Friday, August 15, 2014

Azerbaijan Strengthens Its Cooperation With NATO

By Leyla Aslanova

As Azerbaijan begins its fourth Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) cycle with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), tensions are on the rise with its neighbor Armenia over the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Karabakh, occupied by Armenian forces. The latest serious armed confrontations began on July 30, 2014 (see EDM, August 7)—the most serious violence since the ceasefire agreement was reached in May 1994. The increase in violent clashes could spark a new wide-scale conflict in the region. But it also suggests that Russia may be intentionally inciting provocations by ordering Armenia to make trouble in Karabakh to help further President Vladimir Putin’s regional ambitions.

Beginning in June 2014, Russian media, led by Moskovskiy Komsomolets, intentionally disseminated information about Armenia’s possible plans to launch a war against Azerbaijan and attack Nakhchivan (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, June 11). While this story did not receive much attention at the time, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing involvement in the separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine brought renewed concern, highlighting the dangers inherent in the Karabakh conflict. Prominent experts have since written on the importance of finding a resolution to the Karabakh conflict and have specifically pointed to the similarities between the occupations of both Crimea and Karabakh (see, for example, Thomas de Waal, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Crimea’s doppelganger,” Open Democracy, July 13). It is becoming ever more apparent that Moscow is pushing Yerevan to reignite the Karabakh conflict as a means to contain Baku’s cautious approach of the West and to block the Euro-Atlantic community’s attempts to boost their influence in the South Caucasus—which Russia considers to be within its sphere of influence.

In May 2014, United States Senator Bob Corker (R­-TN) proposed the Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014,” which not only includes stricter sanctions against Russia but also offers major non-NATO ally status for Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Furthermore, the bill increases armed forces cooperation between the US and Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Azerbaijan (see EDM, August 4). Notably, however, the proposed legislation’s named partnerships exclude Armenia, most likely due to Yerevan’s recent policy reorientation completely away from Europe. Firstly, Armenia is Russia’s long term ally and is committed to its military alliance with Moscow; in particular, Armenia hosts a Russian base with 4,000 soldiers (see EDM, September 11, 2013). Secondly, on March 27, Armenia was among 11 countries that voted against the United Nations General Assembly resolution that declared the Crimean referendum invalid (UN, March 27)

Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has developed closer relations with NATO over the years as a part of the Individual Partnership Action Plan process. The country’s third IPAP cycle is currently being assessed, and the two sides are finalizing the draft of Azerbaijan’s fourth IPAP cycle for the period of 2014–2015 (trend.az, August 5). During the conference “NATO Wales Summit: Forecasts and Perspectives,” held in Baku on August 5, the British ambassador to Azerbaijan, Irfan Siddiq, raised specific areas of cooperation between the North Atlantic Alliance and Azerbaijan that need to be emphasized in the new IPAP. These included the development of a dynamic action plan for preparedness and response to new types of threats as well as increasing the defense capability of NATO member countries and the Alliance’s readiness to respond to existing threats (1news.az, August 5).

On August 7–8, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov held meetings at NATO Headquarters in Brussels concerning the negotiations over the new IPAP document (trend.az, August 5). With the renewed fourth IPAP cycle, NATO is more likely to try to boost its cooperation with Azerbaijan in the Caspian Sea. And NATO’s upcoming Wales summit in September 2014 also suggests prospects for increased cooperation to ensure security and stability in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea regions. Moscow is likely to vehemently oppose any NATO presence in the Caspian, as Russia already pressed the other Caspian littoral states—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran—not to allow any outside military forces to enter their shared body of water (see EDM, May 5). Nevertheless, in his speech during the August 5 Baku conference on the NATO Wales summit, Romanian ambassador to Azerbaijan Daniel Cristian stressed that European Union countries are ready to support the expansion of relations between Azerbaijan and the Euro-Atlantic institutions (Yap.org.az, August 5).

