Sunday 28 April 2013

About identities and the dilemma for Russians in Turkmenistan

In Bishkek last year I went out three or four times to watch classical music recitals and ballet presentations with a young professional born and raised in Turkmenistan. That was indeed a strange combination – meeting in Kyrgyzstan, I, an Ethnic Spanish born and raised in distant Brazil, and she, an Ethnic Russian girl born around the mysterious deserts north of the Kopet Dag. It is not surprising that, following our feasts in excellent cultural venues in the Kyrgyz capital, we would go for a couple of beers and chat about our identities. What was she, I asked, a Turkmen, a Russian, a citizen of the Former Soviet Union or a Kyrgyz (given the fact that she was living for such a long time in Kyrgyzstan)? As I was expecting, I did not get a straight answer for such complicated question. Clearly she did not see herself Kyrgyz. Regarding Russia, this was certainly her parent’s identity and of course she spoke Russian at home, but I did not hear her saying “I am Russian”. Regarding Turkmenistan, she showed that she cared about her country of birth, that would be angry every time she heard someone saying something bad about it or news that were biased or false about Turkmenistan. But I did not hear her saying “I am Turkmen” straight away. Only later, when we discussed the criteria to decide one’s citizenship and I suggested that the place where you are born and raised can be a good one, she conceded she might be Turkmen. It was a difficult conversation. At times, I felt there was tension in the air (and I hope she doesn’t get too angry about my recollection of this), because, probably, there is no answer. Or not anymore – since, in my opinion, people born in the former Soviet Union will be Soviet people forever. Without the USSR, one can even choose to be Russian, Kyrgyz or Turkmen; but especially for people like my friend, whose parents moved around in the former country, no single identity will properly answer the question I asked. Therefore, thinking about an “identity” can be frustrating. Can be sad.

My friend, however, did not show any hesitation when commenting the appalling situation faced by the Russian minority in Turkmenistan. In the former Soviet countries of Central Asia, minorities have certainly had a tough time since the independence of their countries of residence. While all of the local authorities officially say they respect the rights of the minorities to their culture and language, in practice this is certainly not the case. The Uzbeks in Southern Kyrgyzstan are a clear example, and the tension with the Kyrgyz, fed by Kyrgyz Nationalists, led to the 2010 pogroms in the Osh region. That was an extreme scenario. Fortunately, nothing like this has happened in Turkmenistan, who is fortunate to be the most ethnically homogenous country in former Soviet Central Asia. But there are Russians, a lot of them, especially in the capital, Ashkhabad.

Back in 1993, the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and his Turkmen counterpart, Saparmurat Niyazov, signed an agreement to allow people in Turkmenistan to have double citizenship. This would allow the Russians in the Central Asian country the right to travel to Russia freely, without visas, to visit their relatives. This is especially important since both countries (until today) are particularly strict regarding their visa regulations. However, later, Niyazov, speeding up their process of “Turkmenization” of his country, decided to unilaterally cancel the agreement, using as an excuse the fact that he was a victim of a supposed assassination plot by people who took advantage of their dual citizenship. Niyazov’s paranoia – which had been creating a bizarre cult of personality in his country, still today one of the most isolated in the world – was then backed by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. In 2003, both leaders signed a protocol to cancel the deal. The Russian Turkmen in the following two months were compelled to give up their Russian passports and panic ensued. Putin did not break a sweat to help the Russians who lived in Turkmenistan when the country announced that they would have to choose between being Turkmen and Russian (there are rumours that his approach is related to Ashkhabat signing a contract with Gazprom to allow Turkmen gas for resale in Europe, which in practice would mean that Putin “sold” his countrymen living in Turkmenistan). For the Russian minority, to make a choice would mean to pick either the country where they had been living for decades, where their children were born, and the land of their ancestors, where they still had relatives. When the new Turkmen constitution was adopted, in 2008, it consecrated the fact that Turkmenistan would not tolerate double citizenship anymore and those in this category would have five years to choose to remain Turkmen – and receive a new passport – or be Russian and leave the country.

