Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Most Important Man in Osh

By Erica Marat

Until recently, 42-year old Melisbek Myrzakhmatov was known as yet another opportunistic politician with the ability become Osh city mayor thanks to his wealth and support of deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s political party, Ak Zhol. However, as ethnic conflict erupted in Osh and Jalalabad in June this year, Myrzakhmatov emerged as one of the most controversial figures and a suspect of instigating violence.

Like most other prominent Kyrgyz political leaders, Myrzakhmatov is infamous for allegedly controlling an informal "army" of martial arts sportsmen, as well as former military and law-enforcement personnel. This physical manpower is the basis of his strength, which allows him to mobilize supporters against government forces when needed. Myrzakhmatov’s control in Osh is so strong that the current government is bound to create parallel state structures to be able to compete with his influence over the city's local government structures (including law-enforcement).

Long before violence erupted, Myrzakhmatov, an ethnic Kyrgyz, was known to share some extreme nationalist views against ethnic minorities. As mayor, he knows the areas of Osh where Uzbeks are most concentrated very well. According to some reports, when violence erupted on June 10 he distributed maps of Uzbek neighborhoods to his supporters for them to be able to carry out targeted attacks against Uzbeks. Over 500 men with backgrounds in martial arts reportedly carried out the attacks.

Reports also suggest that Myrzakhmatov is allegedly controlling a drug business in some parts of southern Kyrgyzstan, perhaps serving as a proxy to Akhmat Bakiyev (the former president's brother, who controlled virtually all drug routes in Kyrgyzstan). Myrzakhmatov might still have very close relations with entire Bakiyev family, which could be the reason why President Roza Otunbayeva's government is unable to sack him. Myrzakhmatov could respond by stirring up more chaos in the south by potentially turning law-enforcement agencies against the political leaders.

Another alleged reason why Myrzakhmatov is suspected of organizing violence is his involvement in real estate and the construction business. He has been actively promoting Osh reconstruction since before the June violence, and today he prefers that the government builds new houses for Uzbeks instead of letting Uzbeks rebuild their old homes.

Myrzakhmatov began as a shuttle trader and later began importing construction materials to local construction companies. Although his current influence extends beyond Osh, it would be too soon to call him southern Kyrgyzstan's new criminal kingpin. Though it is not entirely clear yet whose political party he supports, Myrzakhmatov might gain more strength as political competition intensifies in the coming weeks.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Is Russia Unhappy with the U.S. Terrorism Report?

By David Iberi

On August 5, 2010 the U.S. State Department published its annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2009. Eight days later, on August 13, the foreign ministry of the Russian Federation issued a statement regarding the U.S terrorism document, with the purpose of showing how wrong and biased the United States’ position is on Georgia.

The State Department praised Tbilisi for its efforts to fight against terrorism, for deploying nearly 1,000 Georgian soldiers as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and for granting “blanket flight clearance” for all U.S. military aircrafts engaged in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To Moscow’s displeasure, the report said that “Russian claims of Georgian support for Chechen terrorists and harboring of such individuals in the Pankisi Gorge were unsubstantiated, and the Georgian government has made transparent efforts to prove this to the international community.”

The State Department also noted that because of Georgia’s lack of ability to control the Georgian-Russian border across its Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia segments, there was “unrestricted and unidentified flow of people, goods, and other potentially dangerous items from Russia into Abkhazia and South Ossetia…[and] the administrative boundary lines between Georgia and the conflict zones were further militarized in 2009 when Russia tasked its Federal Security Service (FSB) border guards to take over control from de facto authorities in both territories.”

The Russia-related section of the report reflects on the worsening situation in Russia’s North Caucasus region, just across the Georgian border, both in terms of an increase in the numbers of rebel attacks and a dangerous twist in their nature. “Almost 800 terrorist acts occurred in the North Caucasus in 2009, an increase of 30 percent compared to 2008. The Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed to have prevented 80 terrorist attacks and killed more than 500 militants in 2009. As for a new trend, the report claims that, “Throughout the North Caucasus, groups have, for the most part, moved away from mass attacks on civilians in favor of targeted attacks on police, local interior ministry officials, and departments responsible for combating the insurgency.”

The Russian foreign ministry in its statement disputed both Georgia’s reputable anti-terrorism record and the security problems stemming from Tbilisi’s inability to exercise control over the Russian-occupied Georgian regions. “Tbilisi is conducting a double game toward the terrorist underground in the North Caucasus,” the Russian statement alleged. “The Russian intelligence agencies have repeatedly presented convincing evidence in that regard, and objective observers have long noted this.” On the issue of the two occupied Georgian provinces, the Russian foreign ministry advised the Americans to take into account “the new geopolitical realities in the Caucasus,” which is Moscow’s euphemism for a sphere of influence.

