October 27, 2008

Lebanon's Enemy Within

Israel is floating the idea of a non-aggression pact with Lebanon. It isn't at all likely to work. The odds are minuscule that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah will go along. But Lebanon will hold an election in a couple of months, and the offer of a non-aggression pact should play well with Lebanese voters who are uncomfortable with or hostile toward Hezbollah's vision of perpetual war with the “Zionist entity.”

Negotiating with implacable and inflexible enemies is foolish. No sensible person suggests that the United States negotiate with Al Qaeda, for instance. Peace talks with Damascus won't get Israelis anywhere either. Syria's tyrant Bashar Assad needs a state of cold war with Israel to justify the oppressive policies against his country's own citizens, and bad-faith negotiations yield him some measure of international legitimacy he doesn't deserve.

Hezbollah is “moderate” compared with the worst jihadist groups out there, but it simply cannot survive in its current form if it isn't engaged in at least a low level of conflict. Almost every militia in Lebanon relinquished most, if not all, of its weapons at the end of the civil war in 1990. Hezbollah's rationale for refusing is that its fighters are the only ones in the country willing and able to prevent another Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Without the perceived threat of another Israeli invasion, the justification for Hezbollah's very existence collapses.

Israelis would therefore be naïve in the extreme if they tried to establish a pact with Hezbollah itself, or a pact with Beirut that required Hezbollah's cooperation. Hezbollah doesn't stick to agreements and is less trustworthy than even Yasser Arafat turned out to be, when the Oslo peace process fell apart with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Hezbollah doesn’t even pretend to want peace and will almost certainly gin up another shooting war on the border. “See?” Hezbollah will say to fellow Lebanese after violently provoking the Israelis to cross the border again. “We told you. You need us.”

The successful negotiation of a genuine non-aggression pact that every party in Lebanon would adhere to is not going to happen any time soon. Just listen to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora: “Lebanon will be the last Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel.” He may be right, but not for the reason some people might think.Eli Khoury, Lebanese political consultant and founder of the excellent online magazine NOW Lebanon, explained it to me this way last year: “The last Arab country,” he said. “This is the statement of those who want to make peace but know that they can’t. They don’t want to get ganged up on by the Arabs. We are the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world.”

Lebanon probably really is the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world. It is certainly the most liberal, democratic, and cosmopolitan of the Arabic countries – at least the non-Hezbollah parts of Lebanon are. It is by far the most demographically diverse; roughly a third of its people are Christians, another third are Sunnis, and most of the rest are Shias. Iraq is the only Arab-majority country that can compete with Lebanon when it comes to ideological breadth. There are more opinions there than people, and more political movements and parties than even most Lebanese themselves can keep track of.

If you look at Lebanon's population outside the Hezbollah bloc – the majority of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze – you will mostly find people who are nowhere near hostile enough to Israel to be a serious threat. The Israel Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces have had an unofficial non-aggression pact in place for decades. The Lebanese government does not and will not pick fights with Israel. Most Lebanese have negative opinions of Israel, but that doesn’t mean they’re interested in going to war. As a whole, they are much more hostile than, say, Europeans, but they're a lot less hostile as a whole than Palestinians.

Most were furious at Hezbollah for starting the last war in July, 2006, and they didn't get around to (grudgingly and temporarily) supporting Hezbollah until they felt Israel over-reacted by bombing Lebanese targets outside Hezbollah's strongholds. Some even supported Israel's initial counterattack--at least before the air force bombed Beirut's international airport. A huge number of Lebanese Christians were Israel's allies during the civil war, and even a large number of Shias from South Lebanon volunteered to fight Hezbollah and joined the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army until the year 2000. Last time I visited Lebanon with my colleague Noah Pollak, I found, for the first time, billboards and signs with messages like “Wage Peace” and “No War” throughout the country in regions Hezbollah doesn’t control. As soon as the 2006 war ended, the Lebanese government pushed back hard against Hezbollah and refused to back down until Hezbollah mounted an armed offensive against the capital in May 2008.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:30 AM | Comments (43)

October 21, 2008

So Much for Azerbaijani Democracy

Last week Azerbaijan conducted another rigged election just a few short months after several government officials said to my face that this time things would be different.

Advisors to President Ilham Aliyev insisted that observers from the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would fan out all over the country to monitor the election and even stop the process entirely if they detected fraudulent activity. All this was confirmed by the Israeli ambassador. Yet Aliyev was just “re-elected” with 89 percent of the vote in an election boycotted by the opposition.

Aliyev’s opponents say it was impossible for them to compete, which sounds about right. “The choice of candidates was skimpy,” Sabrina Tavernise wrote last week in the New York Times. “There were six, aside from Mr. Aliyev, but they were political nobodies, and few voters interviewed in Baku on Wednesday could identify any of them.” Imagine how free and fair our own presidential election would be if only Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain had name recognition.

It’s no wonder the president’s political opponents are almost completely invisible. Azerbaijan’s television stations are controlled by his government. Eight journalists were arrested for “libel” in the past year. Three are still in jail. Several citizens told me privately that they’re afraid to say anything critical of the government in public. It may make little difference if European election observers ensure ballots are processed and counted fairly in this kind of environment, but the OSCE and the U.S. State Department did see some improvement compared with the last election.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:06 AM | Comments (2)

October 20, 2008

Fasten Your Seatbelts

Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden apparently didn't know reporters were in the room when he said this at a fundraiser in Seattle.

It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking…Watch, we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate… And he’s gonna need help. And the kind of help he’s gonna need is, he’s gonna need you - not financially to help him - we’re gonna need you to use your influence, your influence within the community, to stand with him. Because it’s not gonna be apparent initially, it’s not gonna be apparent that we’re right.


Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:30 AM | Comments (57)

October 18, 2008

A Compromise Solution

A few days ago I asked all you readers how I should spend my working hours during the next month before I return to Baghdad. The quandary was this: should I write and publish my remaining two dispatches from the Balkans, or spend a full month working on my book From Beirut to Baghdad? I have only written one chapter so far, and there will be nine or ten in the end.

A small majority voted for me to work on the book, and a large minority want the two dispatches. So I’m going to compromise and write and publish one of the dispatches. I’ll spend the rest of my time, as much as I can anyway, on the book.

I’ll still publish this and that on the blog, I’m just going to slow down on the epic-length feature articles for a few weeks. The book needs to be written, and I have to find the time somewhere. If only I could put off sleep for a month.

By December, though, I should have a large fresh batch of pieces from Baghdad. I haven’t been there in over a year. Everything I remember is now out of date. It should be very interesting indeed when I return and take a fresh look after the surge.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:24 AM | Comments (1)

October 17, 2008

Sending Iran's Regrets

Senator Barack Obama hopes to be the first American president to engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. He even says he's willing to meet with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Surely he must understand that what he's proposing is a radical departure from foreign policy as practiced by both parties. Franklin Roosevelt didn't meet with Adolf Hitler or Emperor Hirohito, Harry Truman didn't meet with Kim Il Sung, Ronald Reagan didn't meet with any Soviet leader until after glasnost and perestroika were in place, Bill Clinton didn't meet with Saddam Hussein or Iran's Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and no American president met with Fidel Castro.

In any case, whether Obama's wish to engage Ahmadinejad is mainstream or radical, and whether it's foolish or wise, may not even matter. It isn't likely to happen. Obama may not care about preconditions, but the Iranian governmentcertainly does. Mehdi Kalhor, Iran's Vice President for Media Affairs, told the Islamic Republic News Agency that "as long as U.S. forces have not left the Middle East region and continues its support for the Zionist regime, talks between Iran and U.S. is off the agenda."

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:45 AM | Comments (20)

October 15, 2008

A Serious Question

Some of you have signed up for recurring donations to help me pay for the dispatches I publish on this Web site. I'm working for you, and I need to consult you about something. I'm going back to Baghdad in a month or so and I need to figure out the best way to spend my working hours between now and then.

There are still a few dispatches that I haven't yet written from my recent trip to the Balkans. I went to the Balkans because I've been personally interested in the region for a long time and because I needed a break from the Middle East, but reader interest in the region seems to be lower than mine. I could write those remaining dispatches from Kosovo and publish them even though they're a bit less exciting than those from a place like Baghdad or Russian-occupied Georgia.

