The Notion of “Turan” in Eurasianism of the 1920s

The paired concept of “Iran” and “Turan” has undergone many modifications in history. Its classical use is associated with the medieval Persian epic, in particular, with Firdausi, where “Iran” was understood as a state of sedentary farmers, and “Turan” as a world of nomads of Central Asia (in antiquity—Iranian-speaking, and since the 6th century A.D.—Turkic-speaking and Mongol-speaking). As applied to antiquity, it was thus a question of the opposition between the Western Iranian and Eastern Iranian (in the linguistic sense) worlds.

At the beginning of the 20th century the meaning of the term “Turan” was radically changed by such pan-Turkists as Yusuf Akchurin and Ziya Gokalp. Starting from 1911-1912 on the wave of the Young Turk revolution, they began to understand “Turan” as the totality of Turkic-speaking peoples far beyond the historical Turan (Central Asia). In 1923 Gokalp published the book, Basic Principles of Turkism, thus completing the process of creating the myth of Turan opposing both the Aryan and Arab worlds.

By this time, the Eurasian movement had emerged and was gaining strength in the Russian emigration, whose leaders N.S. Trubetskoy and P.N. Savitsky opposed Pan-Turkism, contrasting it with the idea of the historical and geographic unity of the peoples of Russia-Eurasia. With this approach, the nomads of the steppes (Kazakhs) and sedentary Turks of the Volga region (Tatars) were inextricably linked with the Russian world, and the Turks of Anatolia—with the Greek, Balkan, Mediterranean world [Трубецкой Н.С. О туранском элементе в русской культуре // Трубецкой Н.С. История. Культура. Язык. М.: Прогресс, 1995. С. 141–161—N.S. Trubetskoy, “On the Turanian element in Russian culture,” in N.S. Trubetskoy, History. Culture. Language (Moscow: Progress, 1995), pp. 141-161.].

However, the intermediate position of Central Asia in such a scheme remained uncertain and caused Eurasians a sense of discomfort. Against the background of the creation in 1924 of the Soviet Union republics, primarily Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it was necessary to determine whether this region belonged to Russia-Eurasia, Turan or Iran as a place of development. At first, however, Eurasianists had no experts on Iran and Central Asia. They could rely on the old works of V.I. Lamansky on the borders of the “middle world of Asia-European continent,” but even in them the southern border of the Russian, Eurasian world was defined extremely vaguely, mainly on the border of the Russian Empire with Afghanistan, along the ridges of the Hindu Kush and Tibet [Ламанский В.И. Об историческом изучении греко-славянского мира в Европе // Ламанский В.И. Геополитика панславизма. М.: Институт русской цивилизации, 2010. С. 86.—V.I. Lamansky, “On the Historical Study of the Greek-Slavic World in Europe,” in V.I. Lamansky, Geopolitics of Pan-Slavism (Moscow: Institute of Russian Civilization, 2010), p. 86.].

Luckily for the Eurasianists, there came along Vasilii Petrovich Nikitin (1885-1960), an experienced Orientalist, diplomat, and Iranianist. From 1912 to 1919, he worked in the Russian consulates in Persia, even headed them, was closely acquainted with the lives of the Kurds and Assyrians and their leaders, participated in the events of the First World War on this front. After the Revolution he emigrated to Paris and never returned to his homeland. Working for thirty years in a French bank, he devoted his free time to writing scientific works on Orientalism, gained recognition among French Orientalists, and became a member of various academies and scientific societies. While still in Russia, he married a Frenchwoman, which allowed him to easily enter the circle of the French ultra-right and traditionalists, the first among Russian emigrants to read and popularize the works of René Guénon.

Nikitin at various times wrote about India, China, Japan, even Poland, but he always focused on the people of Iran. After his death, his fundamental work on the Kurds was published in the Soviet Union [Никитин В.П. Курды. М.: Прогресс, 1964.—V.P. Nikitin, The Kurds (Moscow: Progress, 1964).]. Therefore, Eurasians were immediately interested in him as an Iranianist. At the first meeting with Nikitin on September 24, 1925, the leader of the Eurasian movement, N.S. Trubetskoy, asked him to write a major article on Russia, Iran and Turan in order to define the boundaries between them. Nikitin recorded a summary of his conversation with Trubetskoy: “Our Turanism interferes with Iranism and frightens it (big and small Turan).” [Сорокина М.Ю. Василий Никитин: Свидетельские показания в деле о русской эмиграции // Диаспора: новые материалы. Вып. 1. Париж – СПб.: Athenaeum-Феникс, 2001. С. 603.—M.Y. Sorokina, “Vasily Nikitin: Witness testimony in the case of Russian emigration,” in Diaspora: Novye materialy, Vyp. 1, Sankt-Petersburg–Paris 2001, p. 603].

The Eurasianists needed clarification of the concept of Turan in order to allow their ideology to spread among the Turkic-speaking peoples of the USSR. Nikitin actively took up the work, and by the end of the year he finished the article, and on January 4, 1926 he received a visit from P.P. Suvchinsky, who praised it [Sorokina (2001), p. 606]. This topic also aroused the interest of other Eurasians; in particular, L.P. Karsavin asked Nikitin: “Can a Persian become Russian? What would happen to Christianity if the Persians adopted it? After all, from Zoroastrianism, not without reason, they have deviated into “Satanic” Manichaeism.” [Sorokina (2001), p. 602].

Between January 1926 and September 1929, Nikitin published 24 of his articles in Eurasian publications. Many of them were devoted to the general justification of the need to intensify Soviet Russia’s policy in Asian countries, but a number of works dealt specifically with Persia, its relations with Russia before the revolution, during World War I, and at the present moment under the regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi.

[Никитин В.П. 1) Персия в проблеме Среднего Востока // Евразийская хроника. Вып. 5. Париж, 1926. С. 1–15; 2) Ритмы Евразии // Евразийская хроника. Вып. 9. Париж, 1927. С. 46–48; 3) По Азии. Сегодняшняя Персия // Евразийская хроника. Вып. 9. Париж, 1927. С. 55–60; 4) [Рец.:] Свентицкий А.С. Персия. РИОБ НКВТ. М., 1925; Корецкий А. Торговый Восток и СССР. Прометей, 1925 // Евразийская хроника. Вып. 10. Париж, 1928. С. 86–88; 5) Россия и Персия. Очерки 1914–1918 гг. // Евразия. 1929. 6 апреля. № 20. С. 5–6; 13 апреля. № 21. С. 5; 20 апреля. № 22. С. 5; 27 апреля. № 23. С. 6–7; 4 мая. № 24. С. 6; 1 июня. № 28. С. 7–8; 6) Персидское возрождение // Евразия. 1929. 29 июня. № 30. С. 5–6; 10 августа. № 33. С. 6; 7 сентября. № 35. С. 6–7.—V.P. Nikitin, “Persia in the Problem of the Middle East,” in Eurasian Chronicle, Vol. 5 (Paris, 1926), pp. 1-15; “Rhythms of Eurasia,” in Eurasian Chronicle. Vol. 9 (Paris, 1927), pp. 46-48; “Across Asia. Today’s Persia,” in Eurasian Chronicle, Vol. 9 (Paris, 1927), pp. 55-60; Review: A.S. Sventitsky, Persia (RIOB NKVT. M., 1925); A. Koretsky, Trade East and the USSR (Prometheus, 1925}, in Eurasian Chronicle, Vyp. 10. (Paris, 1928), pp. 86-88; “Russia and Persia. Sketches of 1914-1918,” in Eurasia 1929: (April 6), № 20, pp. 5-6; (April 13), № 21, p. 5; (April 20), № 22, p. 5; (April 27), № 23, pp. 6-7; (May 4), № 24, p. 6; (June 1), № 28, pp. 7-8; “Persian Revival,” in Eurasia 1929: (June 29), № 30, pp. 5-6; (August 10), № 33, p. 6; (September 7), № 35, pp. 6-7.

In addition, Nikitin made oral presentations on Iranian topics at Eurasian seminars in Paris. [Татищев Н. Евразийский семинар в Париже // Евразийская хроника. Вып. 7. Париж, 1927. С. 44.—N. Tatishchev, “Eurasian Seminar in Paris,” in Eurasian Chronicle, Vyp. 7. (Paris, 1927), p. 44].

The above-mentioned article “Iran, Turan and Russia,” the preface to which was written by P.N. Savitsky, stands out among these essays in terms of its conceptuality. [Никитин В.П. Иран, Туран и Россия // Евразийский временник. Книга пятая. Париж: Евразийское книгоиздательство, 1927. С. 75–120.—V.P. Nikitin, Iran, Turan and Russia, in Eurasian Times. Book Five (Paris: Eurasian Book Publishers, 1927), pp. 75-120].

It won such popularity that it was a success even more than thirty years later. Nikitin by this time gave out all its reprints and was glad when P.N. Savitsky, in November 1959, sent copies to the students in the USSR [Sorokina (2001), p. 643].

How was the problem of the definition of Turan in this work handled? Savitsky recalled the cooperation between Russia and Iran in the Middle Ages, but at the same time he refused to include Iran in the place-development of Russia-Eurasia. In his opinion, “internal Iran” is an Asian country and for centuries fought the Scythian-Sarmatian nomads of the Eurasian steppes as representatives of “external Iran.” Recognizing a certain Iranian contribution to the formation of the Russian people, Savitsky still considered this contribution to be small [Editorial note of P.N. Savitsky. See, Nikitin, Iran, Turan and Russia, pp. 75-78.].

Nikitin looked at the problem quite differently. According to him, Russia and Iran are in a similar position at the crossroads of civilizations, and the Russian national character combines in itself Turanian and Iranian traits. The Turanian character is known from the works of N.S. Trubetskoy (it is a warrior, alien to abstract philosophy, hardy, loyal, passive). But Nikitin also pointed to the other pole of the Russian soul—the Iranian, represented in individualism and mysticism of the Old Believers, sectarians, Khlysts, preachers in general [Nikitin, Iran, Turan and Russia, pp. 79-80.]. The scientist viewed the history of Eurasia as a dialectic of the struggle of Iran and Turan, their ebb and flow. He later added to his article with three hand-drawn maps, showing how the concept of Turan expanded over the centuries until it encompassed both the steppe zone and agricultural Central Asia (Maverannahr) [Nikitin, Iran, Turan and Russia, pp. 118-120.]. Nikitin referred to the works of another Eurasianist P.M. Bicilli on the attempted alliance of Byzantium with the Turkic Khaganate against Sassanian Iran as a typical manifestation of the struggle between the two Eurasian principles [Бицилли П.М. Восток и Запад в истории Старого Света // На путях: Утверждение евразийцев. Книга 2. Берлин, 1922. С. 320–321.—P.M. Bicilli, “East and West in the History of the Old World,” in On the Roads: The Assertion of Eurasians. Book 2. (Berlin, 1922), pp. 320-321.].

Considering the history of Iran’s wars with nomads over many centuries, the researcher drew attention to the lack of study of Russian-Iranian ties and mutual influences [Nikitin, Iran, Turan and Russia, pp. 103-115.]. “There is a Turanian yarn in this Iranian-Russian canvas,” he concluded [Nikitin, Iran, Turan and Russia, pp. 113.].

He summed up: “The place of Russia between Iran and Turan has also been indicated…. Under the Mongol yoke both Rus and Iran were on an equal position of subordination to the Turan ulus. After liberation from this yoke, Rus and Iran went their own ways, as a result of which Rus took in relation to Iran the geographical position of Turan, whereas on the Bosporus, the statehood of Turanian root strengthened” [Nikitin, Iran, Turan and Russia, pp. 115.]. Nikitin reinforced this political conclusion with a reflection on the need for self-discovery of the Russian character with its duality of Turanian and Iranian traits: “Turan in our mental stock is an articulate, ‘kosher’ beginning, whereas Iran is individualism, in a form that reaches the point of rebellion, of anarchy” [Nikitin, Iran, Turan and Russia, pp. 116].

Marlène Laruelle, analyzing the reasons why Trubetskoy and Savitsky had asked for a detailed study of Iran and Turan from Nikitin, suggests that “the sedentary Central Asia… presented a problem for Eurasian thought,” that “the borders with Asia remained… blurred, and the movement failed to capture all the original and imagined potential that the claims of the Timurid and Mongol heritage carried within them” [Laruelle, pp. 172-173]. Therefore, according to Laruelle, “Eurasianism will remain indecisive about the sedentary peoples of Central Asia all the time” [Laruelle, p. 173]. These conclusions, in view of the above, do not seem quite accurate, and it is unlikely that the formula proposed by Laruelle can follow directly from the analyzed works of Nikitin, Savitsky, Trubetskoy, and Bicilli: “China embodies Asia; Persia is the outer East in relation to Russia; Turan is its inner East” [Laruelle, p. 177]. Nikitin himself nowhere distinguished between “East” and “Asia,” but always ranked Iran alongside India, China, and “Mediterranean Turkey” as civilizations that were Asian rather than Eurasian.

In his later Eurasian articles, Персидское возрождение [The Persian Renaissance (1929): Никитин В.П. Персидское возрождение // Евразия. 1929. 29 июня. № 30. С. 5–6; 10 августа. № 33. С. 6; 7 сентября. № 35. С. 6–7.—Nikitin, “Persian Revival,” in Eurasia. 1929: (June 29), № 30, pp. 5-6; (August 10), № 33, p. 6; (September 7), № 35, pp. 6-7.]—Nikitin put forward the thesis that, contrary to supposed apathy, cultural life in Iran never died, began to revive rapidly from the middle of the 19th century and reached a new level after 1925 under Reza Shah Pahlavi. The scholar talked about the general rhythm of Russian and Iranian history, from the fall of the Safavids and the Persian campaign of Peter the Great to the revolutionary events of the first quarter of the 20th century in both countries. Nikitin expressed the hope that the St. Petersburg period of Russian history, with its Westernizing intellectuals who did not want to understand Asia, was over. The duties of man to God instead of rights, the collectivism of the people instead of democracy and citizenship were what, in Nikitin’s opinion, united Russia with the Islamic world. The researcher hoped that “through the joint efforts of the Eurasian and Persian nationalities and the Moscow and Tehran authorities, ways would be found for a new politics and culture beyond imitation and dependence on imperialism and capitalism of the West and America” [Eurasia, 1929: (June 29), № 30, p. 5.]. At the same time Nikitin did not abandon the Eurasian slogans “about demoticism, about ideocracy, about the labor state and the common cause” [Eurasia, 1929: (June 29), № 30, p. 6]. The scholar presciently anticipated the future ideas of Khomeini and the Islamic revolution, pointing out the necessity for Iran to develop a new state system: not parliamentarism and not absolutism, but a combination of the Shiite principle of “light-bearing” Imamate and modern conditions [Eurasia, 1929: (August 10), № 33, p. 6].

Nikitin drew particular attention to the ease of mutual understanding between Russian and Persian peasants and merchants, the “osmosis” between them, and the rapidity of Russian settlement in Iran.

Nikitin predicted the “rise of national energy” in Persia, expressed already by the end of the 1920s in that country gaining full political independence, active construction of railroads, improvements in agriculture, and the development of new fields, all with German and Soviet support. In the field of religion and culture, the scholar noted in contemporary Iran a “feverish” surge of enthusiasm for Zoroastrianism, the neo-pagan reconstruction of the Sassanid era, Babism, and renewed Shiism. He noted the gravitation of Iranian thought towards an identity as opposed to the imitative nature of the Turan, described earlier by N.S. Trubetskoy [Eurasia, 1929: (September 7), № 30, p. 7].

Thus, according to the Eurasianists of the 1920s, Iran (the West Iranian peoples) opposed the steppe, nomadic Turan (the East Iranian, and later Turkic peoples). And that Russia is a direct heir of Turan, but it should choose the path of active foreign policy and cooperation on an equal basis, and the harmonization of development and revolutionary revival of Russia and Iran, rather than confrontation with Iran (as well as with India and China), as it was in the times of nomadic raids.

As for Turan, under such an interpretation, covering not only the Kazakh steppes, but also the sedentary Central Asia, it was included in the Eurasian place-development, becoming an integral part of Russia.

Thus, Eurasianists, with their historical and geographical arguments, knocked out any ground from under the pan-Turkic understanding of the myth of Turan as a set of only Turkic-speaking “descendants of the wolf” opposed to all other peoples of Eurasia. Nikitin specifically stipulated that the “Pan-Turan idea” in Turkey and Hungary was “a phenomenon of the intelligentsia’s mugshot and a certain literary fashion” [Никитин В.П. По Азии (Факты и мысли) // Версты: Вып. 1. Париж, 1926. С. 241.—V.P. Nikitin, Across Asia. Facts and Thoughts, (Paris, 1926), p. 241.] This formulation of the question is not only of academic interest but also sounds very relevant nowadays, when the ideology of pan-Turkism is supported by the elites of Turkey and Great Britain, and the convergence of the Eurasian Union, headed by Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, has reached a qualitatively new stage.


Maxim Medovarov, PhD, is at Department of Historical Methods and Informatics, Nizhny Novgorod State University. This article appears through the kind courtesy of Geopolitica.


Featured: Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot” (“Daughter of Turan”), April 25, 1926.

Of War and Freedom

Crisis situations are not conducive to the exercise of discernment. This is even more true in times of conflict, where this faculty is more necessary than ever. The very legitimate emotions that the horrors of war and the added effects of propaganda arouse polarize societies more than ever, and people’s intelligence is readily asked to “choose a side” which, whatever it may be, is rarely that of intelligence.

The Russian aggression in Ukraine is no exception to the rule, and remaining faithful to oneself is more than ever considered a betrayal, for all those—and there are many—who want to see us embrace their faith. Yet the dilemma is a big one for the true supporters of freedom.

