Monday, November 23, 2015

Rising Discrimination Accelerates Ethnic Sorting out of Central Asia

By Paul Goble

None of the five republics in Central Asia were ever ethnically homogeneous. Joseph Stalin, in fact, purposefully drew their borders so that there would always be a local minority that he could use against the ethnic majority, either as his agents in place or as a target on which to shift the anger of the majority away from Moscow. Since 1991, however, all five republics have become far more ethnically homogeneous. This has largely been the result of people fleeing countries where they had, often, lived for many years due to violence or the fear of violence and moving to neighboring states where they are members of the titular nationality.

That process had slowed in the early 2000s, but now there is evidence that it is accelerating again, not because of violence or fear thereof, but rather because of increasing ethnic hostility by ethnic majorities directed against minority groups as well as discrimination against the latter in the workplace and more generally.  And what is worrisome is that xenophobic attitudes among the titular majority nationalities appear to be far stronger among young people than among their parents, who grew up in Soviet times when “internationalism” was highly valued.

The attitudes of the majorities and the experiences of the fleeing minorities will make it far more difficult for the governments in the region to deal with one another, and far more likely that at least some politicians will exploit these ethnic hostilities to the point that border conflicts in this already tense and unstable region will become ever more likely.

Recently illustrative of this wider trend has been the flight of ethnic Kyrgyz from the Dzhirgatal district of Tajikistan. Many Kyrgyz fled the region in the 1990s because of civil war. But the current exodus, which has reduced this minority’s share of the region’s population by an additional 50 percent, is reported by those Kyrgyz still living in the region to be due to “discrimination on an ethnic and racial basis.” And they add that younger ethnic Tajiks are far more likely to display anti-Kyrgyz attitudes than the older generation, which was born and grew up in Soviet times (, November 13).

Local officials play down the problem and say that the departure of anyone from their region is entirely voluntary, the result of personal social and economic problems of kinds found everywhere.  But local Kyrgyz residents dispute this, pointing to frequent discrimination against them. At least a third of them say that they hope to leave once they save up enough money to do so and find a place in Kyrgyzstan to move to.

One Kyrgyz resident of Dzhirgatal told a CentrAsia journalist that he could not find work “only because he is a Kyrgyz,” adding that his patience with the situation was running out.  Another Kyrgyz there, a taxi driver, said he and other members of his nation faced discrimination of both an open and a concealed kind; they feel they are being forced out, despite what the authorities say. And many local Kyrgyz say that “discrimination is especially developed” among young Tajiks. “The older generation,” they say, “is more loyal to one another” (, November 13).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Russia Moves to Open Six Top Secret ‘Closed Cities,’ Citing Budgetary Reasons

By Alden Wahlstrom

The Russian government recently announced a plan to open up 6 of its 42 publicly identified closed cities (officially named closed administrative-territorial formations), as of January 1, 2016 (, October 30). Closed cities, a carryover institution from the Soviet Union, are home to military installations; facilities used for the development, production, or storage and disposal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and other facilities considered central to Russian national security (Interfax, October 23). During the Soviet era, these cities were given code names and did not appear on official maps. In their current manifestation, many of these cities have been identified and have been permitted to resume using the historical names they held prior to their closure. However, entry into these cities is still strictly regulated, even for Russian citizens.

Making the list of cities to be opened starting next year are: Seversk (Tomsk Oblast), Zelenogorsk (Krasnoyarsk Krai), Novouralsk (Sverdlovsk Oblast), Zarechny (Penza Oblast), Zvyozdny Village (Permsky Krai), and Lokomotivny village (Chelyabinky Oblast). These cities are home to over 350,000 people and are situated across the entire expanse of Russia (Vedomosti, October 29). Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, administers the first four of these cities, and the Russian Ministry of Defense administers the remaining two (Interfax, October 23). Among the strategically sensitive things located at these heretofore closed cities are facilities for the enrichment of uranium (including the facility at Novouralsk, which is the largest of its kind in the world) and military installations dealing with missile production and housing Russian missileers (Vedomosti, October 29; Kommersant, October 30; TASS, October 28;, October 30).

