Researching the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict

Dr John O’Loughlin, Dr Vladimir Kolossov and I visited Nagorny Karabakh in the summer of 2011, furthering our de facto state social science research project that continues to this day. With support from the US National Science Foundation, we organized a survey of public opinion there is late 2011, a survey that was replicated in part by our collaborator Dr Kristin Bakke at University College London.

We published some of the survey results in our large comparative paper on post-Soviet de facto states while JohnO and I published a paper that analyzed one battery of questions concerning the prevailing geopolitical imaginations of contemporary residents of Karabakh about where precisely the boundaries of the territory resided. This was a text driven set of questions. Modern survey methodologies involving tablet computers now enable survey questions prompted by visual images of territory, something we hope to develop in the future as survey firms begin to adopt these devices.

That paper “Land for Peace in Nagorny Karabakh” is now freely available as the embargo period has passed, and is downloadable here.

The research we have conducted to this point inevitably captures only the Armenian perspective, and is thus incomplete.

JohnO and I recently wrote a background ‘explainer’ for The Monkey Cage on the recent upsurge in fighting in Nagorny Karabakh here (thanks to those folks, especially Josh Tucker, for running it). We want to acknowledge the help of Nancy Thowardson, a cartographer in the Department of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in producing an updated color version of the map that accompanied the article below. The ‘conflict locations’ legend does not distinguish between Line of Contact (LOC) incursions, which occurred in the north and far south (generally far from Azerbaijani settlements on their side of the LOC), and shelling only which occurred in the Martuni area where there were Azerbaijani IDP settlements close to the LOC that were shelled.

It is worth underscoring that both sides have weapons capable of firing much greater distances than what they are using. BM-30 Smerch launch vehicles were reportedly deployed near the LOC but not used. For now, a particular techno-territorial regime (an actor-network if you prefer) of controlled violence remains in place, a few steps further up the escalation ladder than before but still quite a distance from unrestrained violence.

The TMC piece was extensively edited, and one line removed from the conclusion because it was deemed to stray into editorializing. Here it is below. See if you can spot the editorializing:

The Karabakh conflict has historically unseated governments in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. A ceasefire has now been agreed after four days of fighting. Will this significant eruption of violence galvanize international diplomacy, pitiful and inadequately resourced on the ground to this point? It should for Nagorny Karabakh is a conflict with the potential to escalate quickly into something broader, entangling Russia and Turkey (a member of NATO), and galvanizing the Armenian diaspora. We’ve had a warning; now is the time to act.


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Srebrenica After Twenty Years

Twenty years ago I was in northern Italy, enjoying that wonderful country and the hospitality of a good family. On the TV news, we saw pictures from the fall of Srebrenica. I remember  being struck by the phrase ‘Musulmani’ during the broadcasts (with its echoes of Primo Levi). Having spent the previous three years in the US closely following the Bosnian war, and the painfully slow and inept international response to it, I was exasperated that nothing substantive had been done to protect this manifestly vulnerable UN ‘safe haven.’ Readers of Critical Geopolitics (1996) will know that the second last chapter is an attempt to grapple with the US debate over Bosnia and geographies of moral proximity and responsibility.

The horror of Srebrenica eventually came to light thanks to the intrepid reporting of David Rohde and others. In 1998 I wrote an essay on what was known about Srebrenica then (link below) for the book Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, edited by James D. Proctor and David M. Smith (Routledge, 1999). Toal_EthnicCleansingSafeArea_Srebrenica1999

AB014My first visit to Srebrenica was for the memorial in 2002. It was still an open field with only the foundations for what would become the Potocari Memorial Center and Cemetery (pictured). The previous year there had been some stoning so there was a strong Republika Srpska police presence along the road, a disturbing site to those returning to grieve. I returned in 2004 and there met Sarah Wagner, whose ethnographic work with the Srebrenica victim families and ICMP I admire tremendously.

