Tuesday, January 25, 2011


This piece appeared in South Asian Analyses Group website on 31 December ,2003 



by K. Gajendra Singh 31 December , 2003 (Saag.org) also a similar one in Asia Times 

Some times citizens originating from the subcontinent influence British government policies and even send ripples through former English colonies like USA and Canada. Similarly ethnic and religious cousins of citizens of Turkey spread all over in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and the Arab world, which was ruled for nearly half a millennium from Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman empire, do and would play an important role, including in  the war against terrorism. The interactive responses find echoes even in central Asian Turkic republics and west Europe, specially in countries like Germany with large Turkish populations. 

With increasing US and western dependence on petroleum imports and growing turmoil in the Gulf, the Caucasus and Caspian basin with oil reserves estimated to be between 60 to 200 billion barrels become very important.  The US$3.6 billion oilfield and Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan project begun in May, 2003 after years of negotiations, involves laying of a 1,767 kilometer pipeline, the world's longest,  from Baku through Georgia to a new terminal at Ceyhan on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.  With a projected capacity of  50 million tons per annum it is hoped that the Azerbaijani oil will reach the Turkish port of Ceyhan for Western markets by the second quarter of 2005. Thus apart from the basin's strategic location, energy forms an important element in the Great Game being played by Russia and USA, in which the latter is supported by Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia ( most of it). Iran and Armenia side with Russia

In the Caucasian region not only the geological plates grind against each other making it earthquake prone, but strategically too it has been the clash point of tectonic plates of kingdoms and empires throughout history. The imperial powers and states interfered with each other and would continue to  do so.  Earlier the actors were Turks and Mongols from central Asia and Ottomans and Safavid empires. Later the Russians replaced the Mongols and the Turks and after the first world war, the British from the South East. Now USA has taken over the mantle from the British. 

In an interview with a Russian journalist Andrei Smirnov, Amir Ramzan, commander of one of the Chechen groups operating against the Russian military in the Northern Caucasus said that "not only do we carry out raids to various areas in the Caucasus, but we also form local jama'ats [groups], militant sabotage groups, locally. We are joined by a lot of Kabardinians, Dagestanis, Karachaevans, Ingushetians and even Ossetians. In 2004 "the war will seize the entire Caucasus from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Apart from Ossetia and Ingushetia, this year another guerrilla war has already started in two areas of Dagestan bordering Chechnya. I swear by Allah, this is only the beginning." Ramzan suspected that "Western governments and their security services also secretly finance us through different Islamic funds and organizations. I am convinced that there are Western powers in whose interests it is to keep Russia permanently involved in such a slow-burning conflict as the war in the Caucasus." 

Chechnya remains a thorn in south Russia. In the first half of December Chechen human bombers struck in the centre of Moscow to influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections. An earlier devastating attack on a train near Chechnya had killed over 40 persons and injured hundreds. Russia has many millions of Muslim citizens. Tragically, these bleeding attacks would not be the last.  

Historic linkages 

Chechens and other tribes around the Black Sea and the Caspian and the mountainous Caucasian region which separates Russia and the Middle East and Anatolia , have migrated and are now spread all over in the region and beyond and have long established deep roots. Like sleeper cells since centuries they have ramifications beyond the borders with serious implications for the region.  

The region would therefore remain very important and dangerous with complex linkages and relationships between the people of Turkey and people of Caucasian region which were established when the Ottoman Empire was shrinking. The contacts between citizens of Turkish republic and the republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus are deep and abiding. 

But after the First World War, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Turkish republic in Anatolia by Kemal Ataturk, the contacts with Muslim people of not only Central Asia but the Caucasian region ceased almost all together. Even the relations with the Arabs were limited, who according to the Turks had revolted against the Sultan Caliph. Ataturk jettisoned the Arab and Ottoman religious heritage and the Islamic and central Asian baggage. He turned around Turks to look West and become westernized, modern  and secular citizens to reach the level of contemporary European civilisation.  

