Friday 29 March 2013

The 'problem' of Islam in Central Asia: Tajikistan

Tajikistan has always been the odd one out among the former Soviet central Asian countries, and this is certainly true in relation to Islam. After the Civil War (1992-1997), a deal was signed which granted the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) legitimization. The party, linked to islamists who fought in the war, remains as the only legal political organization of its kind with legal status in Central Asia (in theory, an excellent example of political tolerance). Nevertheless, developments in recent years make it clear that its existence as a relevant political player is under increased pressure from President Emomali Rakhmon, which certainly leave the door open for more violence in the country.

I travelled through Tajikistan in September 2012, visiting the Northern province of Sughd, the capital, Dushanbe, and the Gorno Badakhstan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), in the Pamirs. It was a difficult period to be a tourist in the country: back in July, a conflict had erupted between local militia in Badakhstan and government troops, send to Badakhstan after a local authority was killed. Many analysts believe that the conflict was basically a move by Rakhmon to re-establish control over the region, which has by and large operated with autonomy from Dushanbe ever since the end of the Civil War. Other saw it as a move by Dushanbe to establish control over lucrative drug trafficking routes in the porous Tajik-Afghan border in the GBAO, which were under control of local leaders. Regardless of that, it was clear that the clashes in July were directly linked to a legacy of the civil war rather than to any sort of Islamic militancy.

But, interestingly, during the conflict, one of the leaders of IRP in the GBAO disappeared and, days later, was found dead. Up until now, there are no news about an investigation on this murder. Actually, this is not the first time that the IRP has been target of attacks that clearly have a political motivation. In the last years, the government has been keen on associating the IRP with political extremism, especially since the last wave of Islamist attacks in Tajikistan, in 2010. Some members of the government have even said that the IRP is “fundamentalist”. This is strikingly at odds with what the party claims about itself. Its leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, which graduated in a secular university, wear ties and likes a good shave. He and his supporters have repeated time and time again that what the IRP wants is a country ruled with Islamic values in mind (among them, peace, tolerance, justice) – which is the natural order of things in a country where almost everybody are muslins. There is no talk of creating a caliphate. Or Wahhabism. Actually, Kabiri's critis say he is too soft and accomodating in his dealings with the Government. Despite its lack of radicalism, the party not only has been subject to lies spread by those linked to Rakhmon, but also to arson attacks and other crimes, such as the murder of its leader in GBAO in July. Maybe Rakhmon does not realise that there attacks might even be increasing the clout of the IRP. The party has tried to reach the voters through social projects, helping people that the authorities in Dushanbe have not being able to assist. This people could decide to increase its support to the party if realises it is the target of a clear campaign of intimidation.

Nevertheless, the pressure over the IRP will probably increase until November, together with moves to control and supress any sort of opposition that could remotely be a threat to Rakhmon. In November, the country is holding Presidential elections, and Rakhmon is widely expected to win by a landslide. In the last months, a number of opposition figures have been arrested or murdered abroad (read some examples: here, here and here). There is no doubt at all about who is behind that. But even these pre-emptive strikes are not bound to guarantee a peaceful future for Rakhmon, and I am pretty sure he knows that. During my trip in the country, I was amazed to realize, talking to local people, how the locals disliked their own president. One friend in Khojand clearly stated that the people there hated Rakhmon, which has financed a huge cult of personality – his photo is there, in public buildings, in outdoors; his speeches are broadcast unedited on state TV every night. In the Pamirs, the hatred towards Rakhmon is even worse, especially after the bloodshed in July. But the president insists in keeping real power to itself and his entourage, who are linked to the city of Kulob, in the South. Other regions of the country have been marginalized under his rule: the Pamiris, the Khojandis (who ruled the country for decades under Soviet rule), the Uzbeks (an important minority). Suspicious of these groups’ intentions, Rakhmon has reacted by embracing his authoritarianism: there is no space for opposition or power sharing, only the elites who side with him have space in the government. All others should and are being suppressed.

