Tag Archives: Russia

A Belarus Backdrop

Tensions are brewing on Poland’s border with Belarus: Lukaschenko is accused of “weaponising migrants”, Russian troops are amassing in the area, and even a group of UK soldiers have been sent to advise a fellow NATO member. 

Belarus knows that people fleeing their home countries want to end up in the European Union. It also knows that it has had a soft border with Poland. Helping people to cross through this border, with discount flights, temporary hotel reservations and guidance, could therefore gain the dictator leverage. It could also go terribly wrong for everyone involved. 

However, when I was reading up about the tensions, including the strip of land where NGOs and journalists are not allowed and all sorts of bad things might be happening, what struck me is that this is the same story of immigration, but played out on a different backdrop.

I have grown up with the media showing images of people, mainly from war-torn, famine-ridden, ecologically-stricken countries crossing the Mediterranean to find a better life. The European Union, until recently including the UK, are safe havens from political persecution and civil unrest. Furthermore, the smuggling industry has mushroomed around the problem because where there is demand, there is supply, and where supply, demand. It is not surprising why people want to do this, and conversely when bombarded with images and dystopian sound bites like ‘the weaponisation of migrants’ I can understand why the host citizens may be intimidated. 

What has struck me, though, about the recent events in the East is the change of scenery. Migrants, as portrayed by the media, come from sandy places, move on the sea, and die on beaches. They are shown with or without life jackets. They are on boats or dinghies, or they are cramped together in refugee camps baking under the hot sun. They are on Moria in crowded makeshift camps, or suffering in Calais’ jungle. There is a certain media aesthetic to the presentation of ‘migrants’ that we have grown accustomed to seeing.

But now they are in Belarus, where the backdrop looks like Birnam Wood. They have flown in on airplanes from airports and are staying in hotels. They are dressed in down jackets or parker coats. They are standing at the border, so close to the Polish guards that the barbed wire sometimes blocks our view of them. And unless something is done, the Belarusian winter can be deathly cold. 

This is one of the most significant mediatic shifts I have seen: this old crisis of immigration has reached new ground. Before the European stronghold was guarded by a sea; now it is the land border that is under threat.

War in Armenia

The cover photo is that of the defeated Galatian, still ready to fight back. It is a Roman copy of a series dedicated by Attalus I, king of Pergamum, a city in modern-day Turkey, to mark his military victories. More information on the Louvre website.

There is so much to worry about at home at the moment, that thinking about what is going on abroad is an undesirable, impossible task. When there are bills to pay, children to feed, jobs to be worked, and lockdowns to be endured, it’s a daunting task to consider an armed conflict in a part of the world that seems so distant. Especially when we have become desensitised to conflict as just part of the news for it to be particularly noteworthy.

For me, therefore, it seems frivolous to write about a serious issue in violet ink. You can’t see it, because you are reading on a screen. But now, at 6am, while I can hear the street cleaners disposing of refuse, a steady flow of purple ink is flowing from my fountain pen. The subject I want to talk about, though, is spilling more than ink at the moment and so far has cost thousands of lives. It is the ever-escalating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

I had never thought that one day I would receive an email from a friend asking me for help because their country is at war. I suppose I should have known that one day it would happen given the state of the world, but I just wasn’t expecting it. He contacted us because we are members of what he calls ‘an international community of artists.’ This is true indeed: I had the pleasure of meeting and working with this particular artist back in January of this year year as part of an international residency organised by L’AiR ARTS. It was to explore the artistic ramifications of Paris in the 1920s, but many of the themes of that year speak to us even now: global pandemics, territory wars, civil unrest.

When I received this email asking to promote awareness about what is going on in the region, it was just after I had written about the importance of building a community based on art and so it would be hypocritical of me not to do anything when a member of the community I claim to be part of asks directly for my help. It’s easy to forget about the major conflicts and humanitarian crises when they appear as impersonal sponsored adverts on your infinite news scroll. But when they land in your inbox from an address that you have been communicating with only recently, the sense of urgency becomes a little more pressing.