Alternately, I could spend the next month working on the book I've finally started to write. The working title is From Beirut to Baghdad, and it's a first-person narrative eye-witness account of revolution, terrorism, and war in Lebanon and Iraq. I don't have a publisher yet, but I do have an agent, and the book will be written and published one way or another – even if I have to self-publish it. So far I have finished one chapter out of ten. If I spent the next month working almost exclusively on the book, I can easily finish two or three more chapters.

So: how would you rather me spend my time during the next month? Should I put my nose to the grindstone and finish as much of the book as possible? Or should I write my remaining dispatches at the same time and make some, but less, progress on the book? The book won't be finished until late spring at the earliest, so I don't want to mislead you into thinking I can finish it before Thanksgiving if I take the month “off.”

If I do take the month “off” to work on the book, I'll still put content on this Web site. The blog won't go dark. I just won't have any epic length dispatches to publish until December or so.

Let me know. I work for you and will do what you prefer.

How should I spend the next month?
Publish your remaining dispatches and make a modest amount of progress on your book.
Set the dispatches aside and make a massive amount of progress on your book as long as you don't neglect the blog entirely.
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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:53 PM | Comments (22)

October 13, 2008

Resisting the United Nations

In Front of the Gate Vetevendosje.jpg

There is no love for the United Nations in Kosovo.

Kosovo is the fourth country I've visited where the UN has or has had a key role, and in only one of them – Lebanon – is the UN not despised by just about everyone. In Lebanon the UN has so little power to make a difference one way or the other that any anger at the institution would largely be pointless. In Bosnia, though, UN “peacekeepers” stood by impotently while genocide and ethnic-cleansing campaigns were carried out right in front of them. The UN's Oil for Food program was thoroughly corrupted by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq at the expense of just about everybody who lives there. Kosovo, meanwhile, declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008, but the elected government is still subordinate to the almost universally despised UN bureaucrats who are the real power. Many Kosovars insist the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is actually a dictatorship.

Vetevendosje – “self-determination” in Albanian – was formed as a non-violent civil resistance movement against UN rule in a country that is supposed to be sovereign. Recently the European Union, which announced its own mission in Kosovo without being invited, was added to the list of opponents, but the UN remains the primary target. I attended one of Vetevendosje's rallies as an observer which began as a long march through the streets of Kosovo's capital Prishtina and ended at the United Nations headquarters where activists dumped a truckload of garbage inside the gate and hosed down the walls of the compound with sewage.

I spoke to Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti and activist Alex Channer in their office the day before the rally in Prishtina's bohemian Pejton neighborhood.

“So basically you are opposing the UN rule here, and the EU,” I said.

“Yes,” Kurti said, “because they are going to be installed here from above without having the previous consent of the people.”

Alvin Vetevendosje.jpg
Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti

“There was no referendum?” I said.

“No,” he said. “No referendum for their installment here, and also no referendum for the UN mission. And they are going to be above the law which they will by applying on us. Ironically the EU-elects will deal with the rule of law and will have the rule of law as their priority, but they themselves will be above the law.”

“Who decided that they are going to come in here?” I said.

“It was Martti Ahtisaari's plan, this Finnish diplomat who mediated between Prishtina and [Serbia's capital] Belgrade, he together with Javier Solana. Solana is in charge of security and Foreign Policy of the EU. They prepared a draft back in July of the year 2006, and that was included in a more detailed form by Ahtisaari in his proposal.”

“And Serbia agreed to this?” I said.

“No,” he said. “Serbia did not. But the Albanian politicians did. They don’t ask because then they would have to ask again later on, and then we could change our mind. It is a mission that would be totally unaccountable to us. There is no watch dog, and in this civilian group that is going to supervise us, the ICO, the International Civilian Office, has this Peter Feith, he is there as well. So basically he is going to watch himself.”

“So should I assume that if Kosovo is invited to join the EU the way the other countries have, you would say no?” I said.

“We wouldn’t say no,” he said. “We want Kosovo to be included in the EU because we are part of European soil. But as things stand now, they wouldn’t ask us at all, they would have to ask themselves because this is the EU mission. Even so, UNMIK is still here.”

Young Men and Women Vetevendosje.jpg
Young Albanian activists in support of Vetevendosje

UNMIK is the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. It has been the de-facto government of Kosovo since the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade lost control at the end of the 1999 war. Kosovo has its own nominal government, but it has little power.

“So you have UN rule,” Kurti continued, “which is not leaving, and you have the ICO and EU-elects about to come. They are doubling the bureaucracy here. And we are stuck because we depend on their consensus. That means we depend on their lowest common denominator. What they care about is stability, never development or progress. For them, a crisis is only an explosion of crisis. If there is huge unemployment, poverty, they don’t care.”

“So if the EU is administering Kosovo's government,” I said, “what does that mean for Kosovo’s government? Will they be subordinate to the EU or operating in parallel?”

“They will be subordinate,” he said, “because Peter Feith will have the right to sack our ministers and change our laws. So he is going to supervise the government. Peter Feith hopes he will not be challenged to use his powers where he can simply dismantle the parliament, call new elections, change a certain minister, or say this law is not good after it has been passed in our assembly. They are hoping for self-censorship from our government in order not to be challenged and not to use those powers which would unmask them as the dictatorship they really are. It is a dictatorship, but they do not want to be seen as one, so they say we are here only to supervise. They talk a lot with our prime minister and ministers, do this, do that, in order not to be seen in the background as a sort of monarchy.”

Angry Girl Vetevendosje.jpg

“What is their reason for wanting to do this?” I said.

“They mediate between Prishtina and Belgrade after overthrowing Milosevic,” he said, “and they simply don’t use any more sticks, only carrots. Serbia is very aggressive, and in order to make sure that Serbia is not going to be indignant, they say Yes, Kosovo is independent, but don’t worry, it is us there. That is one reason I think they are here.

“Second,” he continued, “every bureaucracy seeks self perpetuation. A lot of people here have very high salaries, and they are like big fishes in a small pond. And they are more or less all of them into this process of privatization. Because we cannot touch them legally, they have free hands to do whatever they want. Many of them got very rich. 80 percent of the money from the international community that was poured onto Kosovo in these nine years went for technical assistance, seminars, conferences, and so on. A lot of money is in their hands this way. They direct it. It's an authoritarian law. So I think this is another reason why they’re here.”

“Does the US have any position on this,” I said, “or has is been decided only by Europe?”

Alvin Interviewed While Walking 2.jpg
Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti interviewed at a rally

“Well,” he said, “the US recognized Kosovo as an independent sovereign country, but here you have a foreign office, and I don’t think this American office is really in line with the policy of Washington. It is another small king here, and I feel that it is not that different from the European perspective because the focus has been shifted elsewhere. The US focus was here during NATO intervention and so on, but later on somehow, especially after 9/11, the focus is elsewhere, and I don’t think George W. Bush and the State Department know very well what goes on here. I think in Kosovo all of their diplomats over time don’t get better, but worse, because they see that they can be very powerful here. They have no one to balance them. Our government is very submissive, obedient, and weak. On the other hand I think there is a great deal of interest to buy into the economy of Kosovo, with its assets and resources because they have no real constraints here. We have been defined as a special case, which means they can experiment, and everything is going to be fine. It's heaven on earth for these kinds of diplomats.”

“What kinds of things have the EU and the UN done here that are bad, specifically?” I said. “I get your general point, but what are the practical results of all this?”

“No economic development at all,” he said. “Zero. No factories. No industry. Nothing. The fiscal policy is terrible. They promised us a market economy, and we ended up in a market without an economy. Then there is the internal division of Kosovo. The North is divided from the rest. The red is Serb areas, and here are new municipalities about to be created by Ahtisaari’s plan where the soft partition is strengthening itself.”

Kosovo Wall Map Vetevendosje.jpg
Vetevendosje's Kosovo map. Serb enclaves are in red.

Kurti had a rough map of Kosovo on the wall behind the table we sat around. The Serb areas are shown in red, as Kurti said. The northern Serb areas are adjacent to Serbia.

“UNMIK has tolerated this,” he continued. “Now UNMIK is tolerating the elections of Serbia, so in a way UNMIK is tolerating Serbia’s intrusion and Serbian obstruction in Kosovo.”

