Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Medvedev Learns about Domodedovo Bomb from Twitter

By Erica Marat

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is known for his savvy use of online social networks. Medvedev has his own Twitter account and blog. He is “followed” on Twitter by over 174,000 users, among them US President Barack Obama and a myriad of other political leaders from across the world.

Given that Twitter is still struggling to gain its market share in Russia, Medvedev is among the chief promoters of this social networking sight.

However, some Russian social network users did not appreciate how the president learned about the January 24 Domodedovo airport bombing through Twitter.

Indeed, Twitter was ahead of all other media outlets in reporting the Domodedovo blasts. In this case, however, the president’s social networking skills did not add to his popularity, particularly because Russian security forces might have known about the possibility of an attack in Domodedovo but failed to prevent it. Medvedev exposed the unprofessionalism of the Russian security forces and his inadequate relationship with them.

Twitter user Igor Platonov wrote (in Russian): “Medvedev has learned from Twitter what’s going on in Domodedovo and has gathered an emergency meeting. What the hell is this [supposed to be], but a country.” Platonov’s “tweet” went viral online.

Twitter users and bloggers were frustrated with how they, too, had to rely on social networks to learn the latest about the Domodedovo attacks. National TV channels, infamous for being controlled by the Kremlin, were particularly slow to react to the news. “TV: First [channel] – [entertainment] show, ‘Rossiya’ – soap opera, TVTs – talk-show, NTV –soap opera, should I continue? CNN – live broadcast! BBC –live broadcast!”, wrote one Twitter user.

Popular Russian blogger Alexey Navalny wrote about the Russian media, “Right now we are witnessing the final death of television and mainstream media [in Russia] as a source of operational information in a crisis situation."

“When it blasts, only then everyone panics, where were the special services, militsya and Domodedovo’s security, how did the bomb was brought to the airport??” wrote another Twitter user, reflecting the overall frustration with lack of information on how the government allowed the attack to occur.

The Domodedovo blasts took lives of 35 and injured over 180 people. According to some reports, the bomb was detonated by a terrorist. The Russian government has launched a special investigation into the incident.

Against the backdrop of Medvedev’s seeming inaptness vis-à-vis the attacks, Vladimir Putin has made some decisive statements. He promised to punish all those found guilty in the attacks.
In response to the bombing and the growing suspicion that Putin might use Domodedovo as a platform for reelection in 2012, a Twitter user named sedictor wrote, “Vladimir Vladimirovich, we would have elected you again even without terrorist attacks.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Commentary: Georgia’s Caucasus Strategy Revisited, Emerging Power in the South (Part Two)

By David Iberi

As Tbilisi started to develop its neighborhood policy (See Part One), publications spawned in the West assessing the reasons of and the implications for Georgia’s Caucasus engagement. Some of those writings clearly lack credibility due to their authors’ premeditated distortion of facts or manipulative analyses. Nonetheless, Georgia needs to perform additional explanatory work in the West in order to secure broad support for the furthering of its Caucasus agenda.

Walter Russell Mead, a renowned American scholar who works with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a leading US think-tank, wrote in October 2010 on Georgia’s Caucasus visa policy: “The move angered Russia (which wants to keep the lid on tightly in the North Caucasus and already blames Georgia for allowing arms and people smuggling in and out of the troubled region); it also seriously annoyed the United States, which does not want Georgia poking at the Russian bear; the US also objects, strenuously, to the idea of Islamic militants crossing the Georgia border and then roaming freely around a country with many US Peace Corps volunteers, diplomats and other personnel.”

The only truth in this analysis is that Russia indeed wants to keep the North Caucasus – and the whole Caucasus for that matter – eternally isolated and closed, and Georgia seems to be the only country in the region that objects to Russia’s policy of isolating the region. Other than that, Mr. Mead does not seem to desire to differentiate between visa-free travel and free travel per se when there are no borders or checkpoints; likewise, he does not explain why Russian authorities on the Russo-Georgian border would allow free passes to “Islamic militants” into Georgian territory. Besides, Mead fails to keep in mind the US government’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism, in which Georgia is persistently praised for its significant troop contributions to the ISAF operations in Afghanistan and for the diligent security and police reforms that have transformed the Caucasus nation.

“Russian claims of Georgian support for Chechen terrorists and harboring of such individuals in the Pankisi Gorge were unsubstantiated,” the latest US report reads, “and the Georgian government has made transparent efforts to prove this to the international community.” What the report regrets, though, is the absence of order, law or transparency in the Russian-occupied portion of Georgian territory, which allows for the “unrestricted and unidentified flow of people, goods, and other potentially dangerous items from Russia into Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

In the words of Alexander Melikishvili, a Washington-based analyst who works with the Voice of America’s Georgian Service, “In presuming that all North Caucasians willing to take advantage of the visa-free regime are rebels or are somehow connected to them, Mead commits another ignorant mistake, which actually borders on ethnic prejudice, the kind that is popular in certain Russian circles.”

