contrary, the United States discovered this vein recently, or at least it became evident when someone went to dig to get it out. With it, however, also a strong opposition movement emerged, which in the end managed to prevail.

Unfortunately it is my opinion that the problems have only just begun.

And here is where the example of Italy comes in handy: despite the complete diversity of political systems (and their “scale”), Italy has had, and have (over time always to a lesser extent, unfortunately) a democratic spirit in its own way, and, although not as strong as in the US, it has withstood tremendous blows for decades, and now is on the verge of collapse. The United States is experiencing a phenomenon similar to the one that, for about twenty years, has gripped my country. Yes, I’m talking about Silvio Berlusconi and his legacy. Maybe you’ve heard of him (just in comparison to Trump) or maybe not.

In that case, a small summary may be useful to better understand why we are in this situation now. Berlusconi came to power with slogans that today would be called “anti-enstablishment”: he represented the outsider who challenged a sclerotic political system overwhelmed by corruption scandals. For twenty years he was, for better or for worse, the undisputed protagonist of our national politics, regardless of whether in power or not. Not unlike Trump, he treated “public affairs” as his property, he appeared as a showman, a histrionic television entertainer, a testimonial who had to sell a product, which was none other than his Party. He has never hidden his sympathies towards illiberal regimes (one above all, Vladimir Putin, but also, Muhammar Gaddafi) and his acquiescence towards the extreme right, of any kind, and he himself has always governed on the edge of the institutional context, pushing the powers of the state to clash on each other for personal pourpose.

For its part, the opposition merely said to its constituents “we are not Berlusconi” and little else. Surrendering on income and only managing to bring together coalitions and coarse and quarrelsome governments, without a vision other than to send the Black Man away and restore “national prestige”. It will be precisely in those years that an increasingly illiberal feeling will begin to manifest itself even in the opposite field: anything was lawful in order to strike Him.

For two decades the country was clearly split in two, and all attention was focused on the figure of Berlusconi.

When, at the end of 2011, he was forced to resign for bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy in the context of the European Debt Crisis, we all (myself included) thought it was truly over. We were wrong. The drastic measures necessary to stem the economic problems he created throught the years allowed him to return to the fore one last time: conspiracy theories about “foreign interference” or a “White Golpe” orchestrated to make him resign became part of the mainstream debate (in fact they already were, but not to an extent so marked) and thanks to the promise to bring everything back as before (i.e. Make Italy Great Again) he was one step away from winning the elections again. Neither Berlusconi nor his party managed to regain the hegemonic role of the past, but the climate of constant confrontation remained, and this cancer had metastasized in Italian society.

But the worst was yet to come.

In fact, Berlusconi was out of the political game, but was quickly replaced by far more aggressive and undemocratic heirs. The personalization of politics and the de-legitimization of any institution had opened the doors to unscrupulous individuals, ready to do anything to enter the vacuum of power. Much more virulent and demagogic than their worthy predecessor, it took them just over 5 years to conquer the whole country, whit the help of new technologies and a more viral “marketing”, based on fake news (the good, old, lies) and conspiracy theories.

Even the most traditional media, such as newspapers and televisions, have done nothing but continue with the same behavior as before, but with new subjects who represented the “novelty of the day”, contributing with an “idiotic equanimity” putting intellegible debate and conspiratorial nonsense on the same level, when they did not directly leave these subjects free to speak, and to spread their “ideas” without any contradictory.

To date, they have a majority in parliament and in the country, while the democratic opposition has dwindled to a flicker.

Now the United States is facing a similar problem: a pathologically narcissistic President, after losing regular elections, has decided to poison the wells by claiming that there has been electoral fraud. Now 70 million of its supporters are more or less convinced that the System is rigged, empathizing with a character who presents himself as the victim of an unfair world, just like them. An explosive mixture, of which, observing what surrounds me every day, I can already anticipate the results.

In a Democracy, Society creates Institutions, in a Dictatorship, Institutions create Society. In an Illiberal Democracy, Society is viewed split into “Us and Them” and the institutions were used to increase the level of confrontation, necessary to strengthen the Parties involved and their respective electorates. Be aware that the real war begins now: if Americans (not just the President, or the politicians) fail to cut off the climate of perennial confrontation and delegitimization, together with the personalization of politics, they will not find themselves with another “more institutional Trump”, but with 70 million Trumps, narcissists, bullies and prone to victimization, and at that point it will become difficult to hope that they will simply go away.

In conclusion, the question is not whether or not the GOP is organizing itself to field the next Trump, and who he may be, the question is whether or not they can do otherwise. The other question is what can be done now to prevent the same situation from happening again, and thats a matter for all the american civil society. If the sole purpose of this election was to beat Trump, then in four years we will see another, and then another, until the phenomenon infects all politics in a game in which electors become mere “supporters” and democratic competition will have no purpose other than victory itself.

Paraphrasing Giorgio Gaber, a famous Italian songwriter: “Don’t be afraid of Trump himself, but be afraid of the Trump in yourself”.

I hope you found it interesting these few lines, and have made you understand what I mean (it would take the books, but at the moment we lack). Also a heartfelt thanks to all those who followed and commented with me during the election days, and to Professor Tufekci for the inspiration.

Stay Vigilant. Toghether.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The Black Garden of Caucasus

“War and peace are not separate compartments. Peace depends on threats and force; often peace is the crystallisation of past force.”

(Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 1973)

I welcome you back once again,

In this part we will deal with what is properly called the Nagorno-Karabakh War, even if as we have seen, at this point the clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been going on with more or less intensity for about 70 years. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union will open a new chapter within the Caucasian scenario, differentiating this clash from those that occurred previously in the area.

First, the absence of the Soviet “gendarme” sparked the arms race in the region. From this point of view, Azerbaijan was in an advantageous position, since, in the defensive programs of the Soviet Union, the resistance to a possible attack by Turkey (a member of NATO) would be concentrated, while the Armenia was destined to be a “Combat Zone”: therefore the Azerbaijani military forces were more numerous, prepared, and supported by the aviation. In addition to this, the divisions sent to the Caucasus by the MVD (МВД, Министерство внутренних дел – the Ministry of Internal Affairs) were made up of poor conscripts from other regions of the Soviet Union, who quickly inaugurated a black market of all equipment in their possession, in order to be able to leave the Caucasus. Weapons also arrived in large quantities from abroad: Turkey, Israel, Arab countries and from members and organizations of the Armenian Diaspora, especially those in the United States.

The ranks of the two armies also began to swell, following the Operation “Ring”, volunteers and mercenaries lined up on one and the other front: in Armenia, in addition to the compulsory conscription, there were many volunteers who, inspired by the guerrillas of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of the beginning of the century, they formed autonomous squads called jokats, even if unlike the fedayi these men were mostly interested in the looting and profit they could make by reselling what they stole on the black market. A great many women also joined the Nagorno Karabakh army, both as fighters and as auxiliaries. Anatoly Zinevich, a former Soviet general, remain in the region and served on the armenian side for five years, becaming the Chief of Staff of the Republic of Artsakh armed forces.

As mentioned earlier, the Azerbaijani army was slightly better organized, with 30,000 regulars in addition to around 10,000 paramilitaries from the OMON militias and several hundred volunteers from the Popular Front. They were joined by the ultra-nationalist Pan-Turkish groups of the Gray Wolves, commanded by Isgandar Hamidov, and many mercenaries paid with the income that Azerbaijan obtained from the exploitation of its gas fields in the Caspian Sea. The Azerbaijani military was also assisted by Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, at the time leader of the Mujahideen and future Prime Minister of his country.

