Tuesday 29 November 2011

Russia teaches Tajikistan a lesson

Maybe it was a Tajik overreaction, but definitely, definitely, was an overreaction (politically calculated) on the Russian side. Hundreds of Tajik immigrants were invited by the Russian authorities to beat it this month after Dushambe dared to arrest a Russian pilot and his Estonian colleague who landed their plane in its territory with no authorisation. The Tajik authorities say they were smugglers, but Russia refuted - of course, as you know, the Russian Federation is not influenced at all by crooks and mobsters, so such accusation is really outrageous. More than a million Tajiks live in the Russian Federation. Many are illegally in the country, but most certainly are honest people who work really hard to send money to their families in the poorest of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Anything that affects these immigrants in Russia is bound to have a serious effect in the economy of the country. Of course, it didn’t take long for the Tajik authorities to release the Russian.

The fact is that Russia is about to go to the polls, and Putin is eager to make a profit on the anti-immigration sentiment that has taken the country. Actually, he doesn’t even need to do that – his party will surely win by a landslide the Parliamentary election in December, and then next year Tsar Vladimir will certainly be back to his throne. This anti-immigration sentiment has been growing for years – to a point that it has lead to some laughable remarks, like those of Chief Sanitary Officer of Russia, Gennady Onishchenko, who suggested that the Tajik immigration be halted on health grounds (curiously, on previous occasions, Onishchenko recommended that wine imports from Georgia and Moldova be halted, when the relations between those countries and Russia went sour). However, the decision of Russia is not only about exploiting the current trend. It is about highlighting its control and power over Tajikistan – a country which is still so dependent of Russia, even 20 years after its “independence”. It takes place in a moment in which Russia is about to adopt, together with Kazakhstan and Belarus, a Customs Union (which probably will be more harmful than beneficial to Astana, but certainly will be very good for Moscow). Anyway, a question needs to be asked: Tajikistan, how dare you believe you could do anything against a Russian citizen? You naughty, naughty country.

A road movie in Kyrgyzstan

I know I’ve done this before in the short history of this blog, but I can’t resist: here is another nice photogallery with images from Kyrgyzstan. Look at those roads, at those mountains. Can’t you feel the fresh air, the snow and the dust? Really, I need to do some serious backpacking there.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Terrorists find virgin lands in Kazakhstan

The recent terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan are really troubling for many reasons. Unlike Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it was never a direct target of Islamist puritans that are known to operate in the region. Actually, Islam is relatively new to this giant country, as big as Western Europe. Most of its population has its roots in nomad tribes that roamed the steppes for centuries and were only “islamicised” after the Russian Empire dominated its territory, on the 19th century. Even so, the Islam that eventually took hold of Kazakhstan was heavily influenced by the traditional customs of the nomads and its shamanistic beliefs. Sufism also plays an important role in Islam here, like it does in Kazakhstan’s neighbours. Puritan Islamism, especially the one that preaches violence and encourages suicide attacks, is utterly against all those “transformations” in Islam. And so it is also utterly alien to these lands.

But a recent decision by President Nursultan Nazarbayev to tighten displays of religious expression was a good reason for the puritans to step up their northern operations. The law, which took effect on October 25th, makes it mandatory for religious organizations to register with the Kazakh authorities. At the same time, the government banned blogs accused of fostering extremism. These “security measures” set the scenario for two big attacks: on October 31st , the eastern city of Atyrau was shaken by two explosions and a suspected suicide bomber was killed, and then on November 12th a new suicide attack took place in Taraz (South). But the tension between the authorities and militants was brewing even before the law became a reality. There were two explosions in May and in September suspects of plotting terrorist attacks were arrested in Atyrau.

What do those attacks mean? First: if there is puritan Islamism, there are people that were wooed by its promises. Those people certainly are not rich – quite the opposite. In a country that has being constantly praised by its stability and its good environment for business, for its vast natural resources and its progressive, westernized society, those militants are the outcasts. Left behind, ignored by the state and with no education, they fell victims to the same lunatics that found fertile ground elsewhere in neighbouring countries. Second, it is crystal clear, as seen many times in the past, that attacking Islam does not lower the risk posed by extremists, but exactly the opposite. Third, by adopting this law without pondering its consequences, and so encouraging new attacks, Nazarbayev is offering an excuse for other leaders to follow suit and crush (again) their Muslims. Of course I am talking about Islam Karimov. The Uzbek deity, who previously this year had allowed unprecedented celebrations during the Eid ul-Fitr, suddenly decided to warn artists against the use of religious themes in their works (read more here). The number of pilgrims allowed to travel to Mecca was also limited. Karimov loves to attack its own countrymen under the guise of being “defending the country from extremists”. Muslims in general can be regarded as extremists if, for example, they grow a beard or go to mosques too often. By spreading terror, in the most traditional Stalinist way, Karimov reasserts its power. Nazarbayev needs to withdraw this new law and show, in unequivocal terms, his respect to religious freedom. He also needs to do what all other leaders in the world are supposed to do: turn all its citizens into real citizens, not outcasts. Otherwise, God knows what consequences we might see in the near future in Kazakhstan and its neighbours.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Kyrgyzstan dreams of stability after imperfect elections

After a difficult test, the people of Kyrgyzstan have reasons to celebrate. The October 30th presidential elections took place with no violence. Of course, there were protests from oppositionists, who claimed that there were huge problems with voter lists, multiple voting and other irregularities. Certainly there were flaws – not a few indeed. But, at least, according to international observers, it was a valid election, in which around three million people cast their ballots to choose Almazbek Atambayev as President for the next six years. Compared to its neighbours Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, ruled by Soviet kings that certainly will remain in power until their very last seconds in this planet, Kyrgyzstan has shown that it is a beacon of democracy. It is very, very unlikely that the Kyrgyz will inspire, anytime soon, any change whatsoever in other corners of Central Asia. However, apparently, its path is starting to become a source of envy, as can be seen in this brilliant article.

Atambayev relied on the industrial and Russified north and Uzbeks from the south to defeat his two main adversaries, nationalists who commanded strong support from the southern Kyrgyz. Hundreds were killed in violent ethnic clashes in June last year, mainly in the south. Now, apocalyptic forecasts of more violence are not entirely out of question yet, as the defeated candidates didn’t recognise the preliminary results and might still be planning to rally their supporters - small groups of protestors have already taken to the streets. However, it is reasonable to think that the Kyrgyz are a bit tired of all the instability that, since 2005, resulted in two presidents being ousted during popular revolts. Besides, Atambayek triumph was a clear one – with around 63% of the ballots, he avoided a potentially complicated second round. Had he won by a whisker, certainly the opposition case would be stronger. In other words – if there were irregularities, probably they were not, on their own, enough to elect the former prime-minister.

Well, what now? First and foremost – no big changes on the horizon. Atambayev is a strong supporter of the Parliamentarian experiment in the country, unique in Central Asia, and is not expected to return powers to the executive, as other candidates promised. He also will go on strengthening its links with Russia. The US has already been warned – its lease of an air base in Kyrgyzstan, used to support the war in Afghanistan, will end in 2014 and will not be renewed, said the president elect in remarks after his victory. Finally, Atambayev will certainly not adopt any nationalistic measures that might have a negative impact on the southern Uzbeks, who have given him their support.