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Olivia and Nicolás: arrive in Mostar

By • Jul 15th, 2012 • Category: Blog

Monday July 9, 2012 arriving in Mostar

We flew from Barcelona to Sarajevo via Vienna and then got on a bus in Sarajevo at 3:30 arriving in Mostar around 6PM. The heat wave that was enveloping Europe was worse in Sarajevo and Mostar where temperatures were over 100. The bus’ air-conditioning was anemic at best, but the drive south from Sarajevo is spectacular. In sections small farms nestle on the step slopes of the river, with Van Gogh style haystacks punctuating the modest fields, the rivers and reservoirs extend for miles along the roadway. Turquoise blue, seemingly clean and clear, but dotted with floating plastic bottles and detritus. The icy waters are spring fed and host a small industry of trout farms.

Neretva River on the drive from Sarajevo to Mostar

Long stretches of the mountains are completely uninhabitable with its sheer rock and steep cliffs. It was hard to wrap my head around the punishing heat of this mountainous region that we were told was (according to Mostarites) the hottest place in Europe.

The bridge and the cobblestone street lined with tacky tourist shops filled with trinkets, mostly made in China, is the town’s major destination.

Nicolás on the street of Stari Most (old bridge)

In the tower museum at the foot of the bridge there is a book store. When Don and I had visited last, there was also a great book and music store amongst the dreadful souvenir shops that sold local and international publications, interesting cards, and CDs by local and regional bands. Like many bookstores world-wide it succumbed to the drain of on-line sales and the stresses of the poor local economy.  Buying paper books is just too expenses for most local residents and it seems that the tourist trade did not make up for the modest local market.

The obligatory bridge photo

In the bookshop of the bridge museum a video of it’s 1993 bridge destruction played on a constant rotation. There were two sections, one shot in August, which took down the middle section – about 1/3rdof the center stones – and a second shot in September of repeated mortars that plunged all the rest of the tenacious structure into the river below.

Visiting the mosque in the old town

While the bridge and has been beautifully restored so many of the destroyed buildings on both sides of the river remain in abject condition. And in spite of the reconstruction, the segregation of the two sides of the city has hardened. In a complex project (Re)collected Mostar, Mela and Amila worked with local students who, through interviews with local citizens, mapped places people felt were unattractive, uncomfortable to visit or simply did not use before and after the war.  Before the war there were sketchy sections of towns where prostitution flourished or where there were rowdy bars; these relatively small and isolated areas would be avoided by the general populous. Their survey of recent space use depicted much larger areas of current avoidance in the post-war period. A graphic and spacial rendering of the complex behavioral aftermath of the war’s battleground lines. Abrašević is a conspicuous exception surrounded by bombed out buildings, the youth arts center occupies a prominent, meaningful space between the two sides.

Mela and Amila and their colleagues in the curatorial collective ABArt’s Re(collecting) project culminated with a series of public interventions that animated this territory between the divide one on a derelict abandoned plaza just two blocks from the recently reconstructed City Hall by Božidar Katić.  His piece, a series of painted shadows and recorded sounds of children at play, conjured the memory of better times in this neglected sector. The stenciled shadows, permitted only for three months, have remained for almost two years.

Božidar Katić's shadows

Another work by Gordana Anđelić-Galić, activated the river’s edge with a performance entitled Washing. Gordana sewed 24 flags from throughout Bosnian history, each with a special insignia. The insignias, painted with fugitive dies, were washed by the artist in the river staining the waters red like blood.  For this project she solicited the complicity of the local divers club who were witness to her ritual and cheered her on as she struggled to hang the massive flags out to dry on a make-shift clothes-line that buckled under the weight of the wet fabric.

Another artist who performed as a part of the (Re)collecting series was the esteemed Croatian artist Slaven Tolj.  Tolj, founder of Lazareti a contemporary art center in Dubrovnik, was one of the 1500 men that held Dubrovnik during the war in the early 1990s. He has shown ritualistic installations and performances around the region and internationally. For (Re)collecting he reprised several signature works including: Anthem of Croatia, where he re-enacts a series of iconic military salutes; another piece consisted of his drinking a beer that is equal parts from Bosnian and Croatian breweries; and Human Bomb, where he asks, “I am dangerous, kill me in front of my children’s eyes.”

The research conducted by the students and participating artists for (Re)collecting has been assembled into an archive that Mela and Amila hope to make available to others in the future as basis for other exhibitions and projects.  The parallels between the Mostar archive and Nicolas’ Passerby Museum were noteworthy. Part of Mela and Amila’s motivation for the archive arose from the fact that Mostar does not have a museum; the (Re)collecting project was an opportunity for the creation of a an open archive with the city’s history written by the locals, which in their words, “…can function as a temporary museum, as there is no museum of the city of Mostar, only the Museum of Herzegovina, which, in our opinion, does not answer the contemporary needs of its citizens.”