A few weeks ago the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina asked if I would make a few remarks at a Capitol Hill event to support H. Res 310 which affirms Srebrenica as a genocide. The Rayburn Building room was full of Bosnian families, including some survivors of Srebrenica. I spoke and then Michael MacQueen, who does amazing work for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) investigating suspected war criminals in the United States, spoke. Finally Semir Osmanovic, a student in Finance at Virginia Commonwealth University spoke. He looks like an all-American kid, blonde haired, well dressed, good looking. He is from a small village outside Srebrenica and he told the story of his happy childhood until the day came when the VRS attacked and burned down their home, driving the family into Srebrenica to seek shelter. There he was close to starvation for two years until 11 July 1995 when the VRS and Mladic came, his father fled and his grandfather was taken off the bus they were being transported out on. There were many tears in the audience.

Academics are generally privileged in this world relative to most: certainly I am. If we study conflict, we have responsibilities to those who are suffering from injustices and wanton cruelty in what we study. We can use our professional training and skills to do some simple things: present the facts, contextualize, seek understanding and employ judgement (listening this summer to Tony Judt’s spoken book with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, has been helpful and inspiring). I do believe we are off track when we treat Bosnia or Syria in abstracted and usually de-contextualized social science terms as “civil war case studies” or as data labs. But that is a larger debate…

I am grateful to Josh Tucker and the Monkey Cage team for publishing a considerably revised version of my comments at Srebrenica Genocide event on 9 July 2015. Subsequently, Bruce Hitchner drew my attention to an educational resource — sponsored by the British Embassy, Sarajevo (kudos to them and the work of the British government at the UNSC) — I really should have known about but didn’t at the time: Srebrenica: Mapping Genocide. It is worth viewing the 38 minute video for what it achieves — a sense of the arc of the genocide — but also for where it could have been more precise in its geo-locational presentation and graphic imagery. An accessible and concise yet comprehensive geographic and geopolitical analysis of the Srebrenica genocide remains to be written.

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Greater & Lesser Novorossiya

The declaration last week by Oleg Tsarev in an interview with that the Novorossiya project was on hold set off quite the blaze of commentary in the West as to its meaning. Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL wrote a piece called ‘After Novorossiya‘ that combined a reading of various sources with a dash of wishful thinking to generate a headline and opening paragraph that was compelling ‘click-bait’. Catherine Fitzpatrick applied a much more skeptical eye and provided a very useful anatomy of the ‘exaggerated death’ of Novorossiya, and its affective power among some.

This prompted me John O’Loughlin and I to release some of the data gathered from our December 2014 survey into the public realm so a more nuanced conversation about Novorossiya could be had. For a George Washington University workshop on political violence in Ukraine I had written a short piece on four revisionist geopolitical imaginations in the Ukraine crisis. Beyond EuroUkraine are three distinct but interrelated geopolitical imaginations: restored Russia, greater Novorossiya, and lesser Novorossiya.

Revisionist Geopol Imaginations

Our Memorial Day Monkey Cage piece reporting our survey results in 6 of the 8 oblasts of Southeast Ukraine had two main diagrams. Below is one that is just described in that piece. What is very evident, of course, is the sharp contrast between SE6 and Crimea.ToalOLoughlin_NovorossiyaMythFact

There is much to be written about this data and about the difficulties of survey work in deeply polarized contexts. We are working on it (and I expect a new batch of survey data will appear this summer which will give us a lot to think about). The bottom line for scholars is this: Novorossiya is a deeply divisive geopolitical project. It is not dead, it is not over. People have died fighting it and fighting for it: it is a cause. It cannot be switched off like a failed advertising campaign or recalled like a faulty product. It is (re)making Ukraine (and Russia) today and its legacy will shadow Ukraine (and Russia) for many years to come.

