Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Trigger by Tim Butcher: A review.

The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not top of everyone’s holiday destination list, yet it enjoys warm summer weather, beautiful scenery and its younger residents speak impeccable English.  The country also suffered a bloody and traumatic war during the 1990s and became associated, for many outsiders, with intractable ethnic divisions.

While Nato’s intervention in Bosnia, the siege of Sarajevo and the horrors of Srebrenica shape modern perceptions of the region, younger residents are apparently less aware of its role in the events which sparked World War 1.  That’s one of the conclusions reached by Tim Butcher, a former Telegraph journalist, in The Trigger, which centres on the story of Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian Serb who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and plunged Europe into conflict.

The book - part travelogue, part history - investigates how a figure who made such a profound impact on twentieth century history ended up being consigned to relative obscurity, among his compatriots in the southern Balkans.  The author describes attending a concert by Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand in Banja Luka, capital of the part of Bosnia governed by ethnic Serbs.  The stage features a photograph of Princip, blown up to form a backdrop for the show, which prompts few signs of recognition from the young audience of music fans.

I visited Sarajevo in 2012 and made the pilgrimage to a street corner beside Latin Bridge, where the assassin launched his attack on the Habsburg archduke.  A relatively small museum describes the incident and there is a plaque on its outer wall, recording the most basic account of the shooting.
‘From this place on 28 June 2014 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia’.

In The Trigger, Butcher remarks upon the neutral wording of this memorial, as well as the relatively meagre, and at times inaccurate, material in the museum.  He tries to solicit help to research his book from the museum’s board, but receives a dismissive response. 

Throughout The Trigger its author examines with insight the effects of recent historical events on how Princip is remembered in Bosnia and Serbia.  The teenage revolutionary was an ethnic Serb, which, after the wars of the nineties, is an obstacle to Croats or Bosnian Muslims viewing him positively.  However, he was motivated by Yugoslav nationalism, rather than the specifically Serbian variety, so his memory doesn’t resonate much with modern Serb sentiment either.

Butcher starts his odyssey where the assassin is recalled fondly – in the village of Obljaj, now close to the Croatian border, where he was born and brought up.  The author spends time with descendants of the Serb’s family and begins to follow the route Princip took when he left home to be educated in Sarajevo, a journey which would culminate in his political 'radicalisation' and a plot to kill Franz Ferdinand.

The travel material is enjoyable, particularly for a reader who has visited the region, and Butcher does a fine job of contrasting his hike through a rural idyll with the hellish war-zone the same landscape comprised when he worked there as a reporter in the 1990s.  The author’s journey is a canvass upon which he examines the complicated interplay of twentieth century history, nationalism and identity, in the Balkans.

He clearly admires the political idealism which inspired Princip and his fellow plotters, viewing it as part of a broader struggle against imperial oppression, taking place across Europe at the time.  Butcher is careful to distinguish the assassin’s brand of nationalism, which spanned the various Slav peoples of the region, with Serb nationalism, espoused for instance by Unification or Death, a shadowy group within Serbia’s military, also known as 'The Black Hand', some of whose members were in contact with the Bosnian conspirators.

The historical distinction the writer makes has obvious ramifications for Princip’s current reputation.  He took part in a terrorist plot, but, in Butcher’s view, he doesn’t form part of the lineage of modern ethnic extremism, which created mayhem in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s.  The teenage radical, the author asserts, would have been horrified by the recent war in Bosnia. 

By delving into his life as a student, a reader and a prisoner, saved from execution only by his youth, The Trigger is a more personal, thoughtful analysis of Princip’s politics and motivations, than traditional accounts of the war’s origins.       

A plot conceived by a group of students in a provincial outpost like Sarajevo could not, by itself, cause global conflict.  Butcher’s book isn’t really about deep and enduring rivalries among the great powers of Europe, which led eventually to war in 1914.  Instead, it ties together strands of history, older and more recent, which saw Bosnia and Herzegovina propelled bloodily, twice in a century, unto the world stage of geopolitics.

It is also an illuminating work of research, casting new light on an enigmatic figure, neglected lately by historians, who planned and carried out an act which triggered a worldwide conflagration.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Stormont might not collapse but paramilitaries continue to disfigure Northern Ireland

The devolved institutions in Northern Ireland are supposedly ‘teetering on the brink’ of collapse yet again. 

After repeated failures to agree a balanced budget or implement welfare reform created months of uncertainty, the Executive’s future is now in doubt because the PSNI believes members of the IRA were involved in murdering a republican hit man.  Despite its apparent seriousness, this particular predicament is unlikely to bring the shaky edifice at Stormont crashing down.

The IRA was supposed to have disbanded its military ‘structures’ and decommissioned its entire arsenal of weapons back in 2005.  It was on the basis of this understanding that power-sharing resumed in 2007 and the DUP entered government with Sinn Féin. 