ABAart has continued to commission projects in public spaces. Just days before we arrived they had completed a project with a collective of skate-board artists, Alan Fertil and Damien Teixidor, who conducted a workshop with local youths on how to build structures like barriers for sliding, or partial pipes for flips, etc. One structure was clad in tiles scavenged from a bombed out building adjacent to Abrašević.  The skateboard park/workshop took place on the west side of Mostar, but all of the kids who wanted to participate were from the east and they had been warned by their parents never to go there, in spite of the fact that it was perfectly save.

In addition to the photos from Mela you see here, you can view additional images on the Fertil/Teixidor website http://www.alanfertildamienteixidor.com/index.php?/duty/duty-now-for-the-future-/



Olivia: the long good-byes and looking ahead to Mostar

By • Jul 15th, 2012 • Category: Blog

Sunday July 8, 2012

Before the panel discussion on Friday, Nicolás had left Avinyó early in the morning to visit with friends in Calaf. His relationships with many citizens of the town had evolved from his original proposal; at first they were subjects and then collaborators, and over a period of seven-years became life-long friends. Nicolás, dedicated to making work that merges the art/life dichotomy, now finds it increasingly difficult to assign a distinction between the two.  Furthermore he is finding it problematic to place a fixed time-frame on such experiences. In his presentation in Mostar at Abrašević the following week Nicolás opined about the impossibility of just saying, “It’s over, good-bye,” as these art “experiences” have evolved into intimate personal relationships. Honoring and maintaining these evolving relationships, has become an incontrovertible part of his practice.

When asked in Mostar, how he believes he is perceived in the communities of Calaf, Avinyó, and the Bronx senior center, where he has established these long-term engagements, he responded, “I am seen as a dynamic energy.” When Nicolás offered this description, I instantly recognized that it was quite true, but also found his self-description ironic, as Nicolás strives to work with the lightest touch, with the least amount of preconceptions, and the most empathetic demeanor – his is a dynamic energy of listening, probing, and facilitating.

Sunday morning, July 8, we had hoped to leave Avinyó by around noon in time to arrive in Barcelona to do some sight-seeing.  But that turned out to be unfeasible. Too many of the key participants in the postcard exchange were begging him to stop by to say farewell. Others had not been able to attend the gathering at the senior center to pick up their special edition; Nicolás felt obliged to deliver them in person. Our first stop in the morning was with Pilar, who lived above the pharmacy on the town’s square that she owned and operated herself after her husband died at an early age. Pilar, one of the “younger” and more energetic seniors was extremely industrious, sewing pouches, bags and pillow covers from scraps of used clothing and stringing playful necklaces with old buttons. She was an ebullient and creative master of waste-not-want-not.

Pilar's button necklaces

Pilar's handy work showing Quim Moya

Along the way we ran into Sebastian, an august former attorney, who during the Wednesday presentation of the postcards at the assisted-living facility had written 10 postcards to local politicians to protest government cuts in aid to senior citizens. Sebastian’s parting words to Nicolás was, “Your work is not done here.”

 

Our final farewell was with Margarita, an iconoclastic and irreverent fixture of the town. Two nights earlier, after the long day preparing and presenting the post cards to the seniors at the senior home, Margarita invited us out for a clara (a glass of beer and lemon soda) at 10PM.

Margarita having a clara

I subsequently became addicted to this mix of beer and soda in the insufferable heat of Mostar. We followed Marga to her favorite bar, which was empty save for the town’s Mayor and two colleagues having a late-night conference. The Mayor (who is also a physicist) was working with a team to test and evaluate the quality of the water in the town’s river. The beer came with a price: we were instructed by Marga to take note of her flamboyant sense of style and that she expected us to send her a new pair of earrings from New York.

Marga and Nicolás trade glasses

After just three days in Avinyó, following Nicolás around, I not only felt like knew half the town, but that I too had become a life-long friend of many of its citizens.

 

Cal Gras has played a significant role in INDENSITAT’s capacity to instigate and support Nicolás’ time in Avinyó. A small independent artist-residency program, Cal Gras was founded several years ago by two artists from the region.

Quim Moya and his daugther Julia at Cal Gras

Quim Moya and Eva Quintana who lived in the even smaller town of with a population of only 300. Quim and Eva had met in this town working on the production of concerts and arts events. The positive feedback that they experienced by bringing artists to their rural environs was their inspiration to found this artist colony.