To put in a nutshell, there is still a lot of regional tension, of the same kind that created the Civil War. In this current context, religion also plays a role, although a subdued one. Since the IRP has embraced a moderate tone which has guaranteed support by many Tajiks, the more conservative inside the party have become alienated. With time, if there are no changes to Rakhmon policies and the country continues to drown in poverty and inequality, there are grounds for a renewal of Islamic militancy, particularly in the Garm Valley (historically a more conservative region of the country, where islamists where based during the civil war). Rakhmon needs the IRP to keep those groups under control and avoid a return to full-blown conflict. This accounts for the fact that, amazingly, Rakhmon has not tried so far to ban the IRL or find an excuse to arrest Kabiri ahead of the November polls. But will the IRL still be a relevant force in the months and years ahead if it still agrees to be a systemic force in a regime where there is no space for a real political process? I am very pessimistic after what I saw in Tajikistan, and believe that regional tension tends to rise, creating an environment in which Islamist militancy can thrive. This, even though most of Tajiks are moderate and peaceful. Let’s hope that this tragic predictions turn to be false.

Sunday 24 March 2013

The ‘problem’ of Islam in Central Asia: Kazakhstan

In South Kazakhstan, traditional Islam is under pressure with the rise of conservative Islam, with uncertain consequences (photo: Ripley's Blog

If there is a sensitive issue in Central Asia, one that regularly is highlighted even in Western newspapers (which by and large ignore everything coming from the Former Soviet Central Asian countries), is the supposed “threat” of radical Islamism. Even before the attacks launched by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) between 1999 and 2001, there is some sort of hysteria in all countries in the region regarding the subject. Analysts usually appear in the media to speak about Salafist movements reorganizing their ranks in these countries, particularly the poorest, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. I, myself, have been a strong believer that something indeed might happen again in the region, some sort of conflict between Salafist militia and government troops, though I certainly did not and still do not know when this is going to take place. Moreover, I also believe that this can still be averted, but not with the use of force by the local authorities.

The problem of militant Islam in Central Asia, however, is not that it is a threat. The problem is that it has been used for a long time as an excuse by the local authoritarian regimes to maintain a tight control over the population, curb their freedom of assembly, faith, political mobilization and even dictate the “appropriate” way they should get dressed. This obviously alienates the population, particularly those who are practicing Muslins. When local leaders talk about conservative and practicing Muslins in their countries, often they use the word “terrorism” and “terrorists” in the same sentence. And seldom they take time to analyse the roots of radical Islam in Central Asia – poverty, lack of perspectives, unemployment, lack of channels for political engagement – and how to address these causes to solve the problem.

To add insult to injury, in the press, when analysts approach the problem, they often reverberate official views and issue opinions with very poor sourcing. Take this article, with the title ‘Revival of extremism in Eurasia concerns Russia`. The author starts by saying: “Recent developments suggest that extremist organizations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) are attempting to proliferate in Central Asia and Russia, and spread radicalism in Eurasia”. The recent developments listed in the article are 1) Uzbek authorities arrested 15 women in Fergana which are connected to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a militia, can’t be compared to the IMU, for example. They advocate peaceful means, even though, in the future, they would like to see a caliphate in the region like the IMU. But the Uzbek government treat them as “radicals” in the same way it would treat Jihadist with AK 47s, and the article simply reinforces Tashkent’s myopic view. 2) A Kyrgyz authority says the prisons are becoming a “major recruiting ground for extremists”. This can be true, but the article blindly presents this statement as a proof of the proliferation of radical Islam in the country, again just repeating something that supports a repressive agenda.

In this post, however, I intent to focus on the situation of Islam in Kazakhstan. Since 2011, when the Zhanaozen clashes took place, Astana has moved towards increasing its control over the already weak opposition in the country. But also in 2011, Kazakhstan was taken by surprise with a series of explosions linked to a hitherto unknown Islamist group called Soldiers of the Caliphate. This was a real strange development. There is no tradition of a strong militant Islam in the country – historically, Islam developed weakly among the country’s original nomadic population, with the notable exception of the South, where the Sufi Naqshbandi order has had a strong influence, particularly around cities like Shymkent and Turkestan. After the attacks, Astana adopted a new religious law with made it mandatory for religious groups to register with the authorities. The same law banned, for example, praying places in government buildings. Moreover, old practices that affect conservative Muslins – like the non-official but widespread discouragement of using Muslim clothing or long beards for civil servants – gained a new momentum.

