About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

Right on schedule

Last night, I noted that staged takeovers of local government buildings in eastern Ukraine are

one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another).

This morning, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports:

RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service quotes local media as saying around 100 pro-Russians attempting to surround a government administration building in the southern city of Mykolaiv were thwarted after police moved in late last night. There were several injuries in the ensuing clashes, which also pitted the pro-Moscow ranks against members of a pro-Ukrainian group. (From their liveblog 0923, 8 April 2014. Here’s the original report in Ukrainian.)

Mykolaiv is a city of about a half million people, a major shipbuilding center about halfway between the Crimea and Odessa, along the main road between the two.


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Let’s hope the police and local authorities in Kherson are equally loyal to Ukraine, and equally alert.

Odessa, of course, is the real prize of the southwest, and not just for the nightlife or the film nostalgia. Odessa is also just a good day’s bicycle ride from breakaway Transnistria. These lands were conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, somewhat after the American Revolution broke but before the French. The Crimean Khanate had left them sparsely settled, and homesteading in “New Russia,” as the region was known, was a major development of the 19th century. Before World War II, it was a significant area of Jewish settlement. In short, the pretexts are there, if Russian forces want to meddle.

The second act of Ukraine’s test has only just begun.

Stress test

Reports from eastern Ukraine that pro-Russia (perhaps one should write pro-Putin or pro-annexation) protesters have seized local government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk. The protesters in Kharkiv seem to have been driven back. In Luhansk, they seized weapons from a local arsenal and set up barriers in the main streets; Ukrainian police have sealed off access to the town. (As well they might. Parts of Luhansk are less than 10km from the Russian border.)

In Donetsk, they have seized an administration building, proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” called for a referendum on sovereignty on May 11, and asked for Russian troops to come as “temporary peacekeepers.” Temporary until another annexation treaty could be printed out, one presumes.

Here is how the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to these developments:

“If the irresponsible attitude toward the fate of the country, the fate of their own people, on behalf of the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government were to continue, Ukraine would inevitably face ever new difficulties and crises,” ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said today. “Enough finger-pointing at Russia — blaming it for all the troubles of today’s Ukraine. The Ukrainian people need to hear from Kyiv clear answers to all questions. It is time to listen to these legitimate demands.” (As reported by the Radio Free Europe live blog at 1911 today, Kyiv time.)

Key phrases to note: “the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government” and “legitimate demands.” With these words, Moscow is again signalling that it does not recognize the interim Ukrainian government as legitimate. The Kremlin still regards Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine, never mind that he now has about as much chance of holding that office as I do. As for “legitimate demands,” if you — as a government — consider someone who last won 4% of the vote the legitimate spokesperson of a region (as Russia did with Crimea), that is a very elastic reading of the word “legitimate.”

(As I write, the channel “Kharkov antimaidan” on ustream.tv is broadcasting live from the square in front of the administrative building in Kharkiv. It’s about 30 minutes past midnight, local time, and a great many people are milling about on the square. My Russian is not good enough to follow the narration of the POV broadcaster. Sometimes living in the future, as we do now, seems surreal.)

This is one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another). Not quite a month ago, I wrote that if Crimea was the Anschluss, the Kharkiv, Donetsk and eastern Ukraine are the Sudetenland.

Here’s my checklist from last month:

Some real tension, ((check)) mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations ((check)). Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power ((check)). Not fooling anyone ((check)). In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily.

So that’s where we are now.

Ukraine’s acting president canceled a visit to Lithuania and described the eastern Ukraine occupations and unrests as “the second wave in Russia’s special operation against Ukraine.” US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the actions did not appear “spontaneous.” The White House has suggested there is “strong evidence” that some of the pro-Moscow protesters “were paid and not local residents.” The Moscow Times reminds readers that ethnic Ukrainians account for 56.9% of the population in the Donetsk region, 70.7% in the Kharkiv region and 58% in the Luhansk region. (Caveats about ethnic identification in that part of the world duly noted.)

This is a very serious stress test both for Ukraine’s interim government — and don’t forget, they are preparing for a presidential election in less than two months — and for the European state system as it is presently constituted.

How much of a revisionist power has Putin’s Russia become? That’s the most important question hanging over Europe right now, and precious few people know the answer. If indeed anyone at all knows.

The pretexts are all there. Will the Russian government and armed forces take them up and further dismantle a European state?

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jacks

Once upon a time, there was a lovely newspaper known as the International Herald Tribune. Each year on baseball’s opening day, the paper would publish its late sports editor Dick Roraback’s poem recalling what it was like to be Over Here when the season was starting Over There.

Its language is sliding toward the archaic, its references even more so — although while Forbes and Griffith have been gone for decades, the Nats are back and playing their 10th season — but since the international edition of the New York Times (the Hairy Trib’s successor) won’t be putting any rhymes on its sports page today, we might as well.

Under the fold, “The Crack of the Bat.”
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Handy Guide to 1930s Analogies

Crimea: Anschluss. Mostly wiling population, dissent shouted down or stamped out, stage-managed sham referendum. The main difference is that the troops of the larger, external power were already in Crimea, rather than just across the border in Bavaria.

Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. Not fooling anyone. In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…

Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.

Poland: France. It’s on.

Maidan Voyage

The scenes from Yanukovych’s private zoos, and the very post-Soviet opulence in his residence and summer house give off a bit of a Ceausescu vibe. The melting away of the police and other security forces remind me of Lenin’s observation that he found power lying about in the middle of the street, so he picked it up.