On December 31, 1991, with the official dissolution of the URRS, nothing could prevent Armenia and Azerbaijan from engaging in a large-scale war.

It will be the Azerbaijani troops to open hostilities after their government tried to cancel the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh in November 1991, obtaining in response a referendum from the local authorities in which the Armenian population overwhelmingly votes for the independence (later officially declared on January 6, 1992). Just in the winter of 1991-92 the army besieged Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, starting to bombard it with artillery and air force for several months, indiscriminately hitting military and civilian targets, such as hospitals and homes. , even in the areas surrounding the city. On some days as many as 400 GRAD missiles rained down on Armenian citizen.

“Anyone could just get up with a hangover, after drinking the night before, sit behind the Grad and fire, fire, fire at Stepanakert without any aim, without any coordinates.”

 Azerbaijani soldier Aiaz Kerimov, as reported in the book “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” by Thomas De Waal, NYU Press, 2003

The newborn Republic of Armenia began to feel the stranglehold around its territory, despite having joined the Commonwealth of Independent States created after the dissolution of the USSR, it was still at the mercy of the embargo operated by Azerbaijan and feared that from the West before or then the attack by Turkey would come, which openly supported the Azerbaijani cause.

he counterattack of the Armenian Forces focused on the only strip of land that connected the region to Karabakh, the “Lachin corridor”, and which could only be reached by helicopters. The Azerbaijani town of Khojaly was first targeted: firstly it was one of the artillery positions from which Stepanaket was daily bombed, and secondly it had the only airport in the region. On February 26, assisted by a contingent of the CIS, the Armenian Army stormed the city, conquering it and at the same time attacking the fleeing civilian population of Azerbaijani ethnicity, killing at least 161 people (an episode that became known as the “Massacre of Khojaly “).

The scent of impending war had led much of the Azerbaijani population to take refuge in the fortress-city of Shusha: from there, the Azerbaijani army organized attacks on surrounding Armenian villages and prepared the ground for a heavier offensive on Stepanakert, whose population lived now in the bunkers and undergrounds of the city. The resistance of the Armenian militias around Shusha prevented the Azeris from organizing an offensive: on the contrary, the military leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh took advantage of the situation to attack the last Azerbaijani outpost in the region.

On May 8, 1992, the Armenian Army attempted an assault on the city and, despite being outnumbered and outgunned compared to the Azerbaijani forces, their greater military preparation allowed them to take the city on the 9th, after a day of bloody street fighting, forced their enemies to retreat and abandon the city.

A small parenthesis: as we have said, the Azerbaijani armed forces were larger and better equipped, but, due to strong discrimination within the Soviet army, they had never fought a real war; the Armenian army of Karabakh, on the other hand, was made up for over half by veterans of the terrible Soviet-Afghan War. The only professional soldiers Azerbaijan could count on were the Chechen militiamen commanded by Shamil Basayev, trained by the Russians to fight in Abkhazia against Georgia, who will remember that as their “only defeat” and will soon begin to desert the fighting in as in their vision they had a “too nationalist and not very religious” connotation.

The capture of Shusha forced the Azerbaijani President Mutalibov to resign (just the time to find a scapegoat for the failure and be reinstated on May 15th), and worsened the relations of the Armenian Republic with Turkey, slightly improved in the period following independence from the Soviet Union. Although the then Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel said he was in favor of an intervention in favor of Azerbaijan, this never happened due to the tensions still present between NATO and the CIS: leading exponents of the former Soviet armed forces clearly stated that the intervention by a NATO country in the Caucasus would have brought everyone “to the brink of World War III” (curiously, the same situation will recur with the Civil War in Yugoslavia, but at that time the threats of the former Eastern Bloc could appear much more concrete compared to just a few years later).

On May 18, the Armenian army took the city of Lachin, thus achieving the goal it had set itself: obtaining a safe corridor to reconnect the Republic of Armenia with Karabakh. This put an end to the Mutalibov regime, which was overthrown by a coup organized by the members of the Popular Front, who elected their own President, Abulfaz Elchibey, and took control of parliament, with a view to distancing themselves from Russia and approach to Turkey.

With the cessation of internal conflicts, the Azerbaijani army organized its own counterattack: Operation “Goranboy” (named after a region in northern Karabakh) should have represented, in the minds of its creators, the one that would have sanctioned the final victory. about the Armenians. On June 12, 1992, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive in the direction of the Askeran region, in the center of Nagorno-Karabakh, managing to take control of several important settlements, and then marching towards the Goranboy region, defended by handful detachments of Armenian militias, which resisted until July 4, 1992, when the Azeris took Mardakert, the main city in the region.

The Armenian forces only had to retreat south towards Stepanakert, along with 30,000 Armenian civilians. On June 18, a state of emergency was declared throughout the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a call to arms of all those fit for combat, reunited together with the various militias in a single structure, the Defense Army of the Nagorno Republic -Karabakh.

The offensive of the Azerbaijani army was stopped by the Russian air force, which, given the pro-Turkish tendencies of the Azerbaijani government, decided to take sides, even if it never officially declared it, on the Armenian side, providing weapons in addition to the support of the airborne divisions . This gave the Armenian Army time to reorganize and launch a counter-offensive against the Azeris, whose “blitzkrieg” had run out of office and whose soldiers were exhausted: their general, Suret Huseynov, preferred to abandon the most precarious positions and retreat to Ganja, allowing the RNK Defense Army to reverse the situation by regaining lost ground, beginning to regain territories from February-March 1993.

Azeri tanks abandoned in Nagorno-Karabakh, photo by Nicholas Babaian

In the midst of all this, there were several attempts to broker some kind of peace: the first was Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsnjani, who convinced the two sides to sign an agreement known as the “Tehran Communiqué” on May 7, 1992: needless to say, the capture of Shusha and the Lachin ovvensive made the whole thing void in less than two weeks. Attempts were also made by the CSCE (the organization that would later become the OSCE) to try to bring NATO and the CIS to a table, with the idea of ​​creating a peacekeeping force that would include both and that could to intervene as a “Peace Force” also in Moldavia, Chechnya, Ossetia, Abkhazia and above all in the Yugoslav Civil War. Of course, none of this was accomplished, particularly due to strong opposition from Russia, which saw the intrusion of European countries as an attempt by NATO to enter the country’s affairs through the “Back Door”.

Despite the easing of hostilities during the winter of 1992 – 93, the material losses and the embargo caused great suffering in the Armenian population, both that of the Republic and that of Nagorno-Karabakh: the economy was collapsing and the he single pipeline was reduced to a minimum due to the renewed clashes in Georgia against the Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists. Numerous families even ran out of hot water. The country was helped by the organizations of the Armenian Diaspora, the European Union and Iran, the latter definitively antagonizing Azerbaijan. The latter was certainly not faring better: full of internal and external refugees living in desperate conditions, and also with a collapsing economy, due to the failure in an attempt to revive its oil industry, given that no company he intended to invest in a country in constant conflict.

“No wars are unintended or ‘accidental’. What is often unintended is the length and bloodiness of the war.” (Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 1973)

The winter sufferings, however, did not seem to be able to calm the spirits of the parties involved: despite the attempts carried out by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and American President George H. W. Bush, hostilities in the region began to grow again. Russia itself, which on the one hand tried to mediate peace, on the other hand financed the Armenian army with armaments for a billion USD, which allowed them to occupy again the Karabakh villages lost the year before and still in their hands. to the Azeris, who, for their part, were experiencing a troubled political moment: the military insisted that Azerbaijan also ask for support from Russia, but President Elchibey was immovable and the Azerbaijani generals were removed from their post.