According to the Ministry of Economic Development, the goal of the government’s initiative to open up these cities is linked to optimizing federal budgetary spending (Kommesrant, October 30). Despite the prolonged decline in the value of the ruble and the sizable deficit in the recently announced Russian budget, the reclassification of these cities is said to be part of a development project that has been in the works since before Russia fell into an economic downturn (BBC—Russian service, October 27). Closed cities present unique challenges to economic development. The strict control over what and who is allowed to enter these cities restricts the flow of resources necessary to stimulate organic economic development. As a result, large subsidies from the federal budget have been necessarily allocated to supplement the budgets of closed cities.

What motivated the Russian government to start this process? Even if transitioning these cities had long been discussed, announcing these initiatives with only a two-month lead time before implementation is quite sudden. According to the plan, there will only be a nine-month transition period for the cities, starting on the first of the year (Interfax, October 23). Critics in the varying regional governments and within Rosatom are likely considering this when it says that the move to reclassify these cities is too fast and that more discussion is required to plan their smooth transition. To put this in perspective, Seversk, the largest of Russia’s closed cities, will instantly lose 900 million rubles of its 3.8 billion ruble ($13.9 million out of $59 million) budget, if it loses its status as a closed city at the start of the year (Kommersant, October 30). This one cut, which only saves the Russian government about $13 million, will leave the city of Seversk scrambling to find the resources necessary to continue to provide services to its 120,000 residents after losing almost one quarter of its budget, with little advanced notice.

The announcement of the plan has already been met with broad pushback. Many residents prefer that their city remains closed to the rest of Russia. In their measure, the positive externalities of living in closed cities outweigh the negative ones. The tight control over movement in and out of these cities provides residents with an increased sense of security. One city official from a closed city not slated for this round of status changes described closed cities as places where residents do not lock there doors and children can safely walk to school unaccompanied (, October 30). Moreover, government subsidies allows these cities to provide a level of benefits to the residents of these cities that would otherwise not be possible. Residents speaking out against the government’s plan are motivated by the fear of losing these subsidies and the standard of living they provide (Kommersant,, October 30). Given the nature of what is located within these cities, however, domestic political challenges are unlikely to either drive or redirect this process.

Russia was able to maintain its closed cities through all of the economic troubles of the 1990s. And the Russian government’s decision to maintain its current level of defense spending in its shrunken 2016 federal budget is a testament to the Kremlin’s commitment to spending on issues related to national security. For this reason, the transitioning of these cities from closed to open is particularly intriguing. In some cases, it is quite possible that the city in question may no longer be home to activities considered core to national security, or facilities in that city could perhaps easily be converted into lower-risk establishments. From a logistical standpoint, the two cities administered by the Ministry of Defense will have an easier time redistributing any top-secret resources located there. As for the cities with nuclear research activities, there is some talk of adapting these facilities to expand production into other areas—likely part of the much talked about, but thus far largely unsuccessful, plan to develop dual-use military technologies. Potential development opportunities aside, the heavy-handed decision by Russian officials to transition these cities on such a short timeline presents an opening for possible breaches of Russian national security.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Armenia and Iran After the Nuclear Deal: The Quest for Broader Cooperation

By Erik Davtyan

The agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran reached with the P5+1 powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany) on July 14, has provided new perspectives for Iran’s wider engagement in the South Caucasus—especially with Armenia, the only state in the region that actively promotes a close partnership with the Islamic Republic.

