An anniversary story: Fall, dissolution, and political violence

Today, 9 November, celebrates another anniversary the Berlin Wall officially fell.

It has been commonly believed that the fall of the Wall was a peaceful one, and also marked a “peaceful” dissolution and transition of East Germany’s patron, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – the Soviet Union – into independent countries (albeit now led by Russia in various iterations of economic/political organisations such as the Eurasian Customs Union).

That year of 1989, however, was really a different story, as were the years before and after.

Before November 1989, violence and death were  endemic to the crossing of the Berlin Wall – crossings from east to west. East German border guards were given a “licence to kill” to shoot at defectors, and more than a thousand people lost their lives.

In the years before 1989, as Soviet leaders were attempting to reform, there were riots in Kazakhstan based on a nascent ethnic nationalism, political protests in the Baltic states, and environmental demonstrations in Armenia. Then in April 1989, Soviet troops massacred demonstrators in the capital of Soviet Georgia, Tbilisi, which was followed by inter-ethnic violence in Georgia’s autonomous/breakaway territory of Abkhazia. In June 1989, riots again occurred in Kazakhstan.

After the fall of the Wall, in January 1990 ethnic tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis – which had been escalating for years prior – exploded into open warfare, killing Soviet soldiers in Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) in the process. Gorbachev sent troops into Baku to regain control, but eventually Azerbaijan along with the other republics was to break from the Soviet Union.

T-80UD tanks in the Red square during the 1991 soviet coup d’etat attempt. Location: Northern ramp of Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge (not exactly Red Square, some 200 meters south from its formal southern edge, with Nabatnaya tower in sight)

– Photo and caption from Wikipedia (public domain).

The last major event was the failed hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, before the USSR fell proper.

Yes, there were many other non-violent, even peaceful events and incidents across the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European states. But it would be a mistake to forget the political violence that occurred, that the break-up of the Soviet Union was anything but peaceful, and that state and societal collapse is less straightforward, and more significant than most people expect.

Look at the state of play between Russia and Ukraine now, and international politics in general.


Mid-dish November links roundup

Some issues of specific and general interest that caught my eye over the past week.

From The Duck of Minverva – Skyfall and Cyberwar: James Bond Enters the Digital Era (warning – spoilers!):

In reality, cyberwar is a tough tactic to utilize. Cyber attacks are not exactly the future of combat, diplomacy, and human relations. While computers shape our lives, it is by no means assured that cyber attacks will take place at a level that will impact our day to day lives, let alone the foundations of British intelligence headquarters. These worst case scenarios are not helpful, if anything they make us less secure by convincing actors that constant cyber warfare is the coming reality.

We must step back from this imagined cyber brink. If James Bond can’t stop the cyberwar future, who can? Our perception of cyber conflict is indicative of a perspective that the world is perpetually insecure and dangerous.

From Eric Garland, on the “informal economy” (also know as the “black market”):

From Forbes (of all places), with a few mentions of Singapore –

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Roads to Tahrir Square (1)

The intent and direction of this post initially started out as something quite different from what I’m intending it to be now. Originally drafted with the title ‘The Top Five: A quick list…or not quite’ (yes, what an uninspiring, anti-climatic title), I’ve now changed it to the title you see here to better reflect the thrust of the piece.

Some events have superseded the ones I’ve described below, but this does not mean that the essence of the news or information is dated in any way.

This post also ‘launches’ two new tags-cum-categories: Regime Watch and PAP regime watch, for reasons that will be self-explanatory further here and as I post more pieces.

Even as Egyptians ask where their revolution went, and return to Tahrir Square after the acquittals of key Mubarak-era officials and a look at the “real power struggles in Egypt”, I give an overview of the key events of 2011.

Coming across a few blogs that have given their ‘best of’, ‘worst of’, or ‘most memorable’ …etc. lists, I’m inspired but less ambitious.  I don’t think I have any lists in my mind that can be strictly categorised as best things, worst things, or anything else.

But taking a (very belated) look back at 2011, it’s clear that momentous events have occurred. I attempt here to present broad themes that reflect the significant issues of the year just past – some with my particular take on them when I’m able to.

This is not a neat listing of my Top Five for 2011, but rather a compilation of reports, analyses, books, blog posts, web articles and video summaries,  grouped variously by subject or theme into five sections, with some overlap. Perhaps readers can identify common threads.

