Thursday, February 26, 2015

Amid Escalating Russian Tensions, Lithuania Initiates Civilian Plan of Action

By Natalia Kopytnik

When Putin swiftly snatched Crimea from a bewildered Ukraine in early 2014, a collective shudder passed through the Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These tiny European countries, with populations smaller than that of New York City, have found themselves wondering if they might be the next targets of Russian aggression. But while the collective West has been responding with a rather disjointed war of words and sanctions, tiny Lithuania has been rallying its people, resources and allies, hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union and the United States have all sought to reassure the Baltic States that they will remain active in protecting their interests. Nevertheless, Lithuanians, much like many Eastern Europeans, are painfully aware that they cannot put their faith in assurances alone (, February 11). The government in Vilnius has taken increasingly strong steps to bolster Lithuanian security, simultaneously sending a strong and defiant message to Russia. Notably, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense recently published a comprehensive guide aimed at preparing Lithuania’s three million citizens for the worst possible scenario. The document, bluntly titled “How to Act in Extreme Situations or Instances of War,” provides a framework for a civilian plan of action in the event that the border is breached by enemy combatants (“Ką Turime Žinoti as found on, accessed February 26).

While potential enemy combatants are not specifically identified as Russians within the document, the message is clear: the country should be prepared for the worst-case scenario. The editor’s note explains that “we aimed in this publication that [Lithuanians] receive comprehensive information of the state and its possible action in the event of disaster or war [...] we try to provide all the necessary information but realize that issues remain, which require further explanation.”

As to its contents, the guide provides many general suggestions as to the best evacuation routes, construction of home bomb shelters and recommended demeanor around enemy soldiers. The section entitled “Practical Tips for Residents” aims to teach Lithuanians a plethora of survival skills related to specific situations of peril such as: a) how react when sirens sound (move to a safe area), b) how to act in an emergency (do not panic, listen to the radio for instruction), c) what to pack in an emergency pack (first aid, non-perishables, blankets and of course, adhesive tape, among other items), and d) how to act in the event of an explosion (take shelter in a basement, ditch or tree).

In the case of more extreme situations, the guide offers both emotional and practical advice on how to behave as a hostage, stressing that “your only goal is to survive”; it is unwise to refuse food and do not “stare down your captors.” Yet another section advises on the proper course of action in the event one is unable to evacuate the area of hostilities. Some pieces of advice are more ambiguous than others: “if you fail to evacuate, you will have to acquire a gun, it will protect you from bandits.” Where to obtain weapons or munitions is not spelled out.

The advice and guidelines range from fostering psychological support, to more practical basic survival skills. For example, in situations of duress, “do not lie to people to encourage them” and “do not risk your life to defend property or assets” and, most importantly, “do not panic.” More pragmatically, the Lithuanian defense ministry document recommends its readers to “have an ample supply of non-perishable food” and “ensure each family member’s needs are considered when planning.”

In the event of occupation, citizens are advised on how to actively resist the enemy regime, by holding strikes and demonstrations, advocating resistance through social media, staging cyber attacks and engaging in passive resistance through unproductive work. “Be aware,” the guide advises, “if your country is surrounded, escape abroad will be almost impossible.” Be prepared, “to stay in the country and join a resistance movement of defense or survival.” So far, about 2,000 copies have been distributed in schools and other institutions, though the full document is also available for download from the defense ministry’s website.

At the end of the day, the reality is that Lithuania directly borders Russia’s European enclave of Kaliningrad (its border with Belarus provides little comfort as well).  Judging by Putin’s playbook in Crimea, the evolution of a Russian-choreographed crisis in a region with a significant number of Russian speakers (about 6 percent of Lithuania’s total population) is not beyond the realm of possibility (RT, January 15). A plausible choice in this case? The port city of Klaipeda, home to a considerable Russian minority and strategically valuable liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, which is conveniently located less than 150 kilometers from the Russian border.

Thus, in addition to releasing the “survival guide,” Lithuania has also decided to increase its defense spending to at least 1.1 percent of GDP by next year, and 2 percent (as recommended by NATO) by 2020. It has also vowed to increase military cooperation with Latvia and Estonia (, February 11). Nonetheless, the looming reality remains that Russia’s defense spending has skyrocketed in the past few years and is expected to hit a record $81 billion this year (about 4.2 percent of its GDP). Therefore, Lithuania needs a contingency plan because no European country, regardless of its size or military budget, has the resources to be able to successfully take on Putin’s Russia alone (The Moscow Times, October 16, 2014).

While other countries in the region (such as Poland) have hesitated to send lethal weapons to Ukraine’s aid, the Lithuanian foreign ministry (as well as that of neighboring Latvia) reaffirmed that they were keen on sending assistance for the Ukrainian army ( February 5).  In general, Vilnius has remained one of Kyiv’s strongest supporters during the course of the crisis in the east. And Russia has noticed; the country’s NATO airbase has reported an increase in Russian planes flying into Lithuanian airspace without identifying themselves or submitting flight plans (, February 7). Russian news outlets have predictably and repeatedly decried President Dalia Grybauskaite and the Lithuanian government for its “hysterics” ( February 16). Similarly, Russian media relegates the perceived threat of invasion in the Baltic States to “fear mongering” and “delusion” ( February 20).