I have reasons to believe that the Islamist attacks were used – and perhaps overestimated - by the Kazakh government to push their agenda, including the new law and also the view that there is no space for an opposition in the country. Talking to a former teacher who made some research in Southern Kazakhstan in 2012, I heard that, when she was talking to local practicing Muslins in Shymkent and Turkestan, no one mentioned the Soldiers of the Caliphate organization. The impression is that that was an alien movement, which, although had Kazakh members, was based overseas and did not take root in Kazakhstan. Following this logic, the attacks in 2011 would have been isolated incidents. Indeed, since 2011, not a single attack linked to the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Kazakhstan was reported. To tackle this “threat”, in my opinion, it was enough for the Kazakh government to quietly use intelligence (and probably it did). But the government made the “threat” appear much bigger than it really was, which reinforced the view that the country needed a strong government to maintain stability and harmony – the mantra repeated during the last 20 years by president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

This is not to say that there isn’t some sort of islamic threat in Kazakhstan. When I visited Shymkent in 2012, I realized that the traditional Islam, linked to the Sufism, was under increased pressure from followers of a more conservative branch of Islam which has not historical roots in the region. This, by the way, reflects a situation that is taking place in other parts of the former Soviet Union as well. The implications of this transformation in Kazakhstan in the future are difficult to foresee. But certainly South Kazakhstan could become a place more and more suitable for militant Salafists if the government don’t tackle the roots of the problem, such as poverty and unemployment.

In the next post I will focus on the appalling political situation in Tajikistan and the situation of Islam there.

Sunday 10 March 2013

What Kyrgyzstan can learn from Brazilian politics

Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted in a revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2010

Being myself a Brazilian, I am often tempted to draw parallels between the reality in my country and in Central Asia. I have never attempted to do it in this blog, though, since I believe these realities are like chalk and cheese. Nevertheless, by analysing the Bakiev conundrum, I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn upon between Brazil and Kyrgyzstan, both young democracies, still developing their institutions.

In 1992, like many young people of my generation, I took to the streets to protest against president Fernando Collor, who, after a groundbreaking story published in the country leading magazine (Veja), had his reputation tainted beyond salvation. The story detailed his obscure dealings, linking him to a corruption scandal. Soon enough, the Brazilian Congress moved to impeach him. The fact that he forced to resign was celebrated at the time as a “victory of the people”, who organized mass protests to pressure MPs into removing him from power. However, even at that time, there were dissonant voices. Although weak, they claimed that, even though it was clear that Collor was not innocent, the masses were being exploited by powerful elites who did not like the way the government was conducting its affairs. The unhappy elites, so goes the hypothesis, were encouraging the protests, using the media to mobilise the youth, and we were all fools.

Some food for thought here: Collor was the first democratically elected president in Brazil after the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, therefore was under immense pressure to deliver – a pressure that originated from the Brazilian people and also from the Brazilian elites. He himself set as one of the core goals of his newly elected government to tackle corruption, going after the so-called “maharajas” on the public sector, people who earned a lot of money basically by doing nothing. The press in Brazil is controlled by few families, who clearly have their own interests and, conceivably, might use their newspapers and TV channels as a political weapon against a leader who did not have a talent for political negotiation. And Collor was quite young at the time – it is also conceivable that he might have thought that his election as president was enough to guarantee his victory against any political foes.