This deadline is now about to expire, on July 10th. Apparently, whoever chooses to be Turkmen will receive a new passport, but in order to visit Russia will have to apply for a visa as normal and be subject to time restrictions there. All old-style passports granted to citizens with dual citizenship will no longer be valid. But the details of all this are still quite unclear. Apparently, in the last years, dual citizenship people who have tried to renew their passports without renouncing to their Russian citizenship found it difficult to do so. Nevertheless, this month, the Turkmen president, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, said that “every citizen of Turkmenistan, regardless of ethnicity, gender, origin, proprietary and official status, language, creed and political belief, will be given a new-type passport of Turkmen citizen without fail” and that reports on the press about people who would not be given the document in the country were exaggerated. But then, an opposition analyst writing on the Gundogar website, Sergei Rasov, focusing on this particular Berdymuhamedov statement, said that the president just confirmed that the Russians are supposed to beat it. A lawyer quoted by the Chronicles of Turkmenistan website said that, after July 10th, people with old style passports will no longer be able to leave the country, though they could use them to enter Turkmenistan. No one knows for sure what will happen to people who work in Turkmen Airlines, since many of them have dual citizenship. Apparently, even in order to send children to kindergarten parents were asked to reveal their Russian citizenship, fuelling more worries. Anyway, confused, many Russian Turkmen - we are talking here about around 120,000 people, according to a report on the Moscow News website - have opted in the last months to leave the country (others, it seems, have opted to use bribes to solve the problem). The last time I talked to my friend in Bishkek, she said her parents were about to leave too, for Russia.

What are the implications of this? It goes without saying that during the Soviet times most of the elite in the current former Soviet countries spoke Russian as a first language. During decades, people left Russia for Central Asia to work in the bureaucracy, to perform duties that the local people, poorer and less educated, could not perform. Of course, it was expected that, in the newly independent country, there was a drive for increasing the local’s education, encourage the use of the local language and so on, as has happened in other former Soviet countries. The problem here is to believe that people with Russian or other roots who do not correspond to the “titular” citizenship are not entitled to be citizens in the same way the locals are.

This lead to huge problems, for example, in the Baltic states. Back in 2001 I was in Tallinn interviewing people for a BBC series on the 10th Anniversary of the fall of the USSR. I was then chocked to find ethnic Russians with in practice became non-citizens, without passports – there were not given Estonian passports, since they could not speak Estonian and could not pass an exam to be given the citizenship, despite the fact that their ancestors had being residents there since Stalin; nor were given Russian passports, because they no longer had relatives or any direct relation with Russia. They could not leave Estonia, they were barred when trying to find job, they were marginalised. Of course, one can say that the Russians there did not make an effort to become Estonians, learn the language and integrated. Fair enough, but why couldn’t Estonia be more inclusive? Why put the burden exclusively on the Russians’ shoulders?

The same goes for Turkmenistan now. Creating countries for titular citizens, with the titular language, is bound to create not only tension, sadness and suffering, but also more practical problems in the former Soviet Union. For example: in Turkmenistan, the only official language is Turkmen, not Russian, but many can’t speak Turkmen, even Turkmen people. So there are instances that, in order to have an official document delivered in Turkmen, people would first write it in Russian and then give it to one of the few people able to “translate” it into the local language. Moreover, it is possible that there are still only Ethnic Russians available to fill a particular job. How can you “create” an ethnic Turkmen to take the position overnight? It is foolish to pretend that all of a sudden everything will change, everybody will speak the local language. I don’t think it is possible to undo what was created during the Soviet Union and the Tsars – it is done. It is better for all the former Soviet countries accept that they are multi-ethnic, multinational, multilinguistic, and adopt inclusive policies. If the titular citizenship is marginalised, I guess it is fair for the government to adopt policies to level the ground with the Russians (quotas, for example), but I don’t think it is fair for the government to use vested policies to force the “foreigners” out. The extent of these policies to give the local “titular” citizens more education and more opportunities, for them to be able to be as competent as the Russians or Russian speakers to fill job positions, is debatable, of course. In Kazakhstan, for example, both Russian and Kazakh languages hold official status, but the Kazakhs who speak Kazakh are said to have an advantage finding jobs, since more and more the local language is used instead of Russian. But Russian speakers, or people with a rudimentary knowledge of Kazakh, still hold very important positions, and in important cities like Almaty Russian speakers and Kazakh speakers live side by side, share offices and jobs. There is a transition afoot to turn Kazakhstan more and more into the land of Kazakhs – which I think is wrong – but at least this is taking place slowly and it is much more rhetorical than real (as can be read in detail in Bhavna Dave’s book, Kazakhstan – Ethnicity, Language and Power, Routledge, 2007).