The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey's historical enemy pleased the Turks no end. It was as if their old heritage and property had been restored. Turkish diplomats would complain why Russia was talking of near abroad and not leaving the people of Caucasus and central Asia alone ( for Turkey) while joining the contact group on Jammu and Kashmir to please Pakistan. It opened the floodgates of exchanges and relations between Turks of Anatolia and the Turkic people of central Asia and the Caucasus. There were delegations galore with the two lost people hugging each other, with many central Asian leaders bending down to touch the soil of Turkey with their forehead on first arrival. The initiative to bring the Turkic countries together was taken up President Turgut Ozal, but unfortunately he died in1993.   

Migrations and intermingling of Turkic and Caucasian people. 

There were many massive emigrations to the Ottoman Empire which after reaching its zenith in end 16th century started shrinking as Russians and Europeans started rolling it back towards Anatolia (Turkey). From mid 19th century tens of thousands of refugees flooded into the empire in flight from oppression and massacres. The Ottoman countryside had been largely depopulated since the seventeenth century as a result of misrule and the ravages of war, famine, and plague. So the Refugee Code (Muhadrin Kanunntamesi) of 1857, granted plots of state land to immigrant families and groups  They were exempted from taxes and conscription obligations for 6 years if they settled in Rumeli (European part ) and for 12 years in Anatolia. They were to cultivate the land and not to sell or leave it for 20 years and to became subjects of the sultan, accepting his laws and justice. They had freedom of religion, whatever their faith and allowed to build churches if not already available. News of the decree spread widely through Europe and met with a ready response from various groups unable to find land or political peace at home. Almost to end the Ottoman rulers were tolerant of other religions. It is the west which exploited ethnic and religion based nationalism to break the Ottoman empire and divide Hindustan, Palestine, Cyprus and other countries. But the same right is denied to the north Irish, Basques, Corsicans, Sardinians and others. 

A Refugee Commission (Muhacirin Komisyort) established in 1860 in the Trade Ministry became an independent agency in July 1861. It was a belated response as the influx had begun long before. Most of the refugees came from the Turkish, Tatar, and Circassian lands being conquered by the Russians in the north and west of the Black Sea and the Caspian. Even though there was no official Russian policy of driving these Muslims from their homes, the new Christian governments imposed in the Crimea (1783), in the areas of Baku and Kuban (1796), in Nahcivan and the eastern Caucasus (1828), and finally in Anapa and Poti, northeast of the Black Sea, following the Treaty of Edirne (1829), made thousands of Muslims uncomfortable enough to migrate, without special permission or attraction, into Ottoman territory. Even hundreds of Russian "Old Believers" had fled from the reforms of Peter and Catherine, settling in the Dobruca and along the Danube near the Black Sea. Between 1848 and 1850 they were joined by thousands of non-Muslim immigrants, farmers as well as political and intellectual leaders fleeing from the repressions that accompanied and followed the revolutions of 1848, especially from Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland. While many of these were absorbed by Ottoman urban life many were settled as farmers or managers of the farms being built by the large landowners, contributing to both estate building and the improvement of cultivation. 

The flow became a torrent after the Crimean War following new persecutions elsewhere in Europe. The war itself led the Russians to change their relatively tolerant policy toward the Tatars and Circassians into one of active persecution and resettlement from their original homes to desolate areas in Siberia and even farther east. ( This was repeated during 2nd World War too ) The result was mass migration into Ottoman territory, often with the encouragement of the Russians, who were glad to get rid of the old population to Russianize and Christianize the southern areas  of their new empire. From individual accounts it appears that the numbers were immense. Some 176,700 Tatars from the Nogay and Kuban settled in central and southern Anatolia between 1854 and 1860.  Approximately a million came in the next decade, of whom a third were settled in Rumeli, the rest in Anatolia and Syria. From the Crimea alone from 1854 to 1876, 1.4 million Tatars migrated into the Ottoman Empire.