As such initiatives by the North Atlantic Alliance toward Baku grow in frequency, the unintended consequences will be the increase in provocations by Yerevan along the Azerbaijani-Armenian border. Therefore, the renewed skirmishes over Karabakh serve as yet another reason for international powers and institutions to act and to reject Russia’s imperialistic ambitions in the region, which stand in the way of peacebuilding and the establishment of security across the South Caucasus.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Karabakh Fighting Intensifies Lezgin Separatism in Azerbaijan

By Paul Goble

New violence between Baku and Yerevan over the occupied territories (see EDM, August 7) has sparked a new wave of separatism among the Lezgins of Azerbaijan. This ethnic community calculates that the violence gives it a new chance to gain autonomy via Moscow’s efforts to gain additional leverage over Baku without having the situation in Dagestan blow up in its face.

Azerbaijan today is more ethnically homogeneous than at any point in its history, if one excludes the territories occupied by Armenia, but it does have two significant ethnic minorities, the Talysh in the south and the Lezgins in the North.  The former, an Iranian group of about 100,000, has not been a major problem for Baku over the last decade.  But the latter, which  includes as many as 350,000 in northern Azerbaijan and another 400,000 on the other side of the Azerbaijani-Russian border, is something else. As one commentator notes, while the Talysh have to deal with Baku “one on one, behind the back [of the Lezgins] stands Russia” (apmahachkala.ru, August 8).

The Lezgins in Azerbaijan have long complained about Azerbaijani discrimination, and the Lezgins in Dagestan have equally long complained about Baku’s efforts to promote its influence northward.  In both cases, Moscow has used the Lezgins against Baku when it has perceived Azerbaijan to be weak or when Moscow is seeking additional leverage to force Azerbaijan not to attack Russia’s ally Armenia or to follow Moscow’s line on other issues.

In 1993, a group of Lezgins attacked an Azerbaijani border post, and a year later, they organized a terrorist attack in the Baku metro.  Now, as one commentator has noted, “considering the Ukrainian events, the unification of Crimea to Russia, and the recognition of the latter by South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Lezgin nationalists at any moment may ask themselves the question: if the Abkhazians, Ossetians, and Crimeans with the support of Russia and the Karabakh people with that of Armenia could separate, then why cannot the Lezgins do the same by having asked Russia for help?” (apmahachkala.ru, August 8).

Anton Yevstratov, a Russian political scientist and historian, points out that “Lezgins living on the territory of Dagestan are a problem not just for Baku. They are also one for Moscow” because they have sought to gain greater autonomy within Dagestan, the most ethnically diverse non-Russian republic in the Russian Federation.  And when they have not achieved the support they hoped for from Moscow, the Lezgins have not been shy about turning to radical groups elsewhere in the North Caucasus. In fact, in the early 1990s, the Sadval Movement regularly cooperated with Dzhokhar Dudayev’s Chechnya. Thus, the Lezgins can be a two-edged sword (sp-analytic.ru, July 31).


Nonetheless, Moscow seems prepared to use it against Baku now, to remind the Azerbaijan authorities that they could face a two- or even three-front war if they seek to reclaim the occupied territories by force. At the same time, however, the Lezgins might act on their own, which could end by causing as many headaches for Moscow as for Baku.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Building up Igor Strelkov’s Myth: A Call to Arms for Russian Nationalists

By Sofia Yasen

The Russian publishing house Knizhnyy Mir recently released a book about Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), the military leader of the pro-Russia separatist forces in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (kmbook.ru, accessed August 4). The title of the book is Igor Strelkov—The Horror of the Banderovite Junta. Defense of Donbas (Igor Strelkov—uzhas banderovskoy khunty. Oborona Donbasa). Even though part of the book is advertised as including direct excerpts from Strelkov’s dairy, which he allegedly kept during the fighting in Slovyansk, the veracity of this text is unclear. Mikhail Polikarpov, who claims to have known Igor Strelkov for a long time, wrote the rest of the book.