Let us pass over quickly the easy and captious apology of Vladimir Putin. It is true that it was Poroshenko’s Ukraine, then Zelensky’s, which first did not respect the commitments made during the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements on the relative autonomy of the country’s eastern and Russian-speaking provinces. It is true that NATO has played a perverse and destabilizing role by implicitly promising Ukraine membership without ever explicitly offering it. It is true that the Western democracies in general and the European Union in particular have behaved in an unavowable way like so many crime-pushers by arousing—or even creating from scratch—an anti-Russian resentment which is not far from constituting today the essential part of the Ukrainian identity; an identity which would have been very difficult to discern from the Russian identity even forty years ago.

An Indignation with Variable Geometry

The fact remains that peoples are supposedly free to decide their own destiny—especially when they subordinate it to the prior implementation of democratic mechanisms—and that the Ukrainians had the right, like so many others before them, to decide their future as an independent nation. In this light, however, the undignified treatment that the Kiev regime has imposed on its Russian-speaking citizens since 2014 is all the more regrettable because it did not fall within the scope of these famous democratic mechanisms and was the surest route to the Russian intervention that Kiev was precisely trying to get rid of.

But this is not the question I want to raise. As many feel, what is at stake is not so much Ukraine’s freedom as our own, which is being eroded more and more each day. If Ukraine was not just a pretext to weaken Russia, why this silence on Armenia? Why this silence on the Kurds? Why this silence on Yemen? Why this silence on so many other vales of tears where the serenity of the criminals feeds on the indifference—not of the Westerners—but of those who manufacture their opinion. The question then immediately arises: Why then would our immense media arsenal conspire day and night, as it does, to over-abundantly establish the crimes of Vladimir Putin, and not those of Ilham Aliev, and not those of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; and not those of Mohammed bin Salman?

Paradoxical as it may seem, the answer is that Putin and what he represents are the best guarantors of our freedoms. I insist—of our freedoms as Westerners, and not of course those of the Ukrainians. Of course, Putin is a bastard like the others. But—to use the well-known aphorism—the others are “our bastards.” What our powers reproach Putin for is not so much that he is a bastard as that he is not theirs.

A hasty or ill-intentioned reader might think that I am implying from these few truths that life would be sweeter under Russian rule. Certainly not, need I say it? But in a world where great totalitarian blocs confront each other, human freedom can only survive on the peripheries, on the margins, in those subduction zones that only their confrontation preserves from monolithic solidification. Everywhere else, free thought is withering away, whether under the merciless boot of Eastern tyrants or in the intellectual suffocation that Western democracies have become.

Freedom Needs a Multipolar World

A few prophets—from Georges Bernanos to Jacques Ellul, and from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Ivan Illich—have seen it with a prescience that makes one shudder: Served by an ever more intrusive technology, a society with the conformism of a termite mound forbids dissent a little more, every day. Where the good old totalitarianisms had to be satisfied with a façade of adhesion, postmodern totalitarianism has the means of its ambitions, that of monitoring, re-educating and domesticating the masses with an unheard-of finesse and depth. Those who claim that democracies guarantee pluralism where authoritarian systems impose the voice of the state are jokers: each uses its own methods—that’s all—and the “democratic” variety of the Western media is only the flexible and protean decorum of a domination that is not at all democratic.

In a recent and remarkable article, Gabriel Martinez-Gros affirms that “the war in Ukraine is characteristic of these resistances [against empires]. Russia is not the empire described here but a nation-state. The empire is us: the West.” The first proposition about the nation-state nature of Russia is certainly questionable. The second about the empire and its postmodern religion that we represent is much less so. For a long time, this empire may have seemed benign because of factors that fed each other: the existence of a threat in terms of a competing global ideological project—communism—and the relative moderation of the political practices of a liberal system that had to reckon with this competitor whose captious lures seduced and still seduce so many of our compatriots.

The disappearance of communism has led the liberal empire to throw off the now useless mask of democracy in order to impose its religious dogmas in an authoritarian manner—and with increasing brutality. If it is fashionable to denounce illiberal democracies, this should not hide the fact that we are now living in an anti-democratic liberalism: this integral liberalism—economic and societal, totally unbridled—does not bother to hide the cynical and unlimited greed that constitutes its psychological strength and sets about destroying with tenfold violence the nation-states and their institutions, which it rightly perceives as the last dykes capable of restricting its omnipotence.

The strategy of shock employed provokes a state of stupefaction within our societies which are its victims, just as a boxer who is knocked out standing upright no longer feels the new blows which are going to knock him down. One can no longer count the proven facts that—even ten years ago—would have brought the people out into the street and that today only provoke a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders: The evidence of Ursula Von der Leyen’s corruption? Shrug of the shoulders. The price of nuclear electricity indexed to that of fossil fuels? Shrug of the shoulders. The plundering in the name of the market of national companies such as EDF paid for with the taxes of the French? Shrug. The almost daily murder of French people by the occupation troops of “diversity?” Shrug. Our progressive but irremediable entry into a status of cobelligerent servants of the empire? Shrug. The extraterritoriality of American commercial law and consequently the legal exemption by which the United States pretends to exempt its citizens from the laws of the other countries where they reside? Shrug, etc., etc. This is why we must hope for the permanent maintenance and even strengthening of different poles of power throughout the world, even if there is nothing to distinguish them in their foundations. For—apart from the unlikely short-term hypothesis of their collapse—it is indeed from their imperial competition alone and in the no-man’s-land of their confrontations that free and liberated Man will still have a minimal chance of surviving in the future.


Laurent Leylekian is former director of the Euro-Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy (Brussels) and former director of publication of France-Armenia magazine. He is now a political analyst, member of the Armenian Observatory and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. This article appears through the courtesy of Revue Elements.


Featured: Martin Waldseemüller’s world map, ca. 1507-1508.

Armenia, A Historical Betrayal

This history should never be forgotten. Its roots go back to myths, in it we find Noah, the universal flood, the beginnings of civilization and human culture, Urartu. Many pages of the Bible refer to all of this. Indeed, the southern mountains of the Western Caucasus were the ancestral home of the Armenian people, and very specifically the valleys and mountains where the so-called Artsakh or Upper Karabakh is located today. It is no coincidence that the Shusha Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Ghazanchetsots, was erected by Simon Ter Hakobyan on the remains of an ancient Armenian chapel. Artsakh is not just any region, it is the place where the founding father of the Armenian people, Hayk, decided that his people should settle forever. The mountains of Artsakh are the symbol of the faith of a people who believe in their destiny.

But let us descend from myths and legends to the harsh reality that the Armenian people are experiencing as they see how their precious cradle is being manipulated in a clear attempt to annihilate historical reality. How could it happen that an essential part of Armenia ended up in the hands of Azerbaijan? What were the motivations and circumstances that, after the Bolshevik revolution, led an ancestral Armenian territory to become an integral part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, and to remain part of that country today? Why did a territory that was Christian to the core, an area where Christianity was established from time immemorial—more than three centuries before the appearance of Islam—come to be dominated by Shiite Muslims? What strange events allowed such a thing to happen? Let us analyze the process.

Nagorno-Karabakh (Credit: The Economist).

From the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution, the relationship of the Supreme Soviet with the Islamic peoples of what had been Tsarist Greater Russia was uneasy, difficult to manage, since the Bolshevik propaganda, Marxist and atheist, seemed to produce any results; not even the creation of the new republics seemed to satisfy the national claims of the various Muslim peoples and their particularities. Communism and Islam have never gotten along, Marxism and Koran are antithetical. Atheism is a declared enemy of Islam, because it denies its own existence. But it was not only the profound differences between the Bolshevik government and the different Muslim peoples of the new USSR. For example, some of the Tatar minorities were Shiites, others were not; while the Chechens were radical Sunnis, the Muslims of the upper Volga were not, and therefore their claims were very different.

But let us analyze the process: in 1918 a committee for the Muslim nationalities existing in Soviet Russia was created, a committee that naturally depended on the Narkomnats, and by a series of circumstances Stalin accepted that the majority of that committee would be in the hands of the Tatars, which would mark his future. Obsessed with securing his power, and as was asserting his will, Stalin tried to manipulate the sub-commissioners, not wanting the internal problem of both sides allying against him.

On the other hand, in those very days, the Armenians had just survived the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks, so they were very weakened from all points of view, including politically, since even within Lenin’s own circle, it was believed that Armenians would be incapable of carrying on the existence of their own Armenian homeland. It should be pointed out that the recently re-founded Armenian state was economically ruined, defenseless, without an army to defend it, unable to feed its own people, abandoned by the advanced nations, and for all these reasons it was an easy prey for Turkey which sought to put an end to “the Armenian problem” once and for all. It should also be made clear that Kemal Atatürk did not modify Ottoman policy one iota, and although he assured Europe that he wanted a modern and secular Turkey, he also wanted it to be free of Christians and above all of Armenians.

The Democratic Republic of Armenia, independent from the Ottoman Empire since 1918, was by force of circumstances transformed on November 29, 1920 into the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, and from that very moment it did not have the slightest autonomous capacity to carry out a process of regulation of its borders based on its historical reality, but became -as all the other Soviet socialist republics- a bargaining chip for the selfish interests of the Soviet protagonists of the revolution, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky and the other general secretaries, who, as mentioned above, were carrying out their particular strategy for power, while the socialist utopia remained in the background. Lenin asserted that without power, socialist reality could not be built, which was obvious. Stalin, who at that time was a parvenu without a curriculum vitae, was ready to take the plunge. It is more than demonstrated that he used the Commissariat for the Nationalities as a mere lever to achieve his political ends, and that there was not the least coherence in his decision making, although it was the circumstances that finally made him General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, unbelievably against the resounding will of Lenin, of course also of Trotsky and of the majority of the remaining leaders who at a given moment were coerced and had no alternative but to submit to Stalin, and for that reason almost all of them ended up paying for their indecision or their cowardice with their lives.

Let us see what Trotsky has to say about this, it in his biography of Stalin:

“On November 27, 1919, the 11th Congress of Muslim Communist Organizations of All-Russia and the Peoples of the East was held in Moscow. The Congress was opened by Stalin on behalf of the Central Committee of the Party. Four honorary members were elected: Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Stalin. The chairman of the Congress, Sultan-Galiev, proposed that the Congress salute Stalin as “one of those fighters who burn with a flame of hatred against international imperialism.” But it is very characteristic for the gradation of the leaders at that time, that even at this Congress the Sultan-Galiev Report on political revolution in general ended with the salutation: “Long live the Russian Communist Party! Long live its leaders, comrades Lenin and Trotsky!” Even this Congress of the Peoples of the East, held under the immediate leadership of Stalin, did not think it necessary to include Stalin among the leaders of the Party. Stalin was People’s Commissariat of Nationalities from the time of the Revolution until the dissolution of the Commissariat in 1923, when the Soviet Union and the Council of Nationalities of the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.S.R. were created. It can be considered firmly established that, at least until May 1919, Stalin did not have much to do with the affairs of the Commissariat. At first, Stalin did not write the editorials of The Life of the Nationalities [Zhizn Natsionalnostei, a weekly newspaper and then a magazine, published from 1918 to 1924]. Then, when the paper began to be published in magazine format, Stalin’s editorials began to appear one issue after another. But Stalin’s literary productivity was not great, and it decreased from year to year. In 1920-1921 we find only two or three articles by him. In 1922, not a single one. By then Stalin had gone over entirely to machine politics.”

In other words, Stalin used the post as Commissar of Nationalities to guarantee his future within the politburo, knowing that until Lenin disappeared nothing was assured. Trotsky dissects in detail Stalin’s personality in that exciting and dramatic stage.

On August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres was signed in Sèvres, France, in the presence of the Turkish representatives. It was the logical consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, in which the Ottoman Empire, still ruled by Sultan Mehmed VI, accepted the de facto situation, and lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Arabia, Iraq, while Asia Minor was cut up according to the demanding criteria of the victors. Armenia, in that treaty, put together as Wilsonian Armenia, became a viable state again with the eastern part of Turkey, recomposing in part—and only in part—the historical Armenia. Naturally Atatürk assured his generals that the treaty would not be carried out, and that they would have to fight to the death to change things. He was a pragmatic man and referred exclusively to Asia Minor, to Turkey itself, knowing that its own existence as a country was at stake.

Immediately the Turkish army attacked the territories under French, Italian and Greek influence, as well as those assigned to Armenia. France did not wish to lose more men or invest more resources in a distant war. Italy could not continue either, and Greece even less. The Turks focused on expelling the Armenians from their cities, until the situation became impossible for the Armenian government, with no funds, no credit, hardly any soldiers, no weapons, although it is true that the British gave some military aid.

Atatürk, who was a good strategist, had made a pact with the SSR of Azerbaijan, which he considered Turkish, and for that reason in June 1920 the Democratic Republic of Armenia was forced to declare a costly truce with the Azeris, since the Turkish army was besieging them and driving them to exhaustion, becoming at that time the SSR of Armenia. It was the overwhelming situation which forced the Armenian government to sign peace with the Azeris, having to cede Zangezur and Nagorno-Karabakh to them, besides recognizing their dominion in Nakhchivan.

But Atatürk’s Turks kept up the war pressure on a practically exhausted Armenia, unarmed, without ammunition, without resources, without a real army that could defend its borders. It simply had no one to turn to. There were no resources, much less financial; no provisions, not for the weak Armenian army, not even for the starving and impoverished civilians. Armenian children continued to die of starvation, without hospitals, without medicine. That is why the Turks took advantage of the situation, the extreme state of the Armenian state, and entered Alexandroupolis, forcing peace.

Let us analyze the circumstances. A few days later, in fact four days later, on December 2, 1920, the Treaty of Alexandropol was signed between the recently created Armenian SSR and Turkey and what is today Gyumri, the beautiful city that during Tsarist Russia had been christened as Alexandropol. Supposedly this treaty was an agreement to end the Turkish-Armenian war, and it dismantled the Treaty of Sèvres, since Turkey demanded Armenia’s renunciation of all the territory that before the Great War had belonged to the Ottoman Empire, besides forcing it to recognize the independence of Nakhchivan.

A few months later, in mid-March 1921, within the framework of the Treaty of Moscow, Lenin decided to reach an agreement with the Great National Assembly of Turkey, whose undisputed leader was now Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the victor of Gallipoli, the only Turkish leader who could face the victors of the Great War on equal terms. It must be emphasized that neither the USSR nor the Republic of Turkey yet existed. The “Turkey” of that time was that of the National Pact, according to the resolution adopted by the Ottoman parliament on January 28, 1920. It should be noted that the northeastern borders of Turkey and those of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were defined without the participation of Armenian and Georgian representatives, while the interests of Azerbaijan were well represented by Turkey, which considered the Azeris as Turkish allies in Atatürk’s Pan-Turkist policy. Therefore, in the Treaty of Moscow it was unilaterally decided that the Kars Oblast would be assigned to Turkey, and at the request of the Turkish leader the autonomous region of Nakhichevan was also created under the protection of Azerbaijan. In compensation, at the demand of Russia, supposedly at the will and discretion of Lenin, Turkey ceded Batumi and the adjacent area to Georgia, and in such a way that the Armenians lost an essential part of their territory, and above all they were deprived of the vital possibility of having an exit to the Black Sea, that is to say, a limited and dependent Armenia was left for strategic purposes, while the Turks guaranteed their relationship based on stability with the future USSR.

At the same time, the 10th Congress of the Communist Party was taking place, where decisions of great importance were taken:

“Every group, fraction or tendency within the Party was suppressed, tendencies that arose as a consequence of the post-war crisis. Everyone had to accept the official orthodoxy under penalty of being expelled. The aim was to achieve loyalty and uniformity. Authority was concentrated in the central organs of the Party. The idea was Lenin’s and was supported by the entire Bolshevik leadership.

“In order to achieve strict discipline within the Party and in all Soviet activity and to attain the highest degree of unity possible with the suppression of all factionalism, the Congress grants the Central Committee full powers in the case or cases of any breach produced in discipline by resurgence or toleration of factionalism, to apply all measures of Party sanction, including expulsion.”

Galiev and Stalin openly confronted each other during the congress. The false, impossible friendship between the two leaders was over, and both were well aware of it. Stalin branded as reactionary the proposal that the Islamic autonomous territories should be incorporated into the Soviet Union as independent republics—in fact the claim of the Muslims not to be linked to the USSR, since Galiev was in fact very suspicious about what the future would hold for the Soviet republics, and feared that Islam would be diluted in the Marxist atheism of the Bolsheviks. Time proved him right.

Recent history has not been consistent with historical reality. Barely three months later, on July 5, 1921, Stalin’s boundless ambition prevailed. It should be remembered that it was Stalin who, without any grounds or historical basis, unilaterally, capriciously, dictatorially, decided to create the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and transfer it to the newly created Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic without any justification for his decision. Why did he carry out such an incoherent act? He was well aware of what could happen with that capricious and absurd decision.

It should be emphasized that at that time Stalin held the post of People’s Commissariat for Nationalities, (Narodny Komissariat po delam natsionálnostei, or Narkomnats). Researcher Stephen Blank maintains that this commissariat was created by the Bolsheviks to control the participation of those non-Russian ethnic groups, supposedly to give voice to the minorities, which were politically grouped in sub-commissariats for each of them: Jewish, Georgian, Armenian, Azeri or Tatar, Latvian, Polish, Buryat, Lithuanian, Estonian, and many others. In reality, what mattered to Stalin was how he could use his strategic position to climb politically and establish himself in power. For Levon Chorbajian, “the creation of Nagorno-Karabakh” was a challenge to history. Stalin, who knew very well the bitterness between Turks and Azeris on the one hand, and Armenians on the other, bet on the former “for political convenience,” that is to say within the context of Soviet-Turkish cooperation, trying to keep the influence of the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus.