Serbia held elections inside the Serb enclaves of Kosovo. These Kosovar Serbs did not elect representatives to send to Kosovo's capital Prishtina. They elected representatives to send to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, which is now, whether they like it or not, a foreign country. To get a handle on how strange this is, imagine if American citizens of Mexican descent in the formerly Mexican Southwestern United States voted for candidates to represent them in Mexico City.

“Why don't the EU and UN say no to Serbia?” I said. “Is it because they are trying to lure Serbia into the EU, or is it because they are afraid of more fighting?”

“I think they know very well that Serbia has not really been punished for the wars,” he said. “Serbian police and army forces killed around 200,000 non-Serbs. If one person killed 5 people, you have 40,000 serial murderers walking around inside Serbia. They are in the power structure, in the political parties, in the police, in the army. I think they are afraid of that. Instead of dealing with the principle of justice in Serbia, they are just playing this game of markets, who makes more pressure, who is more powerful, it is absolute real politics, and I think they care only for really short term stability. They don’t think any further than that. And they deal only with emergency situations. They don’t really see how structural is the cause of the conflict here. When they think about the security issue, stability, these are the words they use. Not freedom, liberty, development, and so on. They think in terms of troops they have and politicians they control, rather than in terms of the well being and situations of the ordinary citizens.”

Albin and Wall Map Vetevendosje.jpg

The biggest problem with the UN and EU missions in Kosovo, as many locals see it, is that there is no proper government that is actually in charge of the country. There is no fully sovereign entity in Kosovo. The country's sovereignty is parceled out piece by piece to different bureaucracies.

“Of the things UNMIK did wrong here, and the most damaging for Kosovo, was two-fold,” Kurti said. “Apart from UNMIK's very existence, and now the EU’s mission, it creates this duality of institutions. And this duality makes vague the address of who is responsible for the people. So currently a Kosovo citizen, like myself, is not able to know who is responsible for a bad social position, for example, or a lack of money. If you ask UNMIK they say it’s your institution, if you ask our government they say Oh, it’s UNMIK. This duality makes no institutions be or feel responsible for anything that happened or did not happen in Kosovo. And secondly, when UNMIK was installed here, they took in their hands all the mechanisms for controlling the states. They control the police and all the judicial systems as well, and they tolerated corruption, and they blame us for being a corrupt society. It was they who should have acted against corruption because they have the mechanisms in their hands. I as a citizen have no mechanisms to control the government. In normal democratic countries, as a citizen you are able to punish your leaders for not defending your interests. Here we don’t have that mechanism.”

“Does the EU and UNMIK have a base of support here?” I said to Kurti.

“The popularity of UNMIK is bad,” he said. “But people link UNMIK with NATO intervention which is another issue. And they think okay, it is like an extended intervention of the world. NATO intervention saved us from Serbia, and now it is UNMIK. When people think of this they think of the first year of UNMIK, the reconstruction of buildings and houses, the emergency phase.”

“Was UNMIK better then?” I said.

“That was better,” he said, “but also due to circumstances. Now the vast majority of people think very poorly of UNMIK. If you talk to a person from Kosovo about UNMIK they might say it is not that bad, but if you drink a beer with that person they will tell you what he really thinks.”

I didn’t have to drink beer with Kosovars to hear uniformly and relentlessly negative opinions of the United Nations. I didn’t meet a single person who approves of the performance of the UN. Anti-UN and anti-EU graffiti is common, and it sharply contrasts with the pro-American graffiti that is almost as common.

Thank You America Vitina Kosovo.jpg

All the graffiti I saw about the UN and the EU was negative. All the graffiti I saw about the US was positive, without exceptions.

No EU MIK LEX Vetevendosje.jpg
This graffiti appears on nearly every street in the capital opposing the EU Mission in Kosovo (MIK) and the imposed EU law (LEX).

Still, not everyone in Kosovo agrees with the folks at Vetevendosje about the European Union. Some are glad the European Union is stepping in.

“Part of our problem is we have no respect for the law,” said one Albanian man. “We haven’t had laws worth respecting. We need European law here.” For more than a half-century, laws were imposed on Kosovars first by communists, then by Milosevic's nationalist-socialists, and finally by unaccountable international bureaucrats with no base of support. At least EU bureaucrats exclusively hail from competent Western democracies.

The same man later criticized Vetevendosje. “They make good points,” he said, “but they don’t do much else. They criticize, but they don’t have any positive suggestions for what we should do instead.”

The activists at Vetevendosje are honest, though, about the fact that not everyone agrees with them about the EU.

“Sometimes you hear the argument about the EU mission that you don't hear about UNMIK,” Alex Channer said. “You hear You know, we need them because our politicians are so corrupt we can’t trust them, and the Europeans are somehow better than UNMIK.

Alex Vetevendosje.jpg
Vetevendosje activist Alex Channer

“UNMIK is not leaving because Resolution 1244,” Kurti said, “which established UNMIK here, is still in place, and it couldn’t be changed due to obstruction from Russia.”

“Why did Russia obstruct?” I said.

“Because Russia is with Serbia, and Serbia wants the UN to stay,” he said. “They like the UN very much.”

“So neither Serbia nor Kosovo want the EU here?” I said. “You are in agreement on that at least?”

Kurti and Channer laughed darkly.

“Serbia wants Kosovo,” Kurti said.

“So they want as few obstacles as possible,” I said.

“Right,” he said. “but in order to make it worse here. We are contesting it in order to make it better. They want to send us back into the 1990s.”

Two Women with Glasses Vetevendosje.jpg
Kosovo citizens at Vetevendosje's rally against the United Nations

“Because both the EU and the UN are divided about Kosovo’s status,” Channer said, “some states have recognized it, some states haven’t, that means these two themselves are divided inside Kosovo. They are divided outside in the orders they are getting for what to do. So what this means is you will only ever get the lowest common denominator. If they ever do get to a consensus what to do, they will just be treading water.”

“The main reason we oppose these kind of missions is because of the principle that we oppose being ruled by a foreign institution or mission,” Kurti said. “It doesn’t matter whether they are from the EU or the UN, the US, or Great Britain. Kosovo needs to govern itself. That is what we fight for. The international community can help Kosovo through missions, and I think Kosovo needs help from them, but it should be in the form of assistance and advisory boards, not rule. Currently what has happened with UNMIK, and what is going to happen with the EU law, is direct rule over Kosovo and direct control over Kosovo's political and social and economic life. That has not produced any good results, and is not going to produce any good results in the future”

“The government of Iraq has more sovereignty than you do,” I said.

That shocked them. Iraq is in vastly worse shape overall than Kosovo. And yet Iraq regained much more of its sovereignty in a shorter amount of time, even while fending off a ferocious insurgency and civil war.

“Do you have any kind of strategy to work against this?” I said. “Is there anything you can do?”

“Prevent the implementation of Ahtisaari’s plan on the ground,” he said. “Because this plan includes total ethnic decentralization. Ethnic decentralization will turn Kosovo into another Bosnia. Condoleeza Rice, three or four months ago, said that Bosnia is a failed state. It is dysfunctional twelve years after the Dayton Accords [which ended the war]. If you divide people according to their ethnicity, they will remain divided. UNMIK has always said amongst its declarations and press releases that they want a united Kosovo multi-ethnic society. But they always started from ethnicity. Albanians, Serbs, Turks, let's unite them, but first let's label them with their ethnicity. So they actually strengthen it. They don’t look at you as a student if you’re a student, or as a professor, or a housewife, or whatever, they have these ethnic lenses, and it is impossible to build multiethnicity if you start from what is different among people.”

Alvin Marching Vetevendosje.jpg
Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti

“I'm not saying that UNMIK should leave tonight,” he continued, “but let's have a timetable. In one month’s time, two month’s time, they should bit by bit depart from Kosovo.”

“Do they have any intention of slowly phasing out or are they just saying We’re here and we will stay until we feel like leaving?” I said.

“They have no deadline,” he said. “They say We are an interim mission, provisional, but this provisional has no deadline. No time limit. And actually it is they who extend the duration of the mission, always. It is no one else deciding but them. We know they will be staying here at least two years. They have a minimum for their stay here, but no maximum. And the majority of them are not good experts back home.”

“Well,” I said, “it's more of a mess than I expected.”