Studio/Gallery/Library at Cal Gras

The space – a commodious farmhouse – is rented from a local family that did not want to see the centuries-old structure broken up or developed. Cal Gras accommodates 9 – 10 artists comfortably but can sleep up to 25 for special short-term workshops. Operated at a loss, Quim and Eva, do all the housekeeping, chauffeuring, and create special programs in collaboration with organizations like IDENSITAT. They receive no direct private grants or government support and subsidize the operations through their own independent work. Quim has a band, does artwork and graphic design on the side to fill the gaps.

 

I take the time to describe the affection by which Nicolás is greeted and held in this remote little town as an important threshold for the new connections he is about to make in Mostar and the advancement of our Balkans project. Two years ago, Don Russell and I brought Nicolás on a visit to Turkey, Sarajevo, and Skopje. Several months later we met with artists from Bosnia in New York – Adela Jusic and Shoba Seric – from these travels and conversations the idea emerged for him to focus his attention on Mostar. At some point in our planning, I asked Nicolás why he zeroed in on Mostar. He responded, “Because I want to challenge myself, to do something out of my comfort zone. I also am drawn to the bridge as a metaphor. To be a bridge and to be bridged.”

Before we left for Spain and Bosnia we had several exchanges with Mela Žuljevic and Amila Puzić the curators of Abart and our hosts in Mostar. Mela and Amila had been introduced to us by Sarajevo-based art historian and curator, Asja Mandic. The two had expressed concerns over Nicolás’ original concept to live with two Muslim and two Christian families over an 8-week period and to create a album or scrap book as well as invite all attend a communal event – a meal or celebration – as a culmination. The concerns expressed by Mela and Amila were three fold. First, they expressed an imperative to get away from the synthetic identities that have perpetuated conflict and separation in their community; similarly, many individuals and families do to not necessarily self-identify based on religion; and third they were very concerned about such a project “instrumentalizing” citizens of Mostar. Digesting these responses, it became clear to Nicolás that his first steps should be to get to know the community through meetings with formal and informal associations and to take time to present his own work and connect with people in public or neutral spaces before venturing into the possibility of extended home-stays.

We managed to get to Barcelona by around 6PM. Cristina Garrido met us at my hotel next door to Ramon’s apartment in the central district of Ramblas.  She took us by the contemporary museum, and then for a quick walk around the Gaudí’s magnificent Sagrada Família, and then to a wonderful repast of tapas in a traditional restaurant.

Tapas in Barcelona

The new wing of the Sagrada FamíliaTapas in Barcelona

Cristina Garrido and Nicolás in Barcelona



Olivia: Nicolas Estevez Visit to Vic and Manresa INDENSITAT/Cal Gras panel/performance

By • Jul 11th, 2012 • Category: Blog

Friday July 6 – Saturday July 7, 2012

To discern the route that Nicolás followed to arrived at such personally engaging and time intensive projects, it was important to find our way to the instigator of the project in Calaf – Ramon Parramon – the Calaf curator and inventive Director of IDENSITAT, who works part time in Barcelona and part time in the nearby town of Vic.

Quim Moya, co-founder of Cal Gras, Nicolás Estévez, and Ramon Parramon, director of IDENSITAT at ACVIC

Ramon invited us to lunch with him in Vic on Thursday, a stately city with medieval core, where he also runs a contemporary art space, ACVIC, just across the Meder River from the Vic Cathedral. We dipped into a bit of its beauty before lunch joining Ramon for lunch.

The opulent Vic Cathedral and its attached cloister are a testament to the prosperity of this agri-industrial region. Its early 20thCentury frescos by Josep Sert are arresting; dynamic and billowing figures – between baroque and Mexican muralists – create powerful vertiginous plumes in the cathedral’s grand neo-classical nave.  An exquisite gothic cloister with small museum of vestments and sacrament accessories all attest to a worldly refinement. The commission of Sert, a friend of Salvador Dali, to decorate this auspicious space might also suggest that veins of creative provocation emerge naturally from this pastoral landscape dotted with geological spectacles like Montserrat.

Vic Cathedral

Fresco in Vic Cathedral by Joset Sert

The main exhibition in the ACVIC gallery was an extension of the INDENSITAT regional public art program, entitled Ruralists, a video project in two parts – one on the documentary side and the other a more poetic meditation on the rural landscape.

The next night IDENSITAT organized a panel discussion in partnership with Cal Gras with Nicolás and three other artists in the nearby bustling town of Manresa. The other presenters were: Auto Noise, a “circuit bending” music group. I learned that circuit bending is the manipulation of little electronic chips found in toys that make sound.

Auto Noise video of Flamingo singer/prison inmate

Auto Noise had planned to interview inmates in a local, Manresa prison for their project, but instead encountered two prison music ensembles – a rock band and a flamingo duo – that they simply recorded and will help with distribution of the recordings. From there Auto Noise plans to take these recordings and manipulate them as part of their own compositions.