Both Stalin and Kemal Atatürk were urged to resolve the burning issue of the South Caucasus, an open ulcer that bothered and harmed both sides, and which generated continuous frictions. For Stalin it was not an unknown or very distant issue; on the contrary, it was something close to him, something he had known well since his youth. No one had to explain to him about the Caucasus and its peculiarities, nor about what had just happened with the Armenians for whom he had never felt sympathy. In Georgia the Armenians had a reputation for being pragmatic people, ambitious, businessmen and good merchants; they were not empathetic with their hosts the Georgians. In Azerbaijan the same thing happened to them. In Baku they ran the main oil companies, import and export warehouses, financial institutions. They did not bother about being nice.

On the other hand, Atatürk had too many open fronts, including the very future of Turkey as a country; and Stalin was also playing for his political prestige—in short to be or not to be. It was evident to the unstable Bolshevik government that Lenin’s distrust of Stalin had already begun. Even so, Lenin allowed Stalin and Atatürk to reach an agreement and take the decision to modify and adjust the Treaty of Moscow in a new agreement to be concluded in one of the towns with the largest Armenian population eliminated during the genocide: the Treaty of Kars, to be signed on October 13, 1921, an agreement that would tie up and finalize all pending issues, especially the borders of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Not even three months had passed since the unexpected cession of Upper Karabakh to Azerbaijan, which the Armenian government hoped to reverse and return to the previous situation.

In the new Treaty of Kars, the Georgians were content with the port of Batumi, not because of political sense, nor because of the Bolsheviks’ responsibility towards Georgia, but because Stalin had his own commitments. To the Azeris, Stalin—it had been a personal decision because the commissar of nationalities did not agree on anything—had granted Upper Karabakh, and also Nakhichevan, so the Azeris had nothing to object to, and besides, it was the Turks who were pressing to sign such an agreement.

On the other hand, everyone was well aware that at that very moment razzias and pogroms were being carried out in Baku and all the eastern part of Azerbaijan to eliminate the Armenians and their strong interests in the oil market with Europe. It was not something concealed—that the Turks wanted to annihilate not only the Armenian population in Turkey itself, but also in those nearby countries where Turkish influence was decisive, as was the case of Azerbaijan. The relationship between Istanbul and Baku was already akin to colonialism. But at that time the British, who had troops stationed in the Caucasus, looked the other way, among other things because the Bolsheviks, led by Stalin, allowed all this. There were too many economic and political interests involved.

The situation needs to be told in detail. From the very moment Stalin awarded Upper Karabakh to the Azeris—to their surprise since they were not expecting the present size—the latter decided to carry out an ethnic and cultural cleansing of the oblast. The Armenians protested the decision as incoherent, unjust and sectarian. It was futile. At that time the strong relationship of common interests between the Tatar leader Mirza Sultan-Galiev and Joseph Stalin prevented the incomprehensible decision from being carried out. Both of them needed each other politically; their relationship was based on a false friendship. In reality they were two strong personalities who aspired to achieve their goals at any cost.

However, the pogroms against the Armenian population of Upper Karabakh, the destruction of churches, monasteries, khachkars, of any Armenian vestige existing in the ancestral settlement, were on-going. In spite of this, the stubborn reality of the facts could not be dismissed, since near ninety percent of the population settled in the valleys and mountains of the Upper Karabakh was of Armenian origin, all of them with deep roots that came from many centuries and millennia, in which the Armenians had modeled the hard landscape of what for them was their precious Artsakh. A harsh and difficult land; unkind, yet for them it signified the roots of their ancestral homeland, the place from which Hayk’s descendants came.

On the other hand, the Azerbaijani authorities found it unfeasible to move the Azerbaijani population there and force them to settle, although in certain places of Artsakh there were occasional Azeri settlements representing about 15 percent of the population. Among other reasons, the Azeris moved there considered it a punishment, because a deep knowledge based on hundreds of generations was necessary to survive and prosper in those harsh mountains of the southern Western Caucasus.

But the Armenians resisted pogroms and threats, political coercion, attempts at physical elimination, the destruction of their cultural references. If a hermitage or a monastery was demolished, the inhabitants raised it again, showing a strong will to remain. When the Azerbaijanis decided to destroy even the stones of the resulting ruins, the Armenians returned to the old quarries to carve the necessary stones. The elders remembered even the smallest ornamental and symbolic details of their monasteries and churches, and the skilled stonemasons patiently rebuilt what had been demolished and turned to dust, in an attempt to destroy and change the true history.

It should be remembered that the policy agreed to between Galiev and Stalin was one of selective application of anti-religious propaganda. For Galiev, in those days apparently a very close and loyal friend and protégé of Stalin, who cunningly used him in his service, the religion professed by the Armenians was only a demonstration against the interests of the Bolshevik party, while the Islam of the Tartars—their Islam—was nothing other than the expression of the will of Almighty God.

In the background, Galiev’s political ambition in those days was the creation of a great Tatar-Baskir republic in which Christian Armenia had no place. His secret, unspoken will was to finish what the Ottoman Turks had attempted: the definitive elimination, the disappearance, the expulsion of every last Armenian from the Armenia that had been allotted to them—in the end barely twenty percent of Wilsonian Armenia, of which neither Galiev, nor the administration of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, nor Stalin himself wanted to know anything about.

We say here that the Wilsonian Armenia contained in the Treaty of Sèvres remains intact—intact, complete, no matter how much people try to throw dirt on it, no matter how much they try to erase it from memory, no matter how many intermediate treaties have been signed—for the simple reason that that process was closed falsely. The political representatives of the Armenian people did not sign the Treaty of Lausanne in which an attempt was made to hastily modify the previous Treaty of Sèvres, without the necessary valid agreements, which did include precisely everything agreed upon and signed, including by the authorized representatives of the State of Turkey.

As for the Armenian participation in the Treaty of Moscow, it was null and void; and in the Treaty of Kars, the Armenian representatives were coerced and forced to sign it. However, two years later, in 1923, Galiev was tried and convicted for nationalist deviationism, and although Stalin carried out a series of purges against the Bashkir and Tatar followers of Galiev, he did not want to change his decision to award Upper Karabakh to the Azeris. In 1940 Galiev’s drama ended when he was shot in Moscow on Stalin’s orders, like the vast majority of those who opposed him for whatever reason. However, an essential matter, such as the allocation of an essential part of the historical Armenian territory, such as the Upper Karabakh to Azerbaijan, was not annulled, in spite of energetic Armenian protests.

Many years later—an eternity for the great majority of the peoples subjugated under the USSR—in 1991, the USSR was dissolved and, like all the other republics that made it up, the Soviet Muslim republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were transformed into independent republics, as had been Galiev’s intention seventy years earlier. Within the current Russian Federation itself, we still find the Muslim republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, which had no other choice, or which for their own reasons preferred to remain linked to Russia. In spite of everything, Galiev was not wrong. However, against common sense and logic, producing terrible damage to two peoples who should bury their quarrels forever, Stalin’s spurious decision is still remains, defying historical justice, like a festering ulcer that will only heal definitively with determination and intelligence.


G.H. Guarch is one of the leading writers of historical novels in Spanish. He received the 1997 Blasco Ibáñez Narrative Award for his novel, Las puertas del paraíso [The Gates of Paradise], and in 2007, he received the prestigious AGBU Garbis Papazian Award, for his trilogy of novels about the Armenian genocide: El árbol armenio [The Armenian Tree], The Armenian Testament, and La montaña blanca [The White Mountain]. He has recently been awarded the Movses Khorenatsi Medal, the highest cultural distinction in Armenia. [This article appears through the kind courtesy of El Manifesto].


Featured: Church of Varazgom.

Armenia: A Threatened Destiny

After the war of 2020, Azerbaijan again militarily attacked Armenia last September amidst widespread international indifference, confirming disturbing ambitions.

“No one can give us an ultimatum and allow Armenians to place their hopes elsewhere. I will say it again—nothing and no one can stop us.” With this statement on September 22, the dictator controlling Azerbaijan in a clannish way, Ilham Aliyev, is exerting his ambitions. In 2020, after a 44-day war, Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, invaded a large part of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia had to accept a precarious cease-fire under the aegis of Russia. This was constantly violated by Azeri troops, and their incursions into Armenian territory. Aliyev was clear in his intentions. Shortly after the ceasefire he explained, “I said we would drive [the Armenians] out of our lands like dogs, and we did.” Under these conditions, the agreement that the civilian populations could return to their lands obviously remained a non-starter for the Armenian populations.

In order to understand the present-day anguish of the Armenians, a detour through history is necessary. When Tsarist Russia annexed the South Caucasus, it quickly adopted a policy that was unfavorable to the Armenians. This policy was taken over by the USSR, as the Bolshevik regime ceded Nakhchivan and Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh with a clear Armenian majority) to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan and not to that of Armenia.

In the context of the collapse of the USSR, following pogroms of the Armenian population in Sumgait and Baku, and an Azerbaijani desire to “disarm” Artsakh through a racist and discriminatory policy, Artsakh proclaimed its self-determination. In a five-year war, the heroism of Armenian fighters led to the liberation of Artsakh and the establishment of a continuous territory between Artsakh and Armenia in 1994. However, during the fifteen years that followed, Azerbaijan’s position was strengthened by the oil from the Caspian Sea and a dynamic demography.

In this context, the Azeri offensive of September 2022—which killed more than 300 people—shows that Azeri ambitions do not stop at Artsakh. As Tigrane Yegavian lucidly puts it, the aim of Azerbaijan and Turkey is now to nibble away at Armenian territory in order to reduce Armenia to a rump state before making it disappear. Such an offensive has a genocidal purpose, the aim being to eliminate all Armenian presence in the Caucasus.

The fate of the Armenian heritage in Nakhichevan is a good indicator of the threat. The 89 medieval churches have been demolished, 5,480 khachkars (rectangular steles with the Armenian cross which, in Armenian tradition, are used to guide the dead when they rise on Judgment Day) and 22,700 graves have been destroyed by Azerbaijan. Reports from Armenian Heritage in occupied Artsakh are equally disturbing. Finally, the abuses committed by Azeri soldiers on the Armenian civilian population and on prisoners of war clearly show an Azeri desire to exterminate this population. During the last offensive, Anush Apetyan, a 36-year-old Armenian soldier and mother of three children, captured by Azeri soldiers, was raped, dismembered and executed. Her executioners, sure of their impunity, broadcast their crime themselves, which is part of a policy of structural Armenophobia on the part of the regime in Baku.

Such a threat to Armenia is clearly encouraged by Erdogan’s Turkey, which supports Azerbaijan because of Pan-Turkism and an ethno-religious mixture of Turkish nationalism and Islamism. Turkey’s expansionist ambitions are supported by omnipresent propaganda in its films and historical series (despite a few courageous exceptions that go against the grain, such as the series The Club) and by a policy of influence over the Turkish diaspora in Europe. This policy is also approved by Erdogan’s Kemalist opponents (the only opposing party being the HDP, a predominantly Kurdish party that brings together the Turkish electorate that rejects the Turkish-Islamist synthesis and Kemalism).

To speak about what is happening in Armenia, and not to forget it, is more necessary than ever. And to dedicate ourselves so that our leaders become aware of the Turkish threat and act accordingly. So, we can only welcome the publication, under the direction of Éric Denécé and Tigrane Yégavian, of Haut-Karabakh: Le livre noir (The Black Book of Nagorno-Karabakh) and the beginning of mobilization in the French political class, hoping that it will not be just a flash in the pan.

Rainer Leonhardt

The Goal is to Strangle Armenia

Interview with Tigrane Yégavian who has just co-edited Haut-Karabakh: Le livre noir (The Black Book of Nagorno-Karabakh)

Rainer Leonhardt (RL): How should we interpret the new Azeri offensive of September 2022?

Tigrane Yegavian (TY): Since the ceasefire of November 2020, Azerbaijan has been pursuing the war by other means because it is motivated by the desire to consolidate its military advantage at the political level. With the balance of power tipped in its favor and Armenia weaker than ever, the Azeri-Turkish tandem is also taking advantage of Russian setbacks in Ukraine to force Armenia to give in on the following points:

  • renunciation of a status for Nagorno-Karabakh, which means accepting its annexation by Azerbaijan and the certainty of ethnic cleansing
  • and the establishment of an extraterritorial corridor outside Armenia’s sovereignty in the south of its territory. An ultra-strategic corridor that would link Azerbaijan to Turkey and cut Armenia off from Iran; a new route of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border that would allow the Azeris to nibble away more Armenian territory, relying on the strategy of the fait accompli, given that they have been occupying a hundred square kilometers of Armenian territory since their successive offensives of May 2021 and especially September 2022.

In short, to devitalize Armenia, to make it a non-viable country, and in the long run to strangle it completely.

Tigrane Yegavian (Credit: DiasporArm.org).

RL: What are the perspectives of Armenia? And is there any reason to hope via, for example, a rapprochement with the other countries targeted by Turkish expansionism like Greece?

TY: As far as I know, Armenia has no allies. It is on the “wrong side” unlike Ukraine, while its CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) partners, all of them despotic regimes, are clearly on the side of Azerbaijan. Russia acts more like a suzerain, sometimes protector, sometimes pimp, as long as its interests are at stake. While Cyprus and Greece have never failed to show solidarity with Armenia, which is threatened by Pan-Turkism, these two states do not have sufficient leverage within the EU and NATO. Outside the Russian orbit, the only country that can provide both political and military support in the region is not Iran, but India, which shares a common geostrategic vision with Armenia in relation to Pakistan’s alignment with Pan-Turkism and sees Armenia as a route for its competing project with China’s New Silk Roads.

RL: How should the actions of Russia and the USA be interpreted in relation to the Azeri offensives?

TY: The United States is taking advantage of the Russians’ position of weakness to advance its interests in the Caucasus. For the time being, they are putting pressure on Azerbaijan not to invade Armenian territory, without offering military assistance to Yerevan. The Trump administration was not interested in any of this. Today the deal is not the same because we are witnessing the return of the geopolitics of empires: Russians and Turks share areas of influence in their competitive cooperation, Armenia is only a bargaining chip, a pawn on a chessboard that extends from Libya to Central Asia through Syria.

RL: Does the rapprochement between the EU and Azerbaijan over gas leave Aliyev’s hands free?

TY: After demonizing the master of the Kremlin, a de-Christianized Europe without a compass has chosen to sell its soul to a bloodthirsty dictator who has made Armenophobia his raison d’être. Aliyev understands well that he can play this card, and above all that his past, present and future crimes will remain unpunished. If France has tried to help the Armenians, it has been blocked by Germany within the EU, and by the United Kingdom within NATO, which maintains extremely close relations with the regime in Baku. We are living through yet another chapter of the great game, and the Armenians are struggling to negotiate their survival in an environment that is increasingly hostile to them, while the Europeans have no intention of curbing the appetites of the Aliyev-Erdogan tag-team.


Featured: “Battle of Vardanank,” by Grigor Khanjyan; painted 1995-1998. [This interview appears through the kind courtesy of La Nef].

Buddhism: Chronicle of a Delusion

We give below a review of the recent book by Marion Duvauchel, entitled, Bouddhisme, chronique d’une illusion (Buddhism: Chronicle of a Delusion), which is a meticulous dismantling of the fabrication known as “Buddhism.” We are hoping that this book will soon be available in English. For those who are able to read French, please support Dr. Duvauchel’s important work and purchase a copy.


Universal religion, wisdom, spirituality, philosophy or brilliant syncretism—Buddhism is a religious as well as a historical enigma. But it appeals to the entire bobo class fond of cheap spirituality: we fold a leg, we join our hands and we wait for the sovereign peace of the Buddha with his silly smile (or suave, it depends). To be clear, the doctrines of appeasement are witchcraft! But the “fiction of the Buddha” accompanies the meditation techniques supposed to bring the peace of the “Blessed One,” techniques that have recently been implanted in our educational system, in the hope of calming children down whom distracted parents have been careful not to educate and instead have irritated them. And this fiction of the Buddha is solidly implanted in the common culture.

As for this common knowledge about the Buddha’s religion, we know almost nothing about how it was developed. However, the fascination that Buddhism exerts today cannot be defeated without an analysis, nourished by the weight of European Orientalism in the diffusion of this religious phenomenon—in others, successful propaganda. Scholarly, prestigious, erudite and then popularizing propaganda. But propaganda nevertheless.

This work of elucidation is what Bouddhisme, chronique d’une illusion [Buddhism, Chronicle of a Delusion] is about. In ten chapters, the book examines three centuries of Orientalist historiography: the infatuation of Europeans for India, the fascination for the “old ageless texts,” the discoveries haloed by sensationalism, the occulted aspects, the thorny question of Indian languages and writings, including Kharosthi. And the frauds—archaeological and intellectual. All this in a historical and political context that scholarly works rarely take into account, and for good reason—they rely precisely on this field of knowledge with improbable foundations without ever questioning it. The chapter on the four Generals of that potentate of the Punjab (Ranjit Singh), as intelligent as he was illiterate, carries the weight of history as well as that of the singular men, intrepid mavericks, atypical mercenaries who also built the history of Central Asia (Middle Asia), where Buddhism had found new lands for its missions, where it had taken root in a different spiritual climate and by multiplying the Buddhas who became “bodhisattvas.”

Let us draw out some of the constitutive features of this religion with mythical contours. First, the founder, an Indian prince, raised in a bubble of opulence, who discovers one fine morning the incarnate condition of humanity in its most distressing modalities, death, illness and old age. Then, the canon and the doctrine—an elusive thing, nourished by oral traditions that nothing attests to; tirelessly taken up again and again, enriched, renewed, glossed and commented upon. And then, the factors of the transmission of this canon—a marvelous narrative no matter the current that bears it, in Pali as in Sanskrit, and which was only put into writing in the 18th century (the Lalita-vistara). Let us add for good measure, what may be called the “inculturation of Buddhism” beyond India, its cradle, and the depth of this Central Asia that the Russians call “Middle Asia,” where the “bodhisattvas of Serindia” were born. Finally, the multiplicity of currents, cults and magico-religious practices that developed in Tibet after the first schisms and the session of the two “vehicles,” giving a system of grandiose magic and fabulous pantheons that have nothing to do with primitive Buddhism but are, on the contrary, late constructions.

