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 collapse of the Soviet Union left industry scattered across the Fergana Valley regardless of modern borders. This oil field stands near Jany Jer, Kyrgyzstan, on the Uzbek border.
Last October, according to Kyrgyz accounts, Tajik soldiers crossed into disputed territory to repair an oil and gas well that a Tajik company had used since independence—pumping, by some estimates, 5 tons of oil a day. Kyrgyz border guards took notice, shut down the operation, and told the Tajiks to get lost.
Could that episode have led to a shootout between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards near Ak-Sai on January 11? Both countries are starved for energy resources, so the idea they could fight over an oilfield seems plausible.
When Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were all Soviet republics, their winding, undefined borders mattered little. But when Moscow’s rule evaporated, the Soviets left an industrial legacy overlying the Fergana Valley’s new borders: crisscrossing pipelines and derelict derricks in no man’s land.
Since the 1970s, Soviet Tajikistan and then the Republic of Tajikistan had been pumping oil from the field, Katta-Tuz, which the Kyrgyz say is on disputed territory. “In August 2013 I told them to stop,” recalls Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Tokun Mamytov. “It’s a big problem. […] The first problem is not the road, but oil and gas.” (Mamytov’s counterparts in Tajikistan refused to comment.)
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.
Spring, Kyrgyzstan’s traditional season for political jockeying, seems to have begun on schedule as the governing coalition headed by embattled Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev met a long-expected end March 18. Following the routine in which his predecessor lost power in August 2012, Satybaldiyev’s ouster was triggered when the Ata-Meken party and its capricious leader Omurbek Tekebayev walked out of the three-party governing agreement.
The fall is not surprising. Satybaldiyev had few allies beyond President Almazbek Atambayev and his Social Democratic Party. And, some argue, Kyrgyzstan’s constitution promotes executive turnover by placing the fate of the cabinet firmly in the hands of temperamental (many would say generally self-serving) lawmakers. But with parliament's parties splintered and mutually hostile, it should be difficult for President Almazbek Atambayev to come up with a candidate who can please enough of the 120-seat body to form a new coalition.
Satybaldiyev’s coalition was the third since elections in late 2010; like his forerunner, Omurbek Babanov, Satybaldiyev spent much of his time in office battling accusations of corruption. He and his ministers will remain in their positions until a new coalition is formed.
Tajik authorities are apparently not satisfied jailing only their opponents, but wish to silence their opponents’ counsel, too.
Fakhriddin Zokirov, who represented former Industry Minister Zaid Saidov in a controversial corruption trial last year, was arrested March 8 on charges of forging documents to receive a million-dollar bank loan, an unnamed source at Tajikistan’s anti-corruption agency told Asia-Plus today.
Saidov, the former minister, was arrested last summer shortly after announcing he was forming a new political party with several leading technocrats. After a closed trial that Human Rights Watch called “politically motivated,” he was sentenced to 26 years for fraud, corruption, statutory rape and polygamy. The charges appeared to be as much about disgracing the charming reformist as locking him away. Saidov denied the charges.
After his arrest, several of Saidov’s supporters said they received death threats. The case epitomized a chilling in Tajikistan’s political atmosphere ahead of last year’s presidential elections, which incumbent President Imomali Rakhmon went on to win in a landslide and which independent monitors said lacked meaningful competition.
Former Republican Congressman Dan Burton once famously called for American warships to patrol the coast of landlocked Bolivia. Now he’s turning his keen analytical eye on Tajikistan and promoting the Tajik strongman's dream project.
In a March 7 commentary for The Washington Times, former Indiana Republican congressman Dan Burton offers his two cents on why Tajikistan’s controversial Rogun Dam project, which would be the tallest in the world, must be completed.
A 2012 visit to Tajikistan, while he was still a congressman, “stands out” from all the international trips he made on behalf of the United States, declares Burton (after listing the international horrors he has personally witnessed). The reason: Rogun’s “potential to transform the lives of tens of millions of people—permanently and for the better.”
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.
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.
A recent roundtable discussion at Columbia University examined the issue of image crafting by authoritarian governments in the Caucasus and Central Asia, especially Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. A featured speaker suggested that relatively modest expenditures on positive PR in the United States and European Union were enough to skew attitudes and provide cover for repressive practices.
Policy-makers in Washington aren’t always focused on developments in the Caspian Basin and thus are susceptible to being unduly influenced by image-crafting, according to Myles Smith, a senior program officer at IREX who has written extensively on the issue. [Editor’s Note: Smith is an occasional contributor to EurasiaNet.org].
“It doesn’t take much to influence [decision-makers] one way or another,” Smith said, referring to Kazakhstan’s and Azerbaijan’s PR efforts in the West.
Smith stressed during the round-table that officials from Kazakhstan and other states in the region were not violating any laws as they spread money among K Street lobbyists, media outlets, individual journalists and academic institutions. The chief problem associated with image-crafting efforts concerns disclosure, or, more accurately, the lack of it.
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.