To secure the northern border of Karabakh and prevent it from being used to install artillery positions, between 2 and 3 April the Armenian army attacked the neighboring region of Kalbajar, mostly Azero-Kurdish, wiping out the few and evil armed troops in his defense and taking possession of the region, as well as numerous armored vehicles in use by the Azerbaijani army. The conquest of Kalbajar was marked by indiscriminate violence, killings and the mass exodus of civilians from the area. President Elchibey could not help but declare a state of emergency and order the universal conscription, but on July 18 he was overthrown by a coup d’etat hatched by General Huseynov, who on July 1 was appointed Prime Minister, while the office as President it passed to the MP Heydar Aliyev.

Azerbaijani refugees from Kalbajar, photo by Ilgar Jafarov, 1993

Obviously the Armenians took advantage of the political chaos inside the Azerbaijan republic to launch a series of offensives during the summer of 1993: the Karabakh front was open and defenseless, and it was not difficult for the Armenian army to advance rapidly in the region. while the Azerbaijani army retreated without even fighting. At the end of June, the Azeris were driven out of Mardakert, thus losing their last settlement in the region. Given the right moment, the Armenians decided to continue the advance to the Agdam region, just outside Nagorno-Karabakh, with the intention of making it a “barrier zone” that would protect their cities from artillery fire. Azerbaijani. When the bombing began on the 4th of July, civilians and military began to evacuate Agadam, and President Aliyev, faced with political and military collapse, decided to turn to the international community for help, while the Armenians were preparing the offensive against the regions south of Karabakh, the Fizuli and the Jebrail.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller, tried to threaten the Armenians, demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from the territories of Azerbaijan and sending the army to the border with the Republic of Armenia. Her plan foresaw that, with the victory of the coup leaders during the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, the troops deployed on the border with Armenia would be withdrawn: in particular, it seems that she had made an agreement with one of the leaders of the revolt against Yeltsin, Ruslan. Khasbulatov, who, once he gained power, would have allowed Turkish forces to make raids in Armenia and northern Iraq, under the pretext of prosecuting Kurdish PKK guerrillas. But the coup failed and the Turkish army did not move, fearful of the confrontation with the 20,000 Russian soldiers stationed on the Armenian border.

At the beginning of September, the Azerbaijani military forces were in disarray, abandoning weapons and military means on the field that went to strengthen the counterpart. President Aliyev was so desperate that he recruited between 1000 and 1500 Afghans and Arabs Mujahadeen, while large foreign oil companies, such as MEGA-OIL, required the support of armed contingents of the US Army as a clause to continue their work in the Azeri oil fields.

In October, Aliyev, now formally elected President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, strove to restore order and organize the counter-offensive, managing to achieve some small successes: in January 1994, the Azerbaijani army, with the help of the Afghan guerrillas, recaptured some of the neighboring regions of Karabakh, but the offensive quickly died out in the face of the intervention of the Armenian Army. Moreover, it had a tremendous cost in terms of human lives: boys aged sixteen and up, without any training, werw recruited for completely ineffective “human wave” attacks. The small victories of the winter campaign cost the lives of 5,000 Azerbaijani soldiers. Likewise, the attempt to recapture the Kalbajar district proved to be a disaster: the initial success turned into carnage, with Azerbaijani divisions isolated and surrounded by Armenians, killing more than 1,500 in a single fight. From that point on, the Azerbaijani forces lost any desire to fight again.

In his 1997 book, On Ruins of Empire, Russian professor Georgiy I. Mirsky try to explain the lack of purpose and commitment to fighting the war by the Azerbaijan population, stating that “Karabakh does not matter to Azerbaijanis as much as it does to Armenians. Probably, this is why young volunteers from Armenia proper have been much more eager to fight and die for Karabakh than the Azerbaijanis have” and also the physicist and Nobel laureate Andrej Sakarov remarked that “For Azerbaijan, the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death.”

And so, after six years of war, both sides agreed on a ceasefire. Azerbaijan in particular, short of men and aware that the Armenians had a clear path to march directly on Baku, asked for the intervention of the OSCE or Russia (having also entered the CIS) to broker an agreement. On May 5, 1994, with Russia in the role of mediator, the parties agreed on a truce to be triggered starting at midnight on the 12 of the same month, signed by the respective defense ministers of the three principal warring parties: Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Republic of Artsakh.

The final borders of the conflict after the 1994 ceasefire was signed. Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh currently control almost 9% of Azerbaijan’s territory outside the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, while Azerbaijani forces control Shahumyan and the eastern parts of Martakert and Martuni.

Unfortunately, like other times, this too was only an “apparent” end to the conflict, which in fact remained as one of the many “frozen” high-tension situations in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and the Caucasus in particular. In addition to the enormous cost in human lives, and to a number of refugees of about one million people, the war (this one in particular, but it can be valid in general) has fueled an irrational and rooted hatred among the opposing sides, which has manifested in sporadic successive clashes but above all in the interethnic hatred still strongly found both in Armenia and in Azerbaijan.

But we will talk more about this in the last part, the one that will take us to the present day and the reasons that have, once again, rekindled the conflict in the region.

Thank you for reading this writing, and, hoping that beyond the story of a war it has also made you reflect, I greet you and I make an appointment with you next time. As usual, if you have any questions, you just have to write to me.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The end of the “Pax Sovietica”.

Revenge, at first though sweet,

Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667; 1674), Book IX, lines 171-172

Emblem of the TSFSR 1930-1936. The only difference compared to version 1924-1930 is that the azeri text is in latin script.

Welcome back to this excursus through the history of Nagorno-Karabakh, and, more generally, of the countries of the Caucasian area.

But before we begin, I have to admit a mistake: it was my initial intention to divide the story into three parts, but while writing, I realized that this is impossible, so a fourth will be added: if the goal of these articles is understanding, I don’t feel like leaving out some episodes for the sake of synthesis, otherwise it will be impossible for you who read me to understand how things went and how deep are the roots of modern events. As a historian, it is my job to ensure that history is simple to understand, but not simplified.

That said, we can proceed.

Last week we left in a very specific historical moment: the end of hostilities between Turkey and the Soviet Union, with the Kars Treaty of 1921, while the 11th Red Army occupied Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia without too many problems.

On March 12 of the following year, on the proposal of Vladimir Lenin, the new Soviet Republics proclaimed in the three states were reunited into the Federative Union of Socialist Soviet Republics of Transcaucasia, which on December 13 of that same year became a single federal state, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. the All-Caucasian Congress of Soviet, whose intention should have been to maintain formal autonomy for the three republics, adopted a common constitution, appointed the Central Executive Committee (the highest legislative body) and the Council of Commissioners of the People (who exercised executive power, and was therefore the government). Mamia Orakhelashvili, one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, of Georgian origin, became the first President of the TSFRS, whose capital was established in Tbilisi.

In 1936, the Transcaucasian SFRS was again divided into three autonomous republics (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), with the formation of several autonomous Oblasts (Regions): Adijeian, Karachai-Cerkess, South Ossetia (in Georgian territory), Nakhichevan (under Azerbaijani protectorate), and Nagorno-Karabakh (in the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR).

Soviet Caucasus: from 1957 to 1991

It was the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities or Narkomnaz (from russian Народный комиссариат по делам национальностей, Нар.ком.нац.) chaired (among others) by Josif Stalin, that dealt with the issue of peacekeeping in the Caucasus. The hypotheses concerning the conception of such an administrative structure vary: some scholars believe that the Soviets have played, as in the episode of the Baku Soviet, “Divide and Impera” (ancient Latin expression meaning “Divide and Command”), pitting the local ethnic groups against each other, so that they would not fight against the Soviets: Nagorno-Karaback, in particular, was placed under the control of the Azerbaijan SSR, while retaining 94% of the Armenian population. The same can be said of the Nakhichevan exclave, separated from Azerbaijan by a “corridor” of Armenian territory.