Oliver Bullough, a Caucasus editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a former Reuters Moscow correspondent, weighed in on Georgia’s Caucasus strategy in an article published in the CFR’s Foreign Affairs magazine on December 23, 2010. Like Mead, Bullough made statements – such as “Georgia now buys gas from Iran” – which are not only false but are offensive by nature as they seek to sow seeds of distrust toward Georgia in the US public, which is known to be highly sensitive to anything related to Iran. Bullough laments that Washington is “dangerously silent on the provocative, and potentially destabilizing, moves of its ally [Georgia]. During the buildup to the 2008 war, Georgia’s friends in the West neglected their duty to calm Saakashvili's government -- and they may be doing the same thing today.” What Bullough utterly misses here is how long and persistently Russia was preparing for an aggressive and irredentist war against its southern neighbor, the only sin of which was to refuse to recognize Moscow’s suzerainty. The IWPR’s analyst also makes no mention of the United States and the West adamantly rejecting Moscow’s claim to a sphere of influence at the expense of Georgia’s sovereignty.

Davit Beritashvili, a Tbilisi-based leading Georgian analyst – who was interviewed by the author of this article – commented on the allegations Bullough made against Georgia. “Much like the Kremlin and its propaganda machine, he acts as an advocate of a ‘new reality’ that Russia is trying to concoct in the post-Soviet space. While Bullough is keen on criticizing Georgia’s visa facilitation policy for isolated and disempowered citizens of the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus and calls Georgia’s move a ‘giant gamble,’ he forgets to mention Russia’s illegal mass ‘passportization’ of Georgian citizens in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia years before August 2008” when Moscow still had the official status of a “peacekeeper” but, nonetheless, distributed Russian passports to Georgian citizens in the territory it held under de facto control. “Likewise,” Beritashvili regretted, “Bullough neglects the gross ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Georgians that Russia perpetrated in the occupied territories.”

In Bullough’s words, “any decline of Russian influence on its side of the mountains could spur interethnic conflict -- a possibility perhaps even more worrying for outside powers.” Beritashvili asserts that “Bullough’s true mission seems to be the portrayal of Russia as the legitimate master of the Caucasus and the sole power capable of pacifying the region, notwithstanding the deportations and ethnic cleansings in the Caucasus throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and the two bloody wars in Chechnya in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, or other brutal acts of violence committed by the Russian state.”

For Christmas, the Georgian president traveled to Ushguli, a little hamlet in Georgia’s northwestern Svaneti region. Located at 2,200 meters above sea level, Ushguli is referred to as the highest populated village in Europe. Bordering Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia republics, Svaneti, with Mestia as its central town (see the photo above), is rapidly transforming into a burgeoning tourism destination and winter ski resort – in sharp contrast with Russian republics on northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains where insurgency, religious violence, crime and corruption have a debilitating impact on the region.

As true believers in Realpolitik, Mead and Bullough may indeed show contempt for Georgia’s internal modernization or for its potential to serve, in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own characterization, as a “role model” for the entire region. There are, however, a great many other scholars in the West who would sincerely like to understand the socioeconomic and geopolitical processes in the Caucasus. To remain competitive and succeed, Georgia has to have not only a government and political elite with a vision of modernity, it also needs greater popularization of its reform agenda across the Caucasus and internationally, as well as more support in the West’s political and academic circles.

Georgia’s Caucasus Strategy Revisited: Emerging Power in the South (Part One)

By David Iberi

Summarizing Russia’s hardships in the North Caucasus, Mairbek Vatchagaev, The Jamestown Foundation’s leading Caucasus analyst, wrote in his article on January 6, 2011: “…further in the south, Georgia is emerging as a competitor and an alternative to Russian power, capable of influencing the situation in the region. In 2010, Tbilisi dramatically shifted its policy toward the North Caucasus and now seems to be poised to play a more dynamic role in this part of the region.”

Indeed, along with intensifying diplomatic, political, economic and trade relations with the international community two years after the Russian aggression and illegitimate occupation of 20 percent of Georgia’s sovereign territory, Tbilisi stepped up its engagement north of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Through its open-door policy, Georgia aims to counter the centuries-old Russian monopolistic strategy of isolating the Caucasus and making it inaccessible to the outside world.

On October 11, 2010, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili signed an executive order allowing the residents of Russia’s seven ethnic republics in the Caucasus – Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea – to enjoy a 90-day visa-free regime with Georgia.