“Maybe I should add another reason why I think the EU is taking over,” he said. “The EU, or at least some of the people in Brussels, see themselves as a rising empire. The US is an empire, and you have three more empires – China, Russia, and the EU. Maybe in the future India and Brazil, but let’s leave that for now. If you are a rising empire, you must prove that you can manage a crisis outside yourself. So they send them in Darfur, they send them in Bosnia, they are now going to land with a parachute in Kosovo.”


I wanted some different opinions. Albin Kurti and Alex Channer are activists. That's fine as far as it goes, but I knew already that at least some local people are in favor of the European Union mission even if they don't like the United Nations.

I didn't actually meet any Kosovar Albanians who had anything nice to say about the United Nations, but it's possible that everyone is wrong and overreacting. So I asked some American soldiers based at Camp Bondsteel in Eastern Kosovo what they thought about the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

“The people here want them to leave,” Captain Joseph Christenson said.

“Yes,” I said. “I know about that. But what is your opinion of UNMIK?”

No American soldier felt comfortable answering that. US military personnel rarely discuss politics on the record, and that's probably for the best. So they artfully dodged the question without fully dodging it.

“Do you remember the guy who came in and talked to us about UNMIK and why the citizens don’t like them very much?” said Specialist Yaw to Captain Christenson.

“Yes,” Captain Christenson said. “What citizens have told us is that part of the reason they don’t like them is that UNMIK has people in leadership positions who come from countries that are worse off than Kosovo.”

“I guess what I’m really asking,” I said, “is are the locals right?

“I know a lot of people are excited for the EU to come,” Lieutenant Meyer said.

I'll let you read between the lines of that conversation.

I heard a complaint similar to the one Captain Christenson described from entrepreneur Luan Berisha.

“I was going to go to Macedonia,” he told me, “and a UN guy from Ghana on the border asks for papers. I gave him random papers that weren't documents, just to joke with him, and he said Thank you sir, good day, you can go. I said give me your supervisor. So a guy from Germany comes up and says can I see your papers. I said those are my papers in your hand. He said These papers are nothing! I said I know, and this guy was going to let me go through with just a 'good day!' The German guy went crazy. When you send a mission to a troubled country, you have to send people who are educated, who will create the rule of law. But to send idiots – I swear to God, I was so mad. They came from Africa and got their drivers licenses in Kosovo. There were several kids who were killed by these guys crashing into them. Nobody cares. The UN is mad.”

“Would you accept being part of the EU?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “Everybody would. If there was a referendum everybody would vote for it.”

Even the activists at Vetevendosje want to join the European Union. They just want European Union laws implemented democratically. They don't want an EU dictatorship.

The day after I met Kurti and Channer, thousands of Vetevendosje activists marched through the streets from the Pejton neighborhood to the United Nations headquarters downtown.

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Three Vetevendosje rally organizers

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Vetevendosje fills the streets of Prishtina

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Vetevendosje activists

Several leaders delivered thunderous speeches from the tops of trucks as citizens rallied around.

Microphone and Beer Ad Vetevendosje.jpg

Alvin on Truck Vetevendosje.jpg

The rally had a destination and purpose. Hundreds of bags of garbage filled with the usual urban refuse – discarded paper towels, empty potato chip bags, banana peels, candy wrappers, aluminum cans, crumpled cigarette packages, etc. – were loaded into a truck. That truck was driven to the gate of the UN headquarters and parked facing away from it. A surging crowd gathered around the truck. Volunteers donned face masks and rubber gloves and prepared to hurl the bags of garbage over the front gate and into the compound.

Crowd at Gate Vetevendosje.jpg
The crowd gathers around the garbage truck at the gate to the United Nations headquarters

UN policemen guarded the gate itself. There wasn't much they could do to prevent demonstrators from throwing trash into the compound, but they weren't going to let anyone into the compound themselves.

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UN policemen protect the UN's headquarters in Prishtina

The crowd roared its approval when the truck's tailgate was lowered and bags of trash were exposed for the UN policemen to see.

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Vetvendosje's masked garbage hurlers faced down the police. Everyone seemed tense on each side, but violence was not in the air. This wasn't a riot. It was theater. Vetevendosje activists were genuinely angry at the corrupt and incompetent officials, and the UN police were angry at the rabble-rousing civilians, but they weren't at war.

Handing the Garbage Vetevendosje.jpg

Near-bursting bags of garbage were efficiently unloaded from the truck bed and handed from person to person until they reached the hands of activists standing ready at the gate. When the garbage started flying, it really flew – at least a dozen bags of trash were hurled into the air every second. Some of the bags landed with sickening splats. The smell of rotting refuse was horrendous.

Throwing Garbage Vetevendosje.jpg

Garbage in Flight Vetevendosje.jpg

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The activists brought out a tank of sewer water with a hose attached. God only knows where they got it, but they got it. Then a masked and gloved activist sprayed reeking raw sewage onto the outer walls of the UN headquarters building. The police watched stoically and did not interfere.

Spraying Sewer Water Vetevendosje.jpg

Garbage Inside UN Compound Vetevendosje.jpg

Albin Kurti explained himself and his movement to United Nations officials in a written statement a few days after the rally. “For a long time you have been truly creating trash,” he wrote. “This time you are stinking.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:44 PM | Comments (21)

Coming Soon

Russia's invasion of Georgia disrupted my summer and fall schedule, so some of my dispatches are appearing a bit out of order. I still have three remaining from the Balkans. One is about my brief embed with the U.S. Army in Kosovo. Another is about the fate of Jews in the Albanian regions during the Holocaust. The first, which should be published later tonight, is about local resistance to the United Nations.

After these three are published, I'm going back to Iraq.

Stay tuned. The next dispatch is just about ready.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:52 PM | Comments (0)

October 8, 2008

The Forgotten War

Immediately following Russia's invasion of Georgia and its de-facto annexation of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the phrase “frozen conflicts” was bandied about so often among the world’s foreign policy commentariat that it briefly became a cliché. Yet there is another frozen conflict in the South Caucasus that few have even heard of, fewer know much about, and even fewer have thought to include in any analysis. This war, the forgotten war of Nagorno (or “Mountainous”) Karabakh, has so far racked up a much higher body count – tens of thousands – than any in Georgia lately. Many more people – more than a million – were displaced. An uneasy ceasefire holds most of the time, but the conflict itself is not even close to being resolved. It’s a Mideast- and Balkan-style ethnic bomb that could easily blow up the region again and tempt Russia with another imperialist adventure in its “near abroad.”

Armenians say their ancient region of Nagorno Karabakh was given to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic by Moscow in 1923 shortly after Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik regime reconquered the briefly independent South Caucasus nations. Azeris insist the region did not belong to any Armenian state and that Moscow merely rejected Armenia's petition to acquire the disputed territory and kept Karabakh within Azerbaijan. As the Soviet Union began to fall apart, Armenia wanted Karabakh. Bloody communal warfare broke out between ethnic Azeris and ethnic Armenians in both countries and, most viciously, in Karabakh itself. Armenian soldiers managed to expel the ethnic Azeris and seize almost all Karabakh territory. The Armenian military now occupies the region, and also every inch of Azerbaijan to the south and west of it. The whole southwestern corner of the country – most of which is outside the disputed region of Karabakh – has been de facto annexed to Armenia.


Though it is entirely dependent on Armenia for support, Nagorno Karabakh calls itself an independent republic. No country on earth recognizes its existence.

Even if you visit Armenia, you still have to get an additional visa in the capital Yerevan (the only place in the world you can get one) to visit Karabakh. If you go there, Azerbaijan will put you on a blacklist.

Armenia and Azerbaijan – including the Karabakh region – were ethnically mixed before the war started. Now, leaving aside individuals in mixed marriages, neither are. Ethnic cleansing in both countries was thorough.

Baku, Azerbaijan

This conflict, like many of its kind, is morally ambiguous. It is also of little particular interest to most who live outside the region. As Caucasus expert and author Thomas Goltz put it in his book Azerbaijan Diary, “The Azeris...did not know how to suffer in a way that could readily find its way into the print or broadcast media.”

I spent a week in Azerbaijan while Russian troops were still busy pulling the trigger in Georgia. The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, which is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, paid for the trip. Seven of my colleagues from various magazines, newspapers, and Web sites were also invited; Abe Greenwald from Commentary, James Kirchick from The New Republic and Commentary, Adam Kushner from Newsweek, Gregory Rodriguez from the Los Angeles Times, Hollywood writer and producer Rob Long, Andrew Breitbart from Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report, and Michael Van Der Galien from PoliGazette.

