A reshuffle in Kazakhstan has brought a veteran insider back to lead the government amid fears of trouble on the domestic and international fronts.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev reappointed former Prime Minister Karim Masimov late on April 2. In a swift sequence of events, Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov resigned, Nazarbayev nominated Masimov, and Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament unanimously approved the move.
The affable and charismatic Masimov previously served as head of government for nearly six years, making him Kazakhstan's longest-serving prime minister since independence. Nazarbayev replaced Masimov in fall 2012 with the colorless technocrat Akhmetov.
The reshuffle comes as no surprise: Nazarbayev had hinted on several occasions that he was not happy with Akhmetov and in February, after a currency devaluation that caused an economic shock to many in the country, he threatened to sack the entire government.
Presenting Masimov as his candidate to parliament, Nazarbayev thanked the outgoing Akhmetov but also damned him with faint praise, noting that his government had not “permitted any particular failure” and had “worked in the measure of its experience and possibilities.”
Officials have raided the editorial office of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent newspapers, as it emerged that a court has ruled in secret to close it down.
Bailiffs “burst into the office” of the Assandi-Times in Almaty on April 2 and announced that they planned to seal the premises, the newspaper reported on its Facebook page. The bailiffs cited a court order that the newspaper’s staff said they knew nothing about.
A court had ruled to shut the newspaper down on April 1, the Adil Soz (Free Speech) media freedom NGO said in an April 2 statement, although “none of the newspaper’s staff had been informed about the trial or about the legal claim.”
The court ruled after deeming the Assandi-Times to be part of a banned group of media outlets under the “Respublika” brand. Prosecutors closed the investigative Respublika newspaper and associated outlets in 2012 after alleging that their coverage of fatal riots in the western town of Zhanaozen the previous year was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state.
Russian Iskander-M theater ballistic missiles on parade. (photo: MoD of Russia)
Russia is planning to move missiles close to the border with Kazakhstan, ostensibly in preparation for instability coming from Afghanistan. But a number of analysts say that the move is instead a show of force occasioned by the crisis in Ukraine.
The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported, citing Ministry of Defense officials, that Russia is planning to deploy Iskander-M theater ballistic missiles to the Orenburg region, about 100 kilometers from the border of Kazakhstan. The rockets would be ready to quickly be deployed into Kazakhstan under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and "would protect Russia and former Soviet republics from possible external threats from Central Asia," Izvestia wrote. Construction is underway to build facilities for the missiles at the Totskoye-2 military base and the missiles are supposed to be deployed by the end of the year.
"Our government has said that the Central Asian vector is considered the most worrying, in connection with the reduced presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan. The exit of the Americans can lead to the destabilization of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan," Vasiliy Kashin, a military analyst with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told Izvestia. "In this case Russia's Central Military Region would need to be ready to move quickly to help Kazakhstan defense its borders. Kazakhstan's own forces are not very large."
The voting table for the Ukraine resolution at the UN on March 27, tweeted by John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda, president of the 68th Session of the General Assembly.
This week Russia told its former vassals in Central Asia to fall in line and support its position on Ukraine at the United Nations—or else. That’s the claim of a Reuters report looking at the behind-the-scenes maneuvers ahead of the March 27 UN General Assembly resolution declaring Crimea’s secession from Ukraine invalid.
Allegations that Moscow bullies its neighbors will be unsurprising in Central Asia, where Russia’s economic and military clout still reign supreme, and stories abound of Russian special services manipulating the levers of power, especially in poorer places like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
One hundred countries voted in favor of the resolution, 11 – mostly Russian allies – against. Fifty-eight abstained and 24 didn’t show up for the vote. None of the Central Asian countries voted for the resolution. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were among the no-shows.
Russia condemned the vote, and criticized the "deep interference of a number of Western countries in Ukraine's affairs."
For certain, major powers often use carrots and sticks to buy votes at the UN. But Russia, according to the Reuters report, resorted to “political blackmail and economic threats.”
According to interviews with U.N. diplomats, most of whom preferred to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Moscow, the targets of Russian threats included Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as a number of African countries.
The post-Soviet states of Central Asia have been generally cautious in their response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, likely concerned that an aggressive Russia could have unpredictable designs on its “near abroad.” Just as we saw before Crimea held a vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia on March 16, statements from Central Asian governments continue to mix support for their powerful neighbor with wariness about developments.
After Bishkek blasted “all acts aimed at destabilization of the situation in Ukraine” on March 11, the Kyrgyz – who are dependent on Russian economic aid and migrant remittances – came around to see Moscow’s point of view. In a March 20 statement, Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry recognized Crimean secession as “the will of an absolute majority.”