Now let’s move to Kyrgyzstan. This is a key moment for the country, since it is putting on trial the “legacy” of former president Kurmanbek Bakiev. He was ousted on a popular revolt in 2010, during which security officials fired against protesters near the presidential palace in Bishkek, killing around 90 people. At the time, like Collor, Bakiev was widely perceived as corrupt. People became sick and tired allegations of embezzlement and, to add insult to injury, of the constant black-outs. He was forced to flee Bishkek, first to his political base in the South, and then to Belarus, where he was granted political asylum and lives happily today. Last month, the Kyrgyz Justice sentenced him in absentia to 24 years in jail for his alleged role in the deaths of three people linked to the opposition in 2009. He is still being tried for the deaths of many other activists who took to the streets during the 2010 revolution.

Like Brazil, but certainly with a much more stronger tone due to ethnical differences and a nationalism component, there has been a struggle between elites from the South and North in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiev comes from the South and his power base was linked to ethnically Kyrgyz politicians who advocated policies who still raise tensions among the Uzbeks who historically are the majority in cities such as Osh (Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest) and Jalal-Abad. After the 2010 revolution, it was expected that the Northern elites would, like all elites do, make an effort to weaken the Southern elites and guarantee their grip to power for years to come. And one way to do it, arguably, is to emphasise, using the press or otherwise, the “bad influence” of the previous dominant elites from the South.

I am not saying that the Kyrgyz people is gullible when believe that Bakiev was a bad president. Certainly not – there are very serious allegations against him, relating to corruption or the deaths of protesters. The same goes to Collor in Brazil, I don’t think he was innocent of the accusations against him. But, regarding Bakiev, I, personally, believe he was an extremely lousy leader, especially because he allowed the Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic tensions in the South, a bad legacy of Soviet times, to rise without control, leading to the 2010 pogroms in the Osh region. Living in Bishkek last year, I talked to people and quickly realized that he was hated for many reasons - for not being able to maintain order, for not being able to avoid black outs, for being “a thief” and so on. During the winter blackouts in Bishkek last December, I asked some people there if that (the blackouts) was normal. “Yes, it happens often. But three years ago, during Bakiev, was much worse” was an answer I heard more than once. The environment in the Kyrgyz capital helps to keep alive this bad impression regarding Bakiev. Take a visit to the historical museum in Ala Too square as an example. When I was there in November, there was an exhibition dedicated to the 2010 revolution, leading one to see Bakiev as guilty even before his judgement. On the Chuy avenue, a monument erected in April last year (one year after the revolution) remind all passers-by of its victims. I understand the suffering and the trauma and agree that the victims deserve to be commemorated in the museum and in the monument. However, the government could have chosen not to do this, or to commemorate the dead in a more subdued way. Why did it choose not to?

In other words, I guess the Kyrgyz government is taking political advantage of what happened in 2010, exploiting it for its own benefit. It reminded me of how the Southern elites took advantage in Brazil in 1992. After Collor’s impeachment, his vice-president (a veteran from the South-eastern Minas Gerais state, Itamar Franco) took over. Then, in 1995 his former minister of Finance, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, from the Sao Paulo State (southeast), was sworn in as president. Granted, before the election, Fernando Henrique was given the opportunity to launch a successful currency reform which allowed Brazil to get rid of the scourge of inflation – a widely quoted reason for his election. But he was given the opportunity only when the Southern elites took power – he was certainly not linked to Collor. Fernando Henrique Cardoso would remain in power for a long time, until 2003.

Unlike in Kyrgyzstan – where not only Bakiev, but also members of his family and associated are being tried and sentenced –, however, Collor bore pretty much by himself the burden of the public wrath in 1992. After he was ousted, he was banned from politics for eight years and forgot by the press and the people. Now, he is even back to politics – he holds a seat in the Brazilian Senate. Moreover, obviously, the most striking difference here is that in Brazil there was no revolution, no blood. It was purely a political process. But many people forget that, despite the deaths in 2010, Kyrgyzstan also saw a political process, a change of power. Everything was also part of the political game. Who was behind the start of the 2010 revolution? Who, eventually, benefited from it?

A local analyst, Mars Sariev, quoted in the Central Asia Caucasus Institute website, says that the jail term against Bakiev is the start of a process of “political housecleaning” by the current Kyrgyz government, led by president Almazbek Atambayev. According to him, the Kyrgyz authorities “plan to launch a political purge against the former president’s allies who are still in power or plan a return to the political scene”. This implies that the Justice in the country is controlled by the executive and is being used against its enemies. An additional example of this alleged “purge” already underway is the trial of Kamchybek Tashiev, a former minister under Bakiev and a well-known nationalist from the South. His trial is mobilizing supporters in protests the South. The political use of the Judiciary against political foes of the regime is often noted in other former Soviet countries, like Kazakhstan. I see this analysis can be an exaggeration and I will not say that the same is happening in Kyrgyzstan. Instead, I believe it is undeniable that, without a transparent trial of Bakiev and his former associates, Kyrgyzstan risks a widening gap between North and South, with expected bad consequences. It is an especially sensitive issue because of the ethnic tensions and the fact that leaders like Tashiev are not shy of tapping into them for political gains. And this is, for sure, the key difference between Brazil in 1992 and Kyrgyzstan now. In Brazil, there were only regional elites vying for power in the political arena. In Kyrgyzstan, regionalism gets mixed with ethnical tensions and nationalism, and this is an explosive combination.

Besides brokering a transparent trial for Tashiev and Bakiev, the government need to find a way to bridge the gap with the Southern elites, but without adopting a course of action that would alienate the Uzbeks (here is one example of this taking place now). In other words, Atambayev need to be vigilant to the extremes of nationalism, but need to be able to establish an effective dialog. Conduct free and fair elections, but enforce laws that control political extremism. This is no easy task, and analysts are already forecasting a difficult spring ahead. But maybe Brazil’s pacific and democratic experience could give some insights to my dear friends in the Tien Shan.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Reassessing Stalin’s legacy in Central Asia

Last April, when I was in Almaty, I attended a conference at Kimep University in which researchers presented their ongoing projects and some of their findings. Among many interesting seminars I had the opportunity of watching there was a presentation by a young Kazakh post-graduate student. She was researching Stalin. More specifically, she was researching how Stalin’s image was subject to distortions – how almost everything said about the Soviet leader was absolutely negative, painting him as a monster, more or less in the same fashion as Hitler. Even before considering her arguments, I laughed in contempt. Who on Earth would consider Stalin anything but a monster? Who would dare to consider Stalin anything but a monster? But, then, I stopped for a while and wondered: maybe my own reaction shows a preconception that is not 100% true. Obviously, I am not saying that Stalin was good old Uncle Joe, a joyful leader with a nice and pleasant personality. But that presentation made me wonder to what extent all the bad things said about the leader are true, or to what extent we tend to exaggerate his bad legacy. Are all problems in the former Soviet Union result of Stalin’s policies? Are all problems in former Soviet Central Asia the result of Stalin’s legacy? This week, it will be 60 years since Stalin’s death. Maybe this is a good moment to reflect on those questions – without any intention of acquitting Stalin of his crimes against humanity.

There are at least three of Stalin’s core policies that are often mentioned when one talks about his bad legacies in the former Soviet countries of Central Asia. And they indeed created an awful lot of pain and are undoubtedly regrettable – no one here is disputing that. The first one is the drawing of “artificial” borders in 1924-1925, hastening the creation of separated ethnic identities in places where the people certainly had not developed such identities. The drawing of the borders in Central Asia was conducted after an investigation of where different languages where spoken, but also taking into consideration local politics. Then, Uzbeks and Tajiks were separated, even though, for centuries, they lived together, performing different tasks in their society. It is widely accepted in the West that some of the most important Uzbek cities – Samarkand and especially Bukhara – are actually more Tajik than Uzbek. Stalin ended up giving Samarkand and Bukhara to the Uzbeks due to the cunning influence of Faizulla Khojaev, the father of modern Uzbekistan, who led the rebellion against the last Emir of Bukhara. On the other hand, Khojand, a Fergana Valley city whose population has been for centuries Uzbek, ended up under the control of the Tajik SSR. So two things can be said here – yes, Stalin divided to conquer: it was ultimately his the decision to draw the map the way he did, separating Tajiks and Uzbek, who could not properly be separated without leading to tensions. But he was also manipulated by the local political intrigues (Faizulla Khojaev) and showed some sort of twisted balance mentality by giving one important Uzbek city to the Tajiks. Moreover, the formation of different ethnic identities in the region is not solely the result of Stalin’s policies. There were different identities for Uzbeks and Tajiks even before the Tsarist conquest (the Uzbeks, originally nomadic, the Tajiks, descendants of the sedentary Persian population) of the region and, during the colonisation in the 1800s, started to grow more noticeable. The colonization brought the ‘other’, the Russian settlers, to the region. By mirroring the other, the local peoples fast realized what made then different. Then there was the advance of the press in local languages with the Jadids, reinforcing the ‘we’ and ‘they’. Stalin divided the territory, but not created the divisions.