From the outset it was a fairly flimsy pretext.  

Less than a year after John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general, oversaw decommissioning, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported that the IRA retained a substantial haul of arms.  Punishment shootings in republican areas continued, Troubles-era weaponry found its way into the hands of ‘dissident’ paramilitary groups, and senior police officers, on both sides of the Irish border, acknowledged that the Provisionals were capable of launching attacks whenever they pleased.  Huge smuggling operations, involving laundered fuel and counterfeit cigarettes and alcohol, persisted in heartlands like south Armagh, allowing IRA godfathers to amass fortunes.     

On either side of Northern Ireland’s divided society, former terrorists made a seamless transition into ‘community’ organisations, often drawing salaries courtesy of the state.  The unspoken truth is that their authority derives from a capacity for violence.  It’s almost irrelevant whether Northern Ireland’s infamous litany of terror groups still exists in precisely the same form.  Working class areas of Belfast, Londonderry and other towns remain under the influence of the same people, the tools of whose trade were guns and bombs.

The latest controversy concerns the murder this month of Kevin McGuigan, an ex-IRA member who was widely believed to have been responsible for killing Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, the Provisionals’ commander in the Short Strand area of Belfast.  The Police Service of Northern Ireland alleges that IRA members helped murder McGuigan, in league with an organisation called Action Against Drugs.

The PSNI has issued a rather confusing sequence of statements, confirming the continued existence of the IRA and its members’ ongoing involvement in crime, while simultaneously claiming that the Provisionals, “promote a peaceful, political republican agenda”.  Action Against Drugs, the police say, is a criminal organisation without links to the Provos.  Yet they also claim that the IRA ‘co-operated’ with AAD, to murder Kevin McGuigan.    

It’s a lesson in the type of ‘constructive ambiguity’ upon which the political process in Northern Ireland has always been built. 

Enough doubt about the provenance of the plot to murder McGuigan has been raised to allow Sinn Féin to deny that the IRA was involved.  In fact republican politicians are rushing to assert that the organisation no longer exists in any meaningful form.  The contrast to Gerry Adams’ famous threat, “they haven’t gone away you know”, has been rehearsed ad nauseum.

From the unionist perspective, the main political parties greeted allegations of IRA involvement with ill-disguised glee.  There is a predictable cast of politicians relishing republicans’ discomfort, irrespective of any serious consequences for Northern Ireland.

The DUP has been talking up the notion of Sinn Féin being excluded from the Executive, but any ‘exclusion motion’ would require cross community support in the Assembly, which is unlikely to materialise in the current circumstances.  The Secretary of State could table such a motion, or act to end power-sharing on the basis that the IRA breached its ceasefire, but Theresa Villiers will take advice from the PSNI Chief Constable, who has already distanced his force from suggestions that the 
Provisionals are still involved in paramilitarism.

The Executive will only collapse if unionist ministers refuse to work with Sinn Féin and that requires an appetite to step away from Stormont, with its salaries, expenses and the sense of self-importance that accompanies the office of MLA.  It will only happen if the parties feel there is a serious risk they will lose voters’ support by continuing to share power with republicans.   

The McGuigan murder might not cause Stormont to fall, but it does expose the disfiguring influence that paramilitaries still have in Northern Ireland.  Rather than political violence, the focus may now be on organised crime and third sector salaries, but whole working class communities, particularly in Belfast, remain firmly in the grip of former terrorists.  It’s an ongoing problem for our society, which politicians have chosen for the most part to ignore. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Yerevan: laid-back, pink and an ideal base for exploring Armenia

Yerevan, capital of the Republic of Armenia, is a cheerful place to visit in summertime.  The city, many of whose buildings are constructed out of a distinctive pink stone known as tuff, is laid-back and full of parks and cafes.

Republic Square, Opera Square and The Cascades, a giant stairway decorated with fountains and artworks, form an axis, running at a diagonal to Yerevan’s grid system.  These hubs are linked by a modern avenue of swanky shops.  If you’re tempted to clothe your children at ‘Armani Kids’, Armenia could be the country for you.

At Republic Square, crowds gather in the evenings to watch fountains ‘dance’ to lightshows and music.  Around Opera Square, people mingle in a series of outdoor watering-holes, like VIP Café, where we were moved on for (presumably) not being sufficiently important.  At the bottom of The Cascades they loiter around the artworks, older Armenians staying entertained with the odd game of backgammon and their younger counterparts making do with selfie sticks.

It’s an easy place to relax and an easier place to enjoy.  But it’s difficult not to be confronted (and appalled) by some of Armenia’s darker history as well.

