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Asia Time online
Turkey and the Central Asian ethnic octopus
By K Gajendra Singh 18 December, 2003
Once again, Chechen suicide bombers have struck in the center of Moscow, on December 10, this time to influence the outcome of parliamentary elections in Russia. An earlier devastating attack on a train near Chechnya on December 5 killed over 40 persons and injured hundreds more.
Russia has many millions of Muslim citizens. Tragically, these bleeding attacks are not expected to be the last. Chechens and other tribes around the Black Sea and the Caspian and the mountainous Caucasian region which separates Russia and the Middle East and Anatolia migrated here and have established deep roots. Like sleeper cells put in place over the centuries, their presence could have ramifications beyond their borders and serious implications for the region.
In the Caucasian region - which includes southwest Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia - not only do the geological plates grind against each other, making the area earthquake prone, strategically the tectonic plates of kingdoms and empires have rubbed against each other throughout history. Powers and states have always interfered with each other, and they still do so. Earlier the actors were Turks and Mongols from Central Asia and then the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Later, the Russians replaced the Mongols and the Turks, and after World War I the British from the southeast. Now, the United States has taken over the mantle from the British in this Great Game.
The region remains very important and dangerous, with complex linkages and relationships between the people of Turkey and the people of the Caucasian region. These ties were established when the Ottoman empire was shrinking, and they are deep and abiding.
But after World War I, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Turkish republic in Anatolia by Kemal Ataturk saw outside contact with the Muslim peoples of not only Central Asia but the Caucasian region cease almost altogether. Ataturk jettisoned the Ottoman religious heritage and he forced Turks to look West and become Westernized, modern and secular citizens in an effort to reach the levels of contemporary European civilization. During my first tenure in Ankara (1969-73), there was little real interest or even material available on Central Asia. Pan-Turkic leaders like Alp Aslan Turkes were looked on with suspicion.
The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey's historical enemy, pleased the Turks to no end. It opened the floodgates of exchanges and relations between the Turks of Anatolia and the Turkic people of Central Asia and the Caucasus. There were delegations galore, with the two "lost people" hugging each other, with many Central Asian leaders bending down to touch the soil of Turkey with their foreheads on first arrival. The initiative to bring the Turkic countries together was taken up by president Turgut Ozal, but unfortunately he died in 1993.
Migration and intermingling among Turks and Caucasians
From the mid-19th century, tens of thousands of refugees flooded into the Ottoman empire in flight from oppression and massacres. The Ottoman countryside had been largely depopulated since the 17th century as the result of misrule and the ravages of war, famine and plague. So the Refugee Code (Muhadrin Kanunnamesi) of 1857 granted plots of state land to immigrant families and groups. They were given exemptions from taxes and conscription for six years if they settled in Rumeli (the European part ) and for 12 years if they opted for Anatolia. They were to cultivate the land and not to sell or leave it for 20 years and they had to become the subjects of the sultan, accepting his laws and justice.
They had freedom of religion, whatever their faith, and were allowed to build churches if none were available. News of the decree spread widely through Europe and met with a ready response from various groups unable to find land or political peace at home. Almost to the end, the Ottoman rulers were tolerant of other religions. It is the West which exploited ethnic and religion-based nationalism to break the Ottoman empire and divide Hindustan, Palestine, Cyprus and other regions. But the same right is denied to the north Irish, Basques, Corsicans, Sardinians and others.
A Refugee Commission (Muhacirin Komisyort) established in 1860 in the trade ministry became an independent agency in July 1861. It was a belated response to the influx. Most of the refugees came from the Turkish, Tatar and Circassian lands being conquered by the Russians to the north and west of the Black Sea and the Caspian. Even though there was no official Russian policy of driving these Muslims from their homes, the new Christian governments imposed in the Crimea (1783), in the areas of Baku and Kuban (1796), in Nahcivan and the eastern Caucasus (1828), and finally in Anapa and Poti, northeast of the Black Sea, following the Treaty of Edirne (1829), made thousands of Muslims uncomfortable enough to migrate, without special permission or attraction, into Ottoman territory.