Perhaps Lithuania’s “survival guide” seems like more of a curiosity than a serious government initiative to Western media as well. But the West might be too quick to dismiss such things as overeager nervousness. Indeed, there is a pervasive lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation that the residents of the Baltics currently feel they face (Lithuania Tribune, July 18, 2014). A recent Gallup poll shows that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is at the bottom of the list of Americans’ security concerns (, February 13). After Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is generally wary of involvement in any conflict, much less a direct war. This reality only contributes to the increased understanding in the Baltics that (despite the reassurances of their allies) they may have limited outside support when push comes to shove. Initiatives such as this “survival guide” might not be a foolproof way to ensure safety or organization in war time. They are however, a pragmatic step to ensure that, if the day comes, citizens might have at least some better idea of how to ensure their own safety and, ultimately, their survival as a nation. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Another Wave of Pan-Turkism Allegedly on the Rise in Central Asia

By Paul Goble

Pan-Turkism, the doctrine that all the Turkic peoples of the world should unite in a common state or union to defend their collective interests, has periodically swept through the intellectual communities of Central Asia. The first example was the arrival to the Ferghana Valley of Ottoman military officer and Young Turk Enver Pasha to lead the Basmachi Revolt after the Russian Revolution; then, pan-Turkism reemerged via German agents during World War II; and it made a comeback in the early 1990s, after the countries of the region gained their independence. But in each case, while it attracted enormous attention in some quarters and especially from those who saw it as threatening to their positions, it receded as a force relative to more narrow nationalism, Islam or other collective identities such as “the Soviet people.”

Now, according to Kazakh commentator Talgat Ibrayev, “the re-animation of the ideas of pan-Turkism are threatening Central Asia” again, not only because of the actions of Turkey and its alleged US backers, but because of the efforts of Central Asian nationalists to find a base for opposing both the existing regimes in the region and Russia’s continuing influence in the area. Ibrayev argues that contemporary pan-Turkism in Central Asia is “a powerful consciousness-raising weapon” that can be used by radical nationalist groups. And if it is taken up by skilled political operatives, pan-Turkism “could become the latest challenge to the security of the entire region. And because that is so,” he says, “it simply cannot be ignored” (, February 12).

Twenty years ago, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Turkey promoted the idea of “a certain federative all-Turkic community,” with a capital in Ankara. But the leaders of the newly independent Eurasian states rejected the idea because each of them had their own agenda and it did not include handing over power to a new regional hegemon even before they had consolidated their own position. Nonetheless, the Turks kept pushing, seeking to influence the populations there in various ways after it became clear that Turkey would not take the region by storm.

They promoted the idea of a shared Turkishness via the Turkish agency for Cooperation and Development (TIKA) and Turksoy, an international organization devoted to promoting cultural contacts among the Turkic peoples. They also promoted Turkishness in a way few of the founding fathers of pan-Turkism would have approved: they backed the spread of the so-called “Suleymania trend” in Islam, recruiting young people to its values and often sending them to Turkey for further training. They pushed the idea of a common Turkic alphabet based on the Latin script. And they supported political parties like Alash in Kazakhstan, Erk in Kyrgyzstan and Birlik in Uzbekistan, which accepted one or more of the elements of the pan-Turkic agenda.

Each of these approaches had some success, but the one that has been gaining the most ground in the last several years is the notion of the need for “the liberation of Turkic peoples.” That obviously entails the question “liberation from whom?” And the answer, Ibrayev says, is “from all types of ‘colonizers’ ”—and in the case of Central Asia, from Russia. Such an ideology has allowed pan-Turkist ideas to combine with more narrowly nationalist ones. And it opened the way to the acceptance of the idea among some in Central Asia that they were “hyphenates,” that is, “Turkic-”this or “Turkic”-that rather than completely self-standing nations.

Some nationalists have begun to talk about “pan-Turkism” as a core value of any Turkic state, an idea that has occasionally been picked up by republic leaders, including Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev (, November 9, 2012). The followers of pan-Turkism “solemnly declare that the ideology of the cultural integration of the Turkic languages and peoples, at present, does not include within itself any threat to other participants in the world political process…” However, “the education of potential pan-Turkic elites” with the support of Turkey and the United States could eventually become “a detonator” leading to an explosion. Central Asians must be alert to the danger.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Land Privatization Failures Driving Extremism Among Balkars, Moscow Expert Says

By Paul Goble

Research conducted in the North Caucasus has shown that almost all conflicts in the region are in some way related to disputes over land control or ownership. Studies on rural extremism also confirm that the privatization of land into the hands of the rural population keeps such disputes from becoming violent. Unfortunately, in the North Caucasus, and among the Balkars of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic (KBR) in particular, land was privatized into the hands of elite officials rather than into those of the peasants. As a result, a process that could have potentially eased ethnic conflicts has had the exact opposite effect, according to Denis Sokolov, a highly-regarded specialist on the region at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service (, February 5).

In his proactively titled article, “The Balkar Question—Import Substitution via Revolution,” Sokolov argues that there are only two ways for the Balkars to avoid descending into anarchy and violence: “a revolution from below” or “a revolution from above.” Following the imposition of Western sanctions, he argues, many assumed that the North Caucasus could contribute to Russian food supplies and simultaneously reap the economic benefits. But “without institutional reforms and […] without a resolution of the land issue,” it will be impossible to boost the region’s economy or contribute to food supplies for the rest of Russia.

When government land was privatized in the 1990s, it was usually distributed to the local elite (both criminal and otherwise), which was usually of Kabardinian origin, rather than to those who could actually farm it (mainly ethnic Balkars). In 2005, Arsen Kanokov became president of Kabardino-Balkaria with a promise to change this. However, given the power of the elite and their strong hold on property in rural areas, Kanokov was unable to keep his campaign promise. On the contrary, the president’s initiative led to increased levels of banditry and even cattle rustling, as rural workers tried to take back what they felt was rightfully theirs.

The struggle over land in KBR is, in effect, a struggle for power rather than for property, although property is the marker of ethnicity and Islam remains the most important tool for mobilization. Sokolov argues that in order to back out of this dead end, the republic needs radical reform through either a “revolution from below” or a “revolution from above.” The former would involve the peasants revolting against the regime; the latter would occur if new leadership was willing to sacrifice some of the elite’s interests in order to support those who can actually farm the land, both for themselves and for the sake of the republic’s economy.

Because of their isolation from the “republic’s political machine”, which remains dominated by the more numerous and elite Kabardinians, ethnic Balkars are taking the lead in raising the land question and promoting the idea of a “revolution from below.” Thus, if a revolution does erupt in the KBR, it will mostly likely be led by the Balkars, and the Kabardinians will seek to present themselves as the defenders of order when, in fact, they will simply aim to defend the status quo.

A revolution from above is unlikely because of Moscow’s focus on short-term stability; and consequently, that makes a revolution from below more probable. In such a scenario, the Turkic Balkars are likely to be the driving force in KBR, even though they have received far less attention than the Kabardinians, a branch of the Circassians, up to now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Surprising Results of Russian Public Opinion Poll on War in Ukraine

By Richard Arnold

The results of Russian public opinion center VTsIOM’s recent poll, published on February 2, concerning the war in eastern Ukraine make for an interesting read. According to the poll 50 percent of respondents believe the developments in Ukraine should be called a “civil war.” About 17 percent agreed that the events constituted “genocide, the murder of peaceful people, or terror,” while another 17 percent called them “banditry.” Only 3 percent responded that the conflict in Ukraine was linked to “fascism” or an “American provocation” (, February 2.

These results somewhat undermine the current and dominant Western narrative, which portrays Russians as fully buying into the Kremlin narrative of Western expansionism as a key threat.  Undoubtedly, the Russian state media has been trying to portray the Ukrainian crisis as an epic confrontation between Western-backed “fascists” and Russian “saviors,” but the latest evidence from VTsIOM suggests this narrative has yet to permeate Russian public opinion.

A separate VTsIOM poll asked Russians to identify the Kremlin’s objectives in the Ukrainian conflict. Over half of respondents (65 percent) believed that Russia aimed to “freeze” the conflict in the same way as it froze earlier conflicts in Georgia and Moldova. Similarly, 70 percent stated that Russia was assisting the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk—a position that deviates from the Kremlin’s official stance that it is not involved in the Ukrainian conflict (, February 4). The fact that these opinions persist at such high response rates should be a warning to those who blindly accept depictions of Russian society as entirely lost to a domestic quasi-totalitarianism. These polls may also suggest that—in the eyes of the Russian public, at least—diplomatic solutions to the crisis have not yet been exhausted.

However, other polls show that Russian opinions concerning potential crisis resolutions and Russia’s role are changing. For the first time since VTsIOM began polling the public on the situation in Ukraine, the number of Russians favoring Moscow’s recognition of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR) is greater than those in favor of Russia’s neutrality on the matter. This demonstrates a hardening of Russian opinion against the Ukrainian authorities and an increasing sense among Russians that Europe’s newest emerging de facto state—DPR-LPR, or “Novorossia” (“New Russia”)—is well on its way to becoming a reality. Likewise, 70 percent of respondents said that the Russian government’s support of the DPR and LPR was either “in the interest of society as a whole” or “in the interest of a majority.” Just 14 percent thought intervention was “in the interest of a minority” or “a small group of individuals.”

In sum, the results of the latest set of VtsIOM polls should at least give pause to those who argue that the Russian population will not tolerate their country’s greater and bloodier involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. Instead, if the above-cited data can be believed, it appears that Russian society not only expects a more direct intervention, but may even encourage the Kremlin to push on further.