As if to prove the Kremlin’s line, the Russian-appointed leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov said on August 15 that “a militant liquidated in Chechnya” on Sunday was a “Georgian citizen.” “We are concerned by the fact that a citizen from the neighboring country was in the ranks of the militants,” said Kadyrov.

High-ranking Russian officials would rarely pass up the opportunity to accuse Georgia of being in one way or another connected to the unceasing warfare in the North Caucasus. After the devastating metro blasts in Moscow in March, Secretary of the National Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev unsuccessfully attempted to link the attacks in some way to Georgia. Among the Russian officials accusing Tbilisi of stoking terrorism in the North Caucasus were the deputy minister of internal affairs, Colonel General Arkady Edelev, the director of the Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, and even Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Through its terrorism accusations against Tbilisi, Moscow seeks to blacken Georgia’s international image, which Russia hopes will help it win the ideological war on world stage and leave Georgia isolated and without friends. Since the ideological front is so important to Russia, attempts to come up with new terrorist allegations against Tbilisi will continue. Georgia, for its part, could successfully argue that one of the reasons why extremist forces have intensified their struggle against the Russian rule in the North Caucasus is because Russia declared Georgia’s two provinces independent. If South Ossetia or Abkhazia can be independent, then why cannot Dagestan, Circassia or Chechnya? Do not those lands have more convincing history and tradition of fighting for their independence?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Russia's Advances Expose Georgia's Vulnerabilities

By David Iberi

On August 11, 2010, Russia announced that it deployed S-300 anti-aircraft missiles on the territory of the occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia. In his statement the commander of the Russian Air Force, Alexander Zelin, said that the powerful missiles were needed to provide air defense for Abkhazia and the other occupied Georgian region, “South Ossetia.” The Russian general added that apart from the S-300s, “front and army aviation” would also be employed in both territories to strengthen the air defense potential.

Two years after the full-scale invasion of Georgia, Russia not only maintains a heavy military presence in the occupied regions but has significantly advanced its strategic capabilities, which leaves Georgia extremely vulnerable to another Russian invasion. The political process to solve Tbilisi’s outstanding security problems at Geneva shows no signs for hope, and the ceasefire agreement signed through the mediation of the European Union is not working. To make the situation even worse, Georgia lives under an effective arms embargo and outside of any functioning security framework. The United States and the West’s interests seriously suffer, as well, since Russian advances into the South Caucasus diminish the region’s potential to be a reliable security and transport corridor for the operation in Afghanistan and a valuable route for energy sources from the Caspian.

The announcement of the missile deployment came three days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, accompanied by Anatoly Serdyukov, his defense minister, visited Abkhazia from where the majority Georgian population had been expelled in a brutal ethnic cleansing before Russia declared it independent fifteen years later, in 2008. Tbilisi condemned both Medvedev’s visit and the S-300 deployment as “cynical” moves aimed at “destabilizing the situation” and “escalating tension in the Caucasus region,” and called on the international community “to force Russia to respect the universally recognized norms and principles of the international law and to unconditionally fulfill the commitments under the six-point [ceasefire] Agreement.”

On August 12, which marked the two-year anniversary of the ceasefire between Russia and Georgia, Tbilisi came up with yet another statement accusing Moscow of being in gross violation of all six points of the agreement. “Instead of fulfilling the commitments,” the statement read, “Russia is continuously increasing the military presence on the occupied territories of Georgia and is building the military bases in order to ensure its illegal presence on the ground (5 military bases [and], approximately, 10,000 military personnel.)” Besides, Russia does not allow the only international force on the ground – the European Union’s Monitoring Mission (EUMM) – created under the auspices of the agreement “to thoroughly fulfill its mandate and have access to Georgia’s occupied territories.”

By creating and strengthening its military capabilities in Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, Russia is violating not only the ceasefire agreement but the most fundamental principles of international law as well, including those adopted within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Notably, Moscow suspended its participation in the CFE in late 2007, months before invading Georgia.

Russia is reorganizing its military districts as part of the military reform. It was announced on August 12 that the newly created “South” Military District will now include the former North Caucasus district, which will be reinforced with other territorial units as well as the Russian bases in the occupied Georgian regions and in Armenia. The Russian news agency Regnum, close to the Kremlin, said in its publication that the reorganized military district will be capable of “delivering a more effective counterstrike” during war, “particularly with Georgia.”