Polikarpov provides no clear confirmation that he is, indeed, using Strelkov’s own words. In one place he claims to quote posts by a blogger with the online pseudonym of Kotych, who is said to be an alter ego of Strelkov. In places where Kotych’s cited text appears to deviate from Strelkov’s normal style, Polikarpov emphasizes the possibility that Strelkov’s account may have been hacked. Interestingly, one of the interviews with Strelkov that is found in the book asserts that he visited Kyiv during the Euromaidan street protests against the Viktor Yanukovych government.

Any questions as to whether the author tried to verify the information he presents in his book lose all meaning the deeper the reader progresses in the text. It quickly becomes apparent that Polikarpov’s book is not meant to provide unbiased information but, rather, is clear propaganda. Within the first few pages, it praises the Russian “volunteer” soldiers who, in the early 1990s, fought for the separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria, which the author identifies as the first independent element of “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”— Moscow’s political project to create a pro-Russia separatist region, mainly out of territories carved out of southeastern Ukraine).

Largely unknown prior to the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, Strelkov—an avid war reenactor and former Federal Security Service (FSB) operative—obtained real battle experience in Transnistria, Bosnia, Chechnya and Dagestan (see EDM, July 21). Igor Strelkov portrays him as an exemplar for his methods of warfare in the Ukraine, and in one section even elevates Strelkov to that of a modern day Alexander Suvorov, referring to the famous Russian military commander who served under Catherine the Great. On the other hand, the book describes the leaders of the Kyiv government as “pro-Western agents.” Polikarpov also openly disparages Ukraine’s armed forces. In discussing the Ukrainian soldiers, the author exclusively refers to Strelkov’s purported online posts, which are written in a mocking tone and accuse the Ukrainian troops of drunkenness, unprofessionalism and murders of innocent civilians.

The book heavily reflects extreme Russian nationalist views. For one thing, it claims that the Ukrainian language is artificial. Furthermore, the word “Ukrainians” rarely appears in the text at all, which instead utilizes such ethnic slurs as “Ukry,” “Ukropy” or “Khokhly.” One of the concluding sections in the book dwells on the alleged ideological weakness of the people from eastern Ukraine. The author concludes that Russians have an obligation to help eastern Ukrainians return to a normal life in a big Russian family.

Igor Strelkov finishes by presenting interviews with Strelkov and his close associates, who portray him as a brave officer, idealist, monarchist and a new hero of our time, who is believed to be the only person able to bring about a wave of renewal to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The book also includes demands for Putin to send Russian armed forces into eastern Ukraine to support the pro-Russia rebels, who, according to the author, are desperately waiting for Russian help.

It is worth noting that Igor Strelkov is only one of several new pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian books that were released this year by the publisher Knizhnyy Mir. Among them are such books as, Novorossiya: Risen From the Ashes (kmbook.ru, accessed August 4), Crimea Is Forever With Russia (kmbook.ru accessed August 4), Neo-Nazis & Euromaidan: From Democracy to Dictatorship (kmbook.ru, accessed August 4), etc. Each book has its own target audience. For example, Neo-Nazis & Euromaidan was translated into English and, according to Voice of Russia, was presented to the public in Belgium one day after President Petro Poroshenko signed Ukraine’s Association Agreement and free trade pact with the European Union (Voice of Russia, June 29).

Polikarpov’s book on Igor Strelkov was initially released in 2,000 copies, suggesting that the author does not expect it to be read by the wider Russian audience. But a large audience was likely not his goal. Rather, the romanticization of the Russian “volunteers” participating in various conflicts across the post-Soviet area, with which Igor Strelkov opens, as well as the descriptions of Strelkov’s struggle to find new volunteers for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, might conceal a hidden intention.  