My colleague Andrew Breitbart is interviewed for Azeri television

My colleagues James Kirchick and Abe Greenwald shop for kitschy communist-era memorabilia in Baku’s old city

Azerbaijan’s government officials are concerned that so few in the West know much about their country and hoped inviting writers to the capital Baku for a week might help change that. Their timing could not have been better. They had no idea their region would become, for a time, the geopolitical center of the world, but that’s what happened when the eight of us visited.

The next-door war between Georgia and Russia featured in nearly every conversation I had with Azeris both inside and outside the government. Their view of that war was seen through the lens of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia is Russia’s staunch ally in the South Caucasus, and Karabakh is Azerbaijan's own South Ossetia. There but for the grace of God go we was the gist of it, along with we could be next.

Ancient mosque, Baku, Azerbaijan

Most Azeris were unhappy with Russia’s invasion, but everyone I spoke to could talk about it soberly and with caution. Fewer were able to discuss Armenia’s occupation of Karabakh without sounding obsessive and at times alarmingly ready for war. That went double for civilians who don’t work for the government. Much of the political opposition in Azerbaijan, such as it is, thinks the government is staffed with weak appeasers and sell-outs who should fight but won’t.

Heads turned in restaurants and bars at the mere mention out loud of Armenia. I had to keep my voice down at times, and I even thought I might want to come up with a code name for Armenia just as journalists have invented code names (don’t ask) for use during public discussions of Israel in Arab countries.

Just as Israelis aren't allowed to visit most Arab countries, Armenians can't even get tourist visas for Azerbaijan. The government says it wouldn't be able to guarantee an Armenian visitor's safely. I have no doubt that's true.

Ancient wall, Baku, Azerbaijan

Tourists from third countries with Karabakh stamps in their passports likewise won't be given a visa for Azerbaijan. “Why not?” I asked Anar Valiyev from the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. “It is it because you think such a person might be working as an Armenian agent?”

“No, no,” he said.

“Is it just because you would be mad?” I said.

“It is just because we would be mad,” he said and nodded.

“I'm a journalist,” I said. “It's my job to visit places like Karabakh. If I were to visit Karabakh in order to denounce the Armenian occupation, would I still be denied entry to Azerbaijan even though I’d be basically helping your cause?” I do not intend to do any such thing. My question was strictly hypothetical.

“If you made arrangements with the government in advance,” he said, “and told them why you wanted to go, an exception for you might be made.”

Baku’s old city

I spent the same amount of time in Georgia as I spent in Azerbaijan. And I never, not once, heard anyone in Georgia denounce the minority populations in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian officials wouldn't blacklist me if I visited South Ossetia. They wouldn’t care.

Georgia rightly has a reputation for being hotheaded in its policy toward Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. But I didn't detect any emotional hotheadedness in Georgia that I routinely came up against in Azerbaijan about the occupiers of its own breakaway region.

Baku’s old city

The stridency of anti-Armenian sentiment was exhausting and disconcerting to listen to after a while. It seemed unlikely that if Armenia and Russia were to sufficiently provoke Azerbaijan over Karabakh that Azeris would be able to sit back and take it in order to prevent the escalation of a war they surely would lose. On the other hand, Azerbaijan's government has so far proven itself more able than Georgia's to stoically tolerate provocation.

“Of course we support our ally Georgia,” said Fariz Ismailzade from the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. “But Georgia is more reckless in its dealings with Russia than we are. We have to put up with the same pressures and intimidation – exactly the same, all the time – but we're more level-headed and cautious about it.”

Fariz Ismailzade

Public and even government opinion is far out of sync with Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. While their rhetoric is often alarming, their restraint is impressive. Who knows how long that can last? I heard far more complaints about the Armenian occupation of Karabakh than I have ever heard about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory while visiting Arabic countries.

That said, nobody in my presence said they think Armenia should be destroyed. Hatred of Israel is downright genocidal in parts of the Middle East, but that kind of psychopathic derangement doesn’t exist in Azerbaijan as far as I know.

Still, nearly every geopolitical question in Azerbaijan revolves around Armenia. Russia isn’t well liked in Azerbaijan not so much because of past imperial czarist and communist tyranny but because of its support for Armenia. Azeris wanted so desperately to free themselves from the Soviet Union in part because of Moscow’s support for Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh.

Vafa Guluzade, a foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijan's president, put it this way when asked about the upcoming presidential election in the United States: “The greater candidate is whichever one will blame Armenians and Russians for their aggression.” Senator Barack Obama is not well liked because of his allegedly close ties to the Armenian lobby in the U.S. Very few American voters could care less about this, but in Azerbaijan it means everything. “Every day there is shooting from the Armenian side of Karabakh,” Guluzade continued. “If Americans do not pay attention to this, there will be another huge war. And nobody will be able to stop it.”


My seven media colleagues and I were taken on what could charitably be called a tour, or uncharitably called a “dog and pony” show. The state showed us what they wanted us to see. That ought to go without saying, but I still have to say it. Everything we did see was real, even so. Azerbaijan isn’t a Stalinist police state with fake “Potemkin” villages built to fool useful idiots from the outside. And in any case, we were not micromanaged or babysat. Most of us opted out of at least one item on the itinerary, and we were all free to go wherever we wanted and talk to whomever we wanted at any time without the presence of government minders.

Man in window, Baku’s old city

One of our scheduled stops was a rough neighborhood in Baku that had been turned into a refugee camp for displaced persons from Karabakh and Armenia. Many of us felt a bit wary about being taken on a one-sided media tour for bloody shirt propaganda purposes – the sort journalists frequently take in the West Bank and Gaza – but it was still clear, at least to me, that displaced Azeri refugees don’t have much in common with displaced Palestinians.

Refugee camp, Baku

I’ve been to the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, and I didn’t go as part of an organized tour. Many, if not most, people in those monstrously squalid places – which are more like urban slums than the term “camps” suggests – live in hovels so meager they defy description.

Baku’s refugee neighborhood is a bad place to live – the worst I saw in Azerbaijan – but at least people’s most basic human needs seem to be taken care of. They aren’t legally denied professional work as Palestinian refugees are in Lebanon. Decent public housing is being built for them with money from the State Oil Fund. Refugees from the country’s worst camps – they lived in tent cities for years – have already been moved.

Young girl in Baku’s refugee camp

Lebanon’s Palestinian camps are dangerous places. Bloodthirsty racist propaganda showing severed heads, the Star of David dripping with blood – that sort of thing – is ubiquitous. Children grow up in these materially, spiritually, and politically poisonous environments and live their whole lives there. The camps seethe with barely contained violent rage. It should be no surprise to anyone who has been inside these places that nearly all Israelis, fairly or not, refuse to grant their residents the “right of return.”

A simple kitchen, refugee camp, Baku

The people who live in Baku’s camp subsist meagerly, even pitiably, but they did not seem as miserable as they could be. I did not detect rage. I saw no anti-Armenian propaganda. Kids smiled and wanted their pictures taken. Many laughed and played.

Azeri boys in Baku’s refugee camp

The place was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I’ve seen slums so horrific in Mexico and Guatemala that I ached with depression and needed to go somewhere else for the sake of my own mental health as well as my physical safety. Azerbaijan’s refugees suffer, to be sure, but there is suffering and then there is suffering. At least Baku’s displaced aren’t treated like despised fourth-class citizens the way Palestinians are in many Arab countries.

Television reporter Shafaq Mehraliyeva, with AzerTaj News, said something a bit disconcerting, however.

“Some of the refugees have said they don’t want to move to public housing,” she said. “They worry that if they do they will have given up the cause to resettle in Karabakh.”

“They should be careful,” I said. “That’s an awful lot like the attitude of many Palestinians who still don’t have a proper house to live in after 60 years.” Palestinians in refugee camps, especially children, are victims of hideous circumstances, but many are partially complicit in those circumstances for stubbornly refusing resettlement.

Mehraliyeva nodded as though she understood exactly what I meant without my needing to explain any further.

“Most of them are moving,” she said. “Eventually all of them will be moved.”