The Georgian government should double its efforts to raise international awareness about its security concerns and ask the United States and other Western countries to exert more pressure on Moscow so that the latter feels obligated to meet all requirements of the ceasefire agreement. Besides, Tbilisi should speed up its military reform aimed at strengthening its command system and, overall, making the armed forces more efficient and the reserve system truly functioning.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is Russia Decoupling South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

By David Iberi

Responding to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statements during her recent Eastern European tour saying that the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are occupied by Russia and that the occupation should end, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on July 6, “Some think it is occupied and some think it is liberated. And this is an issue for a dialogue between the peoples, between the Georgian people and the South Ossetian people…Russia and other representatives of the international community could only act as guarantors…I know there are many forces in Georgia who would like the normalization of the Georgian-Russian relations and would also like to build a common future with the Ossetian people. It is necessary to proceed along this road. But there is no need to seek solutions on the side.”

Putin’s statement is interesting in many ways but, arguably, the most important aspect is that he spoke of “South Ossetia” but did not even mention Abkhazia by name. When the Russian premier’s quotes appeared in Russia’s printed media and internet websites, reporters apparently felt compelled to add Abkhazia in brackets after Putin’s mentioning of “South Ossetia,” as the Russian news agency Regnum did in its July 6 publication. Apparently, Putin was misunderstood by his own media outlets since what he hoped to achieve through his statement was to redraw the line between Abkhazia and South Ossetia two years after the war.

Then, as if a follow-up to the Putin’s statement, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitry Trenin’s article appeared in the Moscow Times on August 9. In the piece entitled, “How to Make Peace with Georgia,” Trenin tried to reinforce the notion of “demarcating a line” between Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” by suggesting an independent status for Abkhazia and a peculiar “Andorran model” for “South Ossetia” where Georgia “would be legally present.”

While speaking about the right of ethnic Georgians to return to “South Ossetia,” Trenin eschewed discussing the same rights for the Georgians expelled from Sokhumi and other parts of Abkhazia where they had constituted the majority of the population before the fall of 1993 when the Georgian rule in Abkhazia was overthrown with the help of Russian forces and their proxies.

Until the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia there was a widely accepted understanding that to solve the problem in the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia was an easier task than in Abkhazia. The less populous, much smaller and land-locked “South Ossetia,” with an area of 1,506 square miles, where the Georgian government controlled more than one third of the territory, hardly represented any special value to the Kremlin. Compared to that, Abkhazia, with an area of 3,256 square miles along the Black Sea coast, was seen as a more difficult case primarily because Moscow viewed and presented it that way.

While Russia had its “peacekeeping” forces deployed in both territories before the war, the fact that their presence was supervised by the United Nations in Abkhazia and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the Tskhinvali region showed that the international community, too, viewed those conflicts as separate cases. Along very similar lines, reports on Abkhazia by influential international think-tanks and NGOs abounded, whereas South Ossetia was hardly ever mentioned in their accounts.

But if the August 2008 Russian invasion proved anything, it was how significant South Ossetia’s central, heartland location along Georgia’s east-west highway is to Russia, as well as its proximity to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Those features give the otherwise unimportant swath of land a strategic value, which could well parallel that of Abkhazia’s on the Black Sea coast. After the war, Moscow reinforced “South Ossetia’s” status both politically – by declaring it “independent” – and militarily – by establishing military bases there. The regime in South Ossetia is arguably more secretive than that in Abkhazia, and many Western diplomats stationed in Tbilisi admit that unlike Abkhazia it is virtually impossible for them to travel to South Ossetia or communicate with its de-facto authorities. The ethnic cleansing of Georgians in “South Ossetia” during and after the August 2008 war was even more brutal than that conducted in Abkhazia some 15 years ago. In the latter situation, Russia and its proxies abstained from bulldozing entire Georgian villages and towns, but that was not the case in 2008. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Tskhinvali in 2008, while he only made it to Sokhumi a long two years later, on August 8, 2010.

So why has this renewed talk in Russia of “decoupling” Abkhazia and South Ossetia again? Is it because a new invasion of Georgia is no longer on the Kremlin’s agenda and with that the significance of South Ossetia has been demoted? Or, alternatively, have the Russians shelved their plan to overthrow Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government (because it is impossible to do anyway, at least for the time being) and started to show their willingness to bargain with “South Ossetia” for greater legitimate acquisitions in Abkhazia or somewhere else, for instance, to gain Georgia’s support for their WTO membership?