Allesandra Patrucco vocal and electronic performance with landscape and farm animal sound

The second presenter, Allesandra Patrucco, was a composer/vocalist who with the guidance of a local, self-taught naturalist and historian, Jordi Torres, immersed herself in the landscape, making field recordings and those of farm animals to become integrated into her vocal/compositions.

Oriol Fontdevila, IDENSITAT curator, and Tanit Plana showing arial view of walk from Avinyo to Manresa on the ancient paths of the sheep herders

The third artist was Tanit Plana, a photographer/conceptual artist who conducted a series of workshops for youth and adults with a range of focuses, from “creativity” to portrait photography. Her ultimate goals was to recruit a large party to walk an +/- 10 mile path that followed the ancient sheep herding trails from Avinyó to Manresa. These trails, which had been recovered by Jordi Torres and other volunteers, had been restored and were well used traveling north into the woods, but to the south were ignored and thought to be too treacherous and obscured by development to be reclaimed.

In the coming days I will add to this post to fill in some of the details on the development and evolution of IDENSITAT’s regional public art program and the annual conferences that the hold on evolving art practices of social engagement.

 

 



Olivia: In Avinyo — background on Nicolas Estevez projects here and in Calaf

By • Jul 7th, 2012 • Category: Blog

Thursday July 5, 2012

Cal Gras artist residency Avinyó

Thursday morning, I went for a walk up the hill from Cal Gras, the artist residency where we are staying. From an over look on the addled path I was able to view the river in the valley below which is otherwise invisible from the terraced streets of Avinyó. The river is dammed at the foot of the large pork-processing factory – this town’s major industry. Hog squeals can be heard from the hostel and the smell of rendering fat and flesh lightly scents the air. Later that evening we would meet the town’s mayor in a local pub. He was meeting with two colleagues who were testing the river’s waters for changes in pollutants from agriculture and industry.

Pork Factory Avinyó just accross the valley from Cal Gras

During our visit to Vic (pronounced Bic, like the pen) Quim, our host at Cal Gras explained that the pigs raised in this region are bred in Holland. The piglets are shipped to Spain to mature; they are then processed, and sold back to the Dutch (and to be fare, I wound venture other EU countries) in the process leaving their industrial scale pig waste in Spain – a blessing and a curse for the region.

Hedges in Avinyó

The recent Spanish boom/bust has left large houses perched on the village’s upper-most perimeter empty and in perceptible decline, but otherwise life is pleasant and sunny. Well kept gardens, protected by low walls and rigorously trimmed hedges, are snugly filled with strawberry plants, regimented tomatoes, fig trees and bright geraniums and petunias.

Outwardly, the Avinyó emits an insular reserve. The windows of most all its lovely commodious homes remain shuttered or curtains drawn all day long. The streets themselves seem preternaturally quiet. Few patrons populate the 2 or 3 outdoor cafes. More cars than pedestrians animate the comings and goings, in spite of the fact that the entire village diameter can be walked in less than 20 minutes. How Nicolás came to this solipsistic town began with a 2006 project he and María Alós did in Madrid  for Madrid Abierto– one of his and María Alós signature works, The Passerby Museum.

The Passerby Museum is sited in empty storefronts.  Nicolás and María Alós dress as museum attendants, inviting the public to enter a pristine, empty space and contribute an object for the museum. The only restrictions are that the objects fit within a small or a large zip-lock bag. As the Passersby make their donations, they are issued a form certifying their object’s acceptance into the collection. The passersby have contributed a wide range of objects, most of personal significance including: expired passports, drivers licenses, glasses, money, hair, etc. Estévez and Alós have collected over 5000 objects.

The Passerby Museum Nicolás and María Alós

First installed on 42nd Street in New York City for a program organized by Chashama, which makes empty spaces available to artists throughout the City.  Nicolás and María noted that the contributions from passersby in Madrid were very considered and the public was incensed by donations to the collection that they perceived as objects without value. Two contributions that stand out in the general collection were a suicide note and a taxidermy lizard.

The curator of the Madrid Abierto exhibition in Madrid was Ramon Parramon. Parramon subsequently became curator of a long-standing public art program in the Catalonian village of Calaf. Decades of annual outdoor sculpture shows had left the city full of monumental objects that could not be maintained. Parramon’s interest and agency re-focused the show on more ephemeral, time-based, and collaborative works. He also expanded the program to a number of surrounding towns and villages. After responding to an open call Parramon invited Nicolás to participate, and gave him the choice of three towns. He chose Calaf, one of the smallest with a population of 3700. Estévez’s proposal was to meet everyone – all 3700 inhabitants of Calaf. The experience culminated with the publication of a 300+ page photo album of the town. The photos were taken by Estévez and donated by the residents. Nicolás has continued to visit the town for six consecutive years.

