Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Russian Shadow

(Originally on 9 October, 2012.)

On Sunday, I met with Russian colleagues and also with a famous writer, who nowadays works for a large Western newspaper. I didn't know he, too, has ended up here in Afghanistan. Of course I mentioned I had read and greatly appreciated his best-known book, which is about certain events of 1979, the rise and fall of a messianic movement. A reader of good memory can deduce who it was, because I have in the past written about that very book in this blog.

While eating traditional Russian snacks and raising toasts, it came to my mind that the current young generation of Finns is the first one that generally speaking shares a neutral attitude at Russia, considering it like any big country. The generation of my great-grandparents hated the Russkies. The generation of my grandparents feared Russia, and the threat of an occupation was still present in their subconscious. The generation of my parents, in turn, tried to paint a rosy picture of Russia, creating a false reality known as Finlandization, which a part of that generation even believed.

My generation is a case on the fence, since we have some vague memories of our childhood when the Soviet Union still existed, but we mainly grew up with the Russia of the nineties. Therefore the past images of chaos, mafia and the wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus were imprinted in our young minds. On the other hand, those younger than me, who grew up in the 2000s, have never come to personally experience the fact that the Soviet Union once existed. For them it's a joke of some kind, in no way to be taken seriously. They neither hate nor idealize Russia; they feel neither fear nor humility at it. For them Russia, to the extend it exists for them, is little more than a neutrally perceived funny "other", and countries like Estonia and Georgia have no legitimate reason to be worried about it.

Speaking of Georgia, they had elections and the opposition party Georgian Dream, led by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, won. The blue flags of the Georgian Dream were flying all over Tbilisi when we visited Georgia late this summer. President Mikheil Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement, conceded their electoral defeat with no further complaint, and the new government has already been formed. This should make it clear that genuine democracy has taken root in Georgia and the country would be ready to join the Baltic countries and Moldova in the club of those former Soviet republics who graduated from the transition school of democracy, were it not that Russia continues to persecute Georgia and occupies two of its regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ukraine already visited the club for several years but after the defeat of the Orange coalition it fell back to authoritarianism, as the Russian-leaning oligarchs wrestled power back to the old regime, politruks and security services. One has to hope this doesn't happen in Georgia, but instead, Ivanishvili makes true of his promises by maintaining democracy, open society and Western integration. Saakashvili will probably continue as incumbent president till the end of his term, when it's time for the presidential elections to test the popular trust for each party again.

People have laughed a lot at Saakashvili's flamboyant style, as well as at his imaginative ideas such as distributing bottles of wine to tourists, erecting Hellenistic statues at city squares, and building police stations of glass to symbolically highlight transparency (and the battle against corruption). Despite laughter, it's a fact that Saakashvili remains in history as one of the relatively most important reformists in the region, who in less than a decade managed to eradicate low level corruption, to open up a society used to strongmen at genuine democracy, and to make Georgia an internationally attractive tourist destination.

It is understandable that like all democratic leaders, also Saakashvili had his time, after which it is wisest for him to step aside, also for the best of his own legacy. It is an essential part of pluralistic democracy that leaders change, while irreplaceable leaders are not a part of pluralistic democracy. Only when both people and leaders get used to the idea that leaders every now and then change in normal elections, democracy begins to be ripe. Even then it isn't guaranteed. It depends on both Ivanishvili and his allies and supporters whether his party can continue to protect Georgia's endangered democracy, or if Georgia will regress to the Ukrainian path. One thing is certain: Russia will not consent to leave Georgia alone; it will keep employing various ways to weaken the sovereignty of its small neighbour.

The Lone Rose

(Originally on 9 October, 2012.)

Autumn has reached Kabul. Nights are getting cold and deciduous trees are turning yellow and brown. The massive passage of Lesser Whitethroats seems to have come to the end as October began. Among them there passed also individual clear-sounded Phylloscopus warblers, presumably mainly Hume's Leaf-warblers. What remains now are probably the typical Kabul winter birds: Tree Sparrows, Palm Doves, Common Magpies, and - amazingly enough - parakeets.

While the morning sun is increasingly chilly, it feels somewhat unreal to hear Rose-ringed Parakeets scream in the crowns of robinia trees, where they gradually lose their camouflage, as the trees turn yellow but the parakeets shine emerald green. I've always known that the Rose-ringed Parakeet is a tough creature that endures coldness. After all, it inhabits the Himalayas up to significant altitudes, and it survives winters in Brussels, London, Innsbruck and Wiesbaden. It's no coincidence that it is exactly this species of parrot that has made several European cities its home once it went feral in them. Another parrot that endures winter is the originally South American Monk Parakeet, which is nowadays common at least in Chicago and Madrid. The Monk Parakeet, however, survives by gathering in large covered colonial nests, which they warm up with their crowds. Rose-ringed Parakeet, on the other hand, nests in tree holes in pairs.

In Afghanistan, Rose-ringed Parakeet is probably native, not feral. After all, the species is common all over India and Pakistan, and therefore Afghanistan constitutes the edge of its natural range. It will be interesting to observe whether they really stay here for all the winter, or if, at the advent of freezing temperatures and snow, they move somewhere south, like the Brahminy Starlings did as early as at the end of August. I've been told they had -20 Celsius here last winter, and the water pipes got frozen. Kabul is enough high on an upland plateau that winters here are the real thing. In Bamiyan, they already got snow in the mountains.

In spite of the colder evenings I saw again my tiny house gecko running about my kitchen on Sunday. I expect it to remove for hibernation at some point, because in winter the house needs to be warmed up by using stoves and fireplace. Houses here are not very well-built or in good shape. The bathroom has an open ventilation hole to the yard, so showers will be interesting when the temperature decreases below zero. Last week I prepared for the fall by purchasing blankets and hoarding high-energy and preservable grocery in the cupboards.

Yesterday I also procured equipment outside of the city, and I saw a large flock of Black Kites and Long-legged Buzzards at a site that probably contained a garbage dump or a carcass. Strangely enough there seem to be no ravens or crows in Kabul area, although in Bamiyan they were ubiquitous. In Kabul one sees mainly magpies, and even they aren't very common. My guess is the big and visible bird have been shot and eaten during the war years. The two kinds of hawks I mentioned are migratory so they have got back from more distant areas. Also trees were cut down during the war years for firewood, and now they've planted everywhere the fast-growing American invasive species, robinia. In many areas of the world it has become a pest like the eucalyptus. In Europe, robinia threatens to push the oak out.

The chawkidars of my house are overly watering the small garden there is - so much that it often resembles a swamp rather than a lawn. The constant waste of water for the washing of cars, concrete and street pavement (to bind dust) bothers me in a country suffering of chronic shortage of water. The favourite activity of the chawkidars has one benefit, though: the miniature gulistan, rose garden, of my home yard is still flourishing. Meanwhile, the lone rose growing at the yard of the office outside my window bars seems to languish.

It has become my goal to spur up my Persian studies by regularly writing a poem in Persian for that lonely rose that I watch through the bars every day. I've started from extreme simplicity and I hope by the passing of months and years, thought and expression grow in intensity.