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.

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough

Review in brief: Encounters between Russia and the peoples of the Northern Caucasus have not been happy ones, and have generally ended badly for the smaller nations involved. From the Nogai driven into the Black Sea in the 1700s to the Circassians mostly slaughtered or removed to the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s to the Chechens, who fought for 30 years in the 1800s, were deported en masse to Central Asia in 1944 and subjected to two wars since 1994, the overall picture is bleak. The individual stories are full of spirit and life, and Bullough goes to great lengths to find people and paints deft portraits. He’s a better reporter than analyst, but overall Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus is a splendid book.

Who’s Next at the IMF?

Now that Strauss-Kahn has resigned, the IMF needs a new director. Traditionally, the job has gone to a European, but since quota weights were realigned last year, it’s possible that the new boss may come from outside Europe.

I will go ahead and take a flyer no Kemal Dervis, on account of being both European and non-European, and well regarded for his work in Turkey and the international arena. Other ideas?

UPDATE: Well, heck. He say’s he’s not in the running.

It’s Azerbaijan

Winning Eurovision 2011. Apparently the AFOE crew was too sober to liveblog the festivities. In any event, one member of the collective has already observed, “That’ll put off any war over Nagorno-Karabakh for at least a year.”

Eurovision previously at the Fistful:

2009 Slightly depressing follow-up relevant to this year’s winners.
2007 Bonus 2007

Thoughts? Or is Eurovision simply beyond thought?

Oh My

Removed from a Paris-bound plane.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, was removed from a Paris-bound flight on Saturday afternoon minutes before takeoff after a New York City hotel housekeeper accused him of sexual assault, the police said. …

Strauss-Kahn was being questioned after a 32-year-old chambermaid complained that a naked Strauss-Kahn sexually attacked her in his Manhattan hotel room, the police said. The maid, who said she broke free, suffered minor injuries, police said.

The NYPD expects to bring formal charges Sunday morning, New York time.

Premature Evaluation: Yalta by S.M. Plokhy

Did FDR give away too much at Yalta? Was Churchill sketching out percentages of influence in Eastern and Southeastern Europe with Stalin? How far did Stalin’s plans for annexations run? And was the Cold War inevitable?

In Yalta: The Price of Peace, S.M. Plokhy goes to the literature and the archives with these questions, and so far (I’m not quite halfway through) comes back with good arguments and answers. His most helpful point, to my mind, is to relocate Yalta as a wartime conference. He accompanies the negotiations and their background with details of which armies were where at what times. While victory in Europe looked certain for the Allies if they held together, it was by no means certain whose forces would reach key areas first, and it was even possible that the Grand Alliance would break before war’s end. It certainly would not have been the first time in European history that a coalition had foundered on the shores of victory.

Two quotations that bear on the overall argument:

Stalin’s words [in a discussion about creating the United Nations] were a reminder that the peace being negotiated at Yalta was not one between the Allies and the Axis but between the victors themselves. (p. 126)

On January 16, 1943, Moscow informed the Polish government in exile that it had decided to revoke a provision of their treaty recognizing the Polish citizenship of ethnic Poles who found themselves on Soviet territory after September 1939 [i.e., after the USSR had invaded the eastern parts of interwar Poland, in accordance with the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact]. From now on they would be treated as Soviet citizens. (p. 159)

British leaders, having gone to war against Germany over Poland found it difficult to leave that country in Stalin’s sphere of influence without protest. Stalin, having seen Russia and the USSR invaded twice via Polish territory saw a friendly Polish government (for Stalinist values of “friendly”) as a necessity. Besides, the Red Army was in Warsaw, and the London Poles were in, well, London.

I’ll be interested to find out how much post-war conflict Plokhy sees as inevitable, given such deep divisions among the Allies on matters of both principle and practice. On the other hand, both East and West made compromises at Yalta, so maybe he will argue in favor of more contingency than is usually credited.

The research is solid, the prose is brisk, the details colorful and the argument clear. Good stuff.