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Post Post-Soviet Space

IMG_7960It is a commonplace today to speak of the “map of Europe being re-written” and point to the actions of Russia in Crimea and the Donbas. But the process of ‘re-writing’ the world political map is perpetual. A key question is to determine significant moments of rupture and break, when we transition (to stick with a textual metaphor that has its limits) from one chapter to the next. Currently, geopolitical commentary is trashing about for a new language to describe the current moment, with memes like the ‘return of geopolitics’ and ‘revisionist geopolitics’ (re)appearing. Both are unhelpful, the first particularly so as it delimits geopolitics to a certain approach to international affairs rather than the innate condition of international affairs. Our world is always already situated geopolitically, within geopolitical fields (spaces), within geopolitical cultures, and a geopolitical condition (order of time/space compression shaping how we experience international events). The second has its blindness to the last two decades of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Today, it is more helpful to think historically about the rupture in the fields of Eurasian space and post-Soviet space. The key data (as I’m arguing in my manuscript in progress) is 2008, Kosovo’s UDI and recognition, the Bucharest summit, and then the Georgian-Ossetian-Russian August War. The key moment defining post post-Soviet space is the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

IMG_7973In our recent Monkey Cage blog piece JohnO and I argued against the current practice of seeing the Donbas as another ‘frozen conflict’ scenario (Nial Ferguson does it, like so many others, today in the FT, debunking ‘fairy tales’ while implicitly seeding another if only we hadn’t ‘strategic patience’ aka ‘dithering’). This misses the key rupture of 2008, and also the crucial fact that Crimea was outright annexed while any new Novorossiya in the Donbas will be unlike anything we’ve seen before with the existing de facto. This statelet will be the first true post post-Soviet de facto state, and its uniqueness should be appreciated by all.

Thanks to all at the Kennan Institute yesterday (esp Mattison Brady for these photos) for hosting JohnO and I as we presented preliminary results from our RAPID grant work. We’ll be publishing future pieces in the next few months, and academic papers as soon as our schedules allow. Let me leave with a quote from George Kennan (younger twice removed diplomat cousin of the showman popularizer George Kennan after whom the Institute is named) that is (Am Diplomacy, p. 97) relevant to our times: “We tend to underestimate the violence of national maladjustments and discontents elsewhere in the world if we think that they would always appear to other people as less important than the preservation of the judicial tidiness of international life.” The world political map is messy and we should never expect it to be judicially tidy.

Posted in August War, Donbas, Donbass, Geopolitics, George Kennan, Kennan Institute, Novorossiya, return of geopolitics, revisionist geopolitics, Wilson Center | Tagged | Leave a comment

Geopolitical Games and Ordinary Citizens

IMG_2830  Today’s Monkey Cage blog features the first publication of survey data based research on geopolitical attitudes among ordinary citizens in southeast 6 Ukraine and Crimea. This research was funded by a RAPID grant from the Political Science division of the National Science Foundation. Our initial proposal had to be modified because of the outbreak of fighting in the far eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk in April 2014. The survey research was administered in 6 southeastern oblasts (excluding Donetsk and Luhansk)  in December 2014 by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) while the Levada Center conducted the research in Crimea. We wish to acknowledge the professionalism and independent integrity of both organizations in helping us realize this social scientific and academic research driven project.


Yesterday John O’Loughlin (pictured) and I presented the data that is in today’s Monkey Cage blog at an event organized by the Director of Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University, Dr Henry Hale. He and a team of fellow academics also used KIIS for a three part panel survey on Ukrainian elections, the Euromaidan protests, and security perceptions in 2014. Part of that team, Dr Olga Onuch from the University of Manchester and Dr Nadiya Kravets from the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, were in attendance as were a number of other researchers engaged in ongoing work in Ukraine. Unfortunately bad weather prevented Dr Erik Herron from attending but an article on his 2014 research on the Ukrainian electoral administration system is published, along with lots of other interesting articles, in a special edition on Ukraine’s crisis in Eurasian Geography and Economics.