Those dancing fountains are overlooked by enlarged photographs, at the front of the History Museum, depicting notable citizens killed during the Armenian Genocide.  The purple ‘forget me not’ flower, designed to mark the centenary of the genocide, is visible across the city.  It would be a neglectful visitor who failed to visit Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum, which stands on a hill, overlooking central Yerevan.     

The museum at Tsitsernakaberd describes atrocities committed against Armenians in Turkey, during the first world war, from an Armenian perspective.  The story includes a background of oppression by Ottoman authorities, preceding 1915, and the genocide’s ‘dark aftermath’.  It’s a deeply affecting exhibit, stirring strong emotions among some members of the Armenian diaspora who visited while we were there.     

Like the Holocaust for Jews, the genocide is understandably a defining event for Armenians.  Their sense of grievance is particularly acute, because Turkey denies that genocide took place.

Recognition in the wider international community is also patchy.  The UK’s Parliament, for instance, has never formally recognised that the massacres comprise ‘genocide’, although the institutions in all three devolved regions have.  The situation is similar in the US, where 43 states recognise the Armenian genocide and the President has spoken of his personal conviction that genocide took place, but hasn’t moved to recognise it formally. 

As far as Armenia is concerned, genocide recognition constitutes ‘unfinished business’.

Outside the museum, the memorial consists of a circle of twelve huge stone slabs, representing ‘lost’ Armenian provinces in modern Turkey, which loom protectively over an eternal flame.  A towering, needle shaped ‘stele’, in two parts, symbolises the ‘rebirth’ of the Armenian nation, following the slaughter.

The complex contains reminders of more recent conflicts too.  On the avenue leading to the genocide memorial, there is a monument to the first Armenian soldiers killed during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.  Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over the disputed republic, as the Soviet Union fell apart in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

While the genocide has left an indelible mark on modern Armenians, the most enduring pillar of Armenian identity is the Armenian Apostolic Church.  Armenia is said to be the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion.   The country’s ecclesiastical buildings are among its most popular attractions. 

Geghard monastery, for instance, is a short drive from Yerevan.  Its churches and cells are built partly into the rocky mountains which form its backdrop.  Geghard also boasts a fine collection of medieval khachkars, distinctively Armenian flat stones, decorated with the cross and other motifs, including almost dizzyingly intricate interlacing patterns. 

There was something rather Celtic about the khachkars and there are theories that monks from eastern churches travelled to the British Isles and influenced early Christian art in Ireland and Northumbria.  At Kathoghike Church, the oldest surviving church building in Yerevan, we had a brief conversation with a friendly Armenian priest who implied that there were ancient religious and even racial links between people in Ireland and Armenia.

He rushed away, before we could test a hypothesis that seemed to rest on some dubious theories about the origin of both countries names.  However, there are some striking similarities between the medieval Irish Church and the Armenian Church.  Both drew upon older belief systems and practised forms of Christianity frowned upon by established churches in Rome and Constantinople.

Philip Marsden’s brilliant book, Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians, takes fascinating detours through several heresies that influenced the distinctive and independent form of Christianity which developed in Armenia.  This complicated background of traditions and symbolism made the monasteries and churches we visited, across the country, particularly interesting.

Travelling around Armenia, visitors are reminded that Armenian culture and identity have ranged far beyond the boundaries of the current republic.  It is now a small country, which can be explored comfortably from its charming capital, Yerevan.  It is also a land with varied landscapes and absorbing traditions, which blends the atmospheres of the Middle East and Europe.       

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Prometheus and Pushkin: visiting Kazbek and Kazbegi

Some of the people traditionally most opposed to the idea that the Caucasus is in Europe were French alpinists.  Mount Elbrus is generally now recognised as the highest European mountain, and five other peaks, including three in Georgia, are taller than Mont Blanc, the only mountain from outside the Caucasus range to make the top 10.  One of these Georgian giants is Mount Kazbek, which towers above the Terek River valley and a small town called Stepantsminda, commonly known by its former name, Kazbegi. 

To reach this region from Tbilisi it’s necessary to take the Georgian Military Highway, whose high passes were the Russian Empire’s overland route into Georgia and Armenia. Charles King’s history of the Caucasus, The Ghost of Freedom, describes postal caravans, heavily militarised and including everyone from diplomats to curious foreign tourists, which formed in Vladikavkaz to take mail south.  The poet, Alexander Pushkin, was one visitor who joined such a convoy.

We travelled in the opposite direction, rounding hair-pin bends in a shared taxi, until we left wooded mountains close to Tbilisi and climbed toward the high peaks.   The road has a reputation for danger and, even on a dry, clear day during the summer there were breath-taking moments: risky overtaking manoeuvres, herds of cattle wandering across the carriageway and roadworks which reduced its surface to miles of undulating gravel. 

