Sunday, June 30, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Turkmenistan’s Authoritarianism Leading to Rise of Islamist Radicalism, Former Security Officer Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 30 – The harsh authoritarian regime of Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has erected a fa├žade of stability and well-being that conceals the extent to which his policies have created “favorable conditions” for the appearance of radical Islamist groups, according to a former Ashgabat security officer.

            The anonymous officer’s comments to a Russian news agency come following two Russian television reports about the capture of militants from Turkmenistan fighting in Syria, the denial of those reports by Turkmenistan’s foreign ministry, and a Youtube video that appears to confirm the Russian coverage.

            A week ago, two Russian television channels, Rossiya-1 and Rossiya-24, reported that several citizens of Turkmenistan had been fighting alongside Al-Qaeda forces in Syria, reports that the Turkmenistan foreign ministry promptly denied and said threatened to harm good relations between Moscow and Ashgabat (regnum.ru/news/polit/1677935.html).

            That might have been the end of this story had it not been for the subsequent appearance of a Youtube video showing an interview with one of the fighters in Syria who identified himself as the leader of a group of militants from Turkmenistan and said they wanted to establish an Islamist state in their homeland (youtube.com/watch?v=Y1Z629KG4aA&feature=youtu.be).

                The Regnum.ru agency said “in the opinion of experts,” this exchange highlights “not only the low level of professionalism of employees of the Turkmen ministry of foreign affairs but also the complete absence of such professionalism” in that country’s ministry of national security.”

            According to the Russian agency, despite that ministry’s oppression of “civic activists, independent journalists and representatives of religious minorities,” Turkmenistan’s main national security agency “has turned out to be hopeless regarding those who are creating a real threat to the security of the country.”

            Ashgabat’s superficial control of the country’s official mosques, which “begin and end” their services not with verses from the Koran but citations from the works of the country’s president, has, the anonymous former Turkmenistan security officer said, has “created a milieu in which the representatives of true Islam are appearing.”

            Moreover, Regnum.ru continues, Ashgabat often has appeared oblivious to the impact of efforts by radical Islamists from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although it did close the Turkmen-Turkish schools two years ago, albeit “after the train had already left the station” and “thousands of young people” had been recruited by the radicals.

             That may be changing. Regnum.ru reports that “at the last closed session of the Security Council [of Turkmenistan], the head of the Ministry of National Security received directives from Supreme Commander Berdymuhamedov to identify and hold responsible all advocates of true Islam and by their actions bringing shame on the nation in the eyes of the world.”

            Moreover, the Russian news agency says “there is also unofficial information concerning the creation of a special group” within that ministry to investigate the contacts of those who went to Turkey and did not return home” after the time set by their visas. “Another special group,” it says, “has begun following and analyzing commentaries appearing on the pages of religious Internet sites.”

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Effort to Divide Kazan Tatars Suffers Another Defeat



Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 30 – Over the last decade, Russian nationalist activists and officials have sought to boost the Kryashens, a small community consisting of Russian Orthodox Tatars, as a distinct nation in order to reduce the size and influence of the Kazan Tatars who view the Kryashens -- whose name means “the baptized ones” -- as a Christian subgroup of their nation.

            But there is growing evidence that this effort is petering out – the Kryashen.ru website has ceased to be updated and the Russian Orthodox site, rusk.ru, which chronicled Moscow’s efforts in this regard (See, inter alia, rusk.ru/st.php?idar=8540), has dramatically reduced the number of posts about them.

            One reason for this decline is that there won’t be another census in the Russian Federation until at least 2020, and in the enumeration in 2010 only 34,882 people declared themselves to be Kryashens, far fewer than many in Moscow had expected and a figure that is microscopically small compared to the 5.5 million who declared themselves to be Tatars.

            A second reason, however, involves the underlying weakness of the argument that the Kryashens are a self-standing ethnic community, a claim made by many Kryashens and their Muscovite supporters but one undercut by the reject decisions of people who had identified as Kryashens to convert to Islam and declare themselves to be Tatars.