Aiming at “deepening dialogue” with its immediate neighbors to the north, Tbilisi hopes this will boost its reputation in the neighborhood as the champion of modernization and a role model for development and cooperation. As reported by Tabula, a Tbilisi-based libertarian weekly magazine, on December 27, 2010, “thousands of Muslim pilgrims from the North Caucasus” made use of the Georgian route during their recent hajj to Mecca, and they were “pleasantly surprised” to see that Georgian police were “highly professional” and did not ask for bribes at the border-crossing checkpoint or along the road, as is “routinely practiced in Russia.”

In September 2010, Saakashvili spoke of a peaceful and united Caucasus at the General Assembly of the United Nations. “For too long, [the Caucasus] has suffered from division, injustice, conflict, colonization and violence,” Saakashvili asserted, “Today, however, change is possible. In fact, change is already taking place.” He then asked his fellow world leaders to support the idea of a “free, stable and united Caucasus” and highlighted Georgia’s rapid modernization against a background of Russia’s failed policies in the North Caucasus – “a region that is exploding,” in Saakashvili’s own words.

He apparently had in mind the ongoing low intensity warfare in the Russian-controlled part of the Caucasus where a gap is rapidly widening between the corrupt and highly incompetent elites and the increasingly nationalistic local populations. Speaking before the European Parliament in November 2010, Saakashvili again claimed it was “high time for the European peace to be extended to the Caucasus. And it is our responsibility, as political leaders, to conceive bold initiatives in order to make this happen.” He was most likely alluding to the Balkans of the past era when talking of the perils of the contemporary Caucasus, alleging that it is only a matter of time before Europeanization of the Caucasus becomes a reality.

The Georgian Parliament has found its own niche in elaborating Tbilisi’s Caucasus policy. There is a special body in Parliament charged with the task of strengthening humanitarian ties with indigenous populations in the North, and a parliamentary committee for relations with compatriots residing abroad was recently renamed as the Committee for Diaspora and Caucasus Issues. Georgian parliamentarians argue that “the issue of Caucasus solidarity is now active” and there is a need “to develop unified Caucasus policy.”

As Georgia’s engagement intensified, the number of students from across the North Caucasus studying in private and public universities in Tbilisi significantly increased as well, as has the reputation of Georgia as an educational, scientific and cultural hub and of the Georgian language as a newly discovered lingua franca for North Caucasians. Georgia has historically had close relations with all ethnicities across the Caucasus and there is a pervasive, popular belief among Georgians that most of the North Caucasians are related to them ethnically and linguistically. While Georgia’s popularity and attractiveness in the neighborhood are definitely on the rise, Tbilisi is experiencing difficulty in convincing the West of the usefulness of its Caucasus engagement (See Part Two).

Monday, January 3, 2011

Kyrgyz PM Earns Russia’s Support

By Erica Marat

Newly elected Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev’s first trip abroad was to Russia. During his visit, Atambayev met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and achieved two crucial goals for his government. First, he secured a $200 million loan and second, ensured that the Russian energy giant Gazprom will lift extra export charges to Kyrgyzstan.

Atambayev has always been open about his appreciation of Russia’s support of Kyrgyzstan. “We need to drastically change our relations with Russia and place them on the level they need to be. I hope that meeting with the leadership of the Russian government will give us an impetus, will be a breakthrough,” Atambayev said shortly before heading to Moscow. Other politicians, including the head of the Ar-Namys party, Felix Kulov, tried to earn similar Russian support.

After the regime change in April 2010, Russia’s initial concern was that its influence over Kyrgyzstan might decline if a new parliamentary system was established, in which the Kremlin would need to jockey with a parliament made of competing political parties. Elections results, however, showed that mostly pro-Russian political parties succeeded, leaving Ata-Meken, a party with a somewhat pro-Western orientation, in the minority. Two out of three political parties included in the coalition – Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan and Respublika – favor greater integration with Russia.

Putin was among the first foreign officials to congratulate Atambayev for acquiring the position of prime minister.

Gazprom’s agreement to lift export tariffs indicates that the Kyrgyz government and the Russian firm have reached a deal on fuel supplies to the US Transit Center at Manas airport in Bishkek. On December 21, the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs released results of its eight month-long investigation into Mina’s work in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the DoD and State Department’s oversight of contracts with Manas.

According to the report, Gazprom increased export tariffs for Kyrgyzstan in April after discovering that its fuel was used for Manas. The Pentagon, State Department, and the U.S. embassy in Bishkek, in the meantime, were not ready to take responsibility and challenge contracts with Mina. In September President Roza Otunbayeva proposed to cut out the middleman, Mina Corp Inc, and create a joint venture between Gazprom and the Kyrgyz government. Through this method, $50 million would have been saved each year, according to Otunbayeva. The president also suggested the creation of a special overseeing state agency to monitor the contracts in order to prevent the illegal enrichment of state officials.

Otunbayeva’s government has repeatedly said that the United States will be able to rent Manas airport for the purposes of supplying the war in Afghanistan until 2014, at which time President Barack Obama plans to withdraw troops.