donderdag 27 februari 2014

maps as they should be.

I didn't want to make this a maps blog (of course I want to), but when I went to the Georgian National Museum recently, I couldn't resist to make these pictures on the floor hosting the Museum of Soviet Occupation. In a way quite similar to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in centre Riga, the Soviet interlude of history is brought as an aberration in Georgian history. In both Latvia and Georgia, the 'real' history started in 1918, with the establishment of Republics after the breakup of the Russian Empire. However, Bolshevik Revolution followed soon, and both states were reincorporated in the Eurasian superstate. Latvia had a short Nazi interlude, but whilst trying to reach the rich oil fields of Baku, the Germans came in the Caucasus only as far as Mount Elbrus, on the border of Russia and Georgia. Nevertheless, the Georgian part of the Soviet contribution to the defeat of the Third Reich is to a large extend ignored by now.

What is more, even the recent history is framed in a history of occupation and resistance. In the Baltic states, the so-called 'first cyber war' (in which Estonian servers were attacked from a source in Russia) of 2007 is an example. In Georgia, this would be quite obvious the August War of 2008. In this 'short victorious war' Russian involvement finalized the de facto independence since the nineties of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia proper. Hereafter, they became de facto part of the Russian Federation, but I guess that's another story.

What is more, in national (history) museums there's often some romantic nostalgia to a Golden Age. In the Netherlands, this would be the seventeenth century, when it were the Dutch who ruled the waves, the NY stock market and the European economy. We do brag with the world-famous art we produced in these days, and sometimes with one of these 'our borders as they should be' maps.

The Georgian National Museum has one as well.

And guess what? Just after the Winter Olympics - only ten kilometres from the Georgian border - are over,  Sochi seems to be part of Georgia anyway! There was no need to worry about the Russian press recently presenting both Georgian cuisine and the mythical Gulden Fleece of Jason and his Argonauts as originating in Sochi! This one is in Batumi, in the Georgian part of the Black Sea coast:

vrijdag 21 februari 2014


As you could have seen in my earlier post on Syria and Yugoslavia, maps can be very delusive. They literally create their own image of the world. I am fascinated by the apparent clarification maps provide, especially when talking about multiple identities. Yet, I only realized recently that words can do the same. Geographical designations shape the identity of the people living there, or at least their image. This doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. Both ‘the Netherlands’ and ‘Holland’ stand for ‘low lands’, which is definitely right.

Where this post is heading at, is the use of articles in geographical names. It is used in plural forms, like the Bahamas or the Philippines. ‘The Netherlands’ is actually more complicated, since it would also refer to the collective of former statelets currently in Belgium and Northern France. It’s official name, the ‘Kingdom of the Netherlands’, explains: it is the Kingdom carved out of all of these units. Articles are also used for a specific type of state, like in the United Kingdom, or the Russian Federation. Also, it is used for geographical features. The Gambia, called after the river, is to my knowledge the only state using it as such. The story goes that it’s borders were set by the distance a British cannon could reach from it’s shores. As such, the rulers of the sea were able to control the estuary. Therefore, The Gambia is an enclave in former French Senegal. Senegal is also called after a river, but doesn’t use the article. Here's the Gambia basin: 

However, I have to admit that I tend to use adjectives for Libanon, Congo, Sudan, and, there you go, Ukraine – but this habit is simply wrong. With an adjective these names are referring to a region, and without, to a country. The Libanon is a mountain range. Only when the French carved a Christian majority mandate out of historical Syria in 1920, the modern state of Libanon was created, adding the Beqaa valley and the coastal region to Mount Lebanon. The Greater Lebanese mandate became independent in 1943. The Congo is a river, and ‘the Congo’ therefore refers to it’s basin. The modern state of the Democratic Republic of the Congo would finally use Katanga if they kept it to the Congo basin, actually. The Sudan is the region South of the Sahel, starting in modern Senegal and ending somewhere in the Darfur region of the state of Sudan. The name is derived from the Arabic ‘bilad-as-sudan’ or ‘land of the blacks’ and this epithet was copied by the French and British colonial authorities. Only after their independence French Sudan and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan became the fresh states of Mali  and Sudan. The use of adjectives is still common in the Arab world, by the way. Think about the name of Algeria, derived from ‘al-jazair’, ‘the islands’. Here’s the Sudan: 