            The most prominent of those is Ivan Yegorov, who had been head of the Kryashen organization in Tatarstan and leader of the Ak Bars holding company.  In October 2012, he was elected to the executive committee of the World Congress of Tatars, something that would have been impossible had he insisted on his Kryashenness.

            But a new case of conversion to Islam and to the Tatars is stirring up even more controversy among the Kryashens and those in the Moscow media world who present themselves as the defenders of that group.  It involves Aleksandr Dolgov, the former Kryashen activist and current Tatar analyst and blogger.

            According to the Regnum.ru news agency on Friday, the Kryashens are outraged by the revelation that “Dolgov while serving as president of [the Forum of Kryashen Youth] secretly accepted Islam and began to consider himself a Tatar (regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/tatarstan/1676952.html).

            Regnum.ru says that such anger is justified because in its words “the Kryashens are a unique Turkic ethnos, the culture and traditions of which are indivisibly connected with Orthodox which helped it over the course of many centuries to preserve its national identity,” despite Tatar efforts to treat them only as Orthodox Tatars.

            “In the post-Soviet period,” the Russian news agency continues, “the ethnocratic regime” in Kazan has devoted particular efforts to making the Kryashens into something they are not, “’a constituent part of the Tatar people,’ which always have generated among Kryashen society protests.”

            In support of that contention, which many Tatars would reject not only because Moscow did not support the Kryashen identity until the last 15 years but also because most Tatars themselves have been comfortable with the idea that one could be both Tatar and Orthodox, Regnum.ru offers statements from various Kryashen activists about Dolgov’s perfidy.

            But what really appears to be behind the Regnum.ru attack is an article by Dolgov himself, entitled “The Mission of the Tatars in the Islamic World of Russia is Great,” that appeared earlier last week on the Islam-Today.ru portal and that advanced arguments the Russian site found highly offensive (islam-today.ru/article/10986).

            In it, Dolgov says that “the Tatars are the largest people of ‘ethnic Muslims’ in Russia” but that “in recent times, there has been a tendency to artificially divide the Tatars and the Muslim umma” of that country, despite the fact that until 1917 the terms “Tatar” and “Muslim” were synonyms in Russia.

            Dolgov, now the editor of www.tatartime.com and a regular commentator for www.info-islam.ru, argues that it is time “to give a new contemporary meaning to the words ‘Tatar-Muslim’” and to stress that “the Tatar world consists of those places where Tatars live … not only in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Russia” but across the entire world.

            “The Tatars,” he continues, “were always a state forming people,” but “by the will of Allah and for objective reasons they have remained without their own state.” Now, they have the most favorable time ever to promote their national interests, and consequently, the Tatars must make sure that they clearly define those.

            A major task, he says, is to block the spread of radical Islamist ideas, which penetrated Tatarstan because of the Bolsheviks’ destruction of the pre-1917 Tatar intelligentsia and the fact that “young people there over the course of 70 years were cut off from their historical roots and fromt this Tatar Islamic theological heritage.”

            To overcome that, Dolgov adds, Tatars must work to ensure that younger members of their community will “operate on their own national-historical basis and religion.” They must understand that only Tatars can do this because no one else will succeed. And they need to ensure that the jadidist tradition is again at the center of Muslim education in Tatarstan.


Saturday, June 29, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Fewer than Half of RF Citizens See Themselves as ‘Civic’ Rather than Ethnic Russians



Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 29 – Only 45 percent of the citizens of the Russian Federation currently view themselves as members of a civic Russian nation, a poll finding that has forced Moscow to reduce its hopes that it will be able to convince 86 percent of the country’s residents to identify in that way by 2018. Now, officials say, they hope to raise the number to 64 percent.