In August 2015, Iran and Armenia had already signed an agreement on the construction of the third high-voltage electricity transmission line connecting the two countries. This new planned electricity link will cost an estimated $120 million (, August 13). The Iranian nuclear agreement and the promised gradual lifting of sanctions apparently increased mutual interest in maintaining a more active political dialogue and reinforcing economic cooperation between Iran and Armenia. These issues were discussed during last month’s (September 17) meeting between Armenian Ambassador to Tehran Artashes Tumanyan and Iranian Minister of Industry, Mines and Trade Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh (, September 18). The energy aspect of bilateral relations was discussed on October 3–5, when the Armenian delegation, headed by Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Ervand Zakharyan, visited Iran and held talks with the co-chair of the Armenian-Iranian Intergovernmental Commission, Hamid Chitchian, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zangane, and the chairman of Iran’s Export Development Bank, Ali Salehabadi (, October 5).

The next and, in fact, the most important recent event (after the nuclear deal) for bilateral Iranian-Armenian relations was the official visit to Yerevan of the First Vice President of Iran Eshaq Jahangiri (October 14–15). After Iranian then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit in 2011, this is the highest-level visit to Armenia by an Iranian official. At the airport, Jahangiri was welcomed by Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, along with the ministers of energy and natural resources, culture, and transport and communications, as well as the deputy minister of foreign affairs. Clearly, the Armenian authorities attached great importance to this official visit and expect positive developments in bilateral relations (, October 14).

On October 15, Jahangiri and Abrahamyan took part in the Armenia-Iran Business Forum, which was attended by nearly 300 Armenian and 80 Iranian businessmen. Commenting on the importance of boosting trade relations, the Iranian vice president stated that “it is important for us to sign a number of memorandums of understanding, including a preferential tariff agreement” (, October 15). As to Armenia’s transit role in Iran’s foreign policy, he underlined that “Armenia is the only country to provide a gateway for exporting Iranian goods toward the Eurasian Economic Union. Besides, Armenia has an important role to play as a transit zone. We have the North–South Transport Corridor; we should settle the railroad issue, which is of regional significance”. Vice Presdent Jahangiri also held meetings with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and the president of the Armenian National Assembly (parliament), Galust Sahakyan.

Certainly, the realization of joint economic plans highly depends on completing large-scale transport projects to more fully connect the two states. The North–South Road Corridor is already under construction; but the Iran-Armenia railway project faces financial challenges. In his interview to Azatutyun, Iranian Minister of Transport Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi said that Iran is ready to start the construction of the Iranian part of the railroad as soon as Armenia covers at least one third of the estimated cost of $3 billion for this project (, October 15). Indeed, the railway may have regional and even interregional importance; therefore, Armenia aims to attract large investments from abroad. Back in June 2015, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) had expressed interest in this project. During the Armenian prime minister’s recent visit to China (in September), the issue of the possible engagement of Chinese companies was discussed with the premier of China’s State Council, Li Keqiang, and the chairman of the CCECC, Wu Wanliang (, September 22).

So far, no practical agreement has been reached on the Iran-Armenia railway project. Yet, following the breakthrough of the Iranian nuclear program accord, the chances of realizing this project have increased, at least in the political realm. Thus, the appeal of large-scale investments in bilateral projects will continue to grow over the coming months for both Armenia and Iran.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Estonia to Help Crimean Tatars Tell the World About the Occupation

By Paul Goble

The victims of almost 50 years of Soviet occupation themselves, Estonians are now preparing to help the Crimean Tatars, who have again come under Russian occupation. At a press conference in Kyiv, Mart Nutt, a member of the Estonian parliament, and Oliver Loode, the Estonian vice president of the United Nations forum on indigenous peoples, outline what they hope to do in cooperation with Mustafa Cemilev, the longtime leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, Serhi Kostinsky, a Verkhovna Rada deputy who oversees television and radio policy, and the project’s Crimean Tatar producer Emine Dzheppar (, October 6).

The Estonians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars said that the project was being launched because the international community is too little informed about the problems of the Crimean Tatars under occupation and is not focused on the important reality that the Crimean Tatars are the indigenous population of the Ukrainian peninsula, a status which under international law gives them certain exclusive rights. They added that the three sides had agreed over the course of the next several months to develop a media strategy, one that will involve both several members of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (de facto representative body of the Crimean Tatars), representatives of the media, and Estonian experts.