It is a plausible and coherent explanation, also taking into account the historical precedent of the Baku Soviet, which, as we saw last time, was an active part on behalf of the Soviets, in fomenting the First Armenian-Azerrbaijan War. But there would be another: the idea that Stalin, subsequently head of the Soviet Union, had of the relationship between national identities and Soviet communist identity. I have already mentioned this issue and I apologize for postponing it each time, but it is a complex issue that had affect the entire USSR, and which deserves to be treated separately, with with due consideration.

Despite the desire for unification between Armenia and Karabakh remained in question throughout the Soviet period, the control exercised by the Eastern Bloc Superpower kept the situation substantially stable, mainly through its own military strength. It will be with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and with the implementation of the “glasnost” (openness or transparency) policy that the Nagorno-Karabakh question forcefully made itself felt again: the Armenians of Karabakh now free to express a certain level of dissent, began to demand reunification with the Armenian SSR, accusing the local government of trying to culturally “Azerify” the region, finding support both in Russia and in the international community.

Despite Gorbachev’s attempts at mediation, and unfortunately for Armenians, the Soviet constitution contained a sort of “Comma 22”, which relegated the situation to a perpetual stalemate: while Article 70 of the so called “Brezhnev Constitution” of 1977 states that “the USSR is an integral , federal, multinational State formed on the principle of socialist federalism” and also that “the USSR is the result of the free self-determination of nations and the voluntary association of equal Soviet Socialist Republics” and Article 72 recalls that “each republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR“, Article 78 otherwise states that “The territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent. The boundaries between Union Republics may be altered by mutual agreement of the Republics concerned, subject to ratification by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics“.

The question of the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union was the great problem of its entire history, so great, that even after its dissolution the Russian Federation had to take it upon itself (always think of the Caucasus: Georgia, Chechnya, Ossetia) and it always reacted in the same way: with violence. A possible explanation can be found in the geography of the country itself: if the countries of the Caucasus had begun to become autonomous, Russia would have risked losing its “bridgehead” towards the Middle and Far East and towards the Black Sea, and with it is the continuous flow of resources, especially raw materials, to and from abroad.

Thus, the situation was left unresolved. But “Dum Romae consulitur, Saguntum expugnatur” (from Latin: “While Rome discusses, Sagunto is conquered”): says a bitter comment that can be found in book 21o of the work “Ab Urbe Condita ” written by the Roman historian Titus Livius.

It is a reference to those who waste a lot of time in continuous consultations without deciding, in a context that would require quick decisions. And this is precisely our case: from 1985 to 1987 the tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijans in Nagorno-Karabakh continued to grow, while the the Soviet government had forgotten about the issue (or rather, it had a problem of general collapse to deal with, and the affairs of the small Caucasian Oblast were certainly not at the top of the list).

Television images showing burnt automobiles and marauding rioters on the streets of the city of Sumgait during the pogrom in February 1988.

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. You cannot subjugate a nation forcibly unless you wipe out every man, woman, and child. Unless you wish to use such drastic measures, you must find a way of settling your disputes without resort to arms.”

(A. Einstein, in a speech to the New History Society, 14 December 1930)

On February 22, 1988, after several months of small clashes and forced displacement on both sides, there was the first real skirmish between Azeri and Armenians in Karabakh, in the city of Askeran: two days earlier, two Azerbaijani trainee female students denounced being raped by Armenians and two other young Azeri died in clashes with the police.

But this was only the prelude: during a demonstration in Sumgait, in support of Azeri refugees driven out of their villages from Karabakh, anger over news of “murders and atrocities” committed by Armenians rose to the point of unleashing a real pogrom against the Armenian community, resulting in 26 deaths. Armenians were beaten, raped, mutilated and killed both on the streets of Sumgait and inside their apartments during three days of violence, with no intervention from the police, that only subsided when Soviet armed forces entered the city and quelled much of the rioting on 1 March. Nearly all of Sumgait’s Armenian population left the city after the pogrom.

On March 23, 1988, the Supreme Soviet refused for the umpteenth time the request for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, sending the army to Yerevan to face any protests. The Armenians of Karabakh were now convinced that they would face the same fate of those of the Nakhichevan exclave, in which the Armenian population had gone from 40% before absorption into the Soviet Union to total disappearance in the late 1980s.

No one seemed to realize it, but The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War had begun.

The parties in dispute then began a harsh diplomatic confrontation, and neither of them (Armenia in particular) trusted more in Gorbachev’s mediation. The years between 1988 and 1990 were characterized by the exponential growth of inter-ethnic tensions: in addition to the episodes of violence on both sides, just think that, in that period, fear led to a massive exodus from one country to the other, in which Armenia and Azerbaijan “exchanged” large sections of the population. From Armenia alone, in the period 88-89, more than 200,000 people left, including Azeri and Kurds of Muslim religion. The latter, despite not having taken part in the conflict, preferred to leave the villages where they lived because located in a “potentially hostile” territory.

In 1990 the situation worsened further: Armenia imposed an embargo on the Nakhichevan ASSR, while the newly formed Azerbaijan Popular Front first organized sabotages on the Armenian railway network bound for the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and then attempted a “risky move” to break away from the dissolving Soviet Union anytime soon: the wrong “timing” led the Soviet authorities to declare a state of emergency in the region (also due to the pogroms unleashed against the Armenian population of Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku) and, in what comes Known as “Black January“, 26,000 Soviet Army soldiers brought an end to the uprising by force, shooting at protesters and causing more than 90 deaths.

Victims of Black January in Martyrs’ Lane, Baku.

The Soviets also tried to keep this intervention secret, destroying the lines of communication to and from Baku: despite this, the journalist Mizra Kazar and the staff of Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe, managed to send a daily bulletin outside the occupied zone.

At that point the Armenian army and paramilitary militias decided to fight back: several Azerbaijani exclaves in Armenian territory, or near its border, were attacked by paramilitary troops and even bombed with artillery during a series of night raids. that lasted from March to August, until once again the intervention of the Soviet army drove back the aggressors and temporarily put an end to the massacres, with more violence.

On March 17, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev held the famous “Referendum on the future of the Soviet Union“, also known as the “Union Treaty“, which was to decide whether the republics of the USSR should remain together. With the success of the Referendum, the structure of the Union was changed, allowing even non-communist leaders to compete for the presidency of the republics, which brought to power, for example, Boris Yelstin in Russia and Ayaz Mutalibov in Azerbaijan, while Gorbachev remained in office as President of the Soviet Union.

Voting bulletin for the “Union Treaty”, March 17, 1991

The Armenians boycotted the referendum (in fact they declared themselves independent on August 23, 1990) while the Azeris voted in favor. The prediction of new clashes led to an arms race in Nagorno-Karabakh on both sides, but this time the newly elected Azerbaijani president Mutalibov decided to exploit the post-reorganization situation to his advantage: he thus convinced Gorbachev to organize a pre-emptive strike to disarm the ‘Armenia and make it desist from its proposal of reunification with the Karabakh region.