Close to Kazbegi we encountered a queue of trucks stretching for some miles, destined for the Russian border a short distance ahead.  They had number plates from countries across the former Soviet Union and beyond, but a high proportion seemed to be from Ukraine, and Georgian officials were working their way slowly down the line.  Our driver swung his car out into the middle of the road and roared past the lot, on into the town.

In Tbilisi, the image of Gergeti Trinity Church, set against the bulk of Kazbek and its snowy cone, is ubiquitous on postcards, fridge magnets and other tourist tat.  It’s impossible, though, for those images to capture the scale of the landscape, viewed in person from Kazbegi. 

Anonymous foothills, rising just above the tree-line, were high; more so alpine meadows and craggy peaks.  The church sat on a promontory of mountain grass and scree, far above Gergeti village, which itself looked down a steep hillside toward Kazbegi, in the distance.  And Kazbek, beyond yet more layers of climbing highlands, loured behind cloud, impossibly high, sometimes silhouetted against the sun and sometimes invisible beyond a long tongue of dirty white glacier.

The most popular excursion from Stepantsminda is to Gergeti Church.  It’s a 6km trek up steep paths and a rutted jeep track, although many people prefer to roar past walkers at high speed in an endless stream of Lada Nivas.  When we set out, the church was obscured entirely but, as we climbed, the cloud lifted and its movement throughout the day meant the views were constantly changing.

Georgia’s Orthodox tradition shares with other branches of eastern Christianity a love of building churches in remote and inaccessible locations.  At 2,210 metres above sea level, Tsminda Sameba, or Holy Trinity, is the archetypal example.  Perhaps the idea of constructing religious buildings in such high, difficult places was so monks and priests would be closer to God, or maybe it was for more practical, defensive reasons.  Supposedly holy relics were taken to the 14th century church at Gergeti for safe-keeping, at times of extreme danger to Georgia. 

Just across a dipping meadow behind the complex, lies a ridge leading up toward Kazbek’s glacier and, eventually, its peak.  Greek myth says that Prometheus, who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, was chained to a mountain in the Caucasus range, as punishment.  The story echoes a Georgian legend about Amirani, who was imprisoned on Kazbek after challenging God.  Georgia’s tourist board (among others) are adamant that Kazbek is therefore the mountain of Prometheus.  There is a tradition among Georgians that the peak is holy and its snowy cone is a perfect setting for the myth.

The path along the ridge provided some solitude after crowds of walkers we’d encountered on the way to Gergeti Church.  We trekked much further than initially planned, past the high pastures and almost to the bottom of the glacier, which lay just beyond another outcrop and the noisy rush of a mountain stream.  Almost 3,000 metres above sea level, the climb was getting difficult and Holy Trinity lay far below, while Kazbegi was tiny, 20 kilometres in the distance.

It took several more hours before we made it back to the town’s main square, named after its celebrated resident, the Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi.  We drank a well-deserved beer beneath his statue, in early evening mizzle. 

Stepantsminda’s fortunes declined and then recovered again, after the USSR’s collapse.  The streets sloping down toward the Terek River were still filled with abandoned houses and disused sanatoria, dating from the town’s heyday as a Soviet retreat, but new businesses were opening and we stayed in a stylish hotel, dominating one side of the valley.  There were a clutch of restaurants and bars around the main square, as well as the usual assortment of small-town, post-Soviet mini-marts, one strangely called ‘Google Supermarket’ and (probably) infringing copyright by using the tech giant’s logo!      

The town is a few miles from the Russian border and many of its visitors were from Russia, yet there were still hints of Georgia’s recent politics.  One night we ate in an otherwise friendly and exceptionally jolly bar, packed with Israelis and Russians, which displayed a Banderite, Ukrainian nationalist symbol.  There were other similar curiosities around culture and language. 

Of course Stepantsminda's history is bound closely to its northern neighbour.  The Alexander Kazbegi museum draws upon the author’s life, which took him to Moscow and St Petersburg, before he wrote a novel, The Patricide, about a bandit called Koba.  The Georgian Bolshevik Iosif Jugashvili, later known to the world as Josef Stalin, adopted the name as his revolutionary pseudonym.  

The lore and identity of the Caucasus is famously shaped by its highlands and its highlanders.  This wild southern borderland is a fixture in the Russian imagination as well, infusing the literary works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and others.  No trip to Georgia would be complete without visiting the mountains and Kazbegi is a spectacularly evocative destination in the High Caucasus. 


In Tbilisi take the metro to Dedubi Plaza where there is a bus-station.  Marshrutki and shared taxis leave for Kazbegi from here.

The Rooms Hotel Kazbegi is its only international standard accommodation, though there are plenty of B & Bs.

Shared taxis and marshrutki back to Tbilisi leave from Alexander Kazbegi Square.  A tai should cost 80 lari, otherwise you may be getting ripped off.