Even hundreds of Russian "Old Believers" had fled from the reforms of Peter and Catherine, settling in the Dobruca and along the Danube near the Black Sea. Between 1848 and 1850 they were joined by thousands of non-Muslim immigrants, farmers as well as political and intellectual leaders fleeing from the repression that accompanied and followed the revolutions of 1848, especially from Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland. While many of these were absorbed by Ottoman urban life, many were settled as farmers or managers of the farms being built by large landowners, contributing to both estate-building and the improvement of cultivation.
The flow became a torrent after the Crimean War following new persecutions elsewhere in Europe. The war itself led the Russians to change their relatively tolerant policy toward the Tatars and Circassians into one of active persecution and resettlement from their original homes to desolate areas in Siberia and even farther east. (This was repeated during World War 2) The result was mass migration into Ottoman territory, often with the encouragement of the Russians, who were glad to get rid of the old population to Russianize and Christianize the southern areas of their new empire.
From individual accounts it appears that the numbers were immense. Some 176,700 Tatars from the Nogay and Kuban settled in central and southern Anatolia between 1854 and 1860. (I always stopped by Esksehir for lunch, where Tatars sell fried thin-rolled bread like puris in India, except it is more delicious). Approximately a million came in the next decade, of whom a third were settled in Rumeli, the rest in Anatolia and Syria. From the Crimea alone, from 1854 to 1876, 1.4 million Tatars migrated into the Ottoman empire.
Even Slavic migration begun before the Crimean War intensified - Cossacks who fled from the Russian army settled as farmers in Macedonia, Thrace and western Anatolia. Bulgarians settled in the Crimea to replace the Tatars returned to their homes in the Ottoman empire from an alien environment. The mass migration of Muslims continued, though at a somewhat less intense pace, during the early years of Abdulhamit II, mostly in consequence of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1888 and the autonomy given to Bulgaria and Romania, Austrian control of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the cession of northern Dobruca to Romania and northern Macedonia to Serbia. Official statistics estimated that over a million refugees entered the empire between 1876 and 1895. The number of male Muslims doubled during the years from 1831 to 1882, with the proportion of Muslims to non-Muslims increasing substantially.
The immigrants were settled widely throughout the empire, many in villages that had been abandoned and some in eastern Anatolia, particularly in Cilicia (Adana region) and Arab lands like Syria, sometimes leading to conflict and problems. The lands could not have been intensively cultivated and the rural middle class built up had it not been for the tremendous influx of refugees who provided the necessary labor and males for future wars.
But the ingress and intermingling of Caucasian people with the Turks is much deeper among its elite. "Young girls of extraordinary beauty, plucked from the slave market, were sent to the sultan's court, often as gifts from his governors. Among the singular, lasting privileges of the valide [mother] sultana was the right to present her son with a slave girl on the eve of Kurban Bayram [sacrificial day]. The girls were all non-Muslims, uprooted at a tender age. The sultans were partial to the fair, doe-eyed beauties from the Caucasus region. Circassians, Georgians and Abkhasians were proud mountain girls, believed to be the descendents of the Amazon women who had lived in Scythia near the Black Sea in ancient times and who had swept down through Greece as far as Athens, waging a war that nearly ended the city's glamorous history.
"Now they were being kidnapped or sold by impoverished parents. A customs declaration from around 1790 establishes their worth at about 20 percent to 40 percent of a horse. The promise of a life of luxury and ease overcame parental scruples against delivering their children into concubinage. Many Circassian and Georgian families encouraged their daughters to enter that life willingly. They were immediately converted to Islam and began an arduous training in palace etiquette and Islamic culture." (From Harem by Alev Lytle Croutier).
Lucie Duff Gordon also reported it in her 1864 travel diary. While the earlier mothers of sultans were Greek or Serbian princesses married to the rulers, after the capital shifted to Constantinople, everyone was a member of the harem under valide sultana's control, with those giving birth to children, especially boys, jumping up in the harem hierarchy.
Many of the mother sultanas were Circassians and Georgians, one even French, Aimee de Rivery. They exercised great influence over their sons, now the sultan. The harem politics also became a reason for the decline of the empire. The word odalisque literally "woman in the room", comes from oda (room). But harem life was embellished by feverish European imagination, whose rulers were no less sensual, but lacked wealth and culture at that time.