Thus, on April 30, the Soviet and Azerbaijani forces launched Operation “Ring”, which resulted in the deportation of all Armenian inhabitants of the Shahumyan region, a process which was joined by indiscriminate violence, kidnapping, looting, murder, rape and torture. and that forced 17,000 people to exodus, until July 4th Gorbachev announced the end of the Operation as the area had been “pacified”. Obviously, everything turned out to be counterproductive: from that moment on, the thought became clear in the minds of the Armenians that the only solution for reunification with Karabakh was armed resistance against the Soviets and the war against the Azerbaijans.

In September 1991, there was a first attempt to mediate a peace, promoted by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and by the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev: after a series of talks, between 20 and 23 September the Železnovodsk Communiquè was signed, in which the parties undertook to respect mutual territorial integrity, national sovereignty and respect for human rights. But they were just nice words on a sheet of paper.

While Yeltsin, Nazarbayev, Mutalibov and Armenian President Ter-Petrosian signed the agreement, the Azerbaijani OMON forces continued to bomb Armenian towns and villages, such as Stepanakert and Chapar. The Armenians, for their part, certainly did not stand and watch: at the end of 1991 an offensive was launched in which the militias broke the siege of the bombed areas, and then concentrated on the destruction of the Azerbaijani villages, considered as hidden posts for the artillery, again with an escalation of violence and ever greater rancor, which involved numerous civilians who had little to do with the bombing done by Azerbaijani troops.

Finally, when the Soviet Union imploded, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the withdrawal of troops from the region, completed between 19 and 27 December 1991. With the end of the Soviet military presence, the situation in the region literally went out of control.

So here ends the second part of our story, e story of an only apparent “peace”, guaranteed by the heavy shadow of the Soviet Union, which at the same time created the basis for the actual conflict: by feeding a local nationalism in the hope of a future “Soviet Nationalism” it left the field free to violence, pogroms and reciprocal feuds, which in addition to a high number of deaths, continued to stifle the embers that would later flare up in the fire of war.

In the next writing, we will deal with the military clash that broke out in the years following 1991, I hope that so far the explanation has been clear and stimulating, as usual, for any question you can contact me.

Thanks to all those who have had the patience to read these lines.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred

“For never can true reconcilement grow,

Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”

(John Milton, Paradise Lost – 1667; 1674, Book IV, line 98)

Welcome back to our weekly appointment,

This week I wanted to tell you about another problematic place once linked to the USSR, and which has recently returned to talk about itself, unfortunately: I am referring to the region of Central Asia known as Nagorno – Karabakh.

Before starting, I would like to make a small premise: I was very undecided whether to address (and how) this topic. If, as I told you when talking about Belarus, the issues concerning the former Soviet Union countries are never as simple as they are seen from the outside, that of Nagorno-Karabaka is certainly one of the most intricate and obscure to foreigners observers.

So why talk about it? For the same reasons why I didn’t want to do it: because it is intricate and obscure, difficult for a foreign observer to understand. After all, it is the goal I set myself when I started writing, and I intend to keep it: in the pages that follow, I will try to make you understand a war that has been going on for more than a hundred years in the remote recesses of the Asian mountains.

Furthermore, this is a story that can make us better understand how exasperated nationalism contains within itself the germs of hatred by its very nature, and is capable of causing disasters that cannot be ended even after hundreds of years. As we did for Belarus, we will reserve the right to divide this complex story into several parts: one concerning the period of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, one following the collapse of the Soviet Union and finally one that will tell the events today.

The Situation during the WWI and before the First Armenian-Azerbaijan War

The history of the conflict has centuries-old roots, and begins in the period of the dissolution of the great empires immediately after the end of the First World War. In that period the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the civil war within what was the Russian Empire, will lead to the formation of several independent republics: among them, the First Republic of Azerbaijan and the First Armenian Republic, both emerged from a period of uninterrupted conflict (in which the Armenians suffered a real Genocide, planned by the forces of the Ottoman Empire). We will not go further into the chaotic period tha preceded WWI, as we run the risk of muddying the waters, but it is not certain that the topic will not be treated more extensively in the future.

As has always happened in these situations, the new republics were fueled by a strong national sentiment: the Azerbaijani party of Müsavat (equality / parity) supported positions close to pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism; in Armenia, on the other hand, the Revolutionary Federation had succeeded in establishing the first independent government since the Middle Ages. Despite that, these entities were tied to the Russian Rvolution (February Revolution) and represented togheter in the Sejm, better known as the Transcaucasian Commissariat, of socialist inspiration but opposed to Bolshevism, and determined to separate from the nascent Soviet Russia.

After the October Revolution, the troops of the Red Army began to withdraw from the various war fronts to conduct the war within the territory of the former Russian Empire: this obviously included the Central Asian regions. Thus, between 10 and 24 February 1918 the Sejm declared independence and the birth of the Transcaucasian Federative Democratic Republic, and prepared to face the Bolshevik forces militarily. The problems began with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 3, 1918, which formalized Russia’s exit from World War I: the independence, at least formal, of the Transcaucasian Federation worried the Soviet leaders, due to the oil produced in the region 7 million tons per year, (15% of world production at the time) so much so that it seems that Vladimir Lenin himself asserted that “Russia will not survive without Baku oil”.

To prevent the opening of a new front, the Bolsheviks and the Social Revolutionaries present there, under the leadership of Stepan Shahumyan, proclaimed the Soviet of Baku, and took control of the Governorate of the region.

The Soviet led by Shahumyan, to maintain the control of those precious resources, begins to be involved in the internal disputes of the region, playing at putting one faction against the other, fueling suspicion and hatred: they used the “bogeyman” of the presence of an huge Armenian contingent, who had fought the Ottomans in the region, (and which the Russians should have demobilized after the war, which obviously they did not), to scare the Azerbaijans, which were convinced to turn to the veterans of the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division (rus. Кавказская туземная конная дивизия) better known as the “Savage Division” (rus. Дикая дивизия), made up of mostly Caucasian Muslim volounteers and anti-Bolsheviks) for eventual aid.

When such strong nationalist sentiments arise in territories that until recently considered themselves part of a single state entity, disaster is only a matter of time.

And the disaster occurred in the days between March 30 and April 2, 1918, better known as “March Days“, when Bolsheviks, Armenians, Azeris and members of the Savage Division all met together in Baku. The American historian of Azerbaijani origins Firuz Kazemzadeh, claims that, despite Shahumyan having the possibility to mediate the situation, the powder keg was allowed to explode: it is not known who was to open the hostilities, but after the tensions of March 30, the 1 of April Baku had turned into a Battlefield.

The Armenian forces did not take part in the conflict initially, and indeed the Musravat Party proposed that they support the revolt of the Muslims against the Soviets, but received a refusal. When Shahumyan then declared a state of siege, the Dashnaktsutyun (the armed forces of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, often abbreviated to Dashnak) intervened in the conflict with brutal ferocity, indiscriminately massacring military and civilians in the city and its surroundings. The Soviet leader himself was shaken, and in a letter stated: “The participation of the latter lent the civil war, to some extent, the character of an ethnic massacre, however, it was impossible to avoid it. We were going for it deliberately. The Muslim poor suffered severely, however they are now rallying around the Bolsheviks and the Soviet “.

On April 3, the clashes had ceased, causing more than 12,000 deaths among the Muslim population of Baku, also forced into a forced exodus, and 2,500 deaths between Armenians and Soviets. Always Firuz Kazemzadeh said: “The brutalities continued for weeks. No quarter was given by either side: neither age nor sex was respected. Enormous crowds roamed the streets, burning houses, killing every pass-by who was identified as an enemy, many innocent persons suffering death at the hands of both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. The struggle which had begun as a political contest between Musavat and the Soviet assumed the character of a gigantic race riot“.