Even Slavic migration begun before the Crimean War intensified. Cossacks who fled from the Russian army settled as farmers in Macedonia, Thrace, and western Anatolia. Bulgarians settled in the Crimea to replace the Tatars returned to their homes in the Ottoman Empire from an alien environment. The mass migration of Muslims continued, though at a somewhat less intense pace, during the early years of Abdulhamit II, mostly in consequence of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1888, the autonomy given to Bulgaria and Rumania, Austrian control of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the cession of northern Dobruca to Rumania and northern Macedonia to Serbia. Official statistics estimated that over 1 million refugees entered the empire between 1876 and 1895  The number of male Muslims doubled during the years from 1831 to 1882  while the proportion of Muslims to non-Muslims increasing substantially. 

The immigrants were settled widely throughout the empire, many in villages that had been abandoned and some in eastern Anatolia, particularly in Cilicia (Adana region) and the Arab lands like Syria, sometimes leading to conflict and problems. The lands could not have been intensively cultivated and the rural middle class built up had it not been for the tremendous influx of refugees who provided the necessary labor and males for future  wars. 

Harems and Slaves  

But the ingress and intermingling of Caucasian people with the Turks is much  deeper in its elite groups. Young girls of extraordinary beauty, plucked from the slave market, were sent to the Sultan's court, often as gifts from his governors. Among the singular, lasting privileges of the valide ( mother ) Sultana was the right to present her son with a slave girl on the Eve of Kurban Bayram (sacrificial day) – The girls were all non-Moslems, uprooted at a tender age. The sultans were partial to the fair, doe-eyed beauties from the Caucasus region. Circassians, Georgians, and Abkhasians were proud mountain girls, believed to be the descendents of the Amazon women who had lived in Scythia near the Black Sea in ancient times and  had swept down through Greece as far as Athens, waging a war that nearly ended the city's glamorous history. (No wonder Greeks looked upon them negatively.) 

Now they were being kidnapped or sold by impoverished parents. A customs declaration from around 1790 establishes their worth at about 20% to 40% of a horse. The promise of a life of luxury and ease overcame parental scruples against delivering their children into concubinage. Many Circassian and Georgian families encouraged their daughters to enter that life willingly. They were  immediately converted to Islam and began an arduous training in palace etiquette and Islamic culture. ( From Harem by Alev Lytle Croutier). Lucie Duff Gordon also reported so in her 1864 travel diary. While the earlier mothers of Sultans were Greek or Serbian princesses married to the rulers, after the capital shifted to Constantinople, every one was member of the harem under Valide Sultana's control, with those giving birth to children , specially boys, jumping up in the harem hierarchy.  

Many of the Valide Sultanas were Circassians and Georgians, one even French, Aimee de Rivery. They exercised great influence over their sons, now the Sultan. The harem politics also became a reason for the decline of the Empire. The word odalisque literally "woman in the room comes from oda (room). But the harem life was embellished by feverish European imagination, whose rulers were no less sensual, but lacked wealth and culture at that time. In 1960s Nordic countries with modern heating facilities discovered sex  ( known in kamasutra since millennia ) and believed they had invented it. Look at the present day peccadilloes of some of the British Royalty, romping around and going to meet their lovers with nothing but Crown jewels and the mink coat on.  

In friendly arguments with Turkish friends, mostly diplomats, I would tease them, What do you mean you are a Turk.You don't even look like a Turk. They have chinky-eyed and little hair on their faces Of course you speak good Turkish as you have been practicing it for 500 years. This devastating repartee usually ended the argument.  Most would smile and happily admit that his grand uncle or grandmother came from Circassia or Bosnia. During the days of the empire, the elite called itself the Ottomans.  There word Turk was reserved for the village yokel and a term of contempt.  It was Kemal Ataturk, who bestowed dignity on the word Turk. 

Turkey and Central Asia  

President Ozal's successor Sulieman Demirel did not have his vision or drive and the efforts to bring Turkic people together came to a standstill, although after the initial resistance to Turkish aggressiveness, the Turkic leaders from central Asia felt more comfortable in an institutional relationship with Turkey.  In any case, even if Turkey had  wished for a larger role in central Asia, it did not have the wherewithal to do so. Many central Asian leaders to whom power fell like manna from heaven, were confused and rudderless .They were cautious and wanted good relations with all. USA encouraged Turkey, afraid that Russia would try to come back, which it tried in some ways, but the horse had already bolted the stable.   