'The Ukraine’ is a tough one, because it’s etymology is related to the current events. Most scholars agree that ‘Ukraine’ is derived from the old Slavic word ‘kraj’ meaning ‘edge’. In modern Russian and Polish ‘kraj’ still means ‘border region’, and ‘okraina’ means ‘outskirts’ in modern Russian. Therefore, ‘ukraina’ should mean something something like ‘borderland’ or ‘march’, just as in Denmark or the March of Barcelona elsewhere. And this ‘ukraina’ was a borderland indeed. The name was used for the border regions of the Tatar Horde with the Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy, which had both roots in the old Slavic principalities of Kievan Rus (also called ‘Ruthenia’). This ‘ukraine’ region stretched from modern Belarus to the Black Sea, and it’s borders moved continuously.

A problem is though, that Slavic doesn’t have adjectives. The distinction between regions and states as in English is therefore not directly clear. Translation is always a choice. Moreover, ‘borderland’ can be seen as offensive from both Poles and Russians, who treated the inhabitants of modern Belarus and Ukraine often as their periphery. Referring to the ‘larger’ (Muscovy) and ‘lesser’ territories (the ukraine) of Kievan Rus the use of ‘Little’ and ‘Great Russians’ emerged. For its inhabitants ‘Ukraine’ became a sobriquet (‘geuzennaam’), an offence to be proud of, and soon it’s use was outlawed in the Russian Empire.

The derogatory use of ‘Little Russians’ for Ukrainians has connotations with ‘White Russia’ used for Belarus. However, it is unclear where this epithet comes from. Some refer to White Russia as the parts of Ruthenia under Muscovian rule (modern Eastern Belarus), while Black Russia were the regions under the Polish king (modern Western Ukraine). Red Russia was still under the ‘Tatar yoke’ (modern Southern Ukraine). This theory might be related to the use of colours for the cardinal directions in old Slavic and Central Asian cultures. White is north, black West, red South and green East. The extremely fertile (and industrialized) ‘black earth region’ (chernozem) in Eastern Ukraine and Southern Russia has nothing to do with aforementioned.

Therefore, it might be good to emphasize once again, that Ukraine is not the periphery of either Europe or Russia, but a sovereign country, with recognized borders and an interesting modern history. Using an article might depreciate the existence of an Ukrainian state and nation. ‘The Ukraine’ is a historic region; Ukraine is a modern state.

However, many ethnic Ukrainians live in the Russian Federation, until deep in the Don region. Also, lots of Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian as their day-to-day language, aren’t Russians. And then there’s ethnic Russians living in Ukraine as well, mostly on the Crimean peninsula.

This is me punching Yanukovich, by the way. It’s close to the 'Euromaidan' Nezalezhnosti Square, in 2012. The political bloc of opposition leader and ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko is called UDAR, the acronym of the Ukrainian word for ‘punch’: 

See also:

zaterdag 15 februari 2014

Georgian snickers.

Until two years ago I was a light weight race rower. Let me explain: if you're a racerower and happen to be smaller than 1,90m you're expected to starve yourself every second week to under 72,5kg. This cyclic starving leads to obvious misbehaviour, and cold turkey tends to be ransomed by binge eating after competition. Fast food is an option, and once I tried egg cakes with peanut butter once. Three years ago I was introduced to the art of snickers. 

Snickers was the secret survival mechanism of Njord's light weight eight, with whom I trained for a season. When we cycled to Milan the summer after, I was as dependent on snickers as they were. At the end of every light weight rowing season, things get out of hand. After half a year of dieting and no alcohol (and training 7-10 times a week obviously) you get very inventive to celebrate the newly won freedom. And so one of my team mates came with the following: a oven dish sized snickers (check this out: Yes, I think I can be quite sure it were not Scotsmen, but light weight rowers who invented deep fried ice-cream and mars bars. 