It was the French, English, German, Russian and Dutch researchers who, fascinated by the “old ageless texts” of India, gradually elaborated this “fiction of the Buddha.” All this was not without discussion. Three centuries were necessary to finally impose the idea of the Buddha’s historicity, of his canon, of his gesture and of his miracles, a historicity in which scholars, academics and translators, all great skeptics before the Lord when it comes to the religion of their own childhood, pretended to believe. One cannot do without a hermeneutic, a structure of interpretation. The religious vocabulary used by European orientalism is that of Catholic theology. It is by the yardstick of Catholicism, suavely denied, that all these orientalists analyzed what came down to them from India and Asia and which they have reconstituted as the history of the Buddha and Buddhism. Duly popularized by the prolific and talented pen of René Grousset, it has rendered a constituted knowledge, universally accepted, to which Sylvain Lévi affixed his definitive seal (Génie de l’Inde), discarding in passing the part taken by the Christian missionaries, who could not be considered as founders, or even as precursors.

In 2004, however, Peter Skilling threw a spanner in the works of Buddhist studies by questioning the relevance of the usage that establishes a necessary link between “Theravada” and the Paleo Canon—he established that this usage is the product of norms established in Europe from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the following century, and that this reinvented Theravada, mainly English-speaking, had progressively gained an international influence, including among Asian Buddhists themselves. He makes it clear that the nomenclatures that have been legitimately used are not based on vernacular sources but largely on assertions imposed by the scientific community. The term “Buddhism” itself was challenged by a Sinhalese exegete as nonsense invented by Europeans. A Minnesota researcher, David Dreuwen, established in 2020 in a meticulous article that three centuries of research have never been able to “scientifically” establish the historicity of this Indian prince who became a “bhikshu.”

The first chapter of Buddhism, Chronicle of a Delusion takes up this problematic issue and reinforces Dreuwen’s thesis. How the Buddha, for a long time held to be a legendary being by Orientalists themselves, progressively became a historical personality is, in fact, explained by the Orientalists themselves: “Without the Buddha, Buddhism is inexplicable.”

These European zealots include, the honest Frenchman Eugene Burnouf (founder of Buddhology); the dubious Thomas William Rhys Davids who founded with his theosophist wife the profitable Pali Text Society and who was accused of embezzlement in Ceylon where he was stationed and had to leave after a trial; the improbable theosophists, like Henry Steel Olcott and the Buddhist monks whose European origins are hidden by colorful monastic names, of which the most representative were Nânatiloka (alias, Anton Walther Florus Gueth) and Ananda Metteyya (alias, Charles Henry Allan Bennett, the same one who coined the expression “Theravâda Buddhism” with the meaning we know today).

And then there was the Levi “clan,” which gave French Indianism all its prestige, and which today nourishes the hagiography of current research.

Each structural aspect of Buddhism is analyzed in the ten chapters of this book, which carefully examines data that is often hidden, little known, rarely cited, along with theories that are accepted and established on very shaky ground, but to which the prestigious status of what is called “institutional orientalism” or “learned orientalism” gives the entire weight of academia.

The first Indianists—Auguste Barth, Abel Bergaigne, Johan Kern—were Sanskritists before they were “Indologists.” They translated these “old ageless texts” (the formula is from Louis Renou) which fascinated them but which turned out to be much less ancient than what was believed and allowed to be believed for a long time. But to do orientalist research, one must also be able to date the material. India is one of those civilizations that remained as if immobile at the threshold of history, fascinating indeed but not very inclined to give dates—such goes history. Hence the importance of the pillars of Ashoka, the third king of the Maurya dynasty, the one who completed the first—and very brief—unification of India in Asian history.

Ashoka was changed into a marvelous king who promoted the Buddhist ideal after a spectacular conversion. In reality, Ashoka is a common example in the history of empires, of the alliance of politics and religion. Nothing to be moved by. He was an exemplary king—a great one at that—in that he knew how to use a religion that was not yet established, for the purpose of unifying that first great Indian state, the Maurya Empire. He organized a police empire and knew how to exploit this proto-Buddhism for the purposes of surveillance and control of a territory that went as far as Gandhara and a whole area that has since been called the “Hellenized East.” Is the “Dharma” that he promotes in his edicts Buddhist law? This has been believed for so long that the matter seems to have been settled. If he were a great king, it is also because he understood the interest of writing—we owe to him the first Indian alphabets, even if this fact is disputed by Indian researchers.

Buddhism as a religious fact cannot be dissociated from this epistemological history, from this history of the nascent and then growing science of Orientalism—a history of dazzling or patient discoveries. The English, who took over India and ousted the French and the Dutch, took the lion’s share of the work, but they also knew how to collaborate with European researchers. This is the case of the deciphering of Indian writing, attributed to James Prinsep, but which in reality was a collective work.

Marion Duvauchel’s work focuses on this history of Orientalist research and its key discoveries, such as Burnouf’s monumental work as a defector; Princeps’ deciphering of Indian scripts; and the collection of coins by these “first excavators” whose history is now being unearthed thanks to Jean-Marie Lafont’s thesis; the work of Emile Sénart, a rich man married to an even richer woman, an atypical man without rank or academic title who supported French Indianism with his relations as well as his fortune and who tried to open some breaches in the stilted world of a rigid research. And then, Russian orientalism, decapitated by Bolshevism which sent some of the researchers to the gulags of sinister memory.

It is appropriate to give a special place to the art of Gandhara and to Alfred Foucher’s contributions, rendered obsolete by current research (especially by the Russians), and which, on the other hand, has given pride of place to the much more profound interpretations of Daniel Schlumberger. In 1973, at the time of his death, Gérard Fussman paid him homage, recalling not without disloyalty the episode during which the archaeologist of Bactria had laid out his thesis on the birth of Buddhism. For Schlumberger, it was born from the meeting of an Indian genius (or of a group of Indians in search of truth) with the members of the Greek “philosophical sects” which lived in India, since the lightning raid of Alexander and the kingdoms of the Diadochoi who followed this brilliant conquest. Schlumberger thus questions the accepted dating of the existence of the “first” Buddha. This thesis, deeply argued and methodically presented by a man who knew he was at death’s door, broke the conventional wisdom of official Indianism. It received a frosty reception, was never re-examined and has only recently been mentioned by a courageous Indian academic.

Where does Buddhism come from? How was it born? The enigmatic founder does not explain everything. Indians consider Buddhism to be just one of a multitude of sects, and they are astonished to see their country associated with the religious brilliance of a religion that deserted it in the 8th century. It was not until the 21st century that a true anthropology of Hinduism appeared, reminding us of what Buddhology had erased: the central concepts of Buddhism (Dharma and Karma in particular) were derived from classical Brahmanism. It was Madeleine Bardiau’s honor to have undertaken this work. With Louis Renou they renewed the whole of Indianism. Without successors.

And the Catholic World in all This?

There was the work of Cardinal de Lubac who gave us two major books, including Amitaba, which he was able to write thanks to the archives of the Guimet Museum that were freely opened to him. How can we explain that after the Second Vatican Council, while the quality of his work on Buddhism gave him intellectual legitimacy, he was excluded from the committees of interreligious dialogue? No doubt that once again, the Church chose mediocrity which, today, is spread out in all the instances of inter-religious dialogue.

The Iranian spirit was not foreign to the transformations that renewed Indian Buddhism or that took it to another cultural land. And this spirit was imbued with gnosis. Born in Alexandria, it came to die in the East, in the third century AD, but not before nourishing that great flow of Manichaeism—and those multiple rivers of Buddhism, inhabited by the multiplicity of bodhisattvas who have supplanted the proto-Victorian Buddha that Europe has resurrected with great spiritual antics.

It was during this 3rd century that a new prophet arose at the confluence of the three religious zones— the Iranian Mandean and Zoroastrian, the Indian Buddhist and Hinduist and the Christian already nibbled away by heretical sects. Mani modestly claimed to assume in his person Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster. From Buddhism, he assumed all the legendary and mythological apparatus; from Christianity he copied the militant organization, the practice of confession and the literary forms.

But with Manichaeism, everything became blurred. Gnosis dissolved borders, limits and categories. What remained was the idea that all along the Silk Roads three great religions spread out to China: Buddhism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity.

Throughout its improbable history, Buddhism never stopped changing. Borrowing here—including undoubtedly from Christianity—accommodating there, it underwent such transformations that to account for it one has to end up imagining a primitive Buddhism of Pali tradition (Theravada) of which Sri Lanka would be the depositary, while a current of Sanskrit language developed in North India and beyond the inventive and popular Mahayana, intended for the multitudes whom the complex asceticism to reach Nirvana would otherwise repel. In this historically more recent version, Buddhism still revealed itself as prodigiously Indian.

Let us give the last word on this point to Ernest Renan, who took a sharp, lucid and caustic look at Buddhism:

“Drunk with the supernatural, led astray by the dangerous taste it had of playing with the infinite and of losing itself in mad enumerations, India pushed its chimera to the extreme, and thus violated the first rule of religious fantasy, which is to be measured in delirium and to feign according to the analogies of a certain truth.”

Buddhism, an illusion? A fiction? A mirage?

Yes, in other words—a chimera.


Featured: Heracles as Vajrapani of the Buddha. Detail from a panel. Gandhara, 2nd century AD.

The Year Of Opportunities—And Risks—For Asia

2022 confirms that Asia will be one of the planet’s hubs, where great tensions and opportunities, risks and fractures are concentrated, where important trends are confronted and amalgamated.

2022 will be a year of potential political changes in many Asian countries, bringing as well a confirmation of the current situation. There will be several presidential elections (Philippines, South Korea and East Timor), legislative (Australia and Japan) and local (India). Regardless of their results, the strategic lines of those countries, will remain the same. Even powerful and threatening China will see changes in the perspective of the Communist Party Congress.

However, a new calendar year does not mean a clear break with the past. Some of the main events of 2021, such as the coup in Myanmar and the takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan, will continue to impact in 2022. And, for the third consecutive year, the COVID-19 pandemic will loom over all other events. 2021 began with the launch of vaccines and the hope of post-pandemic normality; the year ended with the Omicron variant which once again closed the borders, and by 2022, all of Asia-Pacific will have to balance health precautions with the protection of its economies.

It is useful to start talking about the USA, a true hegemonic power still on the chessboard, even if increasingly undermined by Chinese pressure. The second year of the Biden administration should see an even greater emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region (and a consequent decrease in the importance of Europe and the Middle East, albeit with notable exceptions, like Ukraine and Iran).

2020 will see the publication of very important documents, such as the National Defense Strategy and the review of the National Nuclear Posture, which should be largely focused on the Beijing challenge. Relations will remain difficult, but the mid-term legislative elections in the US and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China should create sufficient incentives on both sides for a “managed” relationship, though the points of friction will remain; the Biden administration will continue in its actions of trying to harness Chinese forces by focusing on the network of regional and sub-regional alliances and agreements—not only on specific areas (such as Taiwan), but also on ideological issues, such as human rights and the autonomy claims of East Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, and Hong King.

In this perspective, the alliance system for Washington becomes, even more than today, a critical element, especially with regard to Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. The Quad will continue to be pushed and promoted, and it is likely that Washington will aim at the qualitative and quantitative expansion of this forum.

The other difficult point of the region, such as North Korea, will be observed by Washington with great attention, especially in the case of a conservative victory in the South Korean elections.
In addition to the stabilization of AUKUS, 2022 will see the absorption of the crisis with France (which is much more relaxed after the unionist victory in the third and definitive referendum on independence for New Caledonia, which secures its stay in the region and weaken substantially the notion that French Polynesia would follow the search for independence).

ASEAN, despite some internal criticisms, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, will remain another important partner for Washington in its confrontation with Beijing, but also for economic cooperation. In fact, given the economic (and demographic) dimensions of Asia, the economic dimension will be the other pillar of US actions.

Japan has serious difficulties, beginning with an ossified political leadership and a tired parliamentarian alternation. But the pandemic, the demographic frost, the unresolved relationship with Korea, the ambiguous relationship with Moscow are all elements of uncertainty for Tokyo, which feels gravely exposed, despite a massive weapons program.

For geographic reasons and dimensions, tensions with China (the gravity of which is evidenced by the recent installation of a “red telephone” between the two capitals) remain central to Japan. Tokyo will confirm a foreign policy and cooperation centered on the US, and with Taiwan increasingly regarded as a sovereign state. Also, for Japan, the issue of the protection of human rights in China will remain a decisive element, even if it seems that (so far) Japan will not boycott the Olympic Games, a true symbolic moment for Beijing. Meanwhile, Tokyo is increasingly solidifying its ties with other countries, in anti-Chinese functions, such as the Quad and the Japanese participation at regional military exercises with US, Australians, British and French forces.

For South Korea, the presidential elections, which could see the conservatives win, would represent a further element of tension with North Korea. With nuclear talks between the US and North Korea still stalled, in 2022, Pyongyang will continue to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities to strengthen its influence in denuclearization negotiations. In recent years, North Korea has been testing various missile technologies, including short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. North Korea has not (yet) crossed the “red line” set by the US— nuclear weapons tests or ICBMs—but Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to further develop the military capability of the North by using such capability as an element of deterrence to block temptations of “regime change” (in Washington, more than in Seoul).

Seoul also follows Tokyo’s steps in strengthening its military apparatus, witnessing a feeling of insecurity, but its ever difficult relations with Japan are an element of weakness for the security architecture that the US has built since the 1950s.

In addition, South Korea’s attention to Beijing is a matter of concern for Washington, both for reasons of economic interest and as an element of mediation in the face of North Korea’s excesses. Since President Moon Jae-in officially proposed ending the 1950-53 Korean War at the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2021, Seoul and Washington have consulted on a draft for the declaration. However, amid the stalemate in North Korea-US bilateral talks and deteriorating US-China relations—both of whom are expected to co-sign such a declaration—no progress has been announced on the initiative, because of concerns about an end-of-war declaration, which hold that it could weaken the South Korea-US military alliance and the role of the UN Command (which has seen a significant increase in participating states and reactivation of others in recent years). The decision on whether to proceed with the end-of-war declaration will depend on the results of the South Korean presidential election in March.

With the opening ceremony on February 4, 2022, Beijing will become the only city in the world to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics. But despite China’s stern and repeated warnings against the “politicization” of the Olympics, the Beijing 2022 Games have taken on very important political connotations, with the focus, by a growing number of states, on long-standing protests over human rights violations against ethnic minorities, and in Hong Kong.

The US said in December that it would not send an official delegation to the Beijing 2022 Olympics because of human rights concerns. Australia, Canada, and the UK quickly followed suit. As if that weren’t enough, China’s organization of the Olympics will also be proof of its ruthless commitment to a zero COVID policy. Beijing won the Games at the International Olympic Committee votes, expecting great public relations success to showcase its wealth and influence on the global stage. But the events of the past two years suggest that China will face much more scrutiny during these Olympics than in 2008.

Beijing will face another important moment in the fall of 2022, when the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th Party Congress, in which it will promote a new list of leaders. Xi is expected to break the previous (even recent) pattern and get a third term as the CCP Secretary-General (the first mandate was in 2012). The big question, then, is whether Xi will allow an heir-apparent, at least initially, on the Politburo Standing Committee, signaling that he will step down in 2027; or whether he is looking for a role of “life leader.” Linked to the confirmation or not of XI, but not only, in the dynamics of power in Beijing, there are those linked to Taiwan.

Last December Nicaragua established diplomatic relations with Beijing and cut off those with Taipei, which has only 14 states left with which to (officially) have diplomatic relations. Beijing is convinced that it will be able to eliminate this residual diplomatic presence in mid-term (at least one a year).
On the other hand, the trend of countries extending their unofficial relations with Taiwan (Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are the most recent examples) is likely to continue, defying pressure and retaliation from Beijing. Other European countries could follow in 2022, especially after a resolution by the European Parliament calling for ties to be strengthened with Taiwan. In particular, it will be necessary to see whether the EU or the US will take concrete steps towards free-trade agreements with Taiwan, long desired by Taipei but so far not taken seriously by either Washington or Brussels, because of concerns about Beijing’s retaliations.

Alongside the diplomatic game, there is the military dimension, which actually remains worrying, with the continuous Chinese amphibious exercises and air and maritime show of force. China remains fully committed to absorbing Taiwan and refuses to rule out the use of force to achieve that goal if forced to (from its point of view). A Chinese invasion of Taiwan remains a low-probability event, but it would be potentially risky, even for Xi, if he remains the CCP leader, because failure of any sort will make it politically too expensive, as well as catastrophic.

Also, in India, there will be key elections in 2022 and with heavy indications on the general policy of the country. In addition to the presidential elections, several states (Goa, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat) will elect local assemblies. The outcome of the Uttar Pradesh elections is the most important, as it is the most populous state in India (it holds about one fifth of the seats in the Indian federal parliament) and should provide useful indications on the political direction in the country, in consideration that that state is ruled by the nationalist BJP party, which also heads the federal government, and suffers from strong internal criticism for the economy and the management of COVID-19.

The disputed region of Kashmir will remain a hot-spot in Indian politics, as it affects relations with Pakistan (and to a secondary extent with China). The region, used as an electoral bastion by the BJP, and its belonging to India is the focal point of the patriotic narrative of India, a unifying element of an extremely complex, divided subcontinent. Even in this region, the elections for the local assembly will be an element of tension, given that they will be the first after the unilateral revocation of the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 by the federal government (and which has further worsened Indo-Pakistani relations).