Emine Dzheppar said that “the goal of this group is the formulation of a strategy on the basis of which the project will be carried out over the next two years, one that will become a so-called road map for its realization.” The project will organize photographic exhibits in various countries around the world and at the United Nations. In addition, it will produce video materials, including both films and clips, about key problems that the Crimean Tatars now face.

The Estonians have one key advantage over the Crimean Tatars, and it may prove to be something from which the Crimean Tatars can profit from. Estonia was an independent state at the time of the beginning of the Soviet occupation, and the West, led by the United States, came up with its non-recognition policy based on the Stimson Doctrine that the international community cannot recognize any border changes achieved by force alone. As a result, the Estonians, like their two Baltic neighbors, have insisted that their states continued de jure throughout the occupation and that in 1991, they recovered their independence de facto rather than creating new states.

Unfortunately, the international community has not articulated the same policy with regard to Russian-occupied Crimea. While Western governments have said they will not end sanctions until Russia gives Crimea back, the reality is that at some point the sanctions regime will be lifted and Crimea will not have any legal support. Western non-recognition policy by articulating a principle allowed for variations in Western relations with Moscow but did not allow for any change concerning the West’s view of the continuing legal status of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

It is extremely likely that the Estonian involvement in this joint project will lead the Crimean Tatars to appreciate the importance of a Western declaration of non-recognition of the Russian occupation of Crimea and press their friends and supporters to take a step equal in its legal standing to the 1940 declaration by Sumner Welles. If that happens, this small joint project will have a profound impact on international relations for years to come.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Estonia’s Proposed Border Improvements Could Derail Estonia-Russia Border Agreement

By Alden Wahlstrom

Last week, on the sidelines of the 70th annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with his Estonian counterpart, Marina Kaljurand, at her request. Among other topics, the two discussed the outlook for Russia and Estonia reaching a political settlement on a border dispute that has persisted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has, thus far, been unable to settle an official border agreement with Russia since gaining its independence in 1991.

During their meeting, Kaljurand told Lavrov that the Estonian Parliament is prepared to review and ratify an agreement officially recognizing the borders that has de facto been used since Estonian independence. Lavrov, in turn, said that the Russian State Duma is prepared to consider the agreement for ratification (, September 28). The resolution of this border dispute would no doubt be welcomed by Estonians, who, like the citizens of many of Russia’s neighboring states, have been anxious about preserving their territorial integrity since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 (see, February 26).

However, what are the chances that this dispute will be resolved in the near future? While Estonia may be keen on formalizing its borders with Russia vis-√†-vis a bilateral agreement, Estonia’s other efforts to secure its borders could actually serve as an excuse for Moscow to stymie this process.

In late August, Estonia announced a plan to completely seal off its land border with Russia using fencing, high-tech surveillance systems and aerial drones (Kommersant, September 1). This project, estimated to cost €71 million ($80 million) and set to begin construction in 2018 (, August 25), has largely been interpreted as a response to the fear of Russian incursions into Estonian territory. Estonians’ territorial insecurities were accentuated last year by the highly publicized case of Estonian security officer Eston Kohver. According to Estonian officials, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) abducted Kohver on September 5, 2014, while on Estonian territory, and imprisoned him in Russia on false charges. Kohver was convicted of espionage in early September 2015, and Estonian officials were able to secure his return home in a spy swap with the Russians by the end of the month.

Russian officials have been vocal in their responses to Estonia’s announced border strengthening plan. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement labeling Estonia’s plan as “politicized” and declared that unilateral action to enforce the border between Estonia and Russia is legally unfounded, as Russia and Estonia have yet to ratify an agreement defining their shared border (Kommersant, September 1). Meanwhile, Irina Yarovaya, Chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee for Security and Anti-Corruption, has mocked the plan, stating that it looked as though Estonia was trying to build an “Indian reservation” for its citizens (, August 25).