In friendly arguments with Turkish friends, mostly diplomats, I would tease them, "What do you mean you are a Turk. You don't even look like a Turk. They are chinky-eyed and have little hair on their face. Of course you speak good Turkish, as you have been practicing it for 500 years." This devastating repartee usually ended the argument. Most would smile and happily admit that his grand uncle or grandmother came from Circassia or Bosnia. During the days of the empire, the elite called itself the Ottomans. The word Turk was reserved for the village yokel and a term of contempt. It was Kemal Ataturk who bestowed dignity on the word Turk.
Turkey and Central Asia
President Ozal's successor, Sulieman Demirel, did not have his vision or drive with regards to Central Asia and the whole thing came to a standstill, although after initial resistance to Turkish aggression Turkic leaders felt more comfortable in an institutional relationship with Turkey. In any case, even if Turkey had wished for a bigger role in Central Asia, it did not have the wherewithal to play it. Many Central Asian leaders to whom power fell like manna from heaven in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union were confused and rudderless. They were cautious and wanted good relations with all. The US encouraged Turkey and was afraid that Russia would try to come back, which it tried in some ways, but the horse had already bolted the stable.
Fears that Iran would spread its version of fanatic Islam and support anti-US regimes also proved farfetched. After an eight-year exhausting war with Iraq in the 1980s, in which Iran lost a million young people, there was little energy or money left to spread its message of Shi'ite revolution. Except for the Azeris and some other pockets, most people in Central Asia are Sunni Muslims, closer to the more mystic Sufi way of life. They have a very high level of education and a lifestyle of drinking and good living. With deep-grained nomadic habits, they could not easily be led to Islamic fundamentalism. It was ill-conceived US, Saudi and Pakistani policies that brought Wahhabi Islam to Central Asia.
Except for the Caspian basin for its energy resources and in Kyrgyzstan, the American leadership soon lost interest. The Caspian basin has between 60 to 200 billion barrels of oil. The US courted Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev, touting him as a democrat and helped his country join the World Trade Organization in 1998. The reason was to have a friendly regime with freedom to base personnel and sensing equipment to monitor China, next door. Akayev has proved no different than leaders of other Central Asian republics in terms of his record on democracy though.
The early 1990s were a very opportune moment for Turkey, which under the dynamic leadership of Ozal had successfully undergone a decade of economic reforms and had opened its economy to the West, especially Europe. The country had many trained managers and experts who, because of ethnic, linguistic and religious similarity, became advisers and even ministers in the new Turkic governments in Central Asia. Both at state level and in the private sector, Turkey made large investments in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. The Turkish government provided loans amounting to US$750 million to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Turkish private investment runs into billions of dollars. Turks have established industries and run hotels and other businesses.
Turkey also arranged to train 10,000 students and teachers from the new republics. Turkish as spoken in the Republic has been purified by excluding many Arabic and Persian words. Many European words, especially from French (almost all in the game of bridge) have been added. The Azeri language is quite similar to Turkish, as well as the Turcoman language. The languages spoken by Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and in Kazakhstan are somewhat different. Originally, Soviet Russians prescribed Latin script for the Central Asian languages, but when Ataturk changed to the Latin script from Arabic, the Russians changed to Cyrillic. Many Turks have opened schools in Central Asia, too. Turkey has also started beaming Avrasia TV programs to Central Asia, but with uneven results.
But Turkey's efforts to create an area of influence in Central Asia were opposed by the newly independent leadership. A loose organization of Turkic states exists without having achieved much. The old Baghdad pact was joined by the new Central Asian republics and became the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). To soothe the Russians, a Black Sea organization was also created, but it remains equally ineffective. Tansu Chiller, who had still not shot to fame by becoming the first woman prime minister of Turkey, told me that Central Asian governments did not repay Turkish loans, while they paid back Western ones. I had also been told that the new leadership in Central Asia would like to establish authoritarian political regimes and try to follow the capitalist system of East Asia. It has certainly succeeded rather well in its first objective.