Despite the violence mainly concentrated on the Muslim population, and Azerbaijani in particular, this episode did not, in my opinion, have an ethnic character, but a political one: on the one hand, the Dashnak only came to the aid of the Soviet when a state was declared there. siege, on the other hand, in the subsequently self-proclaimed Commune of Baku (13 April 1918) many socialists of Azerbaijani origin played important roles. Nevertheless, in the Azeri psyche, the Baku Commune symbolized the Bolshevik – Armenian collusion born out of the March Days bloodbath

But the “March Days” were only the beginning.

What is called the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war actually begins with the Baku massacre: the Azerian leaders in fact, after that episode, radically changed their political vision: they decided to abandon the ideals of the Revolution and to focus exclusively on their independence from Russia. When the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed on May 28, 1918, they took care to immediately send embassies to Istanbul with requests for support for the young state entity from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman “triumvir” Enver Pasha decided to intervene, and instructed his brother to form a military unit, the Caucasus Army of Islam, and to go in support of Azerbaijan.

In July 1918, the Azerbaijani-Ottoman army defeated the patched-up “Red Army of Baku” in several key battles and, under internal pressure from Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, Dashnak, and British agents infiltrating the city (the British Empire had taken the nationalization of oil very badly) the power of the Bolsheviks began to collapse. On August 1, 1918, the Commune of Baku was replaced by the Centrocaspian Dictatorship, which for help the aid had to turn to a British contingent commanded by General Lionel Dunsterville, but to no avail: the Azero-Ottoman forces were too numerous and on September 15 they entered victorious in Baku. They were the terrible “September Days“, during which between 10,000 and 20,000 Armenians were killed as revenge for what happened in the “March Days”. The Bolshevik Commissioners of the Trans-Caspian government were intercepted while attempting to flee and shot on September 20, 1918. Days later, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan was moved from Ganja to Baku.

However, after the Armistice of Mudros of 30 October 1918, which sanctioned the end of hostilities between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish troops stationed in Baku were replaced by a contingent of the Triple Entente, under the command of the British, who assumed control of Baku by imposing martial law on it. This gave the Armenian forces the opportunity to reorganize and plan the counterattack: first the so-called “Mountainous Republic of Armenia” was created and from there, under the leadership of Andranik Ozanian, the Armenian militias (fedayi) began to take control of the Karabakh during 1919, advancing towards the main city of the region, Shusha. The British attempted mediation, assuring Ozarian that the territorial question between Armenia and Azerbaijan would be resolved at the Paris Conference. Ozanian trusted and backed down, while the British entrusted the provisional government of the region to Khosrov bey Sultanov, a fervent nationalist of pan-Turkish ideas, who increased the Azerbaijani military presence in the region and attacked numerous Armenian villages, in order to cut connections direct from Armenia to the Karabakh.

The assignment of the governorship to Sultanov sparked the indignation of the Armenians, who gathered in the “Armenian National Council of Karabach“, a sort of Provisional Government of the Region, established between 1919 and 1920, refused to recognize the authority of the new governor (and Azerbaijan) on the region. At their second meeting in the city of Shusha, a detachment of the Azerbaijani army surrounded the Armenian quarter and demanded their unconditional surrender. The mediation of the British and the acceptance of the surrender by the Armenian National Council did not spare a series of pogroms against the Armenian population that were unleashed throughout the month of June, especially by the irregular Azerbaijani militias.

On February 19, 1920, Sultanov imposed an ultimatum on the Armenian National Council, which once again refused to recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. The Armenian population of the region had no choice but to prepare for the insurrection, trying to take control of the city of Shusha by surprise with a night assault. But the attempt failed miserably, and the anger of the Azerbaijani troops and population spilled over the Armenians who inhabited the city: entire neighborhoods were set on fire, in a spiral of increasingly brutal violence, which went on for six days with Khosrov bey Sultanov’s consent, who urged not to spare anyone, including women and children. The victims of the Shusha Massacre were 20,000, and in fact the Armenian community of the city was uprooted.

Ruins of the Armenian part of Shusha after the 1920 pogrom. In back is the church of the Holy Mother of God (Kanach Zham).

To make the hostilities “cease” was the return of Soviet Russia to the game: defeated the resistance of General Denikin and with the forces of the White Army in disarray, Moscow returned to focus its attention on the Caucasus. On April 27, 1920, the Azerbaijani government, already in serious trouble on the domestic front, received the news that the Red Army was preparing to invade the country and surrendered without practically a fight, leading to the creation of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenian army and militias used the chaos to take control of the western territories of Azerbaijan, including Shusha and the Karabakh and Nakhchivan area. This lasted very little: in May 1920 the 11th Red Army conquered Karabackh, and placed it under the jurisdiction of Soviet Azerbaijan and then made it an autonomous region (the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region, NKAO) in 1923, direct order of Stalin. Then on November 20, the Red Army used a pretext to wage war on the Armenian Republic itself, invading its territory: the Armenian army, weakened by years of interrupted conflicts, did not offer resistance exactly like the Azerbaijani one, and on December 4, 1920 the 11th Red Army entered Yerevan, followed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani revolutionaries on the 5th and by the Dzerzhinsky political police, the Cheka, on the 6th. After a last anti-Soviet gasp on February 18th 1921, the formation of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was officially declared.

The location of the Nagorno – Karabakh Autonoumos Oblast during the Soviet Period

The 1921 Treaty of Kars between Turkey and the Soviet Union put an end to the violence in the Transcaucasian area, in which, as a sign of peace, the Nachivan area was declared an Azerbaijani protectorate, and Turkey returned the city of Alexandroupolis to Armenia and Batumi to Georgia.

However, it will be a peace imposed by an imperial power like the Soviet Union, which, paradoxically, had fomented ethnic divisions in the area to avoid losing control over it. Something that from the beginning was destined to recur at the slightest sign of yielding of the hegemonic force in those territories. Exactly as it had begun, the question will rise up again with the collapse of the USSR, indeed, perhaps even anticipating it, as we will see in the next article.

Thank you for reading this long story, lost in time and in the Caucasus mountains: two more appointments await us, to be able to better understand what is happening today.

Thanks for your attention and see you next time.

What we (now) know about Belarus – Shadows of the Past

It’s wrong to compare what’s happening to Kiev’s facts. In Ukraine people fought for independence. The antirussian feeling was the triggering factor of the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the 2014 Majdan revolt. This protest has a totally different appearance, purely material. It is a bread-uprising. The idea of freedom and independence in Belarus is not as strong as it is in Ukraine.

(from an interwiew of Rosalba Castelletti to the Nobel Prize winner Svjatlana Aleksievič, appeared on the italian newspaper “La Repubblica” on March 26th, 2016)

A poster displays the symbols of the united 2020 opposition campaign in Belarus (« we love, we can, we’ll win »). The Word “Вместе” means “Together” Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons

Welcome back my Friends,

This will be the third and last article concerning Belarus, not that we will stop dealing with it entirely, but here I would like to conclude the historical path that has brought us to the present day and add some reflections perhaps to be developed more extensively in specific articles: as you will have understood, when it comes to the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, nothing is as simple as it appears from the outside.

In the previous article we described Lukashenko’s rise to power and how he governed without too many problems until 2010, the year in which an increasingly strong opposition movement began to manifest itself, but which he always managed to repress, both through dirty (and violent) methods, but also thanks to the consent it continued to enjoy among a certain part of the population.

So what has changed this time?