  • One. The American Empire (Project) With the Obama administration more than halfway through its first term, the troubles in the Middle East still brewing, and international security issues at a high (some would say inflation of threats, e.g. Iran’s nuclear programme), I first draw attention to Tom Engelhardt’s American Empire Project. It investigates the notion or reality of the US ’empire’ through a series of books and its website.

Of these, I’ve only read Blowback by Chalmers Johnson, but I already have The Complex: How The Military Invades Our Everyday Lives by Nick Turse on my to-read list (and in my possession).

‘Empire’ by Al Jazeera was a televised discussion featuring both Engelhardt and Walt. It’s a pretty good one, but I felt that the host was too eager to press his points about American ’empire’ and ‘business’, and didn’t let Walt and his colleague a fair-enough airing of their views. Watch it here:

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Kazakhstan: typical Singapore newspaper report

Back on May 2, I was surprised when I saw an article on the front page of the Singaporean Straits Times with the title “Kazakhstan” in it (“S’poreans make most of booming Kazakhstan”).

I read through it and basically it featured Singaporeans working and living in the country, written from the perspective of economic opportunities. The basis for that ST article was the visit of a Singaporean speaker of parliament and dinner hosted by the Singaporean ambassador to welcome him.



Photo from Perry-Castañeda Library
Map Collection
, via

The journalist stated that about 40 Singaporeans live and work in the Central Asian country. Among them are those working for:
– ST Engineering (a Singaporean government-linked company)
– Keppel Offshore and Marine (another state/govt.-linked outfit)
– ExxonMobil (oil! what else?)
– Christian missions

The above are more or less the usual suspects in terms of occupations.

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Exploring the Turkic world, part four: stories

Mosque in Samarkand, UzbekistanThe Turkic world lends itself to epics, both in reality and in the imagination.

Indeed its geography and landscape gifts it the gravity to inspire and to celebrate (including some element of horror).


(Photo from here)

As Tom Bissell describes it:

Massive, sometimes flat, sometimes mountainous, sometimes terrifically hot, other times frigidly cold, plagued with thousands of miles of penetrable borders, lacking an identifiable geographic center…”
Chasing the Sea, p.20

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Exploring the Turkic world, part three: politics and human rights

It’s only fair (and balanced) to begin wrapping up my posts on the Turkic world with a current overview of the political and human rights situation in the countries and communities that make up this world. Books and music are fine and all, but it would remiss of me not to make some comments on the socio-political realities in these countries.

I’d also like to emphasise that I prefer to use “Turkic” to describe these nationalities, languages and cultures. “Central Asia” is something that Westerners and other non-Turkic people use to classify a (relatively) modern geopolitical region. It neither describes nor reflects accurately the original and authentic milieu of the peoples living in the region.

So, the main point of this post, the last official one of this series.

I’ve only focused on some of the socio-cultural and historical aspects of the Turkic world thus far. Politically, it should matter, and does matter, because everything from the “War on Terror” to future geopolitical developments between this region and important regional powers (for want of a better term) – such as China, Russia, the European Union, and the US – affects, and is affected by this region.

Central Asia - physical map

Bigger pic here

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Exploring the Turkic world, part two: the music

[And before I forget…this post is also for Himawan of The Paradox Papers. Enjoy reading, my friend 🙂 ]

Back in 2003, Michael Heumann wrote an informative (and lengthy) article on Central Asian music – Almaty or Bust! Central Asian Music In Words and Pictures.
(He included Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbajian, Georgia, Mongolia and Tuva in Central Asia. I disagree with his overly-broad scope, but it’s a very interesting read nonetheless.)

Severa NazarkhanUzbekistan stands out because – among other things – it is the most historially-rich and populous. It’s also home to Severa Nazarkhan, whose albums have showcased fusion music with an artiste like Peter Gabriel, in addition to more traditional styles and instrumentaiton.

Narrowing down further, here are some highlights of relatively modern music from Central Asian singers and bands. This is only a personal and “light” selection.

According to a friend, the lyrics of this song from this band from Kazakhstan are innocuous, but the video itself is heavily politicised, in that it attempts to show Kazakh-Russian friendship in the post-Soviet world. Someone commented in the video’s YouTube page that this was shot in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This puts the idea(s) behind the music video in an even more complex light…like establishing linkages between ex-Soviet republics vis-a-vis Russia?
(One for the girls…)

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