                “Moskovsky komsomolets” reported the results of this Regional Affairs Ministry poll on Thursday (mk.ru/politics/russia/article/2013/06/27/875969-ministryi-ispravilis-pod-ugrozoy-otstavok.htm). Today, Aleksey Polubota who writes regularly on ethnic and regional issues for “Svobodnaya pressa,” provides an analysis (svpressa.ru/politic/article/70196/).

            Polubota suggests that among the most important reasons for Moscow’s lowering of its sights on this issue are resistance among ethnic Russians to a step they see as a denigration of their status, Moscow’s inability to find enough money to promote this identity, and the weakness of the state itself which means that fewer RF citizens are interested in identifying with it.

            The “Svobodnaya pressa” analyst spoke with three experts about these issues, Pavel Salin, the director of the Moscow Center for Political Research of the Finance University, Egor Kholmogorov, a Russian nationalist who serves as the editor in chief of the “Russky Obozrevatel” online journal, and Iosef Diskin, co-chairman of the Council on National Strategy.

            Salin said that Moscow in the early 1990s had set itself what was “in principle a realistic task” of getting people to identify as civic rather than ethnic Russians. After all, that is what the leader of the USSR had done and done with a great deal of success in promoting a Soviet identity until the time of the Soviet collapse.

            Even now, older people continue to share in that identity, he continued, with people over 50 tending to be far more internationalist than younger groups, a division that “is characteristic not only for Russia but also for the other post-Soviet states.” Given that base, it was not unreasonable for the Russian government to think it could do the same.

            But the post-Soviet Russian government has not been able to do so and “for one simple reason,” Salin argued. “The base for a single civic nation always is a powerful state,” and that means a state and “not a personalist power” which is what the Russian Federation has had over the last two decades.
            “In the USSR, state institutions as a whole worked, and people felt on their own skins the power of the state which one way or another defends them. But in the post-Soviet years, the state constantly has suffered from erosion and is falling apart. Its institutions are being replaced by sub-institutions like corruption and clans ethnic and otherwise.”

                “The state as such has been very much weakened,” Salin said, adding that “in such circumstances it is impossible to support a former identity let alone create a new one.”

            “In the USSR, the process of forming a new identity went in parallel with the process of forming a powerful state. But the contemporary Russian authorities, despite all their declarations have not put the creation of a strong state as their task in principle.” They are quite willing to live with a personalist one, something few beyond their ranks can identify with.

            RF citizens are thus disappointed, and consequently they are seeking other things to identify with, including their families and ethnic nations. That is particularly the case among ethnic Russians living in cities where the atomization of society is the greatest, but it is found elsewhere as well.
           
            Many members of other nationalities are prepared to identify as civic Russians because “they have greater benefits from the existing situation in the country and therefore with greater willingness identify themselves with Russia as a whole.” When abroad, Salin continued, they even identify themselves as civic Russians.

            But among urbanized groups of these ethnic communities such as the Tatars, “there is a growing feeling of injustice” and consequently they too are turning to their own ethno-national identifications.  For all these reasons, the Moscow analyst said, “only a small part of the population wants to feel itself as a representative of a political Russian nation.”

            For his part, Kholmogorov argued that the ministry poll overstates the number of people in the RF who identify as civic Russians.  That is an artificial construct, he said, one that was pushed by Boris Yeltsin precisely as an alternative to the ethnic one and thus viewed by ethnic Russians as an attack on their prerogatives as the majority nation in the country.

            But Diskin drew a rather different conclusion.  According to him, there is “a clear tendency” for RF citizens to shift from an ethnic to a political identity, although he conceded that this would take time as does any identity shift.

            “At the beginning of the 1990s,” he pointed out “the majority of citizens of Russia considered themselves to be Soviet people but since then the formation of a civic Russian nation has gone forward.  This process will continue.” And he suggested that “ethnicity today is not the chief form of self-identification” for many.

                As evidence of that, he noted that “people may say that ‘I am a Russian’ or ‘I am an Avar’ but at football matches they will sing together the hymn of the Russian Federation” and more generally, most of them will not see any conflict between those two levels of identity even if “a small part of society” does.