The answer to this question obviously has multiple facets, but we can easily start with the most immediately evident one: the disastrous management of the SARS-COV2 Pandemic. On March 16, while the virus had spread across half the world, Lukashenko, interviewed by the Moscow Times, downplayed the potential danger represented by the spread of the virus and encouraged the population to “Drive tractors and work in the fields [… ] the tractors take care of everything, the work in the fields takes care of everything “(!), he states that playing Hokey is “better than antiviral therapy” and that the virus can be “poisoned” with Vodka and Saunas.

To date, official estimates give 77,289 infected and 813 deaths, but as we have already said, the Belarusian government is not very accustomed to transparency, indeed, on July 22, the President of the Central Electoral Commission of Belarus, Lidia Yermoshina, announced a strong limitation to the number of election observers due to epidemiological reasons (of an epidemic that, according to her government, does not exist).

The regime had no qualms about using the pandemic as an excuse to increase its control over the population: Sergey Lazar, chief of the Vitbesk Clinical Emergency Hospital was removed on April 30, shortly after publicly criticizing the government for the scarce countermeasures against the pandemic and the lack of adequate protective medical material for doctors. On the previous March 25th, the editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Yezhednevhik was arrested on charges of taking bribes, three days after an article that harshly criticized the Belarusian government and its reaction to the spread of the virus. On 11 May, two young activists from the Youth Bloc (Молодёжный Блок) were sentenced to 13 and 5 days of administrative detention respectively for participating in the protests calling for the cancellation of the Victory Day parade on 9 May, to prevent the contagion spread within the gigantic gathering.

Youth Bloc activists marching with a coffin alongside the military column during the 9 May Victory Day Parade rehearsal.

When the money runs out, Patriotism comes out.

(Anonymous, reported in “Second-Hand Time” by Svjatlana Aleksievič)

“And when Patriotism ends, the anti-riot departments come out”, I might add. As we stated earlier, the Lukashenko regime has survived for 26 years thanks to three factors: the maintenance of a strong “welfare state” network (but in the Soviet version, don’t think of something like social-democracy), the strong link with the Ideology and symbology of the USSR, and finally, a strong, faithful and efficient internal security apparatus.

But if we can learn anything from Belarusian history, it is just that it is impossible, no matter how hard we try, to keep a country “Out of Time” in this way.

The Belarusian welfare state began to collapse already in 2015, when the government was forced to reduce benefits and tax the unemployed – addressed as “social parasites”(!), making the regime much less popular in this respect; Patriotism, in the hard and pure image of the President, began to waver when he himself tried to implement what is called “multivectorialism” in foreign policy (or put your own foot in two shoes): the visit, on February 26, by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must not have been liked by those who have been educated to believe that the West is constantly conspiring to destroy your country. The same reason is behind Lukashenko’s refusal of almost all economic aid from abroad, which had clauses including lockdown and contagion limitation measures (and which would have forced the government to “back down” on its previous statements). What remains then?

A protester holds an old Belarusian national flag as he stands in front of police line during a rally after the Belarusian presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020. Police and protesters clashed in Belarus’ capital and the major city of Brest on Sunday after the presidential election in which the authoritarian leader who has ruled for a quarter-century sought a sixth term in office. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Correct: the departments of the Security Apparatus (OMON – Отряд Мобильный Особого Назначения, Mobile Special Police Unit), which went into action immediately after the declaration of Lukashenko’s victory (and even before, with the incarceration and intimidation of the members of the opposition, this time decidedly more convinced of a possible victory, or in any case of being able to bring Lukashenko to the negotiating table, without being completely ignored), who have arrested over 3,000 people across the country, and have made us witness the various brutalities they are capable of against unarmed protesters.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at a rally in Vitebsk on 24 July 2020

Unitary opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who took the leadership of the anti-government front after the arrest of her husband, popular youtuber and activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, was forced, after several threats against her and her family, to repair in Lithuania, and then in Poland.

From there, the Belarusian activist asked for, and obtained, that the victory in the elections be recognized by the countries of the European Union, which, under the pressure of the Lithuanian Parliament, responded to Lukashenko’s violence by imposing economic sanctions on Belarus and recognizing Tsikhanouskaya “as elected leader of the people of Belarus” and the recently established “Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power” as the “only legitimate representatives of the Belarusian people”. The resolution also declares that Lukashenko is an “illegitimate leader”.

On the other hand, the presence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia has returned to make itself felt, which, despite not having much sympathy with Lukashenko, must make the best of a bad situation to preserve its strategic interests in the area: the Kremlin is patiently observing the evolution of the situation, and for the moment has limited itself to acknowledging the victory to the outgoing President, with some vague promise of aid in case of “excessive violence”, but nothing more.

So, what should we expect from now on?

Lukashenko is still in his place, despite the protests in the country that have been going on for 7 weeks now and show no signs of stopping. The Coordination Council, from Warsaw, has begun “the procedures for a peaceful transfer of power”, but unlike the Belarusian government in office, it has no means to ensure that this happens (that is, it has no Armed Forces), while in the country the repression continues with an ever-increasing level of violence and abuse against the manifestants.

The situation is in fact stalled: Lukashenko does not seem to be willing to flee like Yanukovych (also because it is not certain that there is anyone willing to welcome him, not even in Moscow), but how long will he be able to withstand this storm? How long will it be before he is no longer able to secure the loyalty of the Security Apparatus?

On the other hand, the “Government in exile” has no one who is able to force the hand and help them in the “institutional transition” with more than words: not the United States, certainly not the European Union. As the Nobel Prize winner for literature Svyatlana Aleksevic rightly stated “this is not Majdan”: Belarus has no interest in looking to the West, on the contrary, even the opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya has reassured about maintaining good relations with Moscow, even after the eventual fall of Lukashenko.

Obviously, even a scenario similar to that of the annexation of Crimea, as hypothesized by some, is unthinkable: the russian enstablishment has no intention of getting involved in a war that would in fact bring them nothing but more “bad reputation” and international isolation.

Vladimir Putin held talks in Sochi with Alexander Lukashenko, who came to Russia on a working visit. February 7, 2020 Photo: kremlin.ru.

However, there is the possibility that “The Feast with the Statue” represented by Russia may be the one to unblock the situation: if Vladimir Putin and his colleagues find a way to appease the protests by saving the most of what remains of the thirty-year Belarusian system, Lukashenko will have to stop with his attempts at “multilateralism” and will become a de facto puppet in the hands of Moscow; if, on the other hand, the Russians decide to give the regime a “little push” and help the Coordination Council, they could take advantage of the economic changes that this one should (theoretically) bring, to enter the new Belarusian market and take those strategic assets firmly, up to now, in the hands of the Lukashenko’s government.

As usual, making predictions is a matter for astrologers. For the moment I hope to have clarified the situation to the best of my ability to those who were interested in knowing it better, and in understanding what is actually happening in a distant country and back in the “Path of History” only recently. For the moment, unfortunately, we just have to pay attention to the movements on the horizon, and try to get an idea with what we have available, but without ever looking away too much.

For any questions and discussions, I am available, find the contacts on the appropriate page.

Nay, come, let’s go together.

What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Last Dictatorship in Europe

“We are taking our leave of the Soviet era. Which is to say: from our own life.”

Svjatlana Aleksievič, (Incipit of “Second-hand Time“, 2013)

National Emblem of the Republic of Belarus

Here we are again, trying to understand the historical evolution of Belarus, from its indipendence in 1991, up to what is happening in recent months: to do so, it is impossible for us not to parallel the country’s journey with the figure of its president: Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko.

The first free presidential elections were held in Belarus on June 23, 1994, with a second round of ballot on July 10: they saw the victory of Lukashenko, against the outgoing president Vyacheslav Kebich, with a preference threshold of over 80%.