Some of Ukraine’s institutions are functioning again, but this is certainly not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, nor likely even the end of the beginning. There are just too many open questions. Will the parties of the Maidan be able to work together? How much daily corruption will they be able to get rid of? Do they even really want to? (I wonder if any of the new leaders knows how Georgia did it.) What about the governors and mayors in the eastern part of the country? What about the Crimea?

How will the Russian government and state-owned companies respond? What kind of time frame will that response come in? How much are EU countries willing to pony up? Will EU aid be just throwing good money after bad? Can EU leaders see past “everything but institutions,” i.e. everything except what really matters?

But for the first time in a while, there’s a chance for things to go right.

The Extraordinary Aside

Bond contracts and diplomatic notes aren’t the only places where the casual asides can be more rewarding than the main text.

NASA announced yesterday that its Kepler space telescope has helped scientists identify an exoplanet clearly positioned in an orbit that would allow it to have liquid water on its surface.

Twice before astronomers have announced planets found in that zone, but neither was as promising. One was disputed; the other is on the hot edge of the zone. Kepler 22-B is the smallest and the best positioned of the more than 500 planets found to orbit stars beyond our solar system to have liquid water on its surface — among the ingredients necessary for life on Earth.

Good news of course, and with its mass size estimated at 2.4 times Earth’s, it’s the closest match yet to our own. But did you see what the author did right after the word “of”? Mentioned that, just by the by, humanity has now found more than 500 planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system. Five. Hundred.

Moreover, “With the discovery, the Kepler space telescope has now located 2,326 potential planets during its first 16 months of operation.” I’ve written about this before, but it never ceases to amaze. This is what living in the future is like.

ps Six years ago, the smallest confirmed exoplanet had a mass size of about seven times Earth’s. The intervening years have tripled the precision of humanity’s detection capabilities.

Science Fiction?

“What do I think about the legacy of Atatürk, General? Let it go. I don’t care. The age of Atatürk is over.”
Guests stiffen around the table, breath subtly indrawn; social gasps. This is heresy. People have been shot down in the streets of Istanbul for less. Adnan commands every eye.
“Atatürk was father of the nation, unquestionably. No Atatürk, no Turkey. But, at some point every child has to leave his father. You have to stand on your own two feet and find out if you’re a man. We’re like the kids that go on about how great their dads are; my dad’s the strongest, the best wrestler, the fastest driver, the biggest moustache. And when someone squares up to us, or calls us a name or even looks at us squinty, we run back shouting ‘I’ll get my dad, I’ll get my dad!’ At some point; we have to grow up. If you’ll pardon the expression, the balls have to drop. We talk the talk mighty fine; great nation, proud people, global union of the noble Turkic races, all that stuff. There’s no one like us for talking ourselves up. And then the EU says, All right, prove it. The door’s open, in you come; sit down, be one of us. Move out of the family home; move in with the other guys. Step out from the shadow of the Father of the Nation.
“And do you know what the European Union shows us about ourselves? We’re all those things we say we are. They weren’t lies, they weren’t boasts. We’re good. We’re big. We’re a powerhouse. We’ve got an economy that goes all the way to the South China Sea. We’ve got energy and ideas and talent – look at the stuff that’s coming out of those tin-shed business parks in the nano sector and the synthetic biology start-ups. Turkish. All Turkish. That’s the legacy of Atatürk. It doesn’t matter if the Kurds have their own Parliament or the French make everyone stand in Taksim Square and apologize to the Armenians. We’re the legacy of Atatürk. Turkey is the people. Atatürk’s done his job. He can crumble into dust now. The kid’s come right. The kid’s come very right. That’s why I believe the EU’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us because it’s finally taught us how to be Turks.”

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, pp. 175-76

Jesus, Mary and Joseph

From the BBC

In 1971 Manoli [Pagador], who was 23 at the time and not long married, gave birth to what she was told was a healthy baby boy, but he was immediately taken away for what were called routine tests.

Nine interminable hours passed. “Then, a nun, who was also a nurse, coldly informed me that my baby had died,” she says.

They would not let her have her son’s body, nor would they tell her when the funeral would be.

Did she not think to question the hospital staff?

“Doctors, nuns?” she says, almost in horror. “I couldn’t accuse them of lying. This was Franco’s Spain. A dictatorship. …”

“The scale of the baby trafficking was unknown until this year, when two men – Antonio Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno, childhood friends from a seaside town near Barcelona – discovered that they had been bought from a nun. “

The scandal is closely linked to the Catholic Church, which under Franco assumed a prominent role in Spain’s social services including hospitals, schools and children’s homes.

Nuns and priests compiled waiting lists of would-be adoptive parents, while doctors were said to have lied to mothers about the fate of their children.

The name of one doctor, Dr Eduardo Vela, has come up in a number of victim investigations.
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In 1981, Civil Registry sources indicate that 70% of births at Dr Vela’s San Ramon clinic in Madrid were registered as “mother unknown”.

He refused to give the BBC an interview. But, by coincidence, I had recently given birth at a clinic he founded, so I was able to book an appointment with him.

We met at his private practice in his home in Madrid. The man painted as a monster in the Spanish media was old and smiley, but his smile soon disappeared when I confessed to being a journalist.

Dr Vela grabbed a metal crucifix which had been standing on his desk. He moved towards me brandishing it in my face. “Do you know what this is, Katya?” he said. “I have always acted in his name. Always for the good of the children and to protect the mothers. Enough.”

Babies’ graves have been dug up across the country for DNA-testing. Some have revealed nothing but a pile of stones, while others have contained adult remains.

Are these crimes limited to Spain?