Archive for the 'Anouk Van Den Akker' Category

Sochi 2014: Skiing over mass graves

By Claire McNear, on 13 February 2014

By Anouk van den Akker

Russia has met a great deal of criticism in the run-up to the Winter Olympics: over the government’s anti-gay legislation and the nation’s broader human rights issues, the enormous budget of the Sochi Games, corruption, and the terrorist threats in Sochi. There is another morbid item to add to the list, though so far it has received little attention from the international media.

Exactly 150 years ago, the nation of Circassia, a small country along the Black Sea, was conquered by the Russians at the end of the Caucasian War. The invasion of the Russians occurred in Sochi, then known as Ubykhia, where roughly 90% of ethnic Circassians were annihilated. It is unclear how many Circassians died at the hands of the Russian army: reports range from tens and hundreds of thousands to more than a million victims. Those who did survive the bloody war were either forced to become Russian nationals or were deported to the Ottoman Empire. Of the 3 million ethnic Circassians alive today, the largest Circassian diaspora is located in Turkey, with other communities spread across other nations in the Middle East, Europe, and North America. What happened in Sochi 150 years ago was a violent episode that the modern Circassian community wants recognized as genocide but which the Russian government refuses to discuss.

In fact, when addressing the International Olympic Committee in July 2007 “to win the games for Sochi,” President Vladimir Putin emphasized Sochi’s rich cultural history, mentioning the ancient Greeks who occupied the city many centuries ago. He failed, however, to bring up Circassia, which dominated the region for hundreds of years prior to the Russian conquest. It has been argued that the Winter Olympics are being used as an “information war” where the Russian government aims to eliminate all traces of the Caucasian War and the genocide of the Circassian people, while Circassian descendants fight to preserve their people’s history.

Sochi’s new $8 billion ski resort, Krasnaya Polyana, which was completely overhauled for the Olympics, is built exactly on the site where most of the Circassians were “cleansed.” According to Sufian Zhemukhov, a visiting scholar at George Washington University, “this was perceived as an insult and really fomented Circassian activism around the world.” Some Circassian descendants have compared the competition at Krasnaya Polyana to having the Winter Olympics held at Auschwitz. The locale has struck many as particularly galling given the timing, with the Sochi Games coinciding with the 150th anniversary of some of the darkest days of Circassian history.

The lack of domestic and international attention to the mass graves that Olympic athletes are now skiing over can be seen as a reflection of the general sentiment toward the Circassian people. Namely, that their ancestry does not matter enough, and that in the eyes of Russia, and perhaps of the international community, they simply do not exist. Although other ethnic minorities from the Caucasus, such as those belonging to the Caucasus Emirate, have used the visibility of the Sochi Games as a platform for demands of independence from Russia, often coupled with threats of violence, it is not expected that the Circassian community will resort to similar measures. Instead, they have mainly attempted to raise awareness via the Circassian-led “No Sochi 2014” campaign which aims to raise international recognition of the genocide and “the right of Circassians to return to their homeland.”

The Russia–Netherlands Year of Friendship: 400 years of friendship down the drain?

By Claire McNear, on 4 February 2014

By Anouk Van Den Akker

2014 marks the conclusion of the official Russia–Netherlands year of friendship, a year in which the 400-year-long relationship between the nations was to be celebrated. Although the nations differ considerably in many facets of society, both parties started the yearlong event with optimism. As it has now come to an end, however, it is questionable how much of the friendship remains intact. Instead of being a year in which the relationship between the two states was strengthened, many challenges emerged that cooled the friendship considerably. In the words of The Guardian, the 2013 Russia¬–Netherlands friendship year is “a strong contender for the least successful diplomatic initiative in recent European history.”

The first strain on the Dutch–Russian relationship arrived scarcely two weeks into the ceremonial year. On 17 January 2013, the Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov, who was being held in a Dutch detention center after being denied asylum that he had sought in the wake of participation in protests in Moscow, committed suicide. Controversy erupted as protests were held in front of the Dutch embassies in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kiev, and the Dutch authorities were heavily criticized. It soon became clear that the Dutch authorities had made gross mistakes surrounding Dolmatov’s imprisonment.

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it illegal to promote “non-traditional sexual relationships.” The Dutch minister of foreign affairs openly expressed his concern about the passing of the law, widely viewed as an anti-gay measure. In response, the Russian minister of foreign affairs warned him that states ought not to tell other states how to govern their own country.

Further challenges arose in April, when Putin made an official visit to Amsterdam. Thousands of angry protesters were awaiting him to express their concern about the human rights situation in Russia, particularly with regard to homosexual individuals. The mayor of Amsterdam subtly joined in the protest by sending a deputy mayor to meet the Russian president instead and by raising a rainbow LBGT flag outside City Hall. Deeply offended, Putin retaliated by airing “a non-stop campaign on Russian TV showing Holland to be a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, run by paedophiles and hashish dealers.”

In July, Russia announced a boycott of the import of Dutch potatoes, on the basis that they contained harmful materials. This followed Russia’s January ban of the import of Dutch veal under similar arguments, which was shortly followed by another ban on Dutch dairy products.

Following the boycott, four Dutch documentary-makers working in Saint Petersburg and the northwestern port city Murmansk were arrested under the February law and charged with promoting homosexual propaganda, although all were eventually released due to procedural mistakes made by Russian officials.

The arrest of the captain and crew of Greenpeace’s Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise by the Russian coast guard in September caused a wave of international criticism. As the crew members, hailing predominantly from Europe with two Dutch citizens among them, were charged with piracy, which in Russia carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs urged Russian authorities to let them go and later asked the international maritime tribunal to order their release. Irritated by the pressure from the Netherlands, the Russian minister of foreign affairs subsequently blamed the Netherlands for the activists’ predicament.

In October, Russian diplomat Dmitri Borodin was arrested in The Hague for alleged abuse of his children. With his arrest, his diplomatic immunity was ignored, causing widespread outrage among Russian citizens. A protest broke out outside the Dutch embassy in Moscow and Putin immediately demanded an official apology from the Netherlands which, in turn, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs gave him.

Just days after Borodin was arrested, Dutch diplomat Onno Elderenbosch was assaulted by two men in his home in Moscow. The foreign minister of Russia called it a serious crime, yet no evidence has yet emerged about the perpetrators.

Overall, the many incidents of the Russia–Netherlands friendship year have left many in doubt that the two nations can convincingly be called friends. As diplomatic tension between the Netherlands and Russia has reached an all-time high, it seems that the year of friendship was more successful in breaking ties than in celebrating or strengthening them.