Uzbekistan, which is a tad less dependent on Russia and generally takes as independent a point of view as it can muster, issued a statement March 25 respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, calling for negotiations and the respect for international law. This is Uzbekistan’s
"firm and invariable" stance, the Foreign Ministry said, without mentioning Russian authorities.
Tajikistan – which would appear to have plenty in common with the corrupt dictatorship of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – has been silent. So has gas-rich, totalitarian Turkmenistan.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has strongly endorsed Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, despite the uncomfortable precedent Russia’s military adventure has set for other post-Soviet republics with large ethnic Russian populations. Like Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev told the isolated Russian president during a telephone conversation on March 10 that “Kazakhstan, as a strategic partner, treats Russia’s position, protecting the rights of national minorities in Ukraine, and also the interests of its security, with understanding,” his office said in a statement released after the call.
Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies, but the endorsement still raised eyebrows given that Nazarbayev’s remarks could be taken as carte blanche for Russia to intervene on behalf of Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union—including in Kazakhstan, where the ethnic Russian minority constitutes 22 percent of the population.
Crimea is set to hold a Russian-backed snap referendum on March 16 that will determine whether it stays part of Ukraine.
While backing Russian intervention abroad to protect minority rights, Nazarbayev also called for a “peaceful settlement of the crisis in Ukraine on the basis of the preservation of sovereignty in line with the norms of international law,” and hoped all sides would show “restraint” and resolve the crisis through negotiations.
Four days after Crimean Tatars sent an SOS to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, nothing has been heard from Baku but silence. For all its grievances with Moscow, chances are slim that Azerbaijan, the Tatars' rich South-Caucasus cousin, will stick its neck out over Crimea.
But Crimean Tatar community leader Mustafa Dzhemilyev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, gave it his best shot in a March 6 interview with the news site Haqqin. “Do not leave your Crimean brothers and sisters at this difficult time,” Dzhemilyev implored Aliyev.
Recalling repressions by Tsarist and Soviet Russia, he underlined that the Tatars will never put up with a Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, and asked Aliyev to use his influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent such an event.
The request was cc-ed to Turkish President Abdullah Gül and another Turkic leader, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Turkey has so far weighed in the strongest on the issue, while Aliyev and Nazarbayev have been slow to provide even a non-binding, thinking-of-you response.
Azerbaijani officials routinely emphasize Azerbaijan's emergence as a regional power, but don’t expect Aliyev to snap his fingers in Putin’s face over Crimea. Through its economic and political involvement in the region and its many conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh included, Russia could hurt Azerbaijan.
A lone protester in Kazakhstan used International Woman’s Day on March 8 to draw attention to the fate of a group of children who were detained along with their mothers in Astana last week.
Schoolteacher Yelena Akhmetova staged her one-woman protest in downtown Almaty with a banner reading: “Our children are not criminals.”
She was remonstrating against heavy-handed police actions at a housing protest in Astana on March 6, when police rounded up a group of children while detaining their mothers for protesting over housing rights. Video from Radio Azattyk showed shocking scenes of screaming children being herded into police buses as their mothers were detained under strict laws regulating the right to public assembly in Kazakhstan. All were later released without charge.
Akhmetova said she was protesting “against all those who use force against our children.”
“We are not criminals, and this [country] is not a prison,” she added, defending her right to protest. An Almaty city hall official who was present warned her that she was breaking the law on public assembly, but Akhmetova suggested that the police watching her would do better to tackle issues such as bribe-taking in schools than infringing the rights of citizens to freedom of expression.
Another woman who had planned to protest, Dilnar Insenova, was arrested beforehand and immediately tried under public assembly legislation (which requires protesters to obtain official permission from the authorities by applying 10 days in advance of their action). Insenova, a campaigner on housing issues, was fined approximately $500 for her calls to protest.
The Russian government has proposed legislation that would grant citizenship to anyone who speaks fluent Russian and had once lived, or who had relatives who lived, on the territory of the Soviet Union.
The draft law would apply to millions of people throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and other parts of Europe. So, amid the crisis in Crimea, where one Russian justification for military intervention has been to “protect” ethnic Russians, the timing should increase anxieties in presidential palaces across the region that Moscow is also using a soft weapon in its arsenal to rebuild its empire.
In theory, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in formerly Soviet states have long had the right to acquire Russian passports, but the process in recent years has become more difficult and protracted. Applicants must move to Russia and live there for three years, while jumping through a ruthless sequence of bureaucratic hoops. Nevertheless, since independence, according to official Kyrgyz statistics cited by Radio Azattyk, about a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s population has received Russian citizenship.
Now, too, the process won’t be without sacrifices. Under the proposed law, applicants would have to wave their existing citizenship. But as the bill is written, it does not require the new Russian citizens to immigrate.
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets: