Thursday, July 2, 2015

Will Threat of Islamic State Push Georgia Closer to Russia?


By Paul Goble

As it has done in Central Asia, Moscow is urging Georgia and other countries in the South Caucasus to return to closer cooperation with Russia in order to counter the threat from the Islamic State (IS). And some defense officials in Tbilisi seem receptive to the idea that, as one Georgian journalist put it, “Georgia must deepen its cooperation with the Russian Federation as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran, both of which have no small experience in opposing terrorist groups” (Kavpolit.com, July 1).

If Moscow succeeds in using the Islamic State threat to restore some of its dominance over these countries, it will indicate, at a minimum, that the Russian authorities are cleverly making use of IS attacks in the Middle East and Europe while assuring everyone that no such attacks are imminent in Russia. And it may indicate that the Russian security services are playing a role in structuring IS operations, at least with regard to the post-Soviet space (see EDM, June 30). But regardless of which of these interpretations is correct, it points to the ugly possibility that the Kremlin plans to use the threat of terrorism to achieve its goals across the post-Soviet space just as Vladimir Putin has done within the Russian Federation itself.

According to Vasily Papava, who identifies himself as “an independent Georgian journalist,” Tbilisi has become more worried about the IS threat to its national security since leaders of the Islamic State declared that they had founded a new administrative unit in the North Caucasus and leaders of Islamic fighters in that region declared their loyalty to it. Major General Vakhtang Kapanadze, the chief of the Georgian General Staff, and Tina Khidasheli, the country’s defense minister, both said that IS was now a threat that Tbilisi would work to counter. At the same time, however, Khidasheli said that Russia should be more focused on this threat in the North Caucasus than in assuming it has a right to intervene in neighboring countries on whatever pretext (Kavpolit.com, July 1).

But Georgians have been worried about this for more than a year, Papava says, noting that the statement by Matthew Bryza, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, that “if no one stops ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—former name for IS], it in the end will launch a strike through Georgia,” had attracted a great deal of attention.

Now things are coming to a head, the journalist says, and Tbilisi is considering what it must do and what resources it can bring to bear. Obviously, many in the Georgian capital would like to rely on their own resources or those from the West; but increasingly, he suggests, they recognize that neither of these is going to be sufficient. As a result, he projects, “in the near future, there will arise among the Georgian leadership the necessity of revising its former stereotypes in thinking on issues of its foreign policy preferences.”

Papava argues that “while preserving partnership relations with Western countries, Georgia should deepen its cooperation with those regional states that have a great deal of experience in opposing terrorist groups. In the first instance, these are the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Given that Georgia has virtually no security ties with Tehran, that means, he implies, the only choice is to turn to Russia (Kavpolit.com, July 1)—something Moscow would very much like.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lezgin Areas in Southern Dagestan Seem on a Path Toward Radicalization

By Valery Dzutsev

Until recently, the Lezgin-populated areas of Dagestan—the most violent republic of the North Caucasus—were relatively quiet. However, the situation has recently reached greater volatility. For the past month, a special operation has been ongoing in previously calm Kurakhsky and Suleiman-Stalsky districts of southern Dagestan. In May, a large concentration of heavy military equipment and servicemen (estimated at 1,500) in Kurakhsky district was reported. The population of the affected area is about 60,000. The counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced there and the Suleiman-Stalsky district—both Lezgin-populated areas—immediately after the killing of a forester in southern Dagestan on May 17 (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 18). During the course of the counter-terrorism regime, several suspected rebels have reportedly been killed and a number of hidden workshops for manufacturing of explosives have been found (Onkavkaz.com, June 15).

Lezgins are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the most ethnically diverse region of Russia, Dagestan. The majority of Lezgins reside in southern areas of the republic, in and around the city of Derbent. Northern Azerbaijan is adjacent to Lezgin areas in Dagestan and this Azerbaijani territory is another traditional place of residence for Lezgins. So, if the population of Lezgins in Dagestan were to radicalize, this could have a spillover effect in neighboring Azerbaijan.

To many Lezgins, the counter-terrorism operation in the Lezgin heartland came as a shock. People in the area are now debating “what kind of Islam do we, Lezgins, need?” It appears that similarly to the situation in the Northwest Caucasus, Lezgin activists are now divided into nationalists and supporters of radical Islam. Some Lezgins, for example say, “We should support those religious activists who preach Islam native to Lezgin soil, not the one that is indifferent or even hostile to it.” But some Lezgin Salafis respond: “Why do you only bring up your customs when the conversation is about religion?” The Salafis say that Islam only contests ethnic customs that are incompatible with the religion, and so the Muslim faith does not undermine the ethnic identity of the Lezgins, as such (Onkavkaz.com, June 15).

In the absence of robust political mechanisms for resolving inevitable social conflicts, the land of the Lezgins, called informally Lezgistan, is likely to continue on a path toward radicalization. Along with Islamists, Lezgin nationalists are likely to become more active. But unlike the radicalization present in other areas of Dagestan, southern Dagestan’s growing extremism may have regional implications because of its proximity to Azerbaijan, the Lezgins’ cross-border ties, as well as the substantial population of ethnic Azerbaijanis in the area.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

ECHR Rules on Claims by Armenian and Azerbaijani Refugees

By Erik Davtyan

On June 16, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) adopted two resolutions based on a pair of claims that were separately put forward by Azerbaijani and Armenian refugees. The claim against Armenia was raised by Elkhan Chiragov and five other Azerbaijani Kurds, who lived in the former district of Lachin in the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. According to the applicants, “on 17 May 1992 they were forced to flee from the district to Baku. They have since been unable to return to their homes and properties because of Armenian occupation” (Case of Chiragov and others v. Armenia, June 16, 2015). Analyzing the material and facts related to the case, the ECHR decided that “from the early days of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia has had a significant and decisive influence over the ‘NKR’ [the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic], that the two entities are highly integrated in virtually all important matters and that this situation persists to this day.” The Court concluded that taking into account the military, political, financial and other support, “Armenia exercises effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, including the district of Lachin.”

Simultaneously, a similar claim was raised by Minas Sargsyan, an Armenian national, on August 11, 2006 (Case of Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan, June 16, 2015). According to the applicant, “the denial of his right to return to the village of Gulistan and to have access to his property there or to be compensated for its loss and the denial of access to his home and to the graves of his relatives in Gulistan amounted to continuing violations of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 and of Article 8 of the [European] Convention [on Human Rights].” Moreover, Sargsyan mentioned that Articles 13 and 14 were also violated by the Azerbaijani Republic. The European Court satisfied the main claims and recognized that Azerbaijan has violated the 1st (property protection), 8th (right of respect for private and family life) and 13th (right for compensation) articles of the 1950 Convention (Armenpress.am, June 17).

Generally, the issue of refugees and internally displaced persons plays an important role in the Karabakh peace process. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in 400,000 ethnic-Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan (Unhcr.org, 2008). As to Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP), the UNHCR counts nearly 600,000 (Unhcr.org, 2009). In other words, the total number of refugees and IDPs reaches around one million. Therefore, this issue is of great importance both for Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In fact, from a legal perspective, the ECHR’s recent decisions are important for the peace process, especially in the context of legal qualifications. The case of “Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan” may serve as a successful precedent for Armenian refugees and IDPs to demand compensation from Baku in the same way. As to the case of “Chiragov and others v. Armenia,” it contained more positive clauses for Azerbaijan. Though the Court stated that Armenia implements effective control over Karabakh, it also ruled that Armenia is responsible for the occupation of the aforesaid territories, which was highly welcomed in Baku. According to the official statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, “the ECHR decision has put an end to Armenia’s denial of its own responsibility for illegal occupation and military presence on the territories of Azerbaijan” (Regnum.ru, June 21). Currently, Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities interact mainly under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship. But these kinds of legal rulings may contribute to the clarification and complete or partial solution of key components of the Karabakh conflict.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Alleged IS Recruiter Arrested in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge

By George Tsereteli

On June 14, the counter-terrorism unit of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs conducted special operations in the Pankisi Gorge, leading to the arrest of Aiuf Borchashvili as well as several other men. According to investigators, Borchashvili, a resident and imam of the village of Jokolo, is a representative of the Islamic State (IS) in Georgia and had been recruiting local youths to join the group’s fight in Syria and Iraq (Police.ge, June 15). Simultaneously, three individuals ages 18, 21 and 23 were arrested in Tbilisi, two of whom were detained at Tbilisi International Airport, allegedly en route to Turkey to join IS troops, on a trip that was organized by Borchashvili.  The latter is further implicated in using religious literature and social media to recruit two young males from Pankisi in early April and arranging for their trips to join IS in Syria (Police.ge, June 15).

While Borchashvili and the three young men arrested in Tbilisi remain in custody and have been ordered  to pretrial detention, the other men who were detained during the operation in Pankisi have since been released: among them, the alleged cousin of one of Islamic State’s top commanders Tarkhan Batirashvili, better known as Umar al-Shishani (EurasiaNet, June 16; Civil Georgia, June 18).  As for Borchashvili, he has been formally charged with being involved with recruitment for a terrorist organization as well as with joining a terrorist organization of a foreign country or providing support to it in terrorist activities. His defense lawyer has stated that the “allegations are absolutely groundless” (Civil Georgia, June 15, 18).  

The Islamic State’s influence in the North Caucasus has undeniably risen in the region over the past several months, and more and more individuals from southwestern Russia have either succeeded, or at least attempted, to join the ranks of the organization. These individuals range from preachers, to those who feel persecuted, to those desperate to ally themselves with the popular militant Salafist group (see EDM, May 28; EDM, June 4; EDM, June 5).  It is therefore neither surprising that counter-terrorism operations have greatly increased across the North Caucasus, nor that there are over 300 people working to fight against IS recruiters in Moscow alone (see EDM, June 12).  According to the State Department’s recently released “Country Reports on Terrorism 2014,” because of Georgia’s geographical location, “violent Islamist extremists continue[d] to transit through the country between the Russian Federation’s North Caucasus and Syria and Iraq.” Further, due to Tbilisi’s lack of control over the Russian-occupied territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as a tense relationship with Moscow, Georgia has only a limited capacity to secure its northern border (State.gov, June).

The events of the last few days have amplified the increasing presence and influence of the Islamic State not only in the North Caucasus but also within the borders of Georgia.  According to varying and sometimes contradictory estimates, anywhere between 50 and 100 Georgian nationals from the Muslim-majority regions of the Pankisi Gorge and Adjara have been fighting in Syria and Iraq for either IS or al-Qaeda (State.gov, June). An incident in early April allegedly involving Borchashvili caused outrage in Pankisi, as one of the recruits was an underage 16 year old boy. Residents subsequently began voicing concerns about the local presence of a group whose members were actively recruiting Pankisi’s youth to join militants fighting abroad, and that the government had not effectively put in place any counter-measures (RFE/RL, April 21). Although details regarding the exact activities of Borchashvili and his collaborators are as of yet unknown, if the allegations prove to be true, the June 14 special operations will have been a major step forward for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Regardless, it has become abundantly clear that Georgia has no choice but to ramp up its counter-terrorism efforts and to do all it can to prevent the recruitment of young individuals by IS from within its borders.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Moscow Faces Uprisings in Its Penal System

By Paul Goble

It is one of the paradoxes of authoritarian regimes that they face revolts among their prison population far more often than democratic systems.  On the one hand, that seems odd given that authoritarian regimes are far more willing to employ violence to suppress any actions by the members of their societies with the fewest rights. But on the other, it is entirely explicable because such regimes incarcerate many people who would not be put behind bars anywhere else; and some of them, like Sochi ecologist Yevgeny Vitishko, are more than willing to speak out on behalf of the prisoners and even organize protests.