Whatever the reason, Georgia should be careful to not be tricked once again. First, the unconditional return of all internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes both in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia under international security guarantees should continue to top Georgia’s conflict resolution agenda. Second, duly authorized international policing mechanisms should be established on the ground in both regions. Third, Russia’s behavior and intentions should be judged on how fully it observes all obligations taken under the August 2008 ceasefire agreement. No “decoupling” would be as assuring as those measures.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Russia’s Love-Hate Relationship with America

By Erica Marat

The Galygin television show is perhaps the best popular representation of Russians’ idiosyncratic relationship with the United States. The show copies Seinfeld, the quintessential American sitcom, with its own standup comedy bits sprinkled between the daily lives of Russian versions of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. While the former is familiar, Galygin.ru characters are deep patriots. In one episode, for example, they throw a Western tourist out of a bar while cheering on the Russian team in a televised hockey game (STS TV channel, February, 2010).

Russian mainstream press outlets, mostly controlled by the government, convey a rigid narrative about what the West (Europe and the United States) means to Russia. In the crudest terms, the narrative claims that the West is trying to undermine Russia by luring former Soviet states into its own sphere of influence. Broadcast by the national TV channels, it portrays United States as a competitive power.

However, little is known about what ordinary Russians believe the West has to say about Russia. This could be one of the reasons why websites that translate international press stories about Russia, such as www.Inosmi.ru and www.Inopressa.ru, attract curious readers. Both websites include intense discussions in which readers vent about the supposedly negative portrayal of Russia abroad. On an average day, both websites feature mostly negative reporting about Russia and Moscow’s policies, claiming to reflect the overall mood in the international media.

For the average Muscovite, the government narrative is appropriate for the greater Russian population. Muscovites are convinced that the official narrative is necessary because it educates people and keeps them disciplined. Yet more internet-savvy Russians sense that local television channels present biased news and recognize them as government mouthpieces, broadcasting the Kremlin’s take on domestic and international issues.

Events such as the ongoing anti-government protests in Khimki forest outside Moscow or a movement of activists that convenes on the 31st of the month expose the contrast between local news sources and the international media outlets. “Finding truth somewhere in between” is a common saying for internet-savvy Russians who seek news both from national and foreign outlets.

On the other hand, shows like Galygyn.ru reveal Russians’ genuine curiosity towards the United States. As one economist from Moscow puts it, “It is really interesting to know what the United States has to say about what our government has to say about the United States.” Russian admiration for Western products and fashion is expressed in a subtle manner, mostly in shows that copy the format of popular U.S. television programs. There are Russian versions of Jon Stewart, for instance. Similar to their American prototype, they make fun of Obama and American politics, as Medvedev and Putin are off-limits.

This love-hate relationship with the United States is typical for a young urban Russian. In Moscow the lifestyle entails numerous Westernized attributes, yet the West, overall, is not popular. According to the British GfK Group, which measures country and city brands worldwide, U.S. brands are indeed more popular among Russians than is the U.S. government.

The movie Avatar and the restaurants TGI Friday's and McDonalds are the most conspicuous reminders of American presence in everyday in Moscow. “Chasing the West has turned into a trap for us!” says famous comedian Mikhail Zadornov, for whom American and Western culture is a common subject for satire. Many would agree that he ridicules how Russians often adopt the worst habits and products imported from the United States.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Optimism Prevails as Georgia CommemoratesTwo-Year Anniversary of Russian Invasion

By David Iberi

On August 7, Georgia will commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Russian aggression of 2008, the consequences of which continue to haunt the Georgian public and government alike. Some 20 percent of Georgian territory in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia remains under Russian occupation, and the military bases Russia established there pose a constant threat to Georgia’s sovereignty and political independence. Nonetheless, Tbilisi’s main focus has been on development and modernization coupled with robust diplomacy and closer international engagement.

Notably, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili will spend the war anniversary far away from his country in Bogota where he will be participating in the inauguration ceremony of Colombia’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos. Georgian government officials and political commentators have been emphasizing all along that closer ties with Latin America and the Caribbean would benefit Georgia both politically and economically.

Firstly, given the fact that two Latin American countries, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have recognized the independence of the two Georgian regions, and with that Russia’s right to a sphere of influence, diplomatic engagement with the neighbors of those states would discourage them to follow suit. Tbilisi, which has dramatically sped up the process of establishing diplomatic relations with Latin American and Caribbean countries, has already opened its embassy in Brazil and intends to have one in Mexico before the end of the year.

The second aspect is Georgia’s thirst for foreign investment. Tbilisi hopes that its liberal economy and diplomatic engagement will pair nicely to boost trade with and attract investment from Latin America. Tourism is another field in which Georgia may find good partners in the Americas. The country has a new minister of economy and steady development, and its chief, the young and energetic Vera Kobalia, who was born in Abkhazia and is also a Canadian citizen, places tourism high on her agenda. She has recently overhauled the tourism department and organized an open contest to select its head. Maia Sidamonidze, a young woman who until now worked as a marketing manager in London’s hotel industry, won the highly-competitive contest.