The author leaves the reader with no doubts that the new Russian “hero,” Strelkov—a man brave enough to stand up to “American-Ukrainian Fascists”—will find a bigger number of the followers soon. Such a conclusion makes it clear that the main goal of the book is not only to guide the narrative on the Ukraine conflict, but also to become a call to those Russian nationalists and/or veterans, who still have not joined the armed struggle over eastern Ukraine. They are, thus, the main audience for Igor Strelkov, and they are Strelkov’s best hope. Consequently, the book illustrates the critical importance of informational war to the Russian side in the Ukraine conflict.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Denunciations Making a Comeback in Russian-Occupied Crimea

By Paul Goble

One of the most odious features of Soviet times is now making a horrific comeback in Russian-occupied Crimea—“snitching” or denouncing others to the authorities in the hopes of currying favor with the latter or of gaining specific benefits such as the apartment of those against whom the denunciations are directed. As officials clearly intend, Crimean commentator Andrey Kirillov says, this trend is leading to the atomization of society and the spread of fear. Thus, the spread of denunciations is making the population less likely to resist and easier to control (krymr.com, July 23; unian.net, July 24).

According to Kirillov, such denunciations have become “a mass phenomenon” in Crimea after only a few months of Russian occupation. A few people may be snitching because they believe that they have discovered problems and “wish to restore order.”  But most of those in Crimea who are taking this step appear to be driven by a desire to curry favor with the authorities and win benefits for themselves at the expense of those they denounce.

He suggests that those engaged in such activities think like “children of the USSR” and assume that because the new powers that be have so many enemies, they can exploit the situation by turning them in. If this judgment is correct, it suggests the perception of the population is that the Russian occupation officials are anything but legitimate.

Kirillov says that in Crimea since the beginning of the Russian occupation, “bosses have begun to report on their subordinates, and subordinates on their bosses, the employees of one office on those of another,” including among government officials. Businesses hope to gain contracts, employees hope to oust bosses, and government employees hope to promote themselves in the eyes of the occupying authorities.

Moreover, he continues, “journalists are denouncing other journalists who have remained in Crimea, doctors are denouncing doctors, school directors their staffs,” and so on and on.  Recently, he says, “an especially terrible kind” of denunciation has made an appearance—neighbors denouncing neighbors in the hopes of obtaining their property.  Fortunately, this form has not yet assumed the proportions of the others, but there is little reason to think that it will not continue to grow as long as the occupation lasts.

Unlike in Soviet times, when people knew just where to deliver denunciations, many in Crimea are struggling to identify the proper “addressees.” Some send these notorious memos to the top of the occupation pyramid, which appears to be especially interested in damaging personal data about Crimeans. But others are turning to the militia, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the procuracy as well. The system, like much else, is still not regularized. But there seems to be little doubt that it will be, Kirillov says, noting that the occupation authorities have already taken over all the personal files they can 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Nationalist Genie and the Bottle Uncorked

By Richard Arnold

While the latest events in eastern Ukraine—in particular, the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by pro-Russia separatist forces—may have proven a step too far even for Vladimir Putin, for many in Moscow the problem lies not with the Kremlin’s activity in the conflict but its lack thereof. Infamous right-wing publicist and member of the Izbornii club (a right-wing think tank associated with Neo-Nazi ideas) Maxim Kalashnikov and sometime Kremlin ideologist Alexander Dugin have called on Putin to support the rebels in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas militarily—in other words, with a more overt military intervention (ru.krymyr.com, July 19). Nor has the pressure come entirely from forces outside the regime, as even Vladislav Surkov and economic advisor Sergei Glazyrev have voiced dissatisfaction with the government’s failure to act. Similarly, Moscow has seen popular rallies and the mobilization of huge stores of humanitarian aid to beleaguered forces in Ukraine (see EDM, July 16).

Some of the most active—not to mention fanatical—fighters in eastern Ukraine are Russian nationalists with ties to various Russian Neo-Nazi movements, such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (known by its Russian acronym, DPNI). And equally disappointed with what they believe is the Kremlin’s inaction, the DPNI recently re-initiated its anti-corruption campaign against Putin and the regime. For example, one article on the DPNI website posits that the regime is afraid to initiate a conflict due to the Russian oligarchs’ fear that their “umbilical cord” to the West—holiday homes on the Cote d’Azur and London boarding schools for their children—could be cut (DPNI, June 23).