Fears that Iran would spread its version of fanatic Islam and support anti- US regimes also proved farfetched.  After an eight-year old exhausting war with Iraq, in which Iran lost a million young people, there was little energy or money left to spread its message of Shiite revolution. Except Azeris and some other pockets, most people in central Asia are Sunnis, closer to the Sufi way of life.  In any case they have a very high level of education and a life style of drinking and good living. With old nomadic habits they could not easily be led to Islamic fundamentalism. Ill conceived US, Saudi and Pakistani policies brought Wahabi Islam to central Asia. It was aided by the new rulers, who suppressed all legal opposition with Islam becoming the only vehicle for opposition politics. 

Except for the Caspian basin for its energy resources and in Kyrgyzstan, the American leadership soon lost interest.  USA courted Kyrgyz president Akayev, touting him a democrat and helped his country join WTO in 1998. It was basically to have a friendly regime with freedom to base personnel and sensing equipment to monitor China, next door. He has proved no different then leaders of other Central Asian republics.  At the end of President Clinton's second term, his secretary of state Madeline Albright went around on a farewell tour reprimanding the leadership for not having laid the foundations of democracy. USA did and does very little to promote that. 

Early 1990s was a very opportune moment for Turkey, which under the dynamic leadership of Ozal, had successfully undergone a decade of economic reforms and had opened its economy to the west, especially Europe. In 1996 it signed a Customs agreement with Europe Union and the date for entry would be decided at the end of 2004.  Turkey has many trained managers and experts who because of ethnic, linguistic and religious similarity became advisers and even ministers in the new Turkic governments in central Asia. Both at state level and in private sector Turkey made large investments in central Asia and Azerbaijan. The Turkish government provided loans amounting to US$ 750 million to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Turkish private investment runs into billions of dollars. Turks have established industries and run hotels and many other thriving businesses. 

Turkey also arranged to train 10,000 students and teachers from the new republics. Turkish as spoken in the Republic was purified by excluding many Arabic and Persian  words in 1930s. Many European words especially from French ( almost all in the game of bridge ) were added. Azeri language is quite close to it, as well as the Turcoman language .The languages spoken by Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Kazakhstan are some what different. Originally the Soviet Russians had prescribed Latin script for central Asian languages, but when Ataturk  changed to the Latin script from the Arabic, the Russians changed to Cyrillic. Many Turks have opened schools in central Asia too.. Turkey also started beaming Avrasia TV programs to central Asia but with uneven results. 

But Turkey's efforts to create an area of influence were opposed by the newly independent leadership.  A loose Organisation of Turkic states exists without having achieved much. The old Baghdad pact turned RCD was joined by the new central Asian republics and became the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO).  To soothe the Russians a Black Sea organisation was also created but it remains equally ineffective. Tansu  Chiller who had still not shot to fame by becoming the first woman prime minister of Turkey told me in 1992 that central Asian governments did not repay Turkish loans while they paid back  western loans. Turkesh , now an important leader said that they needed help and India should also join in. I was told that the new leadership in Central Asia would like to establish authoritarian political regimes and try to follow the capitalist system of eastern Asia.  They have succeeded rather well in the first objective.  

Problems in Caucasus: 

But soon after the collapse of USSR, nationalist Russian politicians, ex Communist cadres, ambitious Russian generals, local mafia lords and international oil executives all entered the fray to play their part for personal or national gains in the Caucasian chessboard. Many times the right hand did not know where even the left hand was. Forget about what it was doing, like differences between Kremlin and the Russian oil companies, the latter remain still untamed . 

Even Turkey was put in an embarrassing situation when the Azeri President Haidar Aliev accused a Turkish group in 1995 of trying to overthrow him with the help of his opponents in Baku. When the Turkish president went to Baku, the Turkish ambassador was cooling his heels in Ankara.  But generally President Demirel, believer in status quo, was helpful to Aliev, himself sent packing twice by the armed forces when Prime Minister, Demirel  suggested to Aliev to go on the television and take other steps to control rebellions in Baku. A TV technique King Carlos of Spain used successfully to quell rebellion by his generals once. 