Problems in the Caucasus
Soon nationalist Russian politicians, ex-communist cadres, ambitious Russian generals, local mafia and international oil executives all entered the fray to play their part for personal or national gains on the Caucasian chessboard.
Even Turkey was put in an embarrassing situation when Azeri president Heydar Aliyev, who died last Friday at the age of 80, accused a Turkish group in 1995 of trying to overthrow him with the help of his opponents in the capital Baku. But generally Demirel, a believer in the status quo, was helpful to Aliyev. Himself sent packing twice by the armed forces when prime minister, Demirel suggested to Aliyev to go on television and take other steps to control rebellions in Baku. This was a technique King Carlos of Spain had used successfully to quell rebellion by his armed forces.
East and south Turkey and the Kurdish rebellion
From 1984 to 1999, Abdullah Ocalan led the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) rebellion for a Kurdish state in the southeast of Turkey, a campaign that cost over 35,000 lives, mostly Kurds, including the lives of more than 5,000 Turkish soldiers. To control and neutralize the rebellion, thousands of Kurdish villages were bombed, destroyed, abandoned or relocated; millions of Kurds were moved to shanty towns in the south and east or migrated westwards. The economy of the region was shattered. Half of the Kurdish population now lives in western Turkey, making Istanbul the second largest Kurdish city after Diyarbakir. With a third of the Turkish army tied up in the southeast, the cost of countering the insurgency amounted to between $6 billion to $8 billion a year. After the capture of Ocalan in 1999 and the passage of laws last year to ease the lives of Kurds, things have now quieted.
The war in the 1980s between Iraq and resurgent Shi'ite Iran helped the PKK to establish itself in the lawless Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. The PKK also helped itself with arms freely available in the region during the eight-year war. After the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and war, with lack of legitimate authority and absence of possible Turko-Iraqi joint offensives against the Kurds in the north of Iraq, the Kurdish rebellion blossomed most violently. Turkey crossed over quite deep into north Iraq from time to time for punitive attacks on PKK hideouts and formations, despite the usual international furor. It even bombed some border areas in Iran too, where the PKK might have taken shelter.
The attempt by the Turkish armed forces and the establishment to clear east and south Turkey of Kurdish rebels (and populations) , has made it easy for groups to move around from one country to another, notably from Turkey to Iran and Afghanistan and from Azerbaijan to Chechnya.
Once, while I was able to drive along the sea coast from Baku to the border with Daghestan, I was advised not to go towards Gynza, towards the border with Georgia. It was a dangerous area under Surat Hassonov, a mafia chief and smuggler and once prime minister of Azerbaijan under Aliyev. There are many such areas in the region, and mafia teams in the import and export business do not pay customs duties. Even ministers are involved. The bludgeoning truck-based trade between Turkey and the Central Asian republics via Azerbaijan and Iran, without proper police control, means control by the mafia and freedom of movement for those who are determined or prepared to pay up.
Political-police-mafia link in Turkey
In a notorious case, an automobile crashed at Susurluk in western Anatolia on November 3, 1996. In the accident, Haseyin Kocadag, director of the Istanbul police academy, Abdallah Catli, a "Grey Wolf" ultra-nationalist militant and gangster who was implicated in seven murders in 1978 and convicted on drugs charges in Switzerland, and Catli's mistress, Goncas, were all killed in the same car. The driver of the car was Sedat Bucak, a ruling True Path party deputy and Kurdish chieftain heading a large gang of "village guards" (that is, pro-government Kurdish militiamen paid for and trained by the armed forces), who was the only occupant to survive. The crash suggested credible links between the security forces, the "Grey Wolves", organized crime and pro-government Kurdish chiefs.
In the beginning of November 1998, 25 prosecutions were launched covering murder, gangsterism and narcotics smuggling, in which 75 suspects were charged and the parliamentary immunities of both Bucak and of Mehmet Agar, the minister of interior, was lifted. But after two years, only two relatively low-ranking police officers had been convicted. Most of the alleged ringleaders in these crimes remained at large, some abroad, with even diplomatic passports. Inquiries revealed nothing concrete, but it emerged that the police regularly used mafia hit men to kill PKK people.