Of most concern, however, are comments by Alexei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs. Pushkov claimed that poor bilateral relations with Estonia, undoubtedly shaken by Estonia’s announced plan to fence off its border with Russia, promise to slow the Russian ratification process of any border agreement (, September 1). In an effort to quell the Russian reaction, Estonian Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand gave a statement emphasizing that the Estonian government is only discussing possible future options for securing its border (Kommersant, September 6).

The effectiveness of Estonian efforts to assuage Russian officials’ stated anxiety about Estonia’s proposed border security plan will be seen when the Russian Duma formally discusses the ratification of the proposed border agreement. Although Foreign Minister Lavrov indicated that the Duma is prepared do discuss and ratify the agreement, Pushkov’s statements raise doubts concerning the likelihood of this happening.

Beyond poor bilateral relations, it is conceivable that Russian officials may not view ratifying a border agreement with Estonia as in their strategic interest. Estonia is not the only EU member state with concerns about its border with Russia. Latvian officials have echoed their Estonian neighbors, saying that Latvia may also need to consider erecting a fence along its shared border with Russia (Baltic Course, August 28); and Finland’s Defense Minister Jussi Niinist√∂ has publicly considered laying new landmines along the Finnish-Russian frontier (EER, September 3).

Whether or not these statements result in concrete actions, they are obviously an expression of the tense security situation across the region. Meanwhile, judging by their vocal criticism, Russian officials may fear that Russia will be unable to easily defeat these increased security measures taken by all of the countries on its border. Therefore it is entirely probable that Moscow will view not ratifying a border agreement with Estonia as strategically advantageous: giving it the grounds to further oppose Estonian border reinforcements and maintaining a legal gray area in which Russia prefers to operate.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Buryats, a Large Nation in Russia, Fear They Are on Verge of Extinction

By Paul Goble

Not surprisingly, many of the very smallest nations now within the borders of the Russian Federation fear that they will not survive for more than a few decades. Numbering only a few thousand or even less, they feel on their own skin, as it were, the predictions of international experts that they cannot hope to survive as separate nations given the lack of support from the Russian government and the pressures of globalization.

But disturbingly, this sense of doom is infecting ever larger nations there, peoples whose numbers and institutions would seem to make them good candidates to survive well into the future. Indeed, all but the largest nations in the Russian Federation—the seven who number more than a million each—now appear to be at risk of losing first their language and then their identities in this generation or the next. This has been mainly due to Moscow’s Russification policies (see EDM, November 5, 2012; March 17, 2015; see also, November 27, 2013; January 23, 2014) as well as the impact of international media and economic change.

According to Bato Ochirov of the ARD portal, for cultural and historical reasons, Buryats are not capable of either evolutionary or revolutionary change. The first is precluded by the nature of the state in which they find themselves at present, and the second is impossible because of the nomadic past and individualistic nature of their 500,000-strong nation. Consequently, those Buryats who are most accomplished will seek their fortunes elsewhere and be assimilated; and those who remain will increasingly degrade, he suggests (ARD, September 16).

“Therefore,” he argues, “if one reflects on the prospects of the contemporary Buryat nation” and tries to study the fates of other peoples that the Buryats are “most likely to repeat,” the most obvious candidate is the Evenks. A numerically small people of the Russian North, the Evenks arose as the result of the intermixture of “several aboriginal tribes of Eastern Siberia.” Like the Buryats, the Evenks reflect three anthropological types and are involved in three distinct economic activities: reindeer herding, cattle herding and fishing.

Also like the Buryats, he continues, “the Evenks live in China and in Mongolia. At the time of their inclusion into Russia (the 17th century), the Evenks numbered approximately 36,135.” They had increased to 64,500 by the time of the 1897 imperial census, but declined to 35,527 in the 2002 Russian census. In short, they are on their way to exhaustion and extinction.