East and South Turkey and Kurdish Rebellion  

From 1984 to 1999 Abdullah Ocalan led  PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) rebellion for a Kurdish state in the southeast of Turkey had cost over 35,000 lives, mostly Kurds, including the lives of more than 5,000 Turkish soldiers. To control and neutralize the rebellion, thousands of Kurdish villages were bombed, destroyed, abandoned or relocated; millions of Kurds were moved to shanty towns in the south and east or migrated westwards. The economy of the region was shattered. Half of the Kurdish population now lives in western Turkey, making Istanbul the second largest Kurdish city after Diyarbakir. With a third of the Turkish army tied up in southeast, the cost of countering the insurgency  amounted to between US$6 billion to $8 billion a year. After the capture of  Ocalan in 1999 and passage of laws last year to ease lives of Kurds things have now quieted. 

The war in the 1980s between Iraq and Khomeini's resurgent Shi'ite Iran helped the PKK to establish itself in the lawless north Kurdish Iraq territory. The PKK also helped itself with arms freely available in the region during the eight-year war. After the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and war, with lack of legitimate authority and absence of possible Turko-Iraqi joint offensives against Kurds in north Iraq, the Kurdish rebellion blossomed most violently. Turkey crossed  over quite deep into north Iraq from time to time for punitive attacks on PKK hideouts and formations, despite the usual international furor. It  even bombed some border areas in Iran too, where the PKK might have taken shelter. 

Lawless Region 

The attempt by the Turkish armed forces and the establishment to clear east and south Turkey  of Kurdish rebels ( and populations ), has made it easy for groups to move around from one country to another. From  Turkey to Iran and Afghanistan and from Azerbaijan to Chechnya.  While I was able to drive along the sea coast from Baku to the border with Daghestan in 1995, I was advised not to go towards Gynza, towards the border with Georgia. It was dangerous area  under Surat Hassonov, a mafia chief and smuggler and once prime minister of Azerbaijan under Aliev. There are many such areas in the region. Mafia teams involved in import and export business do not pay customs duties. Even ministers are involved. The bludgeoning truck based trade between Turkey and Central Asian republics via Azerbaijan and Iran without proper police control, many  more interested in payoffs, means control of mafia and freedom of movement for those who are determined or prepared to pay their way.   

Politician-Police Mafia link up in Turkey:  

There was a notorious case when a Mercedes car crashed at Susurluk in western Anatolia on 3 November 1996. In the accident  Hseyin Kocadag, Director of Istanbul police academy, Abdullah atli, a Grey Wolf ultra-nationalist militant and gangster who was implicated in seven murders in 1978 and convicted on drugs charges in Switzerland, and atli's mistress Gonca's, were all killed. The driver of the car Sedat Bucak, a ruling True Path party deputy and Kurdish chieftain heading a large gang of village guards (that is pro-government Kurdish militiamen paid for and trained by the armed forces) was the only occupant to survive. The crash suggested credible links between the security forces, the Grey Wolves, organised crime and pro-government Kurdish chiefs. By the beginning of November 1998, 25 prosecutions were launched covering murder, gangsterism and narcotics smuggling, in which 75 suspects were charged and the parliamentary immunities of both Bucak and of Mehmet Agar, the minister of interior in the Refahyol government, was lifted. But two years later only two relatively low-ranking police officers were convicted. Most of the alleged ringleaders in these crimes remained at large, some abroad with even diplomatic passports. Inquiries revealed nothing but it transpired that the police regularly use mafia hit men to kill PKK people, who then do the side business of smuggling and other  jobs. 