Similarly, the National News Service, endorsed by a group calling itself “Russian Sector” (a play on the Ukrainian far right group “Right Sector”), posted an article decrying the involvement of modern-day “Chekists”—meaning the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)—in the Ukraine conflict and throughout recent Russian history, including in the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow that served as a casus belli for the second Chechen War. The article goes on to claim that “it is easy to comprehend that the chief commander of the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] is an FSB colonel, and the head of the DNR is an FSB general specializing in ‘delicate operations’” (rusnsn.info, July 14). The National News Service piece was authored by Vladimir Potkin, who also goes by the Internet name ‘Basmanov’ and is the younger brother of Alexander Potkin (a.k.a. Belov)—both men are leaders of the DPNI. Assuming the article represents the general viewpoint of Russian neo-Nazis on the conflict in Ukraine, their disenchantment with a hesitant Kremlin that has so far failed to unite the “Russian world” bodes ill for stability in Ukraine and in the post-Soviet space more generally.


Overall, it should not be surprising that the Putin regime’s perceived reluctance to pursue the nationalist cause has inspired such a renewal of criticism. Some analysts have argued that Putin’s opportunistic annexation of Crimea was an attempt to rebuild the popularity of a regime weakened by the 2011–2012 anti-corruption street protests, in which many Russian far right groups took part. In order to fortify itself, the regime incited nationalist fervor; and it now may be dangerous to try and contain these passions. If the regime wishes to harness the nationalist juggernaut, it may have to ride the train further than it had originally intended.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Central Asian Border Disputes Involve Fights Over Maps

By Paul Goble

Despite having been independent for more than 20 years, the countries of Central Asia still have not agreed on precisely where their borders are. At present, disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the one hand, and between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, on the other, are heating up, with negotiations not going anywhere fast. In both cases, and especially in the first, the dispute about where the exact line should pass involves a fight over just which maps from the tsarist and Soviet pasts should be accepted.

In the case of the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan dispute, the two sides, despite having held meetings every ten days on this issue for some years, cannot even agree on how much of their shared 1,378-kilometer-long border has been agreed to. Bishkek says that the two sides have agreed on 1,003 km, while Tashkent insists that the two governments have agreed on the delimitation of only 701 km (kyrtag.kg, July 14).

The situation concerning the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border is even more complicated. Kyrgyzstan’s officials say that the Tajiks are claiming 135,000 hectares of what Bishkek says are Kyrgyzstani lands, although the Kyrgyz Republic’s diplomats acknowledge that these Tajikistani claims so far have been made only “orally” and “not officially.” Nonetheless, this conflict is likely to intensify because the lands involved are in the heavily populated Ferghana Valley and not in unpopulated regions that the two sides have found it easier to reach agreement on (kyrtag.kg, July 14).

But underlying this dispute, which has already led to border clashes between the forces of the two countries over the last several years, are fights about which historical map should be considered the most authoritative. Tajikistanis consider the most authoritative maps to be the Soviet ones prepared between 1924 and 1939, as part of the territorial delimitation of the entire region and often based on tsarist military maps. The Kyrgyzstanis, in contrast, insist that the maps that should be examined to settle the dispute are those of the Soviet volumes on administrative divisions from 1958-1959 and 1989, as confirmed by the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in the latter year (centrasia.ru, July 16).

The first Soviet maps of these republics were prepared in 1924, at the end of the territorial delimitation of the region. These maps reflected Soviet needs and were largely based on the maps prepared by the tsarist military in 1896, which described the region in terms of natural features like mountains, rivers and the like. The 1924 Soviet map was modified in succeeding years as Moscow redrew the borders at the request of one or another of the governments in the region. This complex history is described by V.N. Fedchina in her classic study, “How the Map of Central Asia was Created” (in Russian, Moscow: Nauka, several editions).