The human bombers who destroyed two synagogues in Istanbul last month have been traced to Bingol, a small dusty town near the Iranian border. It means 1,000 lakes, and includes lake Van. I spent four quiet days in 1969 looking around the region, including lake Van, as the guest of its vali (governor) Kemal Ozturk, a very charming and gracious host, with evenings beginning with high officials - including the military chief - at 6pm and ending two hours past midnight. I found the same kind of lavish hospitality, now declining in Turkey, at Babur University as well as at private homes in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley city of Andijan (the birth place of Babur, the founder of the Moghul Empire in India ) which I visited in 1998.
By the 1990s Bingol had become Kurdish rebel-infested and dangerous. When I revisited nearby cities like Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish stronghold, by 4pm before sundown everyone, including the police, would retire for the day, thus leaving most of the countryside in south and east Turkey for rebels and others to roam about and transfer personnel and arms.
Nearby is the city of Batman, which had become the center of the Turkish Hezbollah. Unfortunately, the Turkey establishment helped this organization by encouraging some of its units in the region in the mid-1990s to eliminate PKK guerillas or sympathizers in southeast Turkey. The Turkish Hezbollah is quite different from the Lebanese one, and was reportedly helped by the Iranians. Only when Hezbollah started creating cells in Istanbul and west Turkey was the experiment abandoned, but the cat was out of the bag.
Despite very strong control by the security establishment in Jordan, mostly manned by loyal tribesmen, the country with nearly a 60 percent population of Palestinian origin remains a place of acute underground activity. Daily killings and counter-killings across the border in the occupied West Bank and Gaza make things worse. It is a stronghold of Muslim Brotherhood, which did very well in 1990 elections, with King Hussein even including some of them in the cabinet to face Western criticism of not joining in the coalition against Saddam Hussein.
The United Kingdom and the United States blatantly encouraged Islamic and obscurantist groups to counter nationalist and socialist regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere from the beginning of the 1950s to the end of the 1970s, when Iran's Shi'ite revolution unnerved everyone. But for the Western support to Islamic elements, it would have led to more equitable and democratic regimes in the region. So the current talk by Western leaders and the media of ushering democracy into the region is absolute humbug. And nobody is fooled, except sometimes Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.
Jordan has produced many well-known jihadis, like Ibn-al-Khatib. There are now two new factors. The reported linkages between Jordanians of Caucasus origin and Chechens. Most of them are Circassians, known as Cherkess. It could be a very dangerous development because the Cherkess are the Hashemite kingdom's palace guards and hold important key positions in the police establishment and elsewhere.
Although only about 15,000 in number, a seat in parliament is reserved for them. After World War I, when Emir Abdullah, son of King Hussein of Hejaz and great great-grandfather of King Abdullah, stopped at Amman to reclaim Syria, which had been promised by the British to the Arabs for revolting against the Ottomans, the Cherkess community, which had been established since the 19th century, was the first to express its loyalty to him. Although the Cherkess community has remained loyal, there are now murmurs of disaffection. The number of Circassians in Syria is much higher, but then Syria exercises very strict control over such groups. Thoughtless efforts by the US neo-conservatives to destabilize Syria would have devastating consequences.
The late King Hussein, before dying of cancer in 1999, to further strengthen the British and the American motivation to protect the kingdom and his dynasty, at the last minute removed his younger brother, Crown Prince Hassan, married to late Indian chief justice Shri M Hidayatullah's niece, and instead made his son Abdullah the Crown Prince. Abdullah was the eldest son of the late king and his second wife Toni, a British citizen who embraced Islam and remained Queen of Jordan until 1972 when she and the late king divorced.
The US embassy in Amman, Jordan's capital, which I visited just before leaving in 1992, is like a fortress, replete with underground chambers. During the 1990- 91 Gulf crises and war, King Hussein adroitly remained neutral, much to the anger of the Anglo-Saxons, but the masses remained peaceful and under control. King Abdullah is not as nimble or experienced, and many Jordanians feel that he is siding with the Americans and extending them help, so there remains a danger to the throne. Such warnings were conveyed by attacks on the embassy of Jordan in Baghdad.
K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Email Gajendrak@hotmail.com
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