So now you know where my fascination for snickers comes from. So when I visited Kyrgyzstan last year, I was amazed by the discovery of a snickers with hazelnuts instead of peanuts. Never seen in the West, but the sooner introduced, the better. Way better with real nuts!
In Georgia, I found the hazelnut variety again, but that not what this post is about. It's about churchkhela, which is suitably dubbed 'Georgian snickers'. This is not only because of it's ingredients, but also because of it's use: eat some churchkela when you're on the roll, and you can be sure you're on the road again. Now I do have to warn you, because the churchkela has a somewhat strange shape. Just saying, since you might not like sausage. I guess it's just basic gravity laws, but there's something odd for sure about this stalactite: 

Look at them hanging happily together, waiting to be sold by one of these numerous street-selling babushkas: 

Churchkhelas are made by dipping a string of nuts (most often walnuts) in condensed grape juice. As you might know, Georgia is the inventor of wine, and vineyards are literally everywhere. It's not a big surprise that somebody, one day - probably a light weight rower from the Argonauts - came with the ridiculous idea to dip walnut strings in boiled grape sauce. This is what they look like if you chop them up:

Well, that's it for now. I'm going for a football match, and I'm definitely taking a snickers with me. Georgian style.

donderdag 13 februari 2014

Syria-Yugoslavian similarities

After reading the article ‘The disturbing parallels between Syria’s civil war and Spain in the 1930s’ by Andreas Whittam Smith (in the Independent, 30 January, I felt the need to write down what I noticed earlier. Where Smith is comparing Syria with the Spanish Civil War in the thirties, and focuses on the fate of foreign fighters, I would like to delve deeper into the Balkans of the nineties.

Until the state fell apart in an orgy of violence in the nineties, Yugoslavia was seen as a success story. Although Socialist since the partisans beat the Nazis in the Second World War, Yugoslavia was not aligned with the Soviet bloc. The country had even strong trade, tourist, migration and loan links with the West. The ‘homeland for the South-Slavs’ was blessed with peace for more than fourty years, and nothing seemed to point at the awaiting mayhem. Yugoslavia was a relatively successful dictatorship in the time democracies weren’t that common yet.

I think the ability to unite the Yugoslavs was based on an ideological Nationalism mixed with patronage and Socialism. The diverse histories and religious rites of the Balkan people were overruled by shared traditions, language and – probably most of all – the shared project of a Non-Aligned Socialist Utopia.

Here’s a very interesting map from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910. Since it’s an ethnic map, there’s no division made in between the South-Slavs, who only vary in religion. Considering the ethnic mosaic the Empire obviously was, this map is even more interesting in the light of what was yet to come.

The Syrian dictatorship was until recently called a prime example of a stable autocracy as well. In the volatile Middle East the cold peace with Israel, a steady flow of tourists and a growing economy seemed unique indeed. After the Imperial powers drew the borders of the modern Middle East after the First World War, the Assads were the first to rule the Syrian state for a prolonged period. Moreover, the Arab Spring seemed to skip Syria initially. Although the Assads are minority Alawites, they seemed able to unite the mosaic of religions and sects in Syria (Druze, Shia, Sunni, Catholic, Armenian-Orthodox, Aramaese-Orthodox, Alawites, Alevis, etc.) by emphasizing the shared Arab identity – ethnically, historically and linguistically. More then anybody else the Alawites knew that it was impossible to unite Syria on anything else than Arabism. There’s simply too many religious variety in this part of the world. As Yugoslavia was the homeland of the South-Slavs, Syria was the centre of the Arab world.