Turkmenistan in the only former Soviet Central Asian country I have never been to. Its isolationist policies, which arguably could be described as xenophobic, gain a boost if it tries to get rid of their Russian community. In a globalised world, no country can be isolated forever, no country can live without diversity – diversity is a source of strength, of wisdom, of culture, of development. By continuing along this path, giving in to Nationalist stances, Turkmenistan becomes poorer and poorer. Its elites might be filthy rich because of the gas fields, but unfortunately, for the vast majority of the country, this does not translate into a better life. This is just sad, and I wonder when there will be change on the Karakul desert. I don’t know the answer, but it will happen, and the longer it takes to happen, the more traumatic it will be.

Sunday 14 April 2013

An Uzbekistan without Karimov

Karimov has been the Uzbek president since 1990

What will happen in Uzbekistan when Islam Karimov dies? This is has been a nagging question for some time. Last month, however, it resurfaced on the headlines, since reports floated around by an exiled Uzbek opposition group stated that the long-time Uzbek leader was the victim of a heart attack around the same day he was caught on video swinging his hips at a Navrus celebration on March 19th in Tashkent. Assessing future political scenarios in Central Asia is notoriously tricky, given the lack of a reliable flux of information coming from the Stans (as usual, Kyrgyzstan is the exception). But little hints help us to see more clearly what’s inside our crystal ball.

First of all, it is important to consider the news itself. The opposition group which spread the rumours is the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, which is based in Norway. Its leader is Muhammad Solih, a well known Karimov political foe – he even took part in the 1991 presidential elections, being defeated by the current president. Shortly afterwards, Solih was accused of treason and had to flee the country. In a BBC interview, Solih claims that the sources of the news about the heart attack are very reliable and come from inside the inner circles of power. He also, of course, recognised that Karimov has tried before to float false information, but Solih is adamant by saying that this time he decided to go ahead because he trusted the source. Following the news about Karimov, for several days the Uzbek state TV only showed archive footage of the president, who was only seen again on March 27th, when he received in Tashkent the Kazakh Foreign Minister. Now the president’s office has confirmed that Karimov is paying a visit to Putin in Moscow. Maybe both could exchange anecdotes about their recent trips to the doctor (Putin was also rumoured to be in bad shape in recent months).

In a country as closed as Uzbekistan, the fact that any such information surfaces is bound to be linked to political interests. For example – for Solih, it would be an interesting experiment to gauge his own political clout abroad and understand how the Uzbek political elites overseas would react to such news. Floating rumours is, in a sense, like a rehearsal. Solih indeed showed he is still a reference abroad in terms of Uzbek opposition, got a fair share of free advertising on the media and forced a reaction by the Uzbek authorities, which, of course, claimed his accusations were nonsense. But Karimov himself might have been behind the rumours. Solih might trust his source, but the Uzbek leader is a well-known ruthless centralist, who I would expect to initiate a witch hunt in order to find out who is the traitor feeding his sworn enemy with secret information. Karimov might have identified the spy and forced him to feed Solih with false information. For the Uzbek president, venting the possibility of himself being in poor health is also useful. It helps him to identify whoever entertains dreams about ceasing power, potential cracks in the political elite. Therefore he can micromanage the political environment and restore a situation in which he holds absolute control – even, obviously, regarding his own succession. Solih might trust his source, but I don’t think either he (Solih) or Karimov can be trusted here.