But the proximity of Kashmir to Afghanistan makes India concerned about possible infiltrations by terrorist elements from both Al Qaeda and IS. Here, too, China will remain the main concern for India’s security and foreign policy. Several rounds of talks between Indian and Chinese military officers and diplomats over the situation in Ladakh (where there have been several clashes and a massive deployment of forces in the region by the two contenders) have not yet borne fruit. There is the possibility that India will push Russia, thanks to its historical proximity, to discreetly facilitate the repositioning of the opposing forces from the disputed points of Ladakh, as a prelude to a possible summit meeting (without further indications, it remains a mere hope).

India’s other major concern with Beijing is China’s growing presence and influence in South Asia. India can be expected to strengthen its economic diplomacy with its neighbors to counter China’s growing presence in the region; and New Delhi has made progress in this regard in 2021, especially in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

For Pakistan, there are many elements that mirror India, albeit with the important variant of the institutional weight of the armed forces, increasingly opposed to civilian leadership, and public opinion. With the victory of the Afghan Taliban, the challenge of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has increased, and the Pakistani Taliban have increased attacks on official institutions, using their own sanctuaries in Afghanistan, even though the Kabul leadership has already said that the TTP does not exist in Afghanistan and that the issue is an internal issue within Pakistan.

For Pakistan, too, China is fundamental, albeit in a different sense, given the once good relations with Beijing are rapidly deteriorating due to the management of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The growing divergences emerging between Pakistan and China over the issue of payments, development costs, security threats and the increasing resistance of local populations, especially in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, risk leaving Pakistan without support, should it decide to break ties with Beijing (given that the US would not fail to pay for its proximity to China).

2021 saw Pakistan fail to meet its payment deadlines, prompting China to withdraw funds, and even stop some projects. The CPEC slowdown has had a severe impact on Pakistan’s cash-strapped national economy, as the country’s trade deficit expands and foreign debt grows. Once hailed as a turning point for national development, CPEC has become an increasingly controversial topic in Pakistan, particularly around the port of Gwadar, where thousands of residents have called for local control of resources, which they believe will benefit exclusively China. It cannot be ruled out that Beijing may suspend work on the Gwadar port and related infrastructure projects, with a devastating impact on Pakistan, as the country’s economy remains under pressure, and there seem to be no new avenues of financial support.

So far, no country in the world has recognized the new government of Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic Emirate of the Taliban, which was built in August 2021 on the very expensive ashes of the previous architecture. First of all, the Afghan problem, beyond the institutionalized violations of civil and human rights, is a problem of recognition, where both Russia and China, which have relations with the Taliban, are reluctant to let them sit at the UN. Western countries and the leadership of the UN link the offer of recognition to an “inclusive” (sic) government. This situation is linked to the enormous governance problems for the Taliban (who do not have any), as well as financing, given that the 9 billion dollars of the reserves of the central bank of the Afghan Republic, kept by Western financial institutions, are frozen.

The local branch of IS, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), formed around 2015, despite heavy difficulties and conflicts with both the “official” Taliban and Al Qaeda militias, seems to be present in all provinces of Afghanistan and represents a threat to the Taliban themselves who do not have the ability to hold ISK in check nor to prevent incursions in the surrounding areas (which go as far as India and China [East Turkestan]).

A humanitarian disaster of epic proportions awaits that wretched country, linking itself to political and security challenges. These difficult political and economic conditions have mixed with a recent drought and early winter to set the stage for a colossal humanitarian catastrophe by 2022. According to the UNDP, a staggering 97% of Afghans could fall into poverty in 2022, as the economy contracts sharply. The UN emergency food aid agency, the World Food Program, has warned of the impending famine. For the Taliban, the inability to provide for the Afghan people can make it nearly impossible to rule the country. After the war that began in 1980, 2022 could be the worst year for Afghanistan.

Even for the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the ramifications of the fall of Afghanistan are heavy and are linked to pre-existing complex situations, where Russia and China, allies and competitors at the same time, work hard to push any other influence out of the area. The US and Western presence and/or influence, somehow less visible because of the prolonged process of reducing NATO forces in Afghanistan (and after the summer disaster in Kabul), led to the building (by China) and/or rebuilding (by Russia ) of influence, as in Moscow with the imposing push to spread again the use of Russian, which was greatly reduced from a vehicular language after the exodus of a large part of the Russian-speaking population; this decline of the use of Russian began after the end of the USSR, starting from 1991.

Kyrgyzstan’s political system was shaped into the desired form by President Sadyr Japarov: an almighty president, a constitution, a parliament that poses no obstacles. In 2022, Kyrgyzstan will face major challenges, starting with the instability of the energy and gold markets, rising food prices, high unemployment and serious corruption.

As with Kyrgyzstan, energy (fuel price increases) and environmental (persistent drought) problems could become political problems with severe protests across the area, starting with Tajikistan (which borders directly on seething Afghanistan) and ending. with Uzbekistan. But for all these states, including the most distant Kazakhstan, Afghan developments impact the region. The once quiet, solid, rich (and maid of Moscow) Kazakhstan saw a sudden and very rapid change of scene at the beginning of 2022 with President Nursultan Nazarbaev (a relic of the Soviet system), who had managed to navigate between Russians, Chinese, and Europeans, was overthrown by a very violent popular revolt, ignited by the increase in fuel prices, but which seems to contain elements of fatigue of the local population because of the immovable leadership of the country.

The crisis of Kazakhstan, quickly solved by determination of Moscow, teaches how apparent-tranquility can end up, and how Russia learnt the lessons of Maydan, where a disastrous management of the local leadership originated a major shift for the Moscow security landscape after 1991 (another, also ignored, lesson of how Russia studies the past, and acts rapidly, is the Belarus file) with the entry of Ukraine in the Western sphere of influence. Russia, a peculiar presence in Asia, will work hard to defend its space; consolidate and, if possible, expand it.

For two decades, Central Asia’s position on the map has made it important to the US, and this parameter has prevailed over a range of value-based concerns, not least democracy for national security. This has allowed several of these states to have obtained repeated waivers from US sanctions related to civil liberties and human rights, but without major pressures. Now, these exceptions, also due to the ideological approach of the Biden administration, could be suspended and sanctions applied (with the ultimate result of bringing these states closer to the Russian orbit and the growing Chinese influence, in search of energy resources). As in Pakistan, local Islamist groups close to the Al Qaeda and IS spheres could find space and enjoy sanctuaries not particularly disturbed by the Taliban forces.

The stalemate continues in Myanmar. After the coup d’etat in February of last year, despite persistent civil disobedience, the resumption of armed uprisings in the border areas, and uncertain international pressure, the military junta seems willing to remain in power by playing on the divisions of international partners and seeking to take advantage of support from regional actors, starting with China, which seeks to weaken ASEAN, to keep Westerners away and to maintain solid economic control over important parts of the Myanmar economy.

At the closing ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on October 27, 2021, Brunei handed over the presidency of the regional bloc to Cambodia. The small nation of Southeast Asia takes its toll in a potentially crucial year for ASEAN, which finds itself besieged by a series of pressing challenges. These include strategic competition in Southeast Asia, continuing tensions in the South China Sea, the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Myanmar crisis. There is another reason why the presidency of Cambodia will be closely observed: the very close ties with China would make Phnom Pen a Beijing agent within ASEAN, with all the consequences and risks of such a role. Thailand, in a prolonged state of crisis since 2014, should see elections in 2022 to return to stability and normality, contributing to the recovery of ASEAN credibility

Political transitions are underway in Indonesia, the Philippines (where the progressive absorption of the Islamist insurgency in the southern part of the archipelago seems to be progressing well), Singapore and East Timor. But maritime security problems remain intact, leading to the consolidation of ties also between states which had open border problems and thus increased the military dimension of ASEAN, hitherto exclusively economic. The architecture for trilateral patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to tackle piracy, illegal fishing, illicit trafficking and a series of transnational crimes had begun to be built before COVID-19, but progress slowed as the pandemic broke out. However, the three sides still held dialogues and consultations on how to proceed and expand their cooperative work.

Indonesia’s regional and global leadership will also be in the spotlight in 2022. Indonesia (which will host the G-20 Summit) has nonetheless shown its leadership role on some key issues in recent times which affect its national interest, such as maritime economy, or the situations in Afghanistan, after the US withdrawal, and in Myanmar, after the coup, or Thailand for the political blockade.

The Australian federal election is perhaps the most important event for the sub-area, given the ripple effect it will have on other key issues in Oceania in 2022. Although there is no confirmed date, the elections will be held between March and May. With major contenders battling over important issues, such as climate change, how to interact with China and, more broadly, what role Canberra should play on the international stage, the outcome of the vote will have significant implications not just for Australia but for entire Oceania, given the importance that this country has on the chessboard.

The current conservative government has had several setbacks (of its actions and of image), leaving aside the painful management of the AUKUS pact, the equally negative ones of wildfires, floods and COVID. If Labor achieves an electoral victory, there will be a major shift on key issues, in particular climate policy and migration. The only thing that should remain unchanged, if not accelerated, will be the massive rearmament of the armed forces, and the determination to face China, in every field and area (especially in the South Pacific).

Many Pacific Island countries have handled the pandemic well, with only a handful of cases or none; but their economies have been shattered because of the region’s reliance on a narrow range of external sources of income, particularly tourism. The mineral riches of many islands (starting with precious nickel) and their institutional events have long been at the center of Beijing’s attention, which has consolidated the cooperation of various players, such as the USA, Australia and France.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


Russian-Turkish Relations: Mutual Interests, Alliance, Hostility And Distrust

The relationship between Russia, Turkey (and the impact of it on Europe) is very long and controversial issue, marked by persistent hostility and with eleven wars (including WWI). The first war started in 1568, when Russia was still in the initial phase of her statehood path.

It is remarkable that the only occasion where Russia (in Bolshevik format) supported Turkey, was when Ankara faced Western Allied pressure and the Greek invasion after WWI, as retaliation for the Allied support of the ‘White’ counter revolutionary forces.

This situation, a de facto alliance against a mutual enemy, should be remembered as a thin red line which remains pertinent right up to today.

This complex and problematic cooperation-confrontation, especially during the 18th century, impacted several times the wider problem of stability of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Levant, and it is re-proposed today, in terms which adapted themselves to different situations and contexts.

Limiting the analysis to recent times, despite many (old and new, and growing) divergences, Moscow and Ankara have in common the use of foreign and security policies as a projection tool to limit the impact of domestic problems through external successes and to consolidate the internal cohesion, eroded by different factors.

Turkey’s aggressive policies in recent years, which raised great concern among its NATO and EU allies and partners, gave an important window of opportunity to Moscow to benefit from Ankara’s new assertive stance, perceived as a way to disrupt the internal cohesion of the Euro-Atlantic economic and security architectures.

Aware of the fundamental differences with Turkey (and the related management problems), Putin seeks to keep the relationship as fruitful as possible for the interests of Moscow.

Russia and Turkey were able to arrive at a quasi-positive understanding, pragmatic and case-by-case in areas of conflict, where both often support opposing sides, as in Syria, the Black Sea, Libya, the Caucasus, Sahel and elsewhere.

The (not full) cooperative confrontation model between Moscow and Ankara has been successfully implemented in different geostrategic theatres without the need for formal agreements.

The Decreasing Of The Economic Dimension

To better understand the dynamics of the Russian-Turkish relations and its contradictions, the economic dimension remains pivotal, even if it is not particularly strong, and appears altogether in decline.

Russian exports to Turkey in 2019 were around $17.75 billion and its imports around $3.45 billion. An increase of 2.5%, compared to 2018, and lower than the $31 billion reached in 2014, before the crisis of 2015, when a Russian plane was downed over Syrian airspace by Turkish jets.

Aside from that, Turkey gradually reduced its dependence on Russian gas, firstly because of the slowdown of the domestic economy, and the development of liquefied gas infrastructure as alternatives. Gazprom supplied up to 52% of Turkish gas imports, even planning to expand supply by building the “TurkStream” pipeline. This supply fell to 33% in 2019, in favour of Azerbaijan, which became the main supplier to Ankara.

Moreover, the promising gas exploration results in the Black Sea could make it possible to reduce Ankara’s dependence on Russian gas, even if the hopes for that are old and recurrent; this plan would require time to be verified and, if confirmed, require more time to become functional. Further, the activation of the “North Stream II” pipeline will reduce any urgency to complete the “South Stream” one and, as a consequence, any leverage for Ankara.

Despite the decrease of the hydrocarbons sector, energy remains relevant because of the ongoing important project – the construction of the nuclear power plant of Akkuyu by the Russian company Rosatom, which is planned to be completed by 2023, at a cost of 20 billion dollars. (It is very rare that Russia shares civil nuclear technology with third countries; only with Algeria is there a similar plan, but which is still at the initial, negotiation phase).

The interests of the two states – are increasingly divergent, and the role of energy is demonstrated by Iranian oil. While Moscow is trying to prevent flooding the world market, as it would result in a drop in oil prices, thus drastically reducing its own revenues – Ankara instead is keen on Iranian oil and gas to come to the world market through its territory, which would reinforce Turkey’s ambitions of becoming an energy distributor and hub.

Tourism, however, continues to record important growth with more than 7 million Russian tourists visiting Turkey each year, making Russia one of the largest visitors to the Mediterranean country before COVID-19.

The Security And Military Dimension

Moscow looks to preserve the recently built relationship by de-escalating the crises that have arisen with Turkey, despite the problems with Ankara; and the disruptive approach of Erdoğan towards the West is very useful to Russian strategic interests.

An example of this stance was evident when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 strike bomber in Syria in November 2015, and relations became very tense (even close to rupturing). But Moscow carefully managed its retaliation, avoiding extreme measures that might affect the growing ties between the two nations.

Given that Turkey is a NATO member, Russia is obliged to consider also the possibility that in case of a major crisis with the Alliance, Turkey could close the Bosporus Straits with the support of its Western allies and regardless of the spirit and the letter of the Montreux Convention of 1936.

This scenario for Moscow would be almost a “nightmare” because it would risk interrupting the pivotal line of communication between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean (and, via the Suez Canal, to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and from Gibraltar to the Atlantic Ocean).

As mentioned earlier, Moscow tries to exploit as much as possible the various disputes that have antagonized Turkey with other stakeholders (France, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, UAE, Egypt), thus undermining the system of Western alliance, especially in the matter of delimiting the EEZ and exploitation of hydrocarbons reservoirs.

In this light, the series of disputes between Turkey on the one hand and Greece and France on the other side, in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, open opportunities for Russia to exploit and weaken Atlantic Alliance solidarity. The recent example of this is the special bilateral agreement, just signed, between Athens and Paris for security and defence aside/inside/outside NATO and EU frameworks is, in the final analysis, a weakening of Western security cohesion and an advantage for Moscow’s plans.

Thus, for Moscow, the military aspect of the mutual relationship, with Turkey’s NATO membership, is undoubtedly the most important component to consider in geostrategic planning.

In light of this, Putin supported Erdoğan fully after the attempted coup in July 2016 and offered for purchase to Turkey the S-400 “Triumph” anti-aircraft missile system; and thus also worsening the cohesion of the Atlantic Alliance, jeopardizing the integration of its air defence and C3 system.

For the EU pillar, the situation is similar. Even if Turkey’s relationship with Brussels is seriously to deteriorate because of the Cyprus situation, civil rights issues, the Libyan and Syrian files, or the use of migration as a tool of pressure, there is a possibility of a potential improvement.

But due to the weakness of EU facing the Ankara’s blackmail and the incapacity of Bruxelles (and its Member States) to face it with a firmer and at the same time more cooperative stand, there is a further indirect advantage of the strategic planning of Russia to undermine the Western economic and security architectures.

Two Cold Friends

The two leaders have not developed any personal affinity, revealing that both are aware of each other’s projects, views and perceptions and the similar, undemocratic nature of the two countries.

This, even weak, friendship is not, and likely will not be, the basis for ideological rapprochement, and also if the two countries are marked by an authoritarian approach; while this ‘brotherhood’ is more profound and evident between Russia and China, probably due to the previous Communist ideological base.

The major ideological element of distrust for Moscow is the Erdoğan’s vicinity (and in many cases with real support, like in Syria and Libya) to the galaxy of Muslim Brotherhood groups. These groups are banned in Russia and Moscow closely monitors their activities, especially in Muslim-populated areas of the Caucasus and Central Asia; and Putin is fully aware of the Turkish leader’s ambitions to lead the Muslim world.

Despite the suspicions, Moscow seeks to work with Ankara to control and moderate the extremism of Muslim populations. Also, here there are inconsistencies; Turkey continues to express support of the Tatar Muslim minorities in Crimea (the Ukrainian region unilaterally annexed by Russia in 2014), but avoids irritating Russia, and without any real action.

As mentioned, Putin is fully aware of the threat posed by jihadist extremism in the domestic dimension. So, the fact that the Turkish leader has ambitions to lead the Muslim world is a real concern for the Kremlin, which is constantly claiming at all occasions to cooperate with all the international community to fight against Islamic terrorism alongside Europe.

If Russian and Turkish interests would expand other geographical areas, the risk of mutual confrontation would increase; but also as problems that might be created in one area could be solved by resorting to a quid pro quo in other regions with the implementation of the pragmatic approach of Moscow and Ankara.

Mutual Influence?

In any bilateral relation, the influence that one partner may exert over the other, is a fundamental parameter to analyse.

It appears that Russia has more leverage with Turkey than the contrary. This asymmetrical situation emerged after a Russian plane was shot down in Syria in 2015 by Turkish jests.