On the basis of this history, Maksim Vedeneyev of the “Tsentr Asiya” news service says the Tajikistanis are in the right in their claims against Kyrgyzstan. But not surprisingly, current politics may lead to another outcome or no solution at all—at least anytime soon (centrasia.ru, July 16). 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Crimean Anschluss Provoking a New Russian Regionalism

By Paul Goble

Vladimir Putin’s push for the federalization of Ukraine is now echoing in Russian regions, nowhere more powerfully than in the exclave of Kaliningrad, where support for independence has declined in recent years from 7 percent to 4 percent. But, at the same time, calls by its residents for the oblast to be given “special status”—and that is what most Russians understand by “federalization”—have increased to 53 percent.

According to Russian analyst Pavel Pryannikov, who blogs at Ttolk.ru, “the ‘Russian spring’ in Crimea and in the eastern portion of Ukraine has shown the ordinary Russian that from now on the norm in his region and in his country could become” something very different than it has been in the past (ttolk.ru/?p=20658).

Indeed, he suggests, ordinary Russians now increasingly feel that in pursuit of what they believe is Kremlin-approved “federalization,” they might choose to seize government buildings, carry weapons, nationalize the property of the oligarchs, and decide the most important questions via referendum.

That is a lesson Moscow certainly does not want its own population to learn or even more to see manifested in the event of inter-ethnic conflicts or the next round of cutbacks in company towns. And it is one that would be especially worrisome in Kaliningrad, which has always been considered “one of the most separatist regions in Russia.”

In a poll conducted in 2003, “fewer than a quarter of Kaliningraders” did not want any significant political or economic changes in the status of their oblast, with about 7 percent calling for independence, 12 percent for its joint subordination to the European Union and Russia, 37 percent for a special economic status within Russia, and 11 percent for a special political one (ttolk.ru/?p=20658).

Support for any such fundamental shifts in the status of Kaliningrad fell until recently, almost certainly because Moscow did send more money to the region and because Vladimir Putin made it clear that his government would crack down hard on any calls for independence or joint subordination to the European Union.

But a poll taken in April, that is after the Crimean anschluss, shows that Kaliningraders are once again thinking about the status of their oblast and how it might or should be changed (ewkaliningrad.ru/news/community/3586277-opros-uroven-separatistskikh-nastroeniy-v-kaliningradskoy-oblasti-stremitsya-k-nulyu.html). On the one hand, Moscow certainly took pleasure in the fact that the percentage of Kaliningraders calling for independence fell by almost half to 4 percent.  But on the other, the Russian government can hardly be pleased that “the number of Kaliningraders who consider that their region should have a special status—that is, [be a beneficiary of real] ‘federalization’”—is up sharply to 53 percent. 

In commenting on the results, the New Kaliningrad portal said that “the level of so-called separatist attitudes in Kaliningrad oblast today is in fact falling toward zero,” a reflection of what it suggested “was a consolidation of the regional community around the notion that separation from Russia is an impermissible thought.”  But at the same time, as Pryannikov points out, Kaliningraders do not want to be a region like any other but “a special region.” And as Putin and his ruling team have implied in Ukraine, that could open the way for independence or joining a neighboring country at some point in the future.

Consequently, while the face of Kaliningrad is changing under the impact of the Crimean annexation, the challenges that this non-contiguous Baltic region poses for Moscow are likely to grow. This is all the more so because, having taken the position it has pushed in Ukraine, the Putin regime is likely to be far less capable of preventing the growth of this new set of attitudes not only in Kaliningrad but in other predominantly ethnic-Russian regions of the country.

And that, in turn, means Russian regionalism may prove an even greater threat to Moscow’s ability to govern the country than even do the national movements of the various non-Russian nations currently within the borders of the Russian Federation.