Notwithstanding the truth about his health, the fact is Karimov is 75 years old and is not getting any younger. Thus it is reasonable to assume there are advanced political manoeuvres taking place behind the scenes to decide who the new Uzbek leader will be. Clearer and clearer are the political ambitions of Gulnara Karimova, Karimov’s elder daughter. Not long ago she would certainly not be considered as a potential successor – she seemed more concerned about her life as a celebrity, a singer, a fashion designer and a yoga enthusiast. But in the last moths she apparently has been spending more time in Uzbekistan. This probably has something to do with the fact that she is being investigated in Europe in connection to a bribery scandal involving a Swedish company which, apparently, paid its way into the Uzbek market. Using the Twitter (her favourite tool to express her views), Googoosha (as she is known) has recently launched an attack against one of the politicians said to be a potential Karimov heir, the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Asimov. Asimov, wisely, did not respond to Gulnara’s claims. Maybe Googoosha did this so following his daddy’s advice? This is not clear, but there are signs that Asimov is, now, the top contender. As can be seen in this profile, he is seen as a “brother in arms” and disciple of the president and last December was sent to an important international summit in Bishkek instead of the prime minister himself, Shavkat Mirzioev. Actually, more hearsay surfaced that he was already chosen by Karimov to be his successor six months ago. If Gulnara attacked him with the backing of her dad, probably it was a test to see if he (Asimov) can hold his breath (so he did). If Gulnara did not attack him with the backing of her dad, it was probably her trying to establish her credentials as a better choice to be president. Finally, Mirzioev is another contender that has been mentioned in the media. Apparently, he would be Moscow’s first choice, but, given Karimov’s retrospect of defiance against the Kremlin, this can be even a liability for the Prime Minister in the race.

More interesting than guessing who will be Karimov’s successor, however, is to analyse how he will rise to power. There are comparisons being made between the political scenario in Uzbekistan and the one in two of its neighbours, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan has six years ago gone through a not-so-traumatic experience with the death of its first God-leader, Saparmurat Niyazov. At the time, there was speculation that, without the Turkmenbashi, the country could be the stage of political upheaval with, in turn, could lead to some sort of democracy. Nothing could be further than what happened: the Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov took over, maintained the traditional undemocratic style of his predecessor (still flamboyant, though a little less) and there was not a single bleep of instability. I don’t think this would happen in Uzbekistan, a country in which, unlike Turkmenistan, regional elite tension is still a reality. In Turkmen lands, the Turkmenbashi managed to obliterate any meaningful challenging elites. In Uzbekistan, there is a dispute between the elites from the centre of the country (Jizzakh, Samarkand, Bukhara) and those from Tashkent and the Fergana Valley. Karimov was born in Samarkand. Would the elites in Tashkent and Fergana accept a transition without being granted more power? I think the situation in Uzbekistan is more similar to the situation in Kazakhstan (read an excellent analysis of the succession scenarios here). In both countries, we have leader that have been looking carefully for alternatives for succession, and potential successors which will face huge political challenges posed by the political elites, which will demand changes to the pact in place in their countries. A great deal of political ability from the new president will be needed to maintain stability.

Finally, only after the transition the new Uzbek leader will have to deal with the most important questions. What changes might take place when Karimov finally departs? Will we have a leader which will try to maintain Karimov’s elite pact? Will he share power with elites which now do not have a say? Will he adopt measures to take Uzbekistan towards democracy? Will he condemn Human Rights violations? I am not an optimist, but let’s hope that the transition takes place without violence and leads to a better country.