When asked what his intent was in this and the following work with seniors in Avinyó and the Bronx, Nicolás explains that he entered into these experiences without a specific agenda, rather his approach was to allow his encounters to determine the evolution of the interactions. His interest was and continues to be in how art can open up spaces – spaces of understanding, of awareness, of encounter. When asked if he was concerned if his encounters/experiences (both his own and the public’s) is perceived as art, he felt it was not important as long as the work achieved his goal of fostering openness.

In Calaf there was a groundswell of support for the project, both in its development and in the culminating publication, notably from the Mayor’s office, which would send out notices to every single household when Nicolás would want to organized a convening. The significance of Nicolás’ gesture began with his desire to be an ambassador from the Bronx to the world – a self-anointed emissary dedicated to undoing the misrepresentation of the Bronx as a “burning”, dangerous, violent, gang ridden hell-hole.

The experience in Avinyó was an extension of that impulse. Working with a small focused group of seniors, his hope was to make room for a more intimate experience between a group of seniors in the Bronx with a similar group in Catalonia.

The characteristics of the Bronx as a community comprised of continuous waves of immigrants. People wanting to fit in and be accepted while preserving their cultural identity. Catalonia provides an interesting backdrop to this American (internal and external) dialogue about cultural identity. With it’s own language, relatively prosperous economy, and independence movement became a target of the Franco regime.

 



Olivia: Arriving in Spain to meet Nicolas

By • Jul 5th, 2012 • Category: Blog

Wednesday July 4

I arrived in Catalonia yesterday to meet Nicolás in the small town of Avinyó, two hours north of Barcelona. Nicolás has been sponsored by IDENSITAT, an organization that commissions art projects in the public sphere, conduct research projects, collaborations with other organizations through a network of towns in the region surrounding Calaf and Barcelona.

For his experience in Calaf, Nicolás set out to meet all 3000 residents of the town. And for a subsequent project in Avinyo he has collaborated with approximately 25 seniors from a community center and assisted-living facility to establish an exchange with a similar group from Estévez’s home in the South Bronx.

Yesterday presented Nicolás slides and videos of the Bronx participants and will share all of the postcards that the two groups produced at a gathering this afternoon.

Nicolás presenting slides of seniors from the Bronx to seniors in Avinyó

Nicolás and I are being hosted by an artist-residency Cal Gras, which supports individual artists as well as organizes programs and workshops.



Olivia: Background on July trip to Mostar with Nicolás Dumit Estévez

By • Jul 2nd, 2012 • Category: Blog

After several years of discussion and the complications of fitting a residency project into Nicolás’ busy schedule, we will be traveling to Mostar to meet with Mela Žuljevic and Amila Puzic who organize programs at the art center Abrašević.

I will be meeting Nicolás Dumit Estévez in Avinyó, Catalonia to attend the presentation of his two-year experience working with a group of local seniors in an exchange with seniors in the Bronx. He will present them with a culminating publication of a set of postcards selected from photos made by the seniors of places of special meaning in their respective communities. Following this visit we will travel from Catalonia to Bosnia and Herzegovina to plan his project in Mostar.

Nicolas presenting slides of greetings and images from Bronx seniors

For his project in Mostar, Nicolás has proposed:

To travel from his home in the South Bronx to Bosnia and Herzegovina to engage in a life and art experience involving himself, as a visitor, along with several local families living in various parts of the city of Mostar. Seeking to serve as a point of reference between the families, he will live for up to two weeks with each of them, experiencing the cycles of their daily lives, while opening up his to them. Through this process he is interested in the concept of bridges as liminal spaces connecting peoples, cultures and geographies. Furthermore, Estévez is interested in the possibility of bringing people together, by inviting them to tap into the Common Ground where humanness resides.

Estevez will approach potential participants in spaces of public use, and by way of activities such as presentations of his work, communal meals, and similar engagements. His intention is to give anyone interested in becoming further involved with Common Ground ample room to reflect on it in an environment other than a private one, such as one’s home. He intends to reach out to individuals and groups of different ages, including seniors, and to allow the definition of family to be directly articulated by those who might approach him about forging a closer connection.

During the execution of Common Ground, relevant moments of the encounters between and among the families and the artist will be archived in a scrapbook that will accompany him from event to event and from family to family. This simple record will be comprised of notes, personal documents and snapshots generated in-situ by those taking part in the experience. The act of assembling the hand-made publication is meant to become an exercise in understanding, narrating, preserving and retelling the process in question. Ideally a book will be subsequently published as a limited edition to be shared primarily with the families and those directly involved in Common Ground.