But the world changed, and the dictatorship didn’t. Socialism and Soviet sponsorship left more then twenty years ago already. The region is changing, and more representative rule seems to arise in neighbours like Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

The 'successful' mix of Socialism, Nationalism, and patronage, strengthened by (cold) ties with the West, is a striking similarity between the dictatorships of Yugoslavia and Syria. Obviously, there’s many differences. One of the reasons Yugoslavia fell apart was its federal structure. The solidarity of the northern republics wasn’t endless, especially when economic depression hit Europe in the eighties. There was no need for Yugoslav migrant workers any more, as Western European unemployment numbers rose. Tourists didn’t show up any more. In Syria however, there’s no such structure. We’re still far from an independent Kurdistan, Alawite-state and Druze-enclave arising from Syrian territory.

Smith calls the Spanish Civil War a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the Second World War, which it probably was. The Nazis and the Soviets used the warring sides as proxies, and several Western European countries were involved. If the Syrian Civil War is a dress rehearsal, what might we expect than? Will Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia fight each other directly? Will Iran and Turkey claim their regional power, or will the sectarian conflict lead to a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the Gulf? Obviously the region is on the move - far beyond Syria. Syria was indeed late to join the Arab Spring, but so were the recent events in Turkey and Iran (Rohani). The regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran suffer more and more from a lack of popular support.

In the Balkans however, civil war didn’t lead to a continental war, but to the redrawing of borders and even a reunion with Europe eventually. Almost hundred years after Sykes-Picot, this looks as a way more attractive prospect for the Middle East. It might be possible to contain the Syrian conflict for now, but solving it any time soon might be impossible. However, this comparison might show that things might get better eventually. The darkest scenario doesn’t need to come true.

zondag 9 februari 2014

mediterranean winter.

My water pipes were frozen. Just when I figured the worst cold was over, water stopped running. After reading about the deplorable conditions journalist found in the hotels of Sochi – including orange water from their taps – I feared the worst.

After an hour I had my water back, and I happily drank from it. But man, it was cold indeed. Last weekend it was minus seventeen in Tbilisi. Georgians couldn’t stand it; they seem to be cold all the time. In my office all the Georgians were hugging electric heaters. One of them lamented: ‘Why wasn’t I born in the United Arab Emirates?!’ Local residents told me that this was the lowest temperature they could remember. Some wiseacre told us thereon that 2006 was a cold winter as well, and, moreover, this was the winter when several gas pipelines on the Russian-Georgian border blasted. I don’t even want to think about living in Tbilisi back then.

It’s funny to realize that the Tbilisians find this so cold, since you’re able to see the snow of the Caucasus mountains constantly. But although the cold is always present, this is a mediterranean valley capital. The summers are hot, and the winters are not cold, but wet. I noticed how selectively I read the Lonely Planet entry on climate (literally it says about winter in Tbilisi: ‘wet and slushy’).

Georgians were known as the Italians of the Soviet Union. (Yes, there they are again!) Their easy way of living and doing business (it is said that Georgia had the largest shadow economy of the whole USSR), their nice climate, beautiful landscape, wine-culture, passion, and their dubious treatment of the law were cherished among most Soviets. Moreover, the Georgian men were said to be the best lovers of them all.

Sometimes it isn’t that bad to make such comparisons. Too many of us see the former Soviet Union as one big, monolithic, and static bloc – forgetting that it’s already 23 years since the USSR fell apart. Moreover, as many Georgians wish to  see their country as ‘European’, they tend to compare with the UK, France or Germany. As for the rule of law, the role of the church, family life and mentality it might make way more sense to keep Italy, Greece or Romania in mind – European countries as well after all. Paris is far away, but so is Moscow. But Bucharest is just on the opposite shore of the Black Sea.

Here’s a picture of the street life of Tbilisi in summer 2009, which made me think of Greece:
And here’s some pictures of winter wonder Tbilisi. The last thing I though of last week was Southern Europe. 
Here’s my well-isolated house with escape route:
 The Mtkvari river, also known as simply Kura:
The real cathedral over here, the Tsminda Sameba cathedral in Avlabari, looks rather different in Winter than it did in the Indian summer of 2009:
 A mediterranean sight in Winter:
Look at these iceacles! 
 Next post will be warmer!