What can I do, though, to help? That’s a question that many people (hopefully) ask themselves when confronted with a political dilemma. Should we, like the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, go and fight for freedom? That would be madness right now (but if that’s what you want to do…) What about organising protests and demonstrations in the streets? Given the COVID situation, any form of organised mobilisation seems practically impossible (and I’m uneasy at this implicit ban on demonstrations). The answer to the question is quite simple: when faced with a moral conundrum, you must do what you are able to do. But you ought to do something.

Even just knowing about an event or a movement is an important part of helping: just by simply acknowledging that such is the case (like looking at your bank account every now and again), you can contribute to an even greater understanding of an issue. The day after I received the email from my friend about the daily fighting that is occurring between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there was a man asking for signatures for a petition that he wanted to send to the UN to ask them to intervene militarily in the conflict. I have to admit that I was suspicious at first. Who was this guy asking for signatures on the street? What was I about to sign? Once I had wrestled with my ego and my paranoia, I noticed that he needed a crutch to stand up. I was then impressed that an individual has the conviction to approach strangers on the street to ask if they will sign a petition for UN military intervention in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a thankless task, made more difficult by a physical handicap and the fear of the other that our alienated world has led us to.

I’m certainly no expert on the matter and below you will find links to sources of information that will tell you more about it. But it seems that this conflict could be a big one. Firstly, by all accounts, the conflict is a proxy war between Russia and Turkey – a war in which two larger states fund, equip and train another’s soldiers to fight indirectly on their behalf (or variations on this theme). These two large states (Russia and Turkey) have been in a struggle for domination in the area (the Middle East/Caucasus) and commentators have often warned about the risk of the conflict escalating between them. Should their forces come into more direct conflict, a larger war could follow.

The next reason that this conflict is complicated is because one of the proxy states involved (Armenia) has a historical grievance against one of the backers (Turkey). This genocide began on 24 April 1914 and lasted a little under ten years. Turkey is backing a country that is well-placed (both geographically and narratively) to attack Armenia. There are chilling possibilities to this move. Armenia and Azerbaijan have also historically (and not more than thirty years ago) been at war. A third reason is that Turkey is a member of NATO and this proxy war could either call into question the 71-year old military alliance or lead to escalated conflict with its old enemy (cf. military movements around Bielorussia and a current war in Ukraine). Is it legitimate for the USA, UK, Germany and others to fight either for Turkey, given the consequences for Armenia? Or should they sit back and let Erdogan and Putin carve up the region and hope it all leads to nothing, just as was hoped with Ribbentrop and Molotov?

The final reason why this conflict matters is because of the closer degree of contact. If we take the Iraq invasion of 2003 or the military presence of Afghanistan, we (those in the West) will probably know someone who has served. But how many people do you know from the other side? How many emails did you get from bombarded Iraqis or oppressed Afghans asking you to raise awareness? Someone I know and I would consider a friend is the target of this conflict and is on what is probably the losing side. If you are reading this, then you are two degrees of contact away from someone involved with this conflict by proxy. Outsourcing war has been the global modus operandi since the end of the Second World War, but unfortunately it is getting ever closer to home.

For my part, I can no longer remain in political apathy despite the difficulty in mobilisation and organisation; there will be no tomorrow if we carry on in this slumber. Taking some time out of your day to read up on the situation is a first step. After that, what comes next will come naturally.

The Guardian

Trench warfare, drones and cowering civilians: on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh 13.10.2020
Syrian recruit describes role of foreign fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh 02.10.2020
Nagorno-Karabakh: at least three Syrian fighters killed 30.09.2020

Le Monde

Haut-Karabakh : Vladimir Poutine confirme un accord de « cessez-le-feu total » entre l’Arménie et l’Azerbaïdjan 10.11.2020
L’Azerbaïdjan accuse l’Arménie d’un bombardement meurtrier dans son territoire 28.10.2020
La troisième tentative de cessez-le-feu entre l’Arménie et l’Azerbaïdjan vole en éclats 26.10.2020
Pourquoi l’Arménie et l’Azerbaïdjan s’affrontent dans le Haut-Karabakh 28.09.2020

Der Spiegel

Alle Beiträge
“Jede Minute kann einer meiner Freunde sterben” 10.10.2020

Links to petitions

Defend Armenia
Stop Azerbaijan & Turkey’s War Crimes Against Civilians in Artsakh
Stop U.S. Military Aid to Azerbaijan and Stop Azerbaijani Aggression Against Armenia