About half of the Evenks live in the Republic of Sakha, but the rest are widely spread around the country, again like the Buryats. Indeed, the dispersal of the population accelerates the rates of loss of language, assimilation, and loss of historical identity, Ochirov says. “All peoples who lose ‘their own’ are on a common path, that of slow withering away and dying. The conditions of life of the representatives of such a dying people, as a rule, are not enviable.”

That a leading intellectual of the Buryats—a nation that, after all, has important co-ethnic groups in Mongolia and in China—should be saying this now is a mark of despair. Ochirov clearly hopes to provoke his fellow Buryats to respond by changing the situation. But his words suggest that he has little confidence they will be able to do so.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Non-Russians Are Following Ethnic Russians Out of the North Caucasus

By Paul Goble

The flight of ethnic-Russians from the republics of the North Caucasus over the last two decades has not only attracted widespread attention but also generated concern among officials in Moscow (see EDM, November 10, 2011; October 30, 2012; April 22, 2015). Federal authorities view ethnic Russians as guaranteeing Russian control over the other ethnic groups in the North Caucasus and anchoring the non-Russian republics to the Russian Federation. But in the wake of the departure of the ethnic Russians, members of other nationalities are leaving as well, the result of population pressure, conflicts of various kinds, the absence of jobs, and hopes for a better future. And unlike guest workers from Central Asia or the South Caucasus, few of these people have “gone home,” even during the current economic crisis.

The departure of the Russians has been well documented, but that of the non-Russians much less so. In part this is because local officials routinely falsify census returns in order to claim larger populations and thus greater assistance from Moscow. Not only are individuals who live and work elsewhere sometimes still counted as residents of their republics, but various categories of “dead souls” are also added to the census lists. Nonetheless, the flight of non-Russians is beginning to attract more attention as the phenomenon expands in size.

In a Kavkazskaya Politika article, Anton Chablin describes what is happening in the Nogay steppe, on the frontier between Stavropol and Dagestan. Chablin’s article, provocatively titled “The Russians have already left, and the non-Russians are leaving,” examines the situation in one aul (a fortified village in the Caucasus) (, September 15). Earlier, he discussed this process in somewhat less dramatic terms for two other locations in that region (, October 29, 2014; September 14, 2015).

Twenty years ago, the village (aul) of Novkus-Artesian, which Chablin cites in his recent article, had approximately 3,500 residents, of whom 1,500 were ethnic Russians. Now, half of Novkus-Artesian’s Russians have left; and despite high birthrates among the Nogay and other non-Russian groups, the total population today is less than 2,500. That means that not only ethnic Russians have left but that non-Russians are also leaving in increasing numbers. Assuming Novkus-Artesian is fairly typical, then extrapolating these figures to the North Caucasus as a whole leads to the conclusions that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians and an equal or perhaps now even greater number of non-Russians have migrated out of the region.

On the one hand, that means that changes in the ethnic balance caused by the departure of the ethnic Russians may not be as great as many have assumed, given the departures of non-Russians. And on the other hand, it highlights a potentially serious problem for other predominantly ethnic-Russian regions to which non-Russians from the Caucasus are likely to continue to move, especially as non-Russian fertility rates remain high and infant mortality rates across the region fall dramatically, pushing up overall population figures.

According to Lev Kuznetsov, the Russian minister for the North Caucasus, not only are birthrates still high among non-Russians there but infant mortality has been cut by 20 percent. As a result, he suggests, there will soon be even more non-Russian outmigration from the region. He suggests setting up a program to distribute those leaving there across the Russian Federation (, September 15).

That is a typical Russian bureaucratic response, but lying behind it is the real fear that non-Russians from the North Caucasus are going to be showing up in more places in Russia and that their arrival will sow the needs of a new round of interethnic conflicts in Russian cities.