‘Southeast 6 Ukraine’ is an awkward geographic designator but it is the most accurate as we are not surveying all of ‘Eastern Ukraine’ or ‘Southeast Ukraine.’ The Monkey Cage blog  piece appeared with graphs that had the title ‘Eastern Ukraine’ but this should be understood as Southeast 6 Ukraine and not areas beyond those surveyed. This issue came up yesterday in questions where someone asked what our bottom line conclusions are about “Eastern Ukraine” and Crimea. Our answer was to stress how Ukraine is made up of very distinct geographic regions. Crimea is very clearly different from the territory to its north: it is a place apart. In a very different way, so also is the Donbas(s), Donetsk and Luhansk. There is no homogenous ‘Eastern Ukraine’ or ‘Southeastern Ukraine’ but a quilt of very different places. Our survey considers two but is unable to make any observations about the Donbas(s).

Our next public presentation of this KIIS-Levada survey data, and what it reveals about the contemporary conflict between Ukraine and Russia, is at the Woodrow Wilson Center on the 13th of February 2015. The working title of the presentation is: “Geopolitical Games and Ordinary Citizens.”

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Fears and Fantasies about the “Flesh of the Nation”

Yesterday Adis Maksic defended his Ph D dissertation “Mobilizing for Ethnic Violence? Ethno-National Political Parties and the Dynamics of Ethno-Politicization.” Adis is a Sarajevo native who was fortunately able to come to the United States with his family after his family suffered a tragedy at the outset of the Bosnian War in 1992. He completed a Masters in our program in 2009 on referendum discourse in Republika Srpska, and returned to our program for a Ph D in 2011 with funding from the US National Science Foundation (our program, unfortunately, provides no independent Ph D student funding so most of our Ph D students are part-time students and full time working professionals in the DC area). Through his diligent research and translation work, we were able to write together “Serbs, You are Allowed to be Serbs”: Radovan Karadžić and the 1990 Election Campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina” which was published in Ethnopolitics 13, 3 (2014).

For his dissertation, Adis deepened and widened this research topic by studying the origins, founding, electoral triumph and subsequent political machinations of the Serb Democratic Party, Jan 1990 to April 1992 when the Bosnia war erupted with intensity. The argument in that article about the power of visceral understandings and affective experience of the nation in recruiting people to ethnonationalist movements, ethno-parties and ethnicized violence.

CroatiaAsKnifeBeyond exploring the power of affective thinking, Adis provides the best and most deeply researched account of Bosnia’s road to the ‘gates of hell’ I have read. It is a story full of contingencies and fluidity, and he relates it with extreme attention to the ‘mixed emotions’ of the participants (as well as with exemplary scholarly evenhandedness). Karadžić famously interpreted the idea of placing state borders between Bosnia and Serbia as “severing the living flesh of the Serb nation.” What is striking about the 1990-91 period is how permeated it was by fears and fantasies of extreme violence. Fear of a return of the Ustasa in Croatia was a primal theme that played on the consciousness of many (the map above is the illustration of an article in the Serbian weekly NIN on the coming to power of the HDZ in April 1990 after democratic elections in Croatia). Mass graves sites were dug up (‘pits’) and victims of the Partisans re-buried in services that created communities of affect.

By way of establishing perspective on the SDS and BiH/Yugoslav context, Adis develops an asymmetrical comparison with the rise of the Georgian national movement at the same time, analyzing Gamsakhurdia and ‘Round Table – Free Georgia’ within the terms of his overall three part analysis of  political opportunity structures, dissemination modalities, and discursive framings.

IMG_3083It is always gratifying when a Ph D student, through hard work and serious scholarly application, reaches his or her potential in a work. Adis Maksic has done so in this work and hopefully we will all see this work in book form within the next two years. Pictured with Adis in black suit and tie are external observer Dr Sarah Wagner (whose book on Srebrenica has just been published) and his Ph D committee Dr Giselle Datz, Dr Toal and Dr Joel Peters. Not pictured yet an integral and inspiring part of his committee is Dr Robert Donia, whose new biography of Radovan Karadžić has just been published, also by Cambridge University Press. Its cover photo of Karadžić before a map underscores the intimate connections between cartography, space and genocide.