Since then, Russia, while avoiding cornering Turkey in an untenable situation, increased the pressures on Ankara, from restrictions on trade and movement of people between the two countries, to the threat of canceling the nuclear energy power station project and launching media and social media campaigns targeting Erdoğan and his family’s alleged businesses in Syria, using well-organized resources, inherited from the Cold War.

Further, Moscow has in hand an old, but still powerful, and destabilizing asset against Turkey – the support for Kurdistan independence; especially with the assistance to PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party, which has existed since the days of the former USSR and the Cold War era), and which is a serious problem and a constant source of irritation for Ankara. Also, even if in a more covert way, Russia supports the Kurdish forces operating in Syria and Iraq, and this is another reason of concern for Turkey, which saw any Kurdish presence, a threat to its national security. (In fact, Ankara has pressured Washington to cut support to the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds regardless if they fought against ISIS/Al-Qaeda elements, but without significant results).

However, Ankara also believes that it has several assets of influence, such as, Russians (mainly from Tatarstan) studying in Turkish universities, the Northern Caucasus diaspora living in Turkey, or the millions of Russians who as tourists enjoy Turkish beaches every year and are to some extent attracted by its culture. Ankara is convinced that the Russian intervention in Syria would prevent the consolidation of Kurdish autonomy in the region (the Bashar Al-Asssad  government, despite using Kurdish forces to fight against the Islamist insurgents, is strongly against the establishment of any idea of setting up of an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria; this is welcomed also by the Syrian neighbours, other than Turkey, because it would pave the way for a future Kurdish state which may include the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iranian Kurdistan, and the largest part of this possible entity, Kurdish Turkey).

Case Study Of Cooperation And/Or Confrontation: Syria

Syria is the main area where there is the highest risk of collision between Turkey and Russia; but at the same time, it is the area, where the two powers, despite their polarization and divergent interests, have established, even if unstable, a cooperative model.

Russian intervention, since September 2015, prevented the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s government, which was (and still is) Turkey’s long-term objective. It should be remembered that the controlling or weakening of Syria, under the French mandate after independence since 1945, has been a strategic target of Turkey, after the establishment of the republic in 1923.

It was thus surprising that in 2016 Putin brought Erdoğan into a trilateral meeting with Iran (the so-called “Astana,” the Kazakhstan capital city, dialogue format), which has however not been possible since February 2019, although this forum remains active at various levels, where it is able to design small-scale solutions.

Erdoğan, it should be remembered, initially was openly supportive of the Islamist insurgents and, for a period, openly sided with them and was strong allied with the Gulf States in support for the ISIS/Al Qaeda project to dismantle Syria (and Iraq), destroy the Sykes-Picot accord scheme, and set up a radical Islamist state, until its possible absorption by Saudi Arabia, according to informed reports.

Riyad had, and appears to have till today, the dream to re-purpose itself as the “new” (old) Hashemite project, in the Saudi hands, to re-unite all the Mashrak Arabs and territories into a united kingdom.

According to some analysts, when Erdoğan became aware of this plan, which collided with his own hegemonic project to re-establish the Ottoman domain over the Arabic peninsula, he broke with Riyad and approached the new deadly enemy of the Saudis – Qatar, which has become close to Iran, the strongest opponent of Riyadh.

The fact is that the Astana meeting of 2016 laid the groundwork for a compromise in October 2019 on “zones of controls,” which, although it did not satisfy any of the attendants, remains in place despite the violations.

When Turkey significantly increased its involvement in the Syrian conflict, the Assad government had no choice but to adhere more than ever to Russia, while Iran did not have the capacity to counter Turkey entering in the structure established by Moscow.

Thus, Turkish involvement allowed Moscow to dominate the Syrian scheme, albeit indirectly, reducing Iranian influence and limiting Ankara as well, right to the border area with Turkey.

In turn, other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia gradually reduced their impact on the Levant, as did Western diplomacy, making Ankara the dominant power supporting some of the Syrian opposition forces.

In this way, by controlling the warring factions in Syria (like Islamist “moderates,” ethnic Turkish militias), Moscow, and Ankara are now, even if on opposite sides, the masters of conflict (which has been case, tragically, since 2011).

The “Astana” format meeting in 2016 also contributed to moving the focus of international mediation mechanisms—put in place in both Vienna and Geneva—thus helping to increase their control of the conflict. Over time, the understanding between the two powers has contributed to diminishing Tehran’s influence, as tensions between rebels, Turkish proxies and Assad’s forces are better resolved through dialogue between Moscow and Ankara than through the trilateral Astana format.

Examples of this Russian-Turkish understanding or “cooperative hostility” can be found in 2016, when Russia gave the green light to Turkey’s operations in Syria, receiving in return the green light for Damascus’s forces to takeover Aleppo, the most important city under rebel control, in a clear quid pro quo.

The volatile situation in Syria may change, while Russia seems firm in remaining there, especially now that Damascus has overcome the worst crisis. The US could decide to change again its strategy there, which would change further the scene of the current situation and impact the Turkish stance and its relations with Moscow.

The Other Area Of Confrontation And/Or Cooperation: North Africa

North Africa appears to be the best area where the two divergent approaches of Russia and Turkey find now the best example.

The first example is Libya. At the end of 2019, Turkey decided to increase its involvement in Libya by sending military advisors, Syrian mercenaries and drones units belonging to the country’s regular armed forces in support of the UN and EU-(formally) backed government, based in Tripoli, which had the support of several Islamist militias. On the opposite side are Marshal Haftar’s forces, supported by the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and France.

Again, we could see how the intervention of one of the stakeholders in support of one faction enhances the importance of the other stakeholder’s help for the other side.

The intensity of Turkish support stopped Haftar’s offensive in its tracks, forcing him to seek further support from Moscow, which reacted by sending “Wagner” private security firm contractors and modern weapons systems (including MIG-29 fighters “Fulcrum” and Su-24 bombers “Fencer” and SAM units) along with personnel to operate and train the local staff.

The result produced a stalemate in the conflict, in which Turkey and Russia have once again contributed to be the most influential players in a conflict in a third country, and also favoured by US passivity and intra-European split (especially the France and Italy polarization in supporting the two powers there; Rome, openly, the Tripoli-government, and Paris, with a more discrete and ambiguous approach, the one in the East).

The present stalemate would end with the planned Libyan elections, planned for the end of the current year or the beginning of 2022. Regardless, the timing the elections and the formation of a nationwide government in Libya which will follow, will re-open the terms of the relations of Moscow and Ankara, at least in that region.

Russia, like Turkey, appears firmly oriented to (re)-establish a base on Libyan territory, expanding slowly but firmly, its footprint in the Mediterranean basin (it already has bases in Tartus and Latakia, Syria), and its target is to have a naval base in Benghazi and/or an air base in Tobruk. If this is achieved, this plan would substantially strengthen Moscow’s position in the central Mediterranean, and consolidating the Eastern one, and paving the way for the Western one.

Algeria is the most recent sub-area of the Mediterranean basin where the two cooperate.

Since independence, achieved in 1962, Algeria is a pivot of the great strategy of Moscow to get influence in the Mediterranean region; and during the Cold War, the use of the harbour of Oran Mers El Khebir was a real threat to the NATO naval forces in the Western and Central Mediterranean. After the collapse of the USSR, despite the end of the presence in Oran, Moscow was able to keep strong ties with Algeria, especially with the selling of more and more sophisticated weapons systems; Algeria, to face the hostility of Morocco, fully pro-Western, also maintained good relations with Moscow.

Now, with the persistent crisis in Libya, and to re-propose the Ottoman dream (when Algeria had a semi-autonomous status led by a “dey” under the nominal suzerainty of the Sultan of Constantinople), but also in more prosaic terms, to make its presence in Tripoli more efficient, Ankara boosted her penetration policy in Algeria.

The Algerian leadership, which crushed with an iron fist a bloody Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, looks with a mixed feeling at Turkish diplomatic action, given the sympathies Ankara has for political Islam. But the need of stabilization in Libya requires collective action, and Ankara may represent a partner, even with limits (Algiers refused the Turkish request to host air units, tasked to operate in Libya, in its soil and did not allow the use of national airspace to Turkish jets).

The recent worsening of the French-Algerian relations, due to words of President Macron (and other older issues), could be considered a window of opportunity, where both Russia and Turkey, with different channels and impact, take the chance to consolidate their contacts (already very solid for Moscow) with Algiers in antagonizing France and reducing the room of influence of Paris in its former colony.

Again, the pragmatic approach of their relations, shows that Moscow and Ankara have found a modus vivendi, semi-acceptable, making it altogether tenable.

For Russia, the decline of French (and Western) influence in Algeria is a main target, given the weight and role of the North African country in Africa, the Arab world, Europe and the Mediterranean; and Moscow makes clear that it is looking for more naval bases around the world, and Algeria was specifically mentioned in a speech by the Minister of Defence, Serghei Shoigu.

A Sensitive Area

Meanwhile, the same model of cooperative, mutually beneficial confrontation between Russia and Turkey saw a recent revival of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the tensions that followed.

The long-standing open failure of the Minsk Group of OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to establish a negotiated framework for the Nagorno-Karabakh region, pending since 1991, was the open excuse for Azerbaijan to launch its latest successful offensive, recapturing a large part of the region, and inflicting a heavy military defeat on Armenian forces. Baku was strongly supported by Turkey with military advisors and state-of-the-art equipment in terms of drones (including the suicide-like versions of those), communications systems and sensors. After that, Turkey saw an important rise of influence in Baku’s policies.

These successes reinforced Turkey’s ties with Azerbaijan, to the point of launching the idea of “two countries, one people” (re-proposed on a small scale, the dream of “Pan-Turanism” as a project of uniting the Turkish ethnic people from the Mediterranean to Asia, which is also the third element of the ideological architecture of the Erdoganism project, together the rebuilding of the Ottoman Empire and the defence of islam). Thus, Erdoğan visited his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev last December to celebrate the joined victory against the Christian and Westernized Armenia.

Both Turkey and Russia have thus consolidated their influence in the region. Turkey, which through Azerbaijan looks to gain access to the Caspian Sea and tries to assert itself in a region where its cultural, ethnic, and linguistic ancestry gives it influence.

It should be added, after the conflict, Ankara has tried to deploy military observers in the area; Russian opposition prevented it, despite the previous agreement, and limited the presence of Turkish military to the nominally bi-national, peacekeeping force, of some staff officers at the mission HQ.

Although it may seem contradictory, Russia also benefitted from the conflict by supporting defeated Armenia. In fact, since 2018, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan has been convinced by US and France (countries where there is a large, influential, and rich Armenian diaspora) to pursue a pro-Western agenda, to the detriment of Russian interests and historical ties. But, after the successful Azeri operation, Armenia was abandoned (as usual) by Western powers – forcing Erevan to turn to its traditional ally and security guarantor, Russia, which provided an additional security guarantee to Armenia in case of possible military pressure from Turkey in support of Azerbaijan. (A similar controversial personality like Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia had the same fate, initially supported by the West, then abandoned as corrupt and thus undesirable).

Russia, for its part, is consolidating its position as the dominant power over weakened Armenia—taking advantage of the West’s fickleness—as the guarantor of the peace agreement. Further, the use of the Caspian Sea (and the Eastern Mediterranean sea) as launching range for the spectacular firing of pre-strategic cruise missiles Kalibr/ Biryuza, hitting Islamist insurgent targets in Syria, rang an alarm bell for many stakeholders, in the region, and outside.

Moscow, for the time being, has reinforced its “buffer zone” in the Southern buffer despite pressure from NATO and has increased the pressure against the pro-Western Georgia.

The New Frontier Of Cooperation And/Or Confrontation Between Moscow And Ankara: Sub-Saharan Africa (Another Fissure Of Western Influence)

The recent Turkish presidental tour in Angola, Nigeria and Togo coincided with the announcement of the end of Sahel’s French operation “Barkhane,” and he seems determined to invest in African military terrain, and continue his offensive against France and the West everywhere.

Determined to accelerate his country’s diplomatic and economic offensive in Africa, since the option of rapprochement with EU faded at the turn of the 2000s, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is investing more and more in the sub-Saharan Africa.

Turkey already has significant economic weight in West Africa, which has enabled it to obtain from several governments in the sub-region the closure of schools close to the Gülen Islamist brotherhood (named after the imam Turkey accuses of having allegedly fomented the attempted coup d’état of July 2016), as was the case in 2017 in Senegal. On the security front, however, this cooperation is still in its early stages. Turkey, which has been hosting Malian officers for training since 2018, has donated $5 million to the G5 Sahel force and signed a military agreement with Niger in 2020.

It seems that Erdogan is seeking to fill the gaps left by the partial withdrawal of France. This option may collide with at least with one of the hotspots of the new politico-diplomatic-military offensive of Russia in the so-called “FranceAfrique” – Mali (the other, as of now is the Central African Republic).

In Mali, Moscow seems to have made an intensive bet, in providing military assistance (again the “Wagner” contractors, but only initially; and now also with provision of military hardware) and getting advantage with the growing hostility of the local population for any Western presence (e.g., the EU Training Mission, the UN Mission [MINUSMA]; the multinational European special force, Takuba, the presence of the CIA’s drones and the support of previous corrupted leaderships).

For the time being, it seems too early to foresee any possible polarization between Moscow and Ankara in the sub-area. But the only certain element for any kind of analysis is that the two work against France (and indirectly NATO, EU, USA). The future will tell what comes of all this.

Conclusion

Although the Russian-Turkish cooperation model—essentially a model with a high military content—has shown its usefulness, turning war zones into frozen conflicts that benefit both actors, it might have its limits.

This situation could lead the endlessly erratic policy of Erdoğan to consider that aligning with his Western allies could provide him with more leverage in the conflict zones.

An evident sign of this appeasement attempt with Turkey is the communiqué of the NATO Summit in June 2021, where no mention was made of Russia’s expansion attempts in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. The point was not to exacerbate Turkey, even though within the Alliance (and EU as well) there is a growing irritation against Ankara, with its blackmails, insults, and provocations.

This situation has led Moscow (according to its own logic) to instrumentalise as much as possible crises inside the Euro-Atlantic area with the aim of creating and/or widening rifts within the Western alliances and diversifying its focus.

Russian and Turkish dynamism are part of a new global geopolitical trend in which new emerging powers, such as Russia and Turkey, act in a coordinated manner to challenge Western interests.

In recent years the progression of the persistently ambiguous Russian-Turkish relationship, although not strategic, is bearing results for both the actors.

Regardless of reduced economic ties, ideological differences, Moscow and Ankara have reached, in pragmatical mode, a mutually acceptable mode of cooperation, despite supporting opposing factions in various geo-strategic theatres.

But, as mentioned before, the relation remains weak – especially for Erdoğan, because the Turkish leader has been compensating for growing domestic discontent with external military successes and interventions. And these successes are short-lived. He would be forced to embark on new and costly foreign adventures and further increase the already heavy pressure on the growing internal opposition, extremising the tensions especially with EU.

One of these potential external adventures, the most serious threat to the continuation of a stable relationship between Moscow and Ankara, could be the involvement of Turkey in the Ukrainian crisis, where it is providing support to the modernization of Kiev’s armed forces. Ukraine is a red line for Moscow and because of the nature of the two states, there is the risk of an uncontrollable escalation with an extremely worrying and uncertain outcome. Implementing such a scenario should be foreseen in advance because of the enormous risks it would entail, giving the limited possibilities of a rapprochement on security matters between the two states.

While the non-existence of a formal framework between Moscow and Ankara has allowed them to achieve significant results, this gap could represent a serious vacuum if the two enter into a collision route.


Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).


The Taliban’s Ethnic Cleansing Of the Hazaras

After the handover of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the world media specifically turned their attention to Afghanistan. The number of reports, comments, and analyses on Afghanistan skyrocketed. The reports, however, were mostly coming from the major cities of Kabul, Herat, and Kandahar. On their first days, Taliban leaders sought to reassure Afghans that they had changed from their previous harsh rule of the country in the late 1990s. Gradually, as was anticipated, the media turned away its attention from Afghanistan and the Taliban continued doing what they did in the 1990s.

Recently, Amnesty International reported that Taliban forces unlawfully killed 13 ethnic Hazaras in Daikundi province. Of the victims, eleven were members of the Afghan national security forces and two were civilians, including a 17-year-old girl. The killing of these 13 people is a very tiny bit of what the Taliban is doing in remote districts and villages; but the report by the Amnesty International took the organization around three weeks to prepare.

Now that the media has moved on from Afghanistan, and the public in other countries is gradually forgetting about it, the question is – what is really happening in Afghanistan? For now, an absolute economic collapse and human crisis is soon to affect the majority of the population, particularly those in the rural areas whose properties and food are being looted by the Taliban at a time when the Islamist group finds it difficult to keep the economy moving.

Organizations such as UNICEF and the World Health Organizations are sending some aid to the country, but the aid is like a drop in the ocean compared to what the population needs. There is a real disaster unfolding and could easily cause the country and the whole region to destabilize even more. On top of this, as the Taliban have no money and can’t even pay their fighters, they loot properties of the Hazara villagers in Daikundi province and the Nawmish district of Helmand province, for example, and force the inhabitants to leave their houses, lands and everything they possess.

Poverty and hunger are the common problems affecting most of the population of the country, regardless of their ethnicity; but for the Hazaras things are much more difficult. In addition to the widespread poverty and the upcoming harsh winter, which is very likely to take hundreds of lives, the Taliban and ISIS both have been attacking the Hazaras. The Taliban have carried out forced displacement of the Hazaras from their lands, and ISIS have been directly killing them. The latest cases are the terrorist attacks on the Shiite Hazara mosque in Kunduz, and the attack on the Shiite mosque in Kandahar where more than 200 people including children were killed.