Towards the end of the presentation of Common Ground the artist will invite all the host families and their close relatives to convene for a communal meal. This activity will serve as the culmination of an exchange that could potentially continue to have a relational life of its own after his departure, both for the families, their friends, their friends’ families, and for Nicolas and the communities with which he will interact on a daily basis.

Posted by Olivia Georgia

 



Dale Carnegie of the Middle East

By • Oct 3rd, 2011 • Category: Blog

U.S. democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East have been based on a bizarre notion: that U.S. society can serve as a model for the region. Talk about a tough sell. Congress is a bruising rugby scrum, and the U.S. economy is a shambles. U.S. warplanes and drones target Muslims abroad, and Islamophobia permeates the political discourse at home. Washington has supported Arab dictators and stood by Israel through thick and thin.

We’re telling the world about the benefits of fruits and vegetables and then turning around to sell what looks like wormy apples and rotten tomatoes. No wonder that U.S. public diplomacy has largely fallen flat in the Middle East.

As the U.S. brand sits dusty on the shelves, consumers in the Middle East are eagerly lining up for the competing product: Turkey. Here’s a predominantly Muslim country that has become more democratic even as it raises its religious profile. The ruling party, which draws inspiration from political Islam, retained its parliamentary majority in elections last June, giving Recep Tayyip Erdogan a third term as prime minister. Erdogan is using this mandate at home to push through a new constitution, consolidate political power (in some unsavory ways), sustain the booming economy, and expand its trademark “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy.

Actually, make that zero problems with most neighbors. Unlike the United States, Turkey has decided that it will no longer put up with Israel. This month, Ankara officially downgraded diplomatic relations with the region’s rogue democracy and thereby upgraded its reputation in the Arab world. This dustup is all the more remarkable since the two countries were, until recently, best buddies who enjoyed a close military relationship worth $3.5 billion last year in arms deals. Then, in May 2010, Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, a boat in the flotilla aiming to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and killed nine people, all of them Turkish. Israel failed to apologize or provide compensation. And the blockade remains in place against Gaza. Turkey has pledged to send a military escort with the next humanitarian flotilla, which could ratchet up tensions considerably.

“We have got nothing against the people of Israel, but against the attitude of the government of Israel,” Erdogan has said. Perhaps with this in mind, Turkey has nonetheless maintained considerable non-military trade with Israel. At the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Turkey remains a trading power, and business is business.

Standing up to Israel is not the only policy that has endeared Turkey to the Arab world. “Starting with the Jasmine Revolution, Turkey began to condemn violent crackdowns and encourage leaders to listen to the voice of the people,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Richard Javad Heydarian in Arab Spring, Turkish Harvest. “Ankara explicitly welcomed the strongly secular, populist, and even liberal character of the popular uprisings, setting itself apart from other regional powers.” When Prime Minister Erdogan visited Cairo earlier this month, thousands of Egyptians came out on the street to greet him as if he were a rock star.

Turkey’s embrace of the Palestinian cause has been the natural corollary to its confrontation of Israel. Erdogan has been one of the key powerbrokers lining up UN General Assembly support for Palestine’s bid for statehood (which the United States has unwisely promised to veto in the Security Council). Erdogan declined to visit Gaza on his latest tour through the Middle East but has signaled that he very much wants to become the first major leader to visit the shunned area.

Erdogan is not simply embracing the usual suspects in his effort to expand Turkish influence. “The courageous visit to Mogadishu earlier this summer by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of his government opened Somalia up to the rest of the world and helped restore international confidence in the relative security of the city,” writes FPIF contributor Abdinur Mohamud in The Balkanization of Somalia. “The visit created more opportunities for other delegations to witness the crisis firsthand.”

Turkey, as I explain in a roundtable discussion on Russia Today, is employing the soft power that we generally associate with superpowers such as the United States or the European Union. Turkish diplomats are working as intermediaries in difficult conflicts; Turkish companies are investing billions of dollars overseas; Turkish schools are being established all over the world. The benefits that accrue to Turkey are enormous. In Egypt alone, Erdogan signed agreements to boost trade and investment by billions of dollars.

“Our world is fed up with wars,” Erdogan has declared. “We do not want a world in which trillions of dollars are spent on defense industry.”