“This conflict was started by the Soviet Union,” Nizami Bahmanar, head of Baku’s refugee camp, said. “The Russian-Armenian alliance is a threat to stability in the Caucasus. A lot of what happened in Georgia can happen here.”

Nizami Bahmanar, head of Baku’s refugee camp

Indeed, the communal bloodletting in and over Karabakh took place at exactly the same time as Georgia’s ethnic wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that set the stage for Russia’s recent invasion. Much of what happened in Georgia has already happened in Azerbaijan.

Georgians and Azeris allied themselves with each other and with the United States to counter Russian designs in the region. “The U.S. is our strategic ally,” Bahmanar continued. “Europe is like a dependent child of [Russian President Dmitri] Medvedev.”

The U.S. is trying to remain neutral and maintain good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia while quietly, and with the patience of Job, trying to broker a solution through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Minsk Group.

Meanwhile, skirmishes break out on the front lines every year. One analyst told me the front line is more volatile than even the explosive border between Israel and Lebanon. Even an unspoken threat from Moscow to ratchet up tensions may be enough to cow Azerbaijan’s government.

It is, of course, even worse now after Russia’s invasion and dismemberment of Georgia. The psychological effect in Azerbaijan is one China’s Deng Ziaoping liked to induce with a favorite strategy: “Kill the chicken and make the monkey watch.”


Don't misunderstand what the Karabakh war is about. It is not about religion. Azeris are not waging a jihad, nor are Armenians on a crusade. Like so many other conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus, it’s an ethnic struggle for sovereignty over disputed land.

I recently wrote that Albania and Kosovo were the two most secular Muslim-majority countries I have ever visited. That is no longer true. Azerbaijan is the most secular Muslim-majority country I have ever visited.

Not once in a week did I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. I saw only two or maybe three women wearing conservative Islamic clothing, and never anything more conservative than a headscarf.

Two Azeri women

A statue of the “Liberated Woman” in downtown Baku shows a woman discarding her veil.

Statue of the Liberated Woman, Baku, Azerbaijan

That statue was erected almost a century ago. It’s a product of the communist era, but – unlike the command economy – it’s still there. And it still belongs there. Women in Azerbaijan remain liberated from the more backward Islamic customs and dress codes, and are far more liberated in general now than they were under the totalitarian, though secular, regime that put it up in the first place.

Azeri member of parliament

Azerbaijan has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Most of Baku looks like it never was communist, and like it might not have even been all that poor.

The building on the left was built as a single-family home by a rich oil baron

I wondered what Azeris thought of the communist era. Anar Valiyev surprised me with his answer. He said he’s glad the communist era is over because its job is done, but he thinks it was necessary or at least beneficial on balance.

Baku skyline

“Communism was actually good for us,” he said, “up to a point. “The communists completely destroyed the religion, which I totally approve of. They brought us jobs and health care and education. Only five percent of Azeris were educated before the communist era.” He calls himself a neo-Marxist, which seems appropriate considering his view of Azeri history. Perhaps neo-Marxist would be a fitting description for the entire government. It is, in many ways, a softer, more lenient, and market-driven version of what came before. President Ilham Aliyev took over from his deceased father Heydar Aliyev in 2003. And Heydar was once the head of the KGB in Azerbaijan and the Deputy Prime Minister of the Soviet Union.

The countryside is more conservative and religious, and it reminded me in many ways of the Middle East. Baku, though, seemed even more secular than Western Europe. The capital looks like a prosperous and mostly Westernized city-state that's slightly out-of-place in a world of the East, like what you'd get if you crashed Moscow and Istanbul together. It makes sense that Baku appears as it does. Azerbaijan is part of the pan-Turkic world and for centuries belonged to the Russian and Soviet empires.

Baku at night

“I am concerned that most of the world has no idea we are a moderate Muslim country,” said Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. “Nobody here even knows what is in the Koran.”

This Russian Orthodox Church in Baku was refurbished with money donated from a wealthy Muslim

This Muslim man donated his own money to refurbish the Russian Orthodox Church that had been shuttered and degraded by the communist regime

Minister Mammadyarov thinks Azeris may one day convince Arabs to become more religiously moderate, but I have my doubts about that. Arabs hardly pay any more attention to Azerbaijan than Westerners do. That is only likely to change if Russia invades.

An Azeri man who lives and works in Washington told me he is horrified by talk in the United States of a “clash of civilizations.” Azerbaijan is part of the East, but hardly anyone who lives there thinks their country is involved in a clash with the West.

Traditional Azeri décor, Baku

The only Western country on Azerbaijan's enemies list is Russia – and it's debatable whether Russia even belongs in the Western column at all. Azeris have diplomatic relations with Israel, they correctly view the Islamic Republic of Iran regime as hostile, and they sent soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan. They are geopolitically, diplomatically, and militarily aligned with the West. They provide blanket overflight rights to the United States for the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even an implicit suggestion that Azerbaijan is on the other side of a “clash of civilizations” is ludicrous.

The decision to send troops to Iraq appears to be uncontroversial in Azerbaijan. “I don't think the U.S. is fighting Muslims,” Nizami Bahmanar said. “They are fighting terrorists. We never accuse the U.S. of fighting Muslims. If they bomb mosques, it is by accident, but Russians and Armenians destroyed mosques after the fighting was over.”

Pro-Russian sentiment exists, but it's thin on the ground, and for the most part it’s either coerced or tinged with the Stockholm Syndrome.

An Azeri blogger organized a demonstration in front of the Russian embassy to protest the invasion of Georgia. The government sympathized, but the police broke it up. Officials were torn between wanting to openly support their allies in Georgia while maintaining at least a civil relationship with Russia.

“We would not have chosen to be neighbors of Iran and Russia,” said Hafiz Pashayev, former Ambassador to the United States. “But that’s where we are and we have to deal with them.”

Their balancing act can be confusing at times. One of my media colleagues off-handedly mentioned Azerbaijan's supposed “good relations” with Russia.

“We don't have good relations with Russia,” said Fariz Ismailzade, correcting him. “We have normal relations with Russia.”

Azerbaijan and Armenia are diplomatically clever. Both manage to have at least decent relations with Russia and the United States at the same time. They manage to do this while remaining implacably hostile to each other. Georgia threw itself more stridently into the Western camp and was punished before everyone’s eyes. The Azeris had a front row seat to that show. They can't be as politically and diplomatically anti-Russian as they would like.

Iran, of course, is also a problem. And Iran is where most of the world's Azeris actually live. A little more than 8 million people live in Azerbaijan, but more than 15 million ethnic Azeris live in Iran. 25 percent of Iran's people are ethnic Azeris. The official name of one of Iran's provinces is Western Azerbaijan. (Iran is often described as Persian, but only 51 percent of its people are Persian. Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs together make up nearly half.)

The Iranian government has sponsored subversive Islamist parties inside Azerbaijan and, according to advisors to President Aliyev, still sponsors a small radical fifth column element. But I heard no talk about “Greater Azerbaijan,” about liberating or lopping off the Azeri parts of Iran and annexing them. Azeris seem to feel more kinship with Turks in Turkey – their closest ethnic cousins – than with their fellow Azeri Iranians. Perhaps they are just being realistic. Azerbaijan could only expand southward if a Yugoslav-style crackup blew Iran to pieces.

Rather than redraw the map, Azerbaijan does whatever it can to geopolitically extract itself from the neighborhood as Israel has more or less done in the Middle East.

“We want to be part of the Euro-Atlantic community,” said Ambassador Pashayev. “We don't want another big brother.” One day they might actually pull this off. Azerbaijan is an Asian country, but it’s hardly a distant Asian country. The Northern region is technically inside Europe.

“If Russia is successful in Georgia,” I said to Ambassador Pashayev, “will Moscow be able to push Azerbaijan around more?”

“Some part of the public might want to force our government to reconsider some of our stances with Russia,” he said.

“Would they be doing that out of fear,” I said, “or because they genuinely like Russia?”

Hafiz Pashayev, former Ambassador to the United States

“I want to make a strong statement,” he said. “We were able to get Russian troops out of the country even before the Baltic states, if you remember. It was 1990. It happened because Soviet troops came into Baku in 1990 and killed many innocent people, hundreds of innocent people. The public in Azerbaijan, in one day, in one night, built up a great hatred for Soviet troops. The Russians themselves understood that they had done something very bad. Nobody in Azerbaijan has forgotten this. And nobody will forget this. It was January 20, 1990. We call it Black January.”