Istanbul Bombs: 

Human bombs who destroyed the two synagogues in Istanbul were finally traced to Bingol, a small dusty city near the Iranian border. It means 1000 lakes (lake Van is called Van Golu) . I had spent 4 quiet days in 1969 looking around the region including visits to lake Van and Urartian and Armenian ruins, as the guest of its Vali (Governor ) Kemal Ozturk,  a very charming and gracious host with evenings beginning  with the high officials including the military chief  at 6 PM and ending 2 hours past midnight. I found the same kind of lavish hospitality, now declining in a consumerist Turkey, at  Babur university and private homes in Uzbekistan's Ferghana valley city of Andijan (birth place of Babur, founder of the Moghul empire in India ) which I visited in 1998. By 1990s Bingol had become Kurdish rebel infested and dangerous. When I revisited nearbycities like Diyarbakir, main Kurdish strong hold, by 4 PM, before sun down everyone including the police would retire for the day, thus leaving most of the country side in south and east Turkey for rebels and others to roam about and transfer personnel and arms. Nearby is the city of Batman which had become the centre of Turkish Hizbullah. Unfortunately, it was the Turkey establishment which helped it by encouraging some Hizbullah units in mid 1990s to eliminate the Marxist PKK guerillas or their sympathizers in South East Turkey. The Turkish Hizbullah is quite different from the Lebanese kind and was reportedly helped by the Iranians. Only when Hizbullah started creating cells in Istanbul and west Turkey,  the experiment was abandoned, but the cat was out of the bag. 

Jordan Connection

In spite of a very strong control by the security establishment in Jordan, mostly manned by loyal tribal men, the country with nearly 60 percent population of Palestinian origin remains a place of acute underground activity. Daily killings and counter killings across the border in occupied West Bank and Gaza make things worse. It is a stronghold of Islamic brotherhood, who did very well in 1990 elections, with King Hussein even including some of them in the Cabinet to face western criticism for not joining the Coalition against Saddam Hussein. UK and USA blatantly encouraged Islamic and obscurantist groups to counter nationalist and socialist regimes in the middle East and elsewhere from beginning of 1950s to end of 1970s, but Iran's Shiite revolution unnerved every one.  But for the western support to Islamic elements, it would have led to more equitable and democratic regimes in the region. So the current talk and writings by western leaders and media of ushering democracy in the region is absolute humbug. And nobody is fooled except sometimes Thomas Friedman of New York Times.

Jordan has produced many well known Jihadis like Ibn-al-Khatib. There are now two new factors. The reported linkages between Jordanians of Caucasus origin and Chechens. Most of them are Circassians, known as Cherkess.  It could be a very dangerous development because the Cherkess are the Hashemite Kingdom's palace guards and hold important key positions in the police establishment and elsewhere. Although around 15,000 only, a seat in parliament is reserved for them.  After the First World War, when Emir Abdullah, son of King Hussein of Hejaz and great great-grandfather of King Abdullah stopped at Amman to reclaim Syria which had been promised by the British to the Arabs for revolting against the Ottomans, the Cherkess community, which had been established here in 19th century by the Ottomans  was the first to express their loyalty to him. Although the Cherkess community has remained loyal but there are now murmurs of disaffection. The number of Circassians in Syria is much higher but then Syria exercises a very strict control over such groups. Thoughtless efforts by the US neo-Cons to destabilize Syria would have devastating consequences. 

Late King Hussain, before dying of cancer in 1999, to further strengthen the British and the American motivation to protect the Kingdom and his dynasty, at the last minute removed his younger brother Crown Prince Hassan, married to late Indian Chief Justice Hidaytullah's niece and instead made his son Abdullah from the British wife the King and Prince Hamza from the American wife, the Crown Prince. The new US embassy in Amman, which I visited just before leaving in 1992 is like a fortress  with underground chambers. During the 1990- 91 Gulf crises and war, late King Hussein had adroitly remained neutral, much to the chagrin of Anglo - Saxons, but the masses remained peaceful and under control.  King Abdullah is not that nimble or experienced. Many Jordanians feel that he is siding with the Americans and extending them help, so there remains a danger to the throne. The warnings were conveyed by attacks on the Embassy of Jordan in Baghdad and other such events. 

(K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996 with concurrent accreditation to Azerbaijan.  He was earlier posted as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal .He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. The views expressed are his own  Email Gajendrak@hotmail.com)

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