To those familiar with the Taliban, it is well known that killing is the Taliban’s main specialty. In the last two and a half decades, the group has killed thousands of national and international forces, have planted roadside bombs, used hundreds of suicide bombers and took the lives of thousands of civilians. The Taliban fighters are used to fighting, destroying the built environment, and looting. For the most part, the Taliban fighters have been trained to do non-stop jihad. Without jihad and fighting, the Islamist fighters lose their sense of identity and become meaningless.

After 20 years, the Taliban’s primary enemies, the American and NATO troops are gone; but that does not mean the Taliban’s thirst for jihad is quenched. The Taliban’s passion for killing in the path of Allah is always there and the group has not remained idle. The evidence shows the Taliban has turned its focus on an internal enemy who, as the Taliban believes, has been helping Americans and NATO in spreading democracy. That enemy is the defenseless Hazaras, an ethnic group with Mongol origins, Persian language and Shiite faith, all of which is different from the Taliban’s Aryan roots, their Pashtu language and Sunni faith.

The Taliban’s violence against the Hazaras follows a similar pattern to the way the Afghan state persecuted the Jews of Afghanistan. In the 1940s, the Pashtuns, the most powerful ethnic group, were influenced by the Nazi Germany. As the Pashtuns also dominated the state, they forcibly put the Jews into slums in Kabul and prohibited them from doing any job outside their ghettos. Hundreds lost their lives as a result of absolute impoverishment, but some survived and managed to reach Israel by the 1950s.

The persecution of the Hazaras began when the British brought Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, the Pashtun king, in power in the 18890s, when Amir gathered fatwas from the Sunni mullahs against the Shiite Hazaras, who wanted to keep their de facto independence in Hazarajat. The result of Amir’s campaign was genocide, mass displacement and enslavement of the Hazaras in the hands of Pashtuns. Since then the Hazaras have always been dehumanized and considered as sub-humans. Until 1920, selling of Hazaras as salves was legal.

In the last 20 years of the international presence in Afghanistan, despite marginalization and discrimination imposed by the Afghan state, the Hazaras tried to build a future through education and peaceful means of engagement in political power; but now with the withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan, the ethnic and religious minority faces a serious threat to their survival.

While the Taliban are committing atrocities, the UN, one of whose missions is to maintain peace and prevent crimes such as genocide, is silent on what is happening to the Hazaras. No organization better than UN knows that Hazaras were and still are at great risk; but all it has done during the last 20 years is to disarm the Hazaras and then leave them alone in the hands of the terrorists.

In the last 20 years, most Hazara provinces were excluded from development programs financed by NATO and the US. Of all the 34 provinces where Provincial Reconstruction Teams have spent millions, the only Hazara province that benefitted from development project was Bamiyan, where the New Zealand PRT was based. One reason for the exclusion of Hazara provinces was that, based on the counter-insurgency or the so-called “COIN Theory,” the main purpose of the international operation in Afghanistan was to clear the areas of the Taliban, install new ruling, and gain legitimacy among the locals through development programs. And as there was no Taliban in the Hazara majority areas, there was no conflict and neither any development project.

Part of the reason for excluding the Hazara majority provinces from development programs was the dangerous picture that Pashtun influenced think tanks painted of the Hazaras. Hazaras were exaggeratedly introduced as pro-Iran, an actor in the region whose influence was neither favored by the US nor NATO. Whatever the reason, the Hazara majority provinces were economically marginalized, and that led to further impoverishment of the Hazaras. The collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan army gave the Taliban access to huge amounts of American military equipment, mainly meant for the Afghan army. Now the Taliban commandos use that American equipment to force Hazaras to leave their lands.

One question that is asked is why the Hazaras are being targeted. To the Hazaras themselves, it is not very clear why the Islamist groups, such as, the Taliban and most governments of Afghanistan have hated the Hazaras. In other words, Hazaras are not able to make sense of their experience in Afghanistan.

However, there are a number of realities that need to be taken into account. In Afghanistan, Sikh, Hindu and Jewish communities have gone extinct. In the last 20 years, Christian converts had to live in hiding, and in some cases were put in high-security prisons. The Taliban’s war against women and girls is well known. The Taliban’s hatred towards the Hazaras could be for similar reasons; that Pashtun dominated governments and terrorist groups hate all those who are different. As a result of widespread hatred against the Hazaras, thousands of Hazara lives have been taken and their lands grabbed. The Hazaras have not disappeared completely because they are millions. But if nothing is done, thousands will have to die, either directly by the Taliban and ISIS, or because of hunger.

When it comes to Hazaras, there is something very important, but generally not stated – and that is the fact that the Hazara genocide in the 1890s by the Pashtun King Amir Abdul Rahman Khan was made possible because of British support. In fact, had Abdul Rahman not been brought to power by the British, the unification of Afghanistan at the cost of Hazara lives would not have happened in the first place. The British historians probably know this very well, but choose not to include that in their books. The British had a role in the genocide of the Hazaras; but as this ethnic group does not have any strong organization nor any lobbying power in the West, and their story is usually told by the most powerful ethnic group of the country, the Pashtuns, the British find it easy to get away with their role in the genocide of the Hazaras.


Gabriel Vilanova is an Afghan scholar, writer and journalist.


The featured image shows the work of a Hazara artist, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Women Taliban?

Since the Taliban retook Afghanistan, an avalanche of information has been coming from the occupied country. Among others, the Taliban announced its conditions for reopening private universities which, in reality, make it impossible for women and girls to continue their studies. The Taliban’s official statement from its Ministry of Education says that “Only boys from primary, secondary and high school can resume their schools;” and there is no mention of girls. The Taliban have banned women from working in the positions and jobs that they previously worked in.

In rural areas, Taliban fighters have been summarily killing members of former Afghan security forces and forcing villagers to pay a tenth of everything they possess. In the cities, it is not only poverty and hunger, but the Taliban’s inability to ensure security. In Herat, for instance, the cases of armed robbery and kidnappings are on the rise. As people have flooded into cities like Kabul, Zaranj and other provinces that border neighboring countries, a very high number of civilians are literally on the verge of losing their lives because, while trying to cross the border with Pakistan or Iran, they are pushed back by the border police of those country, and in the Afghan sides of the borders they have no place and possibility of living, first, because of the Taliban, and second because of hunger.

All these things are clearly contrary to what the group previously said about allowing women to take part in education and in public and social life. The Taliban’s summary killing of dissidents and members of former security forces proves that the general amnesty the Taliban announced was absolutely false. The unfolding human tragedy which is expanding very fast under the Taliban indicates that there has never been a Taliban 2.0, and “the Taliban have changed” was one of the biggest lies.

Days after women took to the streets in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif protesting against the Taliban and demanding equal rights, photos of women strangely covered from head to toe who are reported to have been Taliban supporters started circulating on the internet. Since then, I have been frequently asked if, in reality, there are women who support the Taliban and its misogyny, or were those images photoshopped. While the vast majority of women in Afghanistan, though Muslim, do not approve of the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam and try to fight against the Taliban’s misogynistic and objectifying treatment of women, and despite the fact that in some cases women were intimidated into holding demonstrations in support of the Taliban, the answer is sadly, yes. There are women who support the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban and its ideology. Obviously these radicalized women by no means represent the majority of Afghan women, but they can harm ordinary women who feel suffocated under the Taliban.

The most important question about these women, I think, is what happened to these women covered in black abayas who gathered in southern provinces, including at Kabul University and even gave speeches in support of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate – which largely regards women as less than human. As someone coming from Afghanistan, with years of firsthand experience in studying at madrasas (Islamic religious schools), I try to explain what made the phenomenon of Women Taliban.

First, poring over the Islamic law and tradition, one finds out that for centuries there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality. These groups included unbelievers, slaves, and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was.

Despite significant improvement in the condition of women in Islamic countries, there have always been fundamentalist groups who think that the failures and shortcomings of modern Islamic lands only afflict these lands because they adopted alien notions and practices. According to the Islamists, the Muslim world became stagnant because it fell away from authentic Islam and thus lost its former greatness. So, what the fundamentalists have always wanted was to return Muslim societies back to the era of pure Islam, the period of Mohammad, and later the periods of different Islamic caliphates, in which “pure Islam” was practiced, and, among other things, women were subjugated and secluded. The Taliban is one of those groups to which the only acceptable law that can lead the Muslim world to prosperity is the law of Allah – the Sharia.

Now to find out what Sharia has to say about how to rule an Islamic society, one needs to learn Arabic, the language of the Quran in which Mohammad claimed Allah communicated with him. To learn the Quran and other Islamic texts, one needs to go to special places, which are madrasas and other similar centers. Frankly speaking, the Sharia of the Taliban and similar groups, and their interpretation of Islam, is the closest to what Islam really says about women or other issues. After all, it is the Taliban and the mullahs who know the real Islam because they are the ones who study the Islamic texts, including the Quran. The many millions of ordinary Muslims who do not hold the same belief as the Taliban and mullahs on women and other issues is because it is said that ordinary Muslims do not really know the Islamic texts, and therefore their Islam might be good and peaceful but it is not necessarily the real Islam.

The question of how some women and girls ended up being ideologically Taliban has to do with the Taliban’s evolving strategy in the last few years. In fact, since 2005, the Taliban have gone through a number of changes. They have sacrificed religion for victory. Unlike their time in power, when the Islamist group practiced and imposed strict Sharia and “pure Islam,” in the battlefields, they sacrificed their culturally and religiously-rooted beliefs and taboos for survival and success. They recruited transnational jihadists and criminals as fighters. They used suicide bombers as one of its main fighting tactics. Taking advantage of the Afghan State’s flexibility and corruption, this Islamist group also got engaged in the drug industry and illegal mining, which enabled it to continue its jihad against the international and Afghan national forces. Despite being extremely technophobic, the neo-Taliban have vastly been using every possible means of technology to spread their propaganda. One could justifiably argue that without the internet, a Taliban victory would not have been this easy.

Further, one of the most horrible things the Taliban and their sympathizers did was to establish madrasas for women and girls. While previously madrasas were only for men and boys, in the last few years dozens of female madrasas were opened. For example, Ashraf-ul Madaris, a women madrasa with its main branch in Pakistan, had 14 branches and more than 6000 female students by 2014 in Kunduz province alone. Of the over 1300 madrasas across Afghanistan, a good number of them have only enrolled females. What has happened is that these madrasas have really been successful in radicalizing women, as well as the men. Sadly, because of these madrasas Women Taliban are real, and like their male counterparts, women Taliban are dangerous. They have a great capacity of harming the millions of ordinary women who don’t want to adapt to Taliban rule.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that after being radicalized in a madrasa, it is the “pure Islam,” which the life-blood of a radicalized person, who is eager to force others to do follow the dictates of “pure Islam.” Once radicalized, a person is no longer a normal, but someone steeped in a toxic form of religiosity, empty of spirituality, capable of causing incalculable harm to ordinary people, particularly women. What makes it all worse is that it is not easy to de-radicalize a person after they are indoctrinated. On the other hand, self-deradicalizing is in many ways like self-destructing, and thus extremely difficult.

Even before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the country was one of the worst places for women. According to the study, “Women, Peace and Security Index 2019/20,” carried out by Georgetown University, in cooperation with Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Yemen and Afghanistan were the worst countries for women among 167 countries that were studied. Similarly, the World Bank’s “Women, Business and Law” (LWB) score of Afghanistan, in 2020, was 38 out of 100, a score much lower than the regional average (62.4) in South Asia. What this means is that even before the Taliban’s occupation of the country in 2021, women faced serious legal restrictions in different areas. Now with the Islamist group in power, the plight of women is far bleaker.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the consequences it is having on millions of people is one of the worst tragedies of the 21st century. What is equally tragic is to see women becoming radicalized and ideologically Taliban; women who not only justify subjugation of themselves and other women, but also take part in doing so. What all that means is that the Taliban have become more dangerous and are able to do unimaginable harm to women and girls.


Gabriel Vilanova is the pseudonym of a young Afghan scholar whose memoirs, Afganistán: Una república del silencio. Recuerdos de un estudiante afgano, have recently been published in Spain.


The featured image shows, “Farkhunda,” by Latif Eshraq; painted in 2017. (Farkhunda Malizada was killed by a mob in 2015, in Kabul).

François Desset: On The Decipherment Of Linear Elamite Writing

We are so greatly pleased to present this interview with Dr. François Desset, who recently accomplished a remarkable scholarly feat – he deciphered an ancient and elusive writing system that used in Bronze Age Iran.

Dr. Desset is a French archaeologist, who earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne. His primary interest is Bronze Age Near Eastern Archaeology (ca. 3500-1500 BC), particularly in Iran, where he has lived for the most part since 2014, working at the University of Tehran, as well as with the French research team, Archéorient (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). He has conducted numerous excavations, especially in South-Eastern Iran, at sites pertaining to the Jiroft civilisation. Another interest of his is in Iranian writing systems.

In this latter field, along with four collaborators, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Mathieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello and Gianni Marchesi, he has recently been able to decipher the long-elusive Linear Elamite writing system. At present, some 95% of the signs can be read. This is a monumental achievement, comparable to Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and Ventris’ decoding of Linear B.

This interview, on behalf of the Postil, is conducted by Robert M. Kerr, who heads Inarah, the institute for the study of early Islam.


Robert Kerr (RK): How did you first get interest in Linear Elamite writing?

François Desset.

François Desset (FD): During my first excavation in Jiroft (South-Eastern Iran), in 2006, four tablets with a “very weird” geometric writing system were discovered. My curiosity in undeciphered ancient Iranian writing systems, such as this geometric one, linear and proto-Elamite script, was sparked. This inspired me to write a book on the subject. At this time, most colleagues preferred to keep their distance from this material as it was still undeciphered.

RK: So, a healthy curiosity of the unknown took an un-relinquishing hold of you. As we both know, even deciphered writing systems of lesser-known languages, such as the language isolate, Sumerian, still pose considerable difficulties. Undeciphered writing systems, on the other hand, tend to deter serious scholars and attract dreamers, as for example with Linear A. Your approach, much like that of Champollion and Ventris was logical and systematic, leaving no room for wild speculations.

FD: Indeed. For me the turning point was the realisation that the proto-Elamite (as the early phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) and the linear Elamite (as the late phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) must be one and the same writing system, but at two different, chronologically distinct periods. Between the two is a middle proto-Iranian script, which, however, is still not well known. Crucial for me was that I was able to gain access to a collection of inscribed silver vessels (kunanki) in London (the Mahboubian collection) from which I could make exact copies. As pointed out by Gelb many years ago, the first step in decipherment, is to establish precise copies of the texts themselves.

François Desset with columns from Iranian Baluchistan.

RK: Certainly, without autopsy, you know nothing. Drawings in my experience are often detrimental to reading such texts.

FD: Initially, in my case, when I started in 2006, I only had photographic access to one side of the objects, the silver vessels; thus, I had only one half of the inscription. It was only in 2015, after considerable efforts, when I was granted access to the artefacts themselves that I was able to start to make progress. Two years later, I was able to present my first readings.

RK: Access to the written objects is the sine qua non of any philological endeavour. However, successful decipherments, yours being no exception, pursue in their analysis a three-pronged approach: Is the language previously known? Are personal names known? Are there bilingual texts?

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Y. Mahboubian collection.

For the first point, the key for the later decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was the conclusion by Athanasius Kircher, a Renaissance polymath at the Collegium Romanum, that Coptic must be the last phase of the Egyptian language. Although he was unable to decipher the hieroglyphs themselves, this realisation was later crucial for Champollion.

We see this too with Ventris, who concluded that the language of the Linear B tablets must be a form of Greek, and Knozorov’s decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs. As per your second point, personal names, the realisation that such must be contained in cartouches was essential for Champollion’s work on the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone of course is triscriptural (hieroglyphs, demotic, both forms of Egyptian writing) and Greek and bilingual (Egyptian and Greek).

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

FD: With linear Elamite we do not have bilingual texts stricto sensu. We only have “partial bilingualism;” that is texts recorded in different languages and containing. e.g., the same anthroponyms, titles, etc. So, for example, those referring to the Susian king Puzur-Sušinak (2150-2100 BC), which display a cuneiform inscription recording an Akkadian text, and a Linear Elamite writing one, recording what we could prove as being an Elamite (or Hatamtite) language text. The texts themselves, although they share the same onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects.

Distribution of writing systems in the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BC Near East, showing the locations of the cuneiform (in red), Indus (in green), LE (in yellow) and geometric (in white) texts.

The texts themselves, although they share only the onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects. Then, we also have what one might term “biscriptualism;” that is, two objects with the same text (in the same language), though written in two different writing systems.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 1. National Museum of Iran.

This was the jackpot – the same Elamite or Hatamtite text written on one artefact in cuneiform, and on the other in Linear Elamite. This is a classic knowledge-driven decipherment based on our capability to make connections between Cuneiform and Linear Elamite scripts inscriptions recording the same Hatamtite (or Elamite) language text.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 2. National Museum of Iran.

RK: An excellent point, especially in this day and age when many seek to replace knowledge with technology.

FD: Certainly. I wish in this regard to emphasise that I have been asked a lot about computers, statistical data, etc. All hogwash! Knowledge, especially cultural knowledge and of the languages used at the time, some luck, and most important perseverance were essential.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

RD: Often today, computers are employed to avoid thinking, as an ersatz for genius – information nowadays often is mistakenly equated with knowledge. Technology is no substitute for ingenuity, the feat of you and your team is a true intellectual achievement. Here, with regard to the first criterium, previous knowledge of the language, you were sailing somewhat on uncharted waters.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

FD: Not entirely. We had Hatamtite (Elamite) proper nouns recorded in cuneiform. Without that, we would have been unable to make any significant advancements. The language though, like Sumerian, is a language isolate (i.e., has no known cognates). We know now, after decipherment, that cuneiform is rather unsuited to render the Hatamite language.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

So, for example, the name of the 14th century BC king rendered in cuneiform as Untaš-Napiriša is rather to be rendered Ontaš-Napireša, because we now have a graphic rendering in Linear Elamite closer to contemporary phonetic reality, i.e., how it was pronounced. This writing system is well adapted to the morphophonology of Hatamtite, much more so than (the au fond logographic) cuneiform.

na-pi-(r)-re-sha

We have now also made considerable progress towards understanding the phonology of the language. I have the impression that Linear Elamite is in a way more “advanced” than cuneiform since it provides a more precise rendition of phonemes.