26,000 Soviet troops poured into Baku, ostensibly to protect the ethnic Armenian minority as the communal violence between the two sides broke out, but also, more critically, to protect the local communist government. Massive numbers of demonstrators had gathered and were dead set on overthrowing the communists. Between 100 and 300 civilians (depending on whom you believe) were killed in Baku by Soviet troops in Black January, and more than 700 were wounded.

“It was a terrible action,” the ambassador continued. “Azerbaijan had the strongest desire out of all the Soviet Union to leave the Soviet Union, instigated by Soviet support for Armenia in Nagorno Karabakh. Since we declared independence, the feelings in Azerbaijan for bringing back Russian influence is, it's nonsense. Nobody would accept that.”

I asked a few randomly selected citizens what they thought of Russia's adventure in Georgia. Responses were mixed.

“It's an invasion,” said a man working the front desk in my hotel. “Somebody needs to do something about Russia. NATO should be there in Georgia.”

Another disagreed, and his reason was telling. He didn't think Russia was admirable, moral, or right. His support for Russia's invasion, or at least his acquiescence to it, seemed informed by a realistic and lifelong understanding of power and politics in a rough neighborhood. Why did he back Russia? “Because Russia is the second strongest country in the world after America,” he said.

The government shut down most Wahhabi mosques in the country. (There weren't all that many. Most Azeris are Shias, at least nominally and culturally if not by religious conviction, and Wahhabis are fanatical Sunnis.) Still, at least one Wahhabi mosque still remains in the ancient city center of Baku. I walked past it on a guided tour and tried to photograph the only obvious fundamentalist Muslim man I saw on the trip. He flashed me a menacing look and hid his face from my camera, but I managed to sneak in a quick shot with my zoom lens from a distance.

This Wahhabi man did not want his photograph taken, and he angrily glowered at all who walked past him

Just a few days after I left Azerbaijan to cover the war in Georgia, someone threw a hand grenade inside that man's extremist mosque. Perhaps the grenade was thrown by a radical Shia. It's possible. Iran's government has been messing with Azerbaijan for some time. Tehran funded the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan before Baku shut it down. Iran, though, is not the top suspect. One of my sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they think it was Russians.


Azerbaijan is not a democracy. It sort of was for a brief period after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. But in the dark days of the Karabakh conflict, Heydar Aliyev was elected to replace President Abülfaz Elçibay. Democracy didn't last. Aliyev governed as dictator until he died in 2003. His son Ilham now presides over the country.

The old man's portrait is still ubiquitous in Baku.

Heydar Aliyev

From the looks of the place you'd think Heydar, not his son, was still breathing and ruling if you didn't know any better.

Aside from the portraits and billboards, however, Azerbaijan doesn't feel like a dictatorship, at least not to visitors. Qaddafi's Libya and the Hezbollah-controlled parts of Lebanon can feel oppressive even to casual visitors, but political repression by the Aliyev government isn't as suffocating. Azerbaijan is more like Kuwait and Dubai than it is like Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Iran in the grips of the Islamic Republic regime.

Azeris from Iran like to visit Azerbaijan because they are more or less free for the duration of their holiday. Azeris in Azerbaijan, unlike Azeris in Iran, can eat what they want and drink what they want. Iranian women are required by law to wear headscarves, but Azeri women are not. Hardly any women in Azerbaijan dress like Iranian women. An Iranian visitor might conclude that the Islamic religion barely even exists in Baku.

Azerbaijan's missing freedoms are still troubling, even so. Eight journalists were arrested last year for “libel,” which is still on the books as a crime. Five were pardoned by the president and released, but three remain in jail. A few civilians told me they were afraid of the government and did not want to be quoted – never, ever, an encouraging sign.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored a conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel about how Americans and Azeris see each other.

Abe Greenwald (right) from Commentary Magazine at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy conference

I had lunch with several government officials and members of parliament during the break, along with James Kirchick from The New Republic and Commentary. All said they were irritated by the constant pressure from the U.S. government to liberalize and democratize their political system.

“We need more time,” was the standard complaint.

Well, maybe they do, but I got tired of hearing that excuse after a while. I could tell by the look on Kirchick’s face that he was tired of hearing it, too.

“I’ve been to Iraq five times,” I said to everyone at the table. Kirchick nodded. I could tell he knew where I was going with this. “You won’t be surprised to hear this, but Azerbaijan is in much better shape than Iraq. I’m mostly impressed with what I've seen so far here.”

“And yet Iraq has a free press and competing political parties,” Kirchick said.

“Exactly,” I said. “Iraqis also need more time to get their country together, but they’ve made an enormous amount of progress even in the midst of insurgency and civil war. Azerbaijan has much more potential than Iraq, at least in the short and medium term, and it’s not exactly clear to me what you need more time to do.”

I did not mean to be rude to my hosts, but I had to say something. Politely accepting their excuses would only validate their excuses. And anyway it was obvious that they don't expect Americans to have any opinion other than the one I gave them. They’ve been getting an earful from Americans and other Westerners for years. They made that perfectly clear. If they were offended, they didn't show it, or at least they were used to it.

The people who run Azerbaijan's government seemed decent and reasonable. I didn't detect a thuggish odor on any of them. Their cultural values are not so different from those we hold dear in the West. The regime is technocratic and moderately authoritarian; it isn't theocratic, fascist, communist, or otherwise ideologically driven. Western values came to Azerbaijan through Russia, which distorted and muted them. But they’re there, and they have been for almost 200 years, since Russia lopped off what is now modern Azerbaijan from the Persian Empire.

The current system is dysfunctional, and it doesn't even work well for those in it. A well-connected American resident of Baku told me that even members of parliament are afraid of their colleagues sometimes. “They're nervous wrecks,” she said. “Sure, they're in favor now and live well, but what if they fall out of favor tomorrow?”

Even the leaders of fear-based political systems suffer the consequences. They don’t fear the authorities, but they do fear revolutions, coups, and back-stabbing colleagues. It was so bad for Saddam Hussein that he couldn't sleep in the same palace two nights in a row.

Azerbaijan's officials know change is inevitable and probably even desirable. Heydar Aliyevism can't last, nor should it. Ilham Aliyev may want to preserve his family's dynasty for the usual self-serving reasons, but his own government's reforms may bring about an end to his rule.

Azeri hospitality

“We took out all the observers right after the last election ended,” an advisor to Aliyev told me. “As a result, many of the candidates, especially those who lost the election, complained that the we, the government, faked the elections. But now we will have observers throughout the entire process. We will have observers inside the rooms where the votes will be counted.”

I expected to hear something like this from officials, especially since they know very well that most Western reporters expect nothing less.

“We have special ink that we will put on each voter's finger that will last three days to make sure no one can vote twice. Any complaints about the election will be investigated within one day. After previous elections sometimes it took as long as ten days. And now the observers will be able to interfere directly in the election process if they see anything suspicious. They can stop the process right there.”

I felt like I and my colleagues who heard this were being spun. Azerbaijan’s government paid for our trip, after all. Of course they wanted good press in return for their investment. Any official we were scheduled to meet was bound to say something encouraging about election reform whether or not it was true.

“Who are the election observers?” I said with a slight tone of disbelief in my voice. “Who decides who these people are?”

“We have internal and external observers,” he said. “OSCE [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] is the head of the foreign observers. We also have observers from the Council of Europe, the European Union, and international NGOs. We will have up to 700 international observers in Baku alone. Some observers will be here only short term, so they will come only on election day. Others will be here two months before the elections. They will be monitoring everything and talking to the media. They won't leave until after the elections. We will also have internal observers, including representatives of every candidate running in the election.”

I was impressed by his answer. It was not what I expected to hear. It was either one hell of a lie, or the government really is working on reform. Don't expect Syria's tyrant Bashar Assad to ask observers from the Council of Europe to monitor the next bogus “election” where he wins 99.9 percent of the vote. Anyway, Arthur Lenk, the Israeli Ambassador to Azerbaijan, confirmed over dinner with no Azeris present that international observers from European institutions really are coming.