Georgia plans to develop new ski resorts in Svaneti, a northwestern mountainous region of the country, where snow lasts year-round. Svaneti is so close to the Black Sea that when the project is finished in about two years it will be possible, as Saakashvili recently said, to go skiing in Svaneti half an hour after a good swim in the subtropics of Georgia’s Black Sea beach at Anaklia. “It is the only place in Europe,” the Georgian president was quick to add, “where this kind of miracle is possible.”

“Our enemy had been preparing for the war for three years before attacking us in August 2008,” Saakashvili told a gathering on August 4 at the cemetery where the Georgian soldiers killed in the Russo-Georgian war are buried, “but they failed to achieve their major goal; that is to overthrow our democratic government and do away with our sovereignty and political independence….Furthermore, to their great astonishment, we are developing politically and economically and are advancing our freedoms.” A few days earlier, on July 28, the Georgian president publically endorsed a new military doctrine of “total defense” when speaking at the ministry of defense of Georgia. In Saakashvili’s words, “each village should be able to defend itself,” as “Russia has not dropped its plans to occupy the entire country,” he said.

An emphasis on diplomacy, development and modernization, and a keen awareness of Russia’s “unfinished business” in Georgia, are closely intertwined in the Georgian leadership’s mindset. It remains to be seen whether a strategy of modernization would help the Georgians avoid another Russian invasion or only convince the Russians that now is the time, before Georgia becomes unrecognizable. Since the times of Athens and Sparta, it has been a well-known belief that one country’s economic development could be, for various reasons, as threatening for a neighbor as its military build-up.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tigipko to be Yanukovych’s Successor as Party of Regions Leader

By Taras Kuzio

In an interview in Kyiv’s Segodnya Nestor Shufrych revealed that the gas lobby is financing Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Tigipko as a future leader of the Party of Regions to replace Viktor Yanukovych and Nikolai Azarov. Azarov and Yanukovych have shared leadership of the Party of Regions since it was established in 2001 and are now 62 and 60 years old, respectively.

Tigipko was the dark horse of the 2010 presidential elections, coming in third place as an allegedly ‘new face candidate’ with thirteen percent of the vote. Ukrainians joke that Tigipko and Tymoshenko were both born in 1960 and both entered politics in 1998 but somehow the former is a ‘new face’ and the latter an ‘old hand’.

The RUE’s (RosUkrEnergo) support for Tigipko is not out of character as it also initially invested in Arseniy Yatseniuk, who came fourth with seven percent, as another ‘new face’ in the early part of the 2010 election campaign. Yatseniuk – like Tigipko – was seen as the best alternative to Tymoshenko, whom the Party of Regions sees as the main opposition and threat to its interests. In a recent Ukrayinska Pravda interview Levochkin praised Yatseniuk, Tigipko and some other minor opposition politicians as exhibiting future potential but ignored Tymoshenko

Both Yatseniuk and Tigipko have always supported a 'constructive opposition' stance, a peculiar mid-way position between being in power and in opposition, that does not exist in a typical European democracy. Tymoshenko has described 'constructivists' as a 'pocket opposition' loyal to the authorities.

Following the 2010 elections Tigipko agreed to join the Azarov government, after initially stating he would not, while Yatseniuk remained in ‘constructive opposition’. ‘Constructivists’ like Yatseniuk have refused to join the Committee in Defence of Ukraine, established in May as an umbrella opposition group. One reason could be Yatseniuk’s new source of funding being Deputy Prime Minister Borys Kolesnykov, a fact revealed to the author by a Ukrainian political consultant once close to Yatseniuk.

Yatseniuk has admitted that Viktor Pinchuk, Ukraine’s second wealthiest oligarch and Kuchma’s son-in-law, provided his 2010 election campaign with the largest amount of financing. In return, Pinchuk demanded in June 2009 that Yatseniuk replace his Ukrainian with Russian political consultants that proved to be disastrous and reduced his popularity.

Conspiracy theorists, such as the political consultant who talked with the author on the condition of anonymity, believed the switch to Russian consultants was undertaken deliberately to open up space for Tigipko as a late ‘new face’ candidate. With Shufrych revealing the Party of Regions future plans for Tigipko, we now know why the Yanukovych campaign wanted Tigipko to do well in this year’s elections. Yatseniuk, who in the early part of the campaign was only a few percentage points behind Tymoshenko and could have therefore entered the second round, ended up in fourth place, receiving only half of Tigipko’s vote.