After Osama

Juan Cole sets the stage:

Usama Bin Laden was a violent product of the Cold War and the Age of Dictators in the Greater Middle East. He passed from the scene at a time when the dictators are falling or trying to avoid falling in the wake of a startling set of largely peaceful mass movements demanding greater democracy and greater social equity. Bin Laden dismissed parliamentary democracy, for which so many Tunisians and Egyptians yearn, as a man-made and fallible system of government, and advocated a return to the medieval Muslim caliphate (a combination of pope and emperor) instead. Only a tiny fringe of Muslims wants such a theocratic dictatorship. The masses who rose up this spring mainly spoke of “nation,” the “people,” “liberty” and “democracy,” all keywords toward which Bin Laden was utterly dismissive. The notorious terrorist turned to techniques of fear-mongering and mass murder to attain his goals in the belief that these methods were the only means by which the Secret Police States of the greater Middle East could be overturned.

I’ve got to think the European militaries will be done with Afghanistan about as fast as is practicable. How much civic and NGO engagement remains afterward is an open question. The Schröder government in Germany may have said that the country’s security began in the Hindu Kush, but surely there are ways to secure Germany without soldiers in Afghanistan.

European support for new democratic governments in the Arab world will not be simple, given troubled colonial histories in some places and populist worries about Islam in others. Nevertheless, Europe has much to offer in both managing transitions and models of pluralist democracies that remain true to their varied national and religious backgrounds.

Ron Asmus, RIP

Ron Asmus, a key person in the 1990s enlargement of NATO and a tireless advocate of better European and transatlantic relations, died on Saturday, April 30. He was 53.

The Economist’s Eastern Approaches blog writes:

He was a discreet, wise and sympathetic presence in the region, in Washington DC, and in West European capitals for two decades, explaining to jittery ex-communist politicians that volume and frequency of public utterances does not correlate with effectiveness, to American officials and politicians that the goal of “Europe whole and free” still required patient and detailed work, and to West European leaders that a security grey zone in the east would be as bad for them as it would be for those consigned to it.

Just so.

He will be much missed, even among people who barely knew him, and his efforts missed among people who knew him not at all.


* The new president of Kosovo is the youngest, the first woman and the first non-partisan person to hold the post. She will also be the last selected by the present method of parliamentary election. Her election by the parliament breaks a deadlock and averts a potential political crisis. Atifete Jahjaga, who will turn 36 on April 20, is a western-trained policewoman and had been deputy director of the Kosovo police force. According to the deal that brought her to office, future presidents will be elected directly, and the first such election will be held within six months. People who know more about Kosovo than I do are kindly invited to weigh in.

* This long post on Bulgaria’s shrinking population coins the phrase “demographic bailout.” It’s an interesting look at a corner of Europe and a set of problems that tend not to find a wider audience. Population changes and their implications have long been an AFOE theme, ably explicated by Edward. Some of his views on Bulgaria are here, here and here.

* LiveJournal, which is the key platform for Russia’s blogosphere, has been under recurring DDoS attacks in April (LJ responds). It’s not at all clear who is behind the attacks, with accusations and counter-accusations quickly turning into a hall of mirrors. What has become clear is that an important element of Russia’s civic discourse is vulnerable.

* Speaking of Russian discourse, the country’s current chief of the armed forces’ general staff, Nikolai Makarov, spoke at the General Assembly of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and apparently delivered quite a take-down. As one expert characterized the speech, Makarov said “the various military academies and institutes continued studying the old wars, assuming that in the future, the Russian military would be called upon to fight World War II yet again, and what’s more, do it with World War II era technology and tactics.” (The Academy’s director is a WWII veteran.)
Makarov took the Russian military’s shortcomings in the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 as impetus for significant reform, and has argued that Russia largely slept through the last 20 years of military advances. Furthermore, he foresees an army in which conscripts would make up no more than 15% of the forces. That would be an epochal change in Russian military culture. Interesting developments to follow, even if you aren’t living in a place that felt the sharp end of Russia’s armed forces recently. (h/t LGM)