Carpet shop, Baku

Perhaps I was a bit more suspicious than I needed to be, but authoritarian governments routinely pretend to be more open and democratic than they really are. And why are three journalists still in prison? Why are photos of a dead dictator still plastered up all over Baku? Why did some of the civilians I spoke to in private say they’re afraid of the government?

We’ll have to wait and see what happens next before we’ll know for sure what kind of country Azerbaijan really is. But we won't have to wait long. The next election is on October 16, 2008.

Democracy is a process. Elections are capstones. Some peoples and countries aren’t ready to hold elections. Opposition movements are sometimes more unfit to govern than the autocratic regimes they hope to displace. I don’t think Azerbaijan is one of those countries. There is no need or even excuse for the grim calculus many apply to Syria where Assad is seen, correctly or not, as less of a problem than his potential replacements. There is no movement of radical Islamists popular enough to topple the Aliyev government and turn Baku into the capital of an Iranian-style theocracy.

Baku’s old city

There is, however, the matter of the forgotten war of Nagorno Karabakh. The Aliyev government is much more restrained in its policy toward the Armenian occupation than the general public would like. What might happen if Azerbaijan were to fully democratize, as it should, and let more of the country's hotheads have a say in the Karabakh policy? I do not know.

What I do know is that the occupation of Karabakh – whatever the merits of protecting an ethnic minority nominally inside a country that’s hostile to them – is a loaded gun pointed straight at a Western ally in a renascent Russia’s back yard. No peaceful resolution to the war the world forgot is coming any time soon.

“The U.N. was supposed to end the Armenian occupation,” said Fariz Ismailzade, “but after more than ten years nothing has happened. They are totally useless.”

We can ignore this one for a time while hoping the slightly less useless Minsk Group can pull off the near-impossible, but it may be foolish to do so. Robert D. Kaplan published Eastward to Tartary in 2001 and tried to warn his readers that the oil-rich and geopolitically volcanic Caucasus region may become a critical flashpoint in the early 21st Century. And he was right. The former Soviet region between the Black Sea and the Caspian has a way of rudely reminding the rest of the world that it matters more than we think when it’s quiet.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:28 AM | Comments (25)

October 4, 2008

A Free Georgia Can Only Be Democratic

by Michael Cecire

Editor’s note: I recently returned from a trip to Georgia where my reporting was necessarily focused on the Russian invasion. Russia’s occupation and de-facto annexation of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, aren’t the only serious problems the country faces right now. The following guest column by Michael Cecire, whose knowledge of and experience in Georgia are much more extensive than mine, should fill in some of the rest of the story. – MJT

On September 15, speaking in a press conference in Georgia's capital Tbilisi, Secretary General of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer voiced NATO's support for Georgia, a recent victim of Russian militarism, while urging the nascent democracy to push forward with reforms. Scheffer's suggestion could not have come at a better time. For while Georgia's war wounds still fester, its government is rapidly approaching a crisis of legitimacy.

In November of 2007, large-scale opposition protests broke out in the streets. Demonstrators demanded President Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili's resignation. The government responded by forcibly dispersing the protesters and shutting down the independent television station Imedi, effectively monopolizing state control over the country's television media. Snap elections were called in January. The opposition, passionate but fractious and incoherent, lost to Saakashvili's ruling National Movement. Although significant evidence exists that Saakashvili's victory could be at least partially attributed to a blurring of state and party apparatuses, the election was eventually deemed reasonably free and fair.

Still, the November events stood in stark contrast to Saakashvili's own meteoric rise through people-power protests against the corrupt administration of Eduard Shevardnadze, an old USSR party apparatchik. Despite gradual democratic and economic improvements since Saakashvili's 2003 Rose Revolution, the November repressions marked a sharp reversal in Georgia's upward trajectory. Freedom House revised down Georgia's political rights and civil liberties scores a full point each.

Since then, there has been no evidence that Saakashvili's government intends to make real amends for its mishandling of the November protests and subsequent restrictions it placed on the opposition and independent media. The courts and commissions continue to be packed with National Movement operatives, the political structure continues to favor enormous presidential power, and in a bizarre Putin-esque scheme, a landowner in Borjomi was jailed for refusing to transfer property to the government. Eerily reminiscent of Russia's Yukos affair – an apparent harbinger of Russia's slide into authoritarianism – the landowner was coerced into withdrawing claims on his land after his family was threatened and after suffering medical complications from rough, extrajudicial imprisonment.

Georgia is not Russia – not even close. Nor does the Saakashvili government's democratic deficit absolve the West's shame for inaction or Russia's blame for the recent conflict, which was only the latest chapter in a long narrative of Russian aggression. Even so, discussions of Georgia's security, Russian revanchism, and future U.S.-Georgian relations cannot be divorced from the quality of Georgia's own democracy, often lovingly and cynically cited by Saakashvili himself. NATO's Secretary General was right to remind Georgia that its accession into the Alliance will largely depend on successful and sustainable democratic reforms which are desperately needed to reverse the country's seeming plunge down a path trail blazed by none other than Vladimir Putin.

Although the opposition message has been generally inchoate, frustrations are building and patience is thinning. Sozar Subari, a Parliament-appointed public defender and outspoken critic of Saakashvili, recently issued a powerful statement decrying the autocratic tendencies of the government and its role in the August War. "The government that is locked within it," he said, "which listens only to itself and respects only its own judgment, has lost the capacity for proper decision-making. Russia took advantage of this and has executed its long plotted perfidious plan of conquering our territories."

Even one-time Saakashvili ally Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who once co-owned Rustavi 2 – a private television station with extremely close ties to Saakashvili and his government – denounced the creeping absolutism in Georgia. Even if the opposition is far from ready to directly challenge the National Movement in the political marketplace, cracks are forming in Saakashvili's political monopoly. But those weaknesses must be exposed before they can be exploited, which isn't easy in the long shadow cast by critical questions of Georgian national security.

Last Wednesday, Saakashvili announced a slate of reforms for a 'Second Rose Revolution' in direct response to Scheffer's statement. Eyebrow-raising branding aside, Western observers should be unimpressed. On the whole, the reforms appear cosmetic and fail to address many of the structural democratic deficits rigged by Saakashvili himself.

Georgia does not need another Rose Revolution. Just as the color revolutions have exposed the inherent frailty of authoritarianism, the limitations of revolutions has been exposed, no matter how peaceful or well-intentioned they may be. From the fraying coalition in Ukraine and the growing weight of the Georgian state to the short-lived 2004 'Arab Spring' in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, it is clear that democracy is rarely the product of revolution. It is more often conceived from political evolution.

Is Georgia capable of regaining its footing under Misha's presidency? Possibly not. Ironically, it is Russian aggression that may well prove to have prolonged Saakashvili's tenure. Still, American policymakers should demand Georgia live up to the stirring rhetoric Saakashvili so often employs. Pointing out Georgia's obligations to its people is not uncourteous or poor form. Failing to do so would be a disservice to America's commitment to democracy, the sacrifices of so many Georgians against authoritarianism, and those 'certain inalienable rights' that live within us all.

Michael Cecire is an economic development practitioner from Virginia working in the Philadelphia-South Jersey region. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he currently works in urban redevelopment and researches international public policy. He is a regular contributor to the Democracy Project Web log and has his own Web log. Michael has also published articles in the London Telegraph, TCS Daily, and Bacon's Rebellion.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:59 PM | Comments (3)

October 3, 2008

Joe Biden's Alternate Universe

In Thursday night’s vice presidential debate between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin, Biden said the strangest and most ill-informed thing I have ever heard about Lebanon in my life. “When we kicked — along with France, we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, “Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don’t know — if you don’t, Hezbollah will control it.” Now what’s happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel.” [Emphasis added.]

What on Earth is he talking about? The United States and France may have kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon in an alternate universe, but nothing even remotely like that ever happened in this one.

Nobody – nobody – has ever kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon. Not the United States. Not France. Not Israel. And not the Lebanese. Nobody.

Joe Biden has literally no idea what he’s talking about.

It’s too bad debate moderator Gwen Ifill didn’t catch him and ask a follow up question: When did the United States and France kick Hezbollah out of Lebanon?

The answer? Never. And did Biden and Senator Barack Obama really say NATO troops should be sent into Lebanon? When did they say that? Why would they say that? They certainly didn’t say it because NATO needed to prevent Hezbollah from returning–since Hezbollah never went anywhere.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:04 PM | Comments (64)