Pretty words and admirable sentiments, but Turkey is not all soft power. The Turkish military may have lost much of its political power with the arrest and resignation of a whole tier of generals, but the government still spends more on arms than any other country in the Middle East except Saudi Arabia. And it continues to use those arms, whether as part of the garrison force in northern Cyprus or in cross-border attacks against the Kurdish separatist organization PKK that has been operating for some time in northern Iraq. Turkey remains a key NATO member, even if it has asserted its independence over the years (most famously in 2003, when the Turkish parliament refused to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish bases to attack Iraq). No surprise, then, that the United States recently promised to sell Predator drones to help Turkey in its fight against Kurdish separatists. And Ankara has agreed to host a new U.S. radar base as part of the controversial U.S. missile defense system. The system is ostensibly designed to protect against Iranian missile attacks. But this hasn’t prevented Turkey from establishing joint operations with Iran to fight the PKK.

Such a nuanced approach to both the United States and Iran suggests that it takes a great deal to push Turkey into a wholly confrontational approach. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took Israel beyond the pale by attacking Gaza in 2009 and killing Turkish civilians engaged in civil disobedience. Israel’s latest moves have been equally galling to the Turkish leadership. Teaming up with Cyprus and Greece, Israel is exploring for oil in the eastern Mediterranean in areas that could otherwise benefit Turkish Cypriots and the residents of Gaza. Turkey has threatened to send a warship to accompany its own research vessel. Business, after all, is business, and Turkey will defend its commercial interests.

Turkey’s challenge to Israel has not won it many admirers in the United States. Even Morton Abramowitz and Henri Barkey, who have generally looked favorably on the Turkish renaissance, have warned that Erdogan is overreaching. But the United States and the European Union must really shoulder the blame, if blame must be apportioned to a country other than Israel. The Obama administration has not been particularly adroit in its response to the Arab Spring or in its half-hearted criticisms of Israel. These failures have created a vacuum that Turkey has gladly filled. The European Union, meanwhile, has not moved forward on bringing Turkey in as a member, which has encouraged Turkey to look elsewhere for friends. If you don’t want us, we don’t want you, Turkish President Abdullah Gul effectively said in Berlin last week. Turkey, after all, has lots of irons in the fire.

Egypt under Gamal Nasser was once the pole star of Arab nationalism. Saudi Arabia became the exporter of conservative Wahhabism. Iran established itself as the center of the Shi’a revival. And now Turkey has put itself forward as this year’s model. Even the United States can’t resist falling in behind the market leader. Washington is working closely with Ankara to prepare for a post-Assad future in Syria. After joining the calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down, Turkey has been opening its borders to Syrian refugees and dissidents. Whether funding the Libyan rebels or providing early support for the Egyptian protestors or reaching out to Somalia or attempting to prepare Syria for a soft landing, Turkey has become the indispensible power.

In the new Middle East, Israel has become even more isolated. It has lost its authoritarian allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, as well as its democratic friends, like Turkey. The United States, meanwhile, has long claimed to be the democratic model for the region and an “honest broker” for Middle East peace. But unqualified support for Israel has meant that the United States has, as FPIF contributor Chris Toensing concludes in Blocking Palestinian Statehood, “lost all credibility.”

Turkey, on the other hand, has become the Dale Carnegie of the region: winning friends and influencing people for thousands of miles around.



Women’s Rights in Turkey

By • Sep 9th, 2011 • Category: Blog

A big obstacle to Turkey’s admission to the EU is the insufficient observance of human rights. One part of this problem is respecting the rights of the Kurdish minority; the needs of which have been ignored in the past. Another part of the human rights problem is the lack of gender equality in Turkey. In a survey in 2009 Hacettepe University found out that 42% of women in Turkey had suffered violence at the hands of a husband or partner. Only eight percent of these women sought help. Women’s employment rate was only 22.8 percent in March 2010, while the average of this rate in the EU-27 was 58.6 in 2009. The general financial dependence of women on their husbands makes it even harder for them to have a voice and choice to divorce.

The European Union funds over 100 projects related to the improvement of human rights including women’s rights projects in Turkey. But now, instead of institutions funded by European or government funds, some Turkish citizens are taking up the cause by confronting the problem through art.

Last March, on International Women’s Day, a new comic magazine appeared in Turkey. Bayan Yani – “the seat next to the woman’s seat” is drawn and written by women for women, raising issues that have been taboo in the past such as domestic violence. While the caricatures do not explicitly condemn the violence on women, they bring to light often ignored questions and make people reflect on the absurdity of violence and discrimination. The magazine was intended as a single issue, but it became so successful that the authors kept issuing it every month.

The Deputy Police chief in Diyarbakir, Metin Murat Arsian, is another instance of a citizen working toward bettering women’s rights. He told Euronews that before a course on domestic violence held at the local police station he had “traditional views” on family relations, but the course overturned his views, and he decided that more people should know about these issues, so that their views could change as well. He chose to write the play Mutluluk Elimizde - “happiness lies in our hand,” because “he felt that theater is one of the most important means of communication.”