Posted in Affect, Bosnia, Bosnian war, Cartography, Current affairs, Democracy, ethnic cleansing, genocide, Georgia, nationalism, neuropolitics, South Ossetia, World political map | Leave a comment

On the Foreign Policy of an “Authoritarian Kleptocracy”: Thoughts on Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy

I recently finished Karen Dawisha’s remarkable new book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon and Schuster, 2014), a deeply researched book on the power circle that congealed around Putin in St Petersburg and moved with him to Moscow, eventually assuming power in mid-1999 and the Presidency in 2000. The book is not a Domhoff style ‘power structure’ analysis for Russia so much as it is an ‘inner circle’ analysis, focused on key figures rather than institutions. It revisits many well known episodes in Putin’s career rise — covered already in English by Martha Gessen and Hill & Gaddy — and provides even greater depth of analysis without ever being strident. In broad institutional terms the power nexus that Putin is at the center features the siloviki, corrupt politicians, and enterprising businessmen, those connected to organized crime and those with relationships to it. The lines blur here considerably as it is broadly alleged the FSB largely controlled organized crime, and it had telling relationships to certain oligarchs and politicians. Needless to say, the book presents a dark and disturbing look at the group of people who were empowered as Putin transitioned to power in Russia. It is the portrait of a kleptocratic elite, and a Putin system that Dawisha terms an “authoritarian kleptocracy.”

PutinKleptSee Dawisha discuss the book here and here. As one respondent at the Wilson Center presentation remarked Russian Studies becomes Criminology Studies with this book.

The book’s website with many documents and resources, including a useful chronology of events in Russian politics, is here.

Most of Dawisha’s book is taken up with the rise of Putin and his first 100 days. Towards the end there is a discussion of foreign policy, with the theme of capital accumulation opportunities and dynamics to the fore. This aspect I found  inadequate (in her defense this was the conclusion to the book). Thus, for example, the August War is read in terms of South Ossetia as a criminal outpost, not a territory but a counterfeiting hub for the siloviki. The Crimean annexation is read within the terms of discussion about desired and owned property on the Crimean coast. The foreign policy of an ‘authoritarian kleptocracy’ in other words is a patrimonial geopolitics, with the national interest indistinguishable from the personal property interests and desires of Putin. This does not convince.

A more compelling theme is the centrality of geopolitical spectacles to regime legitimacy from the very outset of Putin’s rule. Dawisha argues that the Dagestani raid by Basayev was a ‘false flag’ operation, initiated by his FSB handlers. She also is convinced the summer 1999 apartment bombings in Russia were the work of the FSB. Thus, the argument goes, the regime was born kleptocracic and anti-democratic and used from the very outset ‘active measures’ to create spectacles of violent crises in order to shore up its power. In this sense, then, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine do not represent a break in Russian foreign policy but continuity with the past. Yet, this line of argument misses much also.

Because she brings academic training and real depth of research to bear, I think Dawisha’s book is more formidable than the other works that have investigated this topic in English so far: Lucas, etc. Yet, the prosecutorial tone of investigative journalism throughout the book makes it different from ‘academic’ work.  This is a book that deserves to be debated seriously, and separated out from the strident anti-Russian posture of many journalists and some politicians today. That it agrees with most of their truthy contentions is, however, a point that must be conceded. Whether it will be processed as a demonstration of Tilly’s old claim — the state as organized crime — or as an affirmation of the need for civilizational struggle against Putin and Russia (a dangerous conceit, in my view, given Londongrad, Berlusconi, etc)  is something that is worth watching.

Posted in August War, Critical Geopolitics, Current affairs, Geopolitics, Masculinity, Russia | 1 Comment