Curiously enough though, many scholars thought that the silver vessels bearing the inscriptions were forgeries. After their publication in 2004, nobody seemed interested in these objects. I thought I must have missed something.

RK: There was of course in the 1990s the famous “heist” of supposedly Achaemenid metalwork in New York, which turned out to be modern forgeries.

FD: We must always be careful with objects which are not unearthed in the course of official, professional excavations. Metal in the Middle East, a scarce, hence mostly imported commodity, was nearly always recycled. We usually only find such objects in graves. My suspicion is that the Mahboubian artefacts may come from graves dated around 2000-1900 BC.

RK: Looted artefacts lack archaeological context and hence are of limited scientific value. And they aid in the dissemination of forgeries. In your case, your decipherment has shown that the objects must be authentic. Could you now briefly explain to us the distribution of writing systems on the ancient Iranian plateau.

FD: I am proposing a new history of writing in the Near East. Things in this regard have now become a lot simpler. Until 2018, I thought that we had proto-Elamite, Linear-Elamite and this geometric writing system only attested in Jiroft. Then I came to the conclusion that the first two must be one and the same writing system. Their different appearance is due to chronological development. My thinking now is that in this region, “Iran” (archaeologically speaking), there was only one ancient writing system which appeared around 3000 BC. It was used, based on the names of the kings attested until about 1880 BC. These I divide roughly into three distinguishable phases.

The first phase, traditionally known as proto-Elamite, I term Early proto-Iranian writing; these appear to be mostly administrative tablets, found on eight sites, primarily in Susa during the French excavations at the end of the 19th/early 20th centuries, on the Iranian plateau. They are datable to circa 3300-3000/2900 BC. Although these texts are hitherto undeciphered, now that we have deciphered what I call Linear Elamite (Late proto-Iranian writing phase), we will be able to work backwards (as was done with cuneiform).

Then, we have the Middle proto-Iranian writing phase, about which we have only sparse information, and which probably should be dated in between, ca. 3000/2900-2300 BC.

Then comes what has been conventionally known as Linear Elamite, Late proto-Iranian writing (phase III), that which we have deciphered and is more or less datable to 2300-1880 BC. For this last stage, the present corpus is not large, with currently some 43 inscriptions, found in Southern Iran, in Susa, in Fars and in Kerman province (Shahdad and Jiroft). Thereafter, this (proto-Iranian) writing system falls into disuse around 1880 BC.

I believe that there were two reasons for this: first, in the early 2nd millennium BC, there was a large-scale urban collapse in Eastern Iran, in what is now Kerman Province; all the cities, Jiroft, Shahdād (Khabīs), etc. were abandoned – but this was not limited to the Eastern Iranian plateau; this was also, for example, when the Indus Civilisation came to an end. Second, in South-Western Iran in this period, in Susiana and Fars, Mesopotamian cuneiform was adopted by Hatamtite speakers.

RK: Often with urban collapse, writing systems, whose primary function is administrative, fall into disuse. We see this elsewhere, for example at the end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Could you now briefly walk us through your decipherment of Linear Elamite?

FD: By being able to access the artefacts in the Mahboubian collection, I was able to distinguish specific, repeated sequences of characters which were likely to be names. Of special note was a sequence of four tokens, which I thought in all likelihood must render the name of a king. The first sign, /ši/, had been previously identified in 1905 by a German scholar, Bork; the third and fourth signs were identical. Thus, I just needed to find the name of a king whose first syllable was Ši- and which ended in two identical syllables and who ruled in the early 2nd millennium BC. The names of the Elamite kings are known (e.g., from cuneiform sources). And there was only one king to whom these criteria applied, namely Šilhaha (20th century BC). This was the key. It gave me the phonetic value of two further signs, from which I could proceed.

ši-l-ha-ha

RK: I do not wish to diminish your intellectual achievement in any way, but could one say, that what aided you vis-a-vis previous scholars such as Hinz and Merigi’s brilliant and painstaking work, was that you had a larger corpus?

FD: Indeed, access to the Mahboubian collection was essential; in this regard I was quite fortunate.

RK: It was indeed your perseverance, gaining access to the collection while others showed no interest. This is an essential trait, especially for epigraphists.

FD: Yes, especially since the writing system itself is not as complicated as for example cuneiform.

RK: Yes, and with regard to writing systems, we must never forget that orthography and phonology are two related though quite distinct manifestations of language.

FD: Of course, language sound is not visual language/graphemic rendering. So, for example, there are logographic writing systems, such as Chinese characters (Hànzì), which do not record sound.

RK: And, as for example speakers of English and/or French know, how you write something is not how it is pronounced. These are two related, yet entirely different phenomena. We see that the advantage of the alphabet is that we can graphically produce words with a limited character-set, which then are read “hieroglyphically;” we recognise the word shape. Children and language learners have difficulties until they are able to master word shapes (cf., with smartphones, Chinese is written phonetically using the Latin alphabet, whereupon the user selects the correct character).

FD: Yes, speaking and writing serve two different goals.

RK: Moving on then, can you provide us with a brief overview of the Linear Elamite texts that you have deciphered.

FD: At present, we have a corpus of some 43 texts, which is not really a lot. We can roughly divide these into seven different corpora, periodically and geographically speaking. The first, the best preserved, longest, and the most important genre is votive or dedicatory royal inscriptions; those of Puzur-Sušinak (cf. supra) from Susa (2150-2100 BC). A second corpus in this genre is represented by the somewhat more recent texts on silver vessels of the late Simaški/early Sukkalmah dynasty (2000-1880 BC), by Eparti II and his probable son, Šilhaha (cf. supra).

e-pa-r-ti

On the silver vessels we can also glean two important conjugated verbs, “I made” and “I gave;” e.g.: I am … the King of Hatamti, I made … and I gave (scil. presented this object to deity x). We only have one text containing historiographical data, a campaign by Puzur-Insušinak previously known from cuneiform sources. We do, however, have important data pertaining to anthroponyms and the names of their gods which were previously unknown. Also, because as elsewhere in the ancient world, names had an apparent meaning, i.e., they are grammatically analysable and hence supplement our knowledge of the language. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a simple sentence and a “sentence name.”

Graphic rendering of the Persian Gulf type seal with Linear Elamite inscription V.

Now that we can read some 95% of the Linear Elamite signs, the challenge with which we are faced is the translation – as mentioned, distinguishing names from sentences, but also due to our limited knowledge of Hatamtite/Elamite grammar and lexicon. The latter especially, since we can now read the texts, we are continually encountering previously unknown lexemes and grammatical forms.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Z. Mahboubian collection

RK: These are the problems which one faces when reading a linguistic isolate. As we mentioned, Champollion had Coptic to work with, Ventris, Greek. And there are very few bilingual texts involving a Hatamtite/Elamite version, including most notably the much more recent royal Achaemenid trilingual texts (Old Persian, Akkadian and Hatamtite/Elamite). I read many years ago the works of David McAlpin, who proposed a relationship with Dravidian languages. This has not been widely accepted, and hard to prove due to the chronological distance between the recording of the two posited groups.

FD: Indeed, this is a very unlikely proposition. To the best of our knowledge, it would seem that Hatamtite/Elamite remains, for now, a language isolate. Of course, no language can be a real isolate; it is just due to the data available to us. A lot changes over the course of three millennia. I choose, however, to leave this for what it is. I am not a historical linguist.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription K’. Mahboubian collection.

It is however possible that Hatamtite/Elamite was spoken up to the tenth/eleventh century AD. Indeed, Persian geographers, writing in Arabic, make mention of a language (Khuzi) spoken in Khuzestan, which would seem to have been a late form of Elamite or preferably Hatamtite.

The so-called “Table au lion,” with LE (text A) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

Here I wish to make a brief note on the terminology. I am a fervent advocate of using “Hatamtite” as a glossonym, based on the auto-toponym Hatamti found in Linear Elamite texts themselves. “Elam” is a Mesopotamian allo-toponym which can roughly be translated as “Eastern Highlands.” Hatamti was probably the most important designation for the political structure of the Iranian Plateau during the third millennium BC.

RK: Your point is well taken. When the Louvre has its displays rewritten accordingly you will know that you have won. Let us return to your point on proto-Iranian writing, that this is one system with three (chronologically distinct) manifestations (One might compare the decipherment of the Shang Dynasty ‘oracle bones’, whose writing system represents the first attested stage of Hànzì). Indeed how many independent writing systems might one expect in one culturally homogenous region?

FD: The idea is not new. In the early twentieth century, it was widely thought that they were related. Thus, I am rather promoting classical ideas. It was only in the 1970s/1980s that what I call proto-Iranian writing Early, Middle and Late phases were viewed as distinct and independent writing systems. Although a general scientific consensus remains in this regard, I believe that I have good reasons to dispute this. So, for example, even a superficial glance at the shapes of the tokens themselves strongly suggests that the Early (Proto-Elamite) and Late (Linear Elamite) phases (the Middle phase is still poorly documented) are one and the same writing system.

Broken boulder with LE (text B) text of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

I have now started to work on the most ancient texts, the Early phase, using the phonetic values of tokens from the Late phase or Linear Elamite. It is still early days, but I can unequivocally state that there is a continuity.

RK: I do believe that you are on the right track and look forward to the completion of this work very much. Let us now turn to the implications of your decipherment and your thoughts about the origins of writing in the Ancient Near East, especially your suggestion that the earliest cuneiform writing and Early proto-Iranian (or Proto-Elamite) writing are contemporary, i.e., sister scripts. The communis opinio states that cuneiform is the mother of all writing systems. You posit a chronological and a logical argument.

FD: Yes, I have published extensively on this. Firstly, in my 2012 monograph, usually ignored by the academic world, and again in 2016, which received slightly more interest. This discussion is however completely unrelated to the decipherment of Linear Elamite.

However, I want to use the attention which the decipherment has attracted to promote my ideas on the origins of writing. Simply put, Carbon14 datings and the stratigraphy of the respective texts show that both Proto-Cuneiform in Mesopotamia and Proto-Elamite in Iran are contemporary. Conventional wisdom dates the Uruk (proto-cuneiform) texts to 3300-3200 BC. If we accept such, we must note that proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) texts found in the1970s in the Iranian site of Tal-e Malyan were C14 dated to precisely the same period. From the point of view of pure chronology, based on the current data, both are consequently contemporary..

Goddess statue with LE (text I) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

As for my second argument, logic, let me note that if proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) was a daughter script of cuneiform, then it should manifest numerous shared elements or borrowings. However, both differ for roughly 95% of the time. There is only 5% which is shared, especially, the numeral signs and systems employed and several logograms or sign-objects. Both of these, however, can also be found in the “numerical tablets” which are somewhat older, ca. 3500-3000 BC and are attested from Syria to Iran. It is clear that both proto-Elamite/ Early Proto-Iranian writing and proto-cuneiform share a common ancestor, namely, these numerical tablets. Thus, they are sister scripts.

Although I have been criticised for this thesis, my evidence is solid. I would of course be willing to reconsider should an excavation in the South of Iraq produce proto-cuneiform tablets which can be unequivocally dated to circa 3500 BC or earlier. Mine is the most parsimonious explanation with the data currently available.

RK: One must not forget that these “numerical tablets” do not render a language. They display logographs which are language independent and numerals.

FD: earliest writing systems were not very related to (a specific) language. We also see that they were only employed in specific domains, mainly accounting. This can be done without rendering specific linguistic information.

RK: Furthermore, if one accepts the theory of Schmandt-Besserat, that writing emerged from the use of symbolic tokens, “tags,” clay envelopes which only then became tablets, then the origins of writing are logographic. The latter, especially in light of their distribution, both chronological and geographical, could well be the precursor to both writing systems.

FD: With regard to her theories, we must be cautious. So, there is the discussion about the simple tokens dating back to the sixth and seventh millennia BC, which I do not view as the precursors to writing. The complex tokens on the other hand, which date to the fourth millennium BC, along with the clay envelopes, may well be the precursor to writing stricto sensu.

RK: The envelopes are convincing because they were used into the early second millennium BC. Thus, the evidence for a common ancestor for both proto-Iranian and cuneiform Mesopotamian writing is very credible.

FD: When I refer to the common ancestor, I mean the “numerical tablets” and not the complex tokens. The former have been found throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Iran, and date to the mid fourth millennium BC. It should also be noted that these tablets did not immediately fall into disuse after the invention of writing, and continued to be used for accounting and administration alongside the writing systems.

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

RK: (Complex) Bureaucracies tend by their nature to be conservative, and these served the required purpose well. Can we turn now to the nature of the proto-Iranian writing system itself?

FD: Here we must proceed with caution. We must not conflate the Early proto-Iranian phase (proto-Elamite; late fourth millennium BC) with the Late proto-Iranian phase (Linear Elamite; late third/early second millennium BC). Let us discuss the latter first. Until 2018 – put yourself in my position at that time – what other writing systems were present? Mesopotamia, Egypt and Indus. Let us ignore the latter, it is still undeciphered.

Focusing on Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see that they are mixed writing systems, employing both logograms and phonograms. Initially, I was convinced that this would also apply to Linear Elamite, and tried to identify these in the texts. I slowly however came to the realisation, confirmed, now that we can read some 95% of the graphemes, that this writing system was purely phonetic, using both syllabic and graphemes rendering one phoneme, without any logograms – it is an alpha-syllabary. It is thus the most ancient, purely phonetic writing system known to us. This is spectacular!

I believe that the Hatamtites were strongly attached to phonetic writing. So, for example, when they later abandoned proto-Iranian writing in favour of Mesopotamian cuneiform (cf., supra), they initially rejected the logograms and the logographic values of the characters. This has been known for a long time. Previously though, many scholars claimed that this was due to the Hatamites poor grasp of the essentials of cuneiform writing and its logograms; they were only able to use it at its basic, phonetic, level. We now know that this is not the case. The Hatamtites had a long tradition of phonetic writing, and kept this when they adopted another, scil. cuneiform.

They wrote cuneiform just as they wrote Linear Elamite. Later in the second millennium BC, logograms began to re-appear – here we see the influence of Mesopotamian scribal habits.

Late Proto-Iranian or Linear Elamite works on the principle of a phonetic grid with vocalic and consonantal values. It is perfectly logical. I could even use it to write French. Due to this, it works with quite a limited number of signs, especially when compared to cuneiform and hieroglyphs. Excluding some variants, we have about eighty characters. It is my impression, at present, that the Early Phase had not yet reached this degree of abstract rationalisation.

I am now trying to use our knowledge of the Later Phase to read the Early Phase texts, starting with the proper nouns, i.e., anthroponyms and theonyms. In these texts, we have longish sequences of characters, which do not seem to render numeric data, and which I suspect render onomastic information, which are often theophoric sentence names that undergo little innovation. My impression is that in the Early Phase (Proto-Elamite tablets), we have a hybrid system employed to record proper nouns, both logograms and phonograms.

Semantic structure of a Proto-Elamite tablet found in Susa using the decimal system. Some of the sequences in red may record anthroponyms.

My aim is to read the syllabically written parts of the personal names, and then try to deduce the value of the logograms. All in all, the corpus of tablets belonging to the Early Proto-Iranian Phase amounts to about 1700, mainly found in Susa and now in the Louvre – but also throughout the Iranian Plateau, with a more wide-spread distribution than in the Latest Phase. We have a good knowledge of the Susian onomasticon from the late 3rd millennium BC (i.e., written in cuneiform).

Using both the Late Proto-Iranian/Linear Elamite deciphered signs and the onomastic data available for the inhabitants of Susa in the cuneiform sources could lead to some progress in understanding the names recorded in the Proto-Elamite tablets. This is on the assumption that naming practices did not change dramatically during the third millennium BC. Of this though we can be fairly certain; so, for example, there is little change between ca 2300 and 1500 BC.

RK: This is certainly a good starting point. Just for the sake of clarity, in your Early proto-Iranian Phase, we find no cuneiform influence. The fact that it is a mixed logographic-syllabic system is what one would expect in the initial stage; this cannot be considered external influence. However, if the Early proto-Iranian writing was a daughter script of cuneiform, one would expect borrowings, since writing systems cannot be entirely separated from the language(s) which they rendered. So, the use of Sumerian logograms in Akkadian, and the use of Akkadograms in Hittite, etc. The borrowing of writing systems presupposes bilingualism in both the donor language and the target language. Cf., the historical influence of Latin in languages that use the Latin alphabet. When there is no bilingualism, it is the idea of writing that is borrowed, not the writing system itself (cf., e.g., Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary).

FD: Yes, as we discussed previously, the commonalities are largely restricted to the numerical signs and systems employed. Both Mesopotamian cuneiform and proto-Iranian inherited these from a common predecessor. The absence of Mesopotamian cuneiform influences supports both being contemporary and does away with the notion of cuneiform primacy, for which there is no evidence.

RK: I think that you have made a strong argument that proto-Iranian writing and Mesopotamian cuneiform are sister writing systems with a common ancestor, the numerical tablets. And again, my congratulations on your brilliant achievement in deciphering Linear Elamite – we eagerly await the publication of your findings. We also look forward to the progress of you and your team on proto-Elamite. Many thanks for your time.