Turkey’s Military Operation Against PKK

By • Sep 9th, 2011 • Category: Blog

Recently the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been escalating. More than 40 Turkish soldiers have died since July. In early August, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “patience is running out” indicating that he is considering tougher measures against Kurdish rebels. Following this, on August 17, a bomb explosion killed eight Turkish soldiers in the southeastern province Hakkari. The PKK claimed responsibility for the incident, and in the night of the same day Turkey started a military operation in northern Iraq.

The Turkish military claimed that its artillery bombarded 168 targets, and 30 airplanes in two waves followed bombarding 60 PKK positions. Since then Turkey has kept on bombarding targets in Iraq, and amassing ground troops at the Iraqi border indicating that there may be a ground incursion very soon.

According to the Turkish army, 100 rebels have been killed since the beginning of the attacks, while the PKK says that it has lost only three men. Another controversy has arisen around the death of seven civilians, two of whom were infants. The Iraqi mayor of Qalat Dizah and witnesses say that a Turkish-launched rocket hit the civilian vehicle, but the Turkish military denies responsibility.

Some time ago Iraq would have reacted strongly to such a military operation, but not today. Turkey is the only market both for export and import for the Kurdish region. It is also the biggest investor in northern Iraq, and thanks to it the Kurdish region is the most-well developed part of Iraq. The Kurdish region cannot afford to jeopardize its relations with Turkey, so it has largely remained silent in the face of the Turkish attacks.

The PKK demands a free Kurdistan in the territories inhabited primarily by Kurds in Turkey. Turkey, however, has no desire to give up any of its land. Still, there are things that can be done. Prime Minister Erdogan has acknowledged that some “mistakes” have been done in the past, and his party lifted some restrictions on the Kurdish language and let the flow of some capital to the impoverished Kurdish region of Turkey, but more is needed to improve the condition of a minority that has been disregarded in the past.

The first attack on Turkish soldiers in July happened only a few hours after talks failed between the Turkish government and the largely Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The BDP wanted the release of newly elected MPs that the government had jailed after the elections because of alleged ties with the PKK. Some of the demands of the BDP are Kurdish language education and the end of laws that put dissidents in jail.



Provisional Agreement with KFOR Aims to Avert New Incidents of Violence in the North of Kosovo

By • Aug 8th, 2011 • Category: Blog

On Friday, Kosovo and Serbia agreed upon a temporary deal to ease ethnic tensions in the north of Kosovo. The agreement was formalized with KFOR commander Erhard Buehler in the wake of several episodes of violence between local Serbian residents in Kosovo and police units deployed from Pristina.  The week of July 25th was marred by attacks at northern border gates, as Kosovo Police attempted to seize control of two border crossings, at Jarinje and Brnjak, and impose a ban on Serbian imports to Kosovo.

The new deal between Belgrade and Pristina is intended to “…regulate the situation in Kosovo-Metohija and lead to peace and stability.” Under its terms, KFOR troops will hold full responsibility for Kosovo’s northern border points, and allow civilians to pass in and out of the Republic of Kosovo. Although the Kosovan ban on Serbian imports is set to continue, the agreement specifies that Pristina cannot send police and customs officials to northern border posts. In a statement issued to the press on August 6th, Borislav Stefanovic, Head of the Serbian government’s team for dialogue with Kosovo, underlined that “..there will be no so-called Kosovo customs at administrative crossings at Jarinje and Brnjak and KFOR will remain in control of them.” This agreement is, however, only valid until September 15th, 2011.

In response to anxieties concerning the passage of humanitarian aid at border points, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi has also announced that, in the event of independent humanitarian agencies verifying a need for such assistance, Kosovo will cooperate. Thaçi further clarified that, as of August 3rd, United Nations agencies concluded in Mitrovica “..that there is no humanitarian crisis whatsoever in the north.” Under the terms of the agreement with KFOR, shipments heavier than 3.5 tonnes may only pass through border crossings with specific approval from the Red Cross.

According to a press release from the government of the Republic of Kosovo, KFOR is now engaged in unblocking roads and gaining control of border crossings 1 and 31. Representatives of four municipalities from northern Kosovo are set to discuss the terms of the new agreement in tomorrow’s joint session of municipal assemblies. One of the principal issues to be discussed is whether representatives of Serbs from northern Kosovo will remove the barricades in place at border crossings. In a meeting convened today with members of Kosovo’s government, Prime Minister Thaçi optimistically declared that “There is no stepping back…The north, which until the 25th of July was a black hole and a source of smuggling and crime, has now entered a entered a new chapter – that of the rule of law.”