In any case, at a time when the Kremlin has successfully suppressed almost all mass protests in the nominally “free” Russian population, it now faces a wave of violent uprisings among its explicitly “unfree” one. According to one count, there were six such prisoner “bunts” (revolts) during May alone, and that almost certainly understates the problem because many of these actions are never reported. Indeed, the amount of violence inside prison walls is now sufficiently large that some human rights activists fear it will provoke the penal authorities to impose an even harsher order on their inmates. Such actions, however, may prove counter-productive—like throwing water on a grease fire—and call into question official control of at least some of Russia’s prisons and penal colonies.

Both the need to restore order and the dangers of making the situation worse inform a current debate in and around the Duma about government-proposed legislation that would allow jailors to apply greater force against the jailed, something opponents are calling “the law of the sadists,” according to Margarita Alekhina of Novyye Izvestiya (Newizv.ru, June 4). But even as lawmakers and rights activists debate the matter, the jailors are taking action.  According to one report from a camp in Chelyabinsk, prison officials have removed the fire escapes from the prison barracks. This action prevents prisoners from going to the roof—the first thing they do during a revolt. But it also means that in the event of a fire, dozens or even hundreds of inmates could die—something that would trigger sympathetic revolts in other prisons and organized protests among human rights activists. Among those who have promised to lead such protests is Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

In her survey of the situation, Alekhina points to a truly frightening aspect of what is going on. It appears that in many cases, Russian jailors are now trying to provoke uprisings in order to gain support for “the law of the sadists” by suggesting that without additional powers, they will not be able to control the situation.  That high-risk tactic suggests just how dangerous the situation is and should lead everyone to recall what happened in 1953–54: With the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, many prisoners in the GULAG prison camp system revolted. Fears of these prisoner uprisings spread through the Soviet leadership, and it became one of the prime causes for “the thaw” and anti-Stalin campaign that consequently took place under Nikita Khrushchev. The implications for Russia’s modern-day government are thus dangerous, indeed.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

‘Buryatia Has Already Entered a Revolutionary Situation’

By Paul Goble

On May 30, a group of Buryats went out into the streets on the 92nd anniversary of the formation of the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Republic, and demanded that the republic’s head be replaced and that both the republic government and Moscow focus on preventing the total collapse of Buryatia’s economy. The militia intervened and attempted to arrest several participants and take down their signs. Instead of being intimidated, other participants intervened, fought with the police, and forced the authorities to release those they had detained. The demonstrators were then able to put their banners up in the republic’s capital.

Moreover, the organizers of this demonstration have now scheduled two more, for June 7 and June 14. They have expanded their demands to include expanded ties with, and possible reunification of, the two Buryat autonomies in the Russian Federation that Vladimir Putin amalgamated with larger and predominantly Russian regions in 2005 and 2007, as well as greater control over the republic’s natural wealth. Because official actions have failed to intimidate the opposition, one of its members told the media that “Buryatia has already entered a revolutionary situation” (Asia Russia Daily, May 30).

Buryatia, a republic in the Trans-Baikal with a population of approximately one million, seldom gets much attention from Moscow or the outside world. On the one hand, ethnic Russians outnumber the titular Buddhist nationality more than two to one, giving Moscow the kind of leverage over the republic’s affairs that it lacks in some other non-Russian republics. And on the other, Buryatia is seven time zones away from Moscow, a distance that means few Western journalists or diplomats ever visit and thus few Buryats can count on the kind of support that regular attention from such groups provides.
           
Indeed, it has garnered attention from the outside world only twice in the last decade, when Putin successfully annexed to Russian regions the two other Buryat “matryoshka” autonomies (that is, federal subjects entirely surrounded by another federal subject) a decade ago. Those annexations have not gone well: the standard of living and degree of local control have both declined precipitously despite Moscow’s promises. And that is likely one of the reasons that an opposition movement has emerged in that Transbaikal region.

