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.