Window on Eurasia: Moscow Now Arming Both Sides in Yet Another Post-Soviet Hotspot



Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 29 – Moscow’s decision to sell arms to Azerbaijan while continuing to be the main weapons supplier to Armenia has attracted widespread attention given the potential for a renewal of fighting between those two countries, but now the Russian government is selling arms to two countries in Central Asia that also are involved in a serious conflict.

            This past week, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Moscow intends to begin supplying arms to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  Kyrgyzstan will get 1.1 billion USD in arms, while Tajikistan will receive a fifth of that amount, extraordinary figures for two small and poor countries.

            This decision has prompted Andrey Ivanov, a commentator for “Svobodnaya Pressa,” to ask “against whom” are these arms being directed and to conclude that these sales are less about conflicts among the countries within the region than between the Russian Federation and the United States for influence there (svpressa.ru/society/article/70075/).

            But even if that is the primary motivation, such provision of weapons systems to countries already engaged in border skirmishes has the potential to escalate such violence among these countries and also to implicate those supplying them with weapons in conflicts that they may not want or even understand.

            Border conflicts involving Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and Tashkent’s recent decision to withdraw from the Russian-led Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, Ivanov suggests, “provide a basis for suggesting the possible rapid split of Central Asia,” something even more likely after the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.

            But the situation is even more complicated, the commentator continues, because what is taking place in the region is “the formation of blocs of states oriented toward varioius world powers,” with the US wanting “Uzbekistan as a place des armes for the dissemination of its influence” and Russia seeking to prevent that from happening.

            Tensions are rising between Uzbekistan, on the one hand, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other, with Dushanbe charging Tashkent with attacking its territory and population and proposing to withdraw Tajiks from the frontier. At the same time, Tashkent has indicated that it “does not exclude” the possibility of war with Tajikistan if the latter doesn’t change its position on water flows.

            Given that division of the region, Ivanov continues, Moscow’s decision to supply arms to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan “looks completely logical,” although the amount of equipment seems astronomically high given the size of the militaries of those two countries. But of course, some of the money is payment for Kyrgyzstan’s decision to expel the US from its base there while keeping the Russians in theirs.

            Ivanov spoke with two experts about these various moves, Valery Korovin, the director of the Moscow Center for Geopolitical Analysis, and Dmitry Verkhoturov, an orientalist who writes frequently on the geopolitics of Central Asia and adjoining regions of the world.

            Korovin said that the arms sales now reflect divisions among the Central Asian countries that have arisen since the demise of the Soviet Union. For most of the last two decades, Moscow was “passive” and Washington succeeded in “re-orienting” many of those states toward the West. The arms sales show that Moscow is now back and ready to play an expanded role.

            This is no easy task, he continued, and as a result, there is “a real geopolitical battle” going on, in the first instance in Kyrgyzstan.  “We almost lost this country,” Korovin said,” but each attempt by Moscow to recover its influence has ended with another ‘color’ revolution.” Nonetheless, the Russian government has to continue to try in order to keep US bases as far away from the country’s southern borders as possible.

            Working in Russia’s favor in this regard, he suggested, is that those countries which have chosen to be allies of the US have suffered from instability while those that have selected “Russia as their main partner can guarantee themselves both security and relative economic stability as well.”
           
            Because of this, Korovin argued, “the situation in the post-Soviet space is arranging itself in such a way that all the former republics will return to the orbit of influence of Russia,” not by sacrificing their sovereignty but precisely because the governments in these countries want to maintain it.
           
            Verkhoturov reinforced that view. He suggested that Uzbekistan leader Islam Karimov is not interested in playing the role of regional hegemon in the way that the United States wants and consequently, a more general split and conflict among the countries of Central Asia is not very likely.

            And the orientalist concluded that after the US withdraws from Afghanistan next year, Uzbekistan will be even less interested in playing the role that Washington wants it to and that Tashkent will once again look to Moscow to be the arbiter of water and security issues in Central Asia.