Other of Stalin’s often mentioned bad legacies was created by the exile of thousands of people from other regions of the USSR to Central Asia. Chechens, Ingush, Volga Germans, Koreans, Ukrainians and Meskhetian Turks were just some of the peoples who were forcefully removed from their homelands and settled in the steppes and mountains. The process was conducted with extreme brutality and blatant disregard for the well-being of the exiled. Thousands and thousands died in the process, not only due to the appalling transport conditions, but also due to the lack of any support once they reached their final destination. After Stalin, Khrushev allowed the return of these settlers to their homelands, creating problems there (since of course their land had been occupied by different people – an example is the Ethnic conflict between the Ossetians and the Ingush in the East Prigorodny district of the Republic of North Ossetia in 1992). But many remained, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Nationalism, the stage was set for ethnic conflicts (an example was the riots between Meskhetian Turks and Uzbeks in Uzbekistan in 1989). My view is that Stalin is guilty as charged of all the suffering of the resettled peoples. And he is guilty of creating the condition for the ethnic conflicts to happen – yes, he set the Ethnic time bombs. However, he did not detonate the time bombs. Who detonated them? Nationalists, who, with the weakening of the Soviet grip over multi-ethnic regions, took advantage of the situation and found in radical ideas a way of climbing to power. In other words, the conflicts were set by Stalin, but to say he is the sole responsible for them seems too much of a generalisation. Ethnic conflicts occurred and might still occur in Central Asia because of specific conditions – the lack of strong state institutions, poverty, opportunities of funding for armed groups. Furthermore, one can argue that the exile of peoples in Central Asia was good for the five Stans: the exiled peoples enriched the local cultures, helped to develop their economies, allowed the Central Asians to develop a more cosmopolitan view of the world and are now, after so many generations, undeniably citizens of the Central Asian countries. The important contributions of these peoples to the current Central Asian countries cannot be overestimated.

Finally, the forced collectivisation of farms is usually described as a tragedy for Central Asians and Soviet peasants in general. Millions died of starvation during the process, conducted with the Stalinist characteristic disregard for human life. In Central Asia, it is said that the Collectivisation was the final blow on the old Nomadic ways and eliminated the remains of the old rural elite. What is often left out when analysing Stalin’s guilt here is that the transformation of the Central Asian society, the elimination of the old ways, was started not by him, but by the Tsars. Thousands had already died during the settlement of Russians in the Kazakh steppes during the 1800s. And also, during the collectivisation, many Central Asians supported the changes and actively helped in the process. The Soviet machine could not have worked without the support of locals, who became the newly-formed Soviet elite in Central Asia. Stalin was not alone here. Central Asians themselves helped him to enforce the collectivisation and other bloody policies.

In sum, I believe that Stalin was, indeed, a “monster” in many ways - the way he enforced his policies, the terror he caused. But he was also the product of his environment. The agency is most important here, his personality undeniably led to the huge number of casualties; but I guess the debate is much more complex and, now, 60 years after his death, we have a good opportunity to review his legacy.