But Buryatia is likely to attract more attention in the future. First, the Buryats have expanded their ties with Mongolia, something Ulaanbaatar has been active in encouraging, and thus they have a foreign partner, albeit a somewhat obscure one. Second, the economy in Buryatia is in such obvious decline that many Buryats are fearful not just of what will happen to their children and grandchildren but of what will happen to them. They are especially angry because Moscow is expropriating much of the wealth generated by the republic’s rich natural resources (Asia Russia Daily, May 31). And third, many Buryats are upset by Moscow’s increasingly Russian nationalist line and its imposition of a Russian language–first policy in schools even in non-Russian areas. 

It may be overstating the case to say, as some Buryats have, that their republic is now in “a revolutionary situation.” But it is not too much to say that the potential for that is now greater there than in any non-Russian republic outside of the North Caucasus. Given that Moscow cannot afford to lose control of a territory that sits astride the Trans-Siberian rail line, the danger Buryatia presents is far greater than anyone expected only a few months ago.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Sargsyan’s Visit to the US Opens New Stage in Bilateral Relations

By Erik Davtyan

On May 6–8, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, along with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian and Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians Garegin II, paid a working visit to the United States (President.am, May 6). Not counting Sargsyan’s previous visit in September 2014 to attend the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, in New York City, this was the Armenian head of state’s first official trip to the US in five years. Sargsyan held a meeting with top US lawmakers, including Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader of the Senate, and Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic Minority Leader. They touched upon the importance of parliamentary cooperation between Armenia and the United States and emphasized US support in the development of Armenia’s economy, civil society and democratic governance. Additionally, President Sargsyan and the senators stressed the US engagement in the Karabakh peace process within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group. On May 6, the Armenian president also had a separate meeting with the US Minsk Group Co-Chair James Warlick (President.am, May 6).

The key result of the working visit, however, was the signing of the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) by Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian and Assistant US Trade Representative Daniel Mullaney (Mfa.am, May 7). As Ken Hachikian, the Chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), argued, the bilateral trade and investment agreement promises to improve Armenia’s investment climate, identify priority growth areas, build trade capacity, increase the transparency of governmental processes related to imports and exports, expand agricultural trade and investment, as well as grow the level of trade in services, including banking, insurance and tourism (Armenianweekly.com, May 5). Reportedly, the intensification of US-Armenian trade relations will be coordinated by a special council that will convene at least once a year.

Indeed, this contract will bolster bilateral cooperation and the political dialogue. In the words of ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian, the agreement is a “win-win for US-Armenia economic relations” (Armenianweekly.com, May 5). The TIFA should be regarded as the “second wave” of recent US economic engagement in Armenia. Back in 2014, the US company ContourGlobal reached a $250 million deal to purchase the 405-megawatt Vorotan Cascade hydropower project—which is, in fact, the biggest single US investment in Armenia’s energy sphere. Therefore, the newly granted opportunities opened up by the TIFA may prepare the ground for further US economic representation in Armenia, as well as in the wider South Caucasus. Similarly, Armenia will now be in a better condition to reinforce its existing trade turnover with the US as well as diversify its domestic economy. Though Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) led to the delegation of a part of the country’s economic sovereignty to the EEU’s supra-state bodies, the TIFA will still serve as an impetus for potentially far-reaching perspectives in US-Armenian political and economic relations.

Directly following his working visit to Washington, President Sargsyan flew to Moscow in order to attend a session of the EEU’s Supreme Eurasian Economic Council and the events dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War (President.am, May 8). The fact that the working visit to the US was immediately followed by a trip to Russia served, indeed, as a unique message both to Russia and the United States—and, to some extent, to Europe. Obviously, arriving in Moscow and watching the joint military parade of several national armed forces (including Armenian) with Vladimir Putin and other heads of state shows Armenia’s traditional close ties to Russia. On the other hand, the two-part trip means that despite Yerevan’s membership in the EEU and the seeming imbalance in Armenia’s “East-West” relations, Armenian authorities aspire to develop the “Western direction” of the state’s foreign policy. The signing of a strategic trade agreement with the United States signaled just such an effort.