But who was Lukashenko until then?

Born in 1954, his career first as a soldier and then as a member of the CPSU was no different from that of the many Apparatiki who formed the backbone of the Soviet bureaucracy. Things change in 1990, when for the first time he was elected Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of Belarus: from that position within the new administration, now de facto independent, he, through his eloquent populist anti-corruption rhetoric, manages to earn an ad interim position of President of the Anti-Corruption Commission of the Belarusian Parliament.

From that position, he start accusing 70 high rank government officials and many other functionaries, including President Stanislav Shushkevich and the Head of the Supreme Soviet Vyacheslav Kebich of embezzling state funds for personal use: despite the accusations revealed completely unfounded, Shushkevich resigned due to embarrassment, leaving Kebich to confront Lukashenko himself, who then no longer had other real opponents in his rise to power.

“What happened today came as a sensation only to those who refused to face the truth about our country […] The poor and deprived people for the first time had a chance to elect somebody like them to this supreme post, and the people spoke” declared Lukashenko after his victory. After the separation from the Soviet Union, Belarus was in fact in a state of economic and social collapse: although Lukashenko did not have any kind of economic or deep reform program of the State, he managed to win by riding the mounting anger against “corrupted politicians” within the country.

As often happens in these cases, it did not take long for the new president to reveal his true face: two referendums held in 1995 and 1996, gave him the possibilty to dissolve the Parliament by decree, and after the economic crisis of 1998, which shattered the economy of the Russian Federation as the Belarusian one, given the close link between the two countries, Lukashenko took advantage of it to extend his power to the Central Bank of Belarus, which was nationalized and placed under the direct control of his loyalists, accusing the Western Countries of hatching a plot to sabotage his government and that of Russia.

Aleksander Lukashenko whit Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, after the first was reelected President of Belarus, May 2002

After being reconfirmed for a second term in the elections in 2001, also thanks to the concessions made to the Russian Federation of Vladimir Putin (also elected, in the year 2000, by popular acclaim, as a barrier against cecenian terrorism and corruption of the administration of Boris Yeltsin, who resigned on December 31, 1999), effectively giving russians the control over the strategic “Yamal – Europe” oil pipeline.

The growing isolation from the rest of Europe and the increasing dependence on Russia led the Lukashenko regime to react fiercely against the internal opposition, which in the meantime began to grow more and more. Obviously, within the country the consensus for the president existed and still exists: his most appropriate move in this sense, at least for the first period, was to avoid the direct passage to the market economy (as happened in Russia during the Yeltsin presidency) and, over the years, to keep intact the “Belarusian welfare state”, that is a mixture of patronage and maneuvers aimed at buying the consent of certain parts of the electorate.

In preparation for the electoral round of 2006, various political groups began to organize protests of various kinds , such as “The Day of Solidarity with Belarus”, held on October 16, 2005 from an idea of the journalist Irina Chalip and other pro-democratic organizations, such as “We Remember” and the youth movement “Zubr”: the organizers want the rest of the world to solidarize “with Belarusian political prisoners, the disappeared persons Jury Zacharanka, Viktar Hančar, Anatol Krasoŭski, and Dźmitry Zavadski, their families, and other advocates of a transition to representative democracy and to a market economy in Belarus.

“Let us all together switch off the light in our apartments for several minutes on October 16 evening, and put burning candles on the windows. We should imagine Belarus in which we could live. Maybe everything is to start with that. Dark cities, dark windows, where only shadows of burning candles are seen – this could become a mirror for us to see that we are really many!” (Irina Chalip)

When in 2006 the different parties found a single candidate, Aleksander Milinkevich, to be presented against Lukashenko in the presidential elections, he doesn’t take it well and says that “anyone going to opposition protests would have their necks wrung ‘as one might a duck‘”. Fear and violence gave Lukashenko a chance to “triumph” once again in the elections with 80% of the vote, despite the opposition being at its full potential and he carried on the protests for several days across the country. As the OSCE report explains:

Poster of the 2006 documentary “Lekcja białoruskiego” (A Lesson of Belarusian) by polish director Miroslaw Dembinski, depicting the violence occurred during the protest of 2005-2006

[Lukashenko] “permitted State authority to be used in a manner which did not allow citizens to freely and fairly express their will at the ballot box… a pattern of intimidation and the suppression of independent voices… was evident throughout the campaign”.

With the parliamentary elections of September 2008, the violence was replaced by the deliberate “bureaucratic hindrance” to the members of the opposition parties (another “idea” probably suggested by Moscow), so that they could not get any of the 110 seats in the Parliament , thus finding themselves cut off from the political life of the country: Lukashenko’s comment was, as usual, that the opposition was heterodirected from abroad, and that it was therefore right to remain outside the institutions.

“The West seeks dialogue with Lukashenko, but he is unreliable. He flirts with Europe only when he wants to intimidate and blackmail Putin to extort money from him. And it is absolutely unable to look to the West. If anyone does, they will be a younger leader, but I fear there will be no bloodless changing of the guard in Belarus.”

(from an interwiew of Rosalba Castelletti to the Nobel Prize winner Svjatlana Aleksievič, appeared on the italian newspaper “La Repubblica” on March 26th, 2016)

Lukashenko’s fourth (2010 – 2015) and fifth (2015 – 2020) presidential term were equally harbingers of violence, intimidation and “election tricks”. In 2010, two opposition candidates were severely beaten by the police, and, after protests in front of parliament, many others were jailed so that they could not stand for election: Andrei Sannikov, Alexander Otroschenkov, Ales Michalevic, Mikola Statkevich, and Uladzimir Nyaklyayew. Journalist Irina Chalip, was put under house arrest. Yaraslau Ramanchuk’s party leader, Anatoly Lebedko, was also arrested. Despite the release of political prisoners, the election for Lukashenko’s fifth term follow basically the same path.

Special police forces (OMON) surrounding protestors in Minsk in 2006. Over 40.000 marched on the Belarusian Government’s Building, chanting “Out!” and “Long live Belarus!”

But something has changed in those years.

The international situation was no longer the same that had characterized the first decade of 2000: Russia’s internal problems reverberated on Belarus, and so Lukashenko tried to approach Western countries, especially the European Union, a manouvre which in addition to failing its pourposes, aroused the ire of the Kremlin, which began exerting more and more pressure on Belarus and its president, through what is now called “Soft Power”, and which in Russian translates as “Veiled Threats” or “Backstabbing”. Secondly, the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 proved (with subsequent alternating fates, but that’s another story) that no one was “untouchable”, as several “Life-Term-Presidents” who settled in power in various Post-Soviet countries liked to think.

The old slogans no longer took root, especially in big cities (but still a lot in the countryside); whoever had to drive out the corrupt and oppressors had become oppressor and corrupt in turn; the decision to maintain an economy modeled on the previous Soviet model had turned out to be a trap which had blocked the development of the country; the historical allies could no longer bear Lukashenko, and making new ones while keeping the regime unchanged was impossible.

Like other post-Soviet leaders before and after him, Lukashenko worked his way to power through anger and resentment, and trapped himself and his citizens in a “Out of Time” country, until History began to move against him. This obviously does not mean that his regime has necessarily come to an end, but that the conditions for a change at the top are there, the question we could ask ourselves is whether all this will be positive: let’s remember that Lukashenko himself came to power by promising to oust the corrupt and end the abuses of the authorities.

Thus we come to the present day, and to the months just passed, in which Lukashenko was reconfirmed for a sixth term in the usual way. This time, however, things went even more wrong than expected, but we will talk about it in the final article.

So thanks for your attention and see you next time.