Monday, June 9, 2014

Karakalpak Autonomy Rumblings in Uzbekistan Raise Fears Putin Eyeing Central Asia for Next Crimea

Last week I reported here on possibly ethnically-tinged conflicts stirring again in eastern Tajikistan—a country whose destabilization could be in Russia’s interest—between Sunni Tajiks and Shiite Pamiris.  Since then, another separatist region in a former Soviet republic, Uzbekistan’s Republic of Karakalpakstan, has renewed its demands for autonomy as well.  Does this mean covertly Russian-backed Crimea and Donbas type scenarios will be playing out in Central Asia? or is this merely a reaction to the divisiveness and unease in Moscow’s former empire?

The flag of Karakalpakstan
A group called Alga Karakalpakstan (“Forward Karakalpakstan!”), which represents the indigenous people of the vast western half of Uzbekistan, has gone over the heads of the Uzbek government to directly petition the World Bank to halt development aid unless Uzbeks crack down on the use of slave labor in Karakalpak cotton fields.  Referring to well-documented practices which have caused many in the international community to look askance at Uzbekistan, the Alga Karakalpakstan letter tells the bank, “The government owns all the land of Uzbekistan and forces farmers to meet annual quotas for cotton, and sell it to the state at a low purchasing price—under the threat of losing land, criminal charges and physical violence.  Every autumn, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilized 16-17 year old students of colleges and universities, pensioners, education and health professionals, and other public sector workers to pick cotton.”  Even within this already harsh system, according to the group, Karakalpakstan is a “captive” nation under “political and economic blockade.”

The incredible shrinking Aral Sea paid the cost of the Soviet mania to
make arid Uzbekistan a cotton producer.  So did Karakalpaks.
Like Crimea, Karakalpakstan is a victim of redrawn internal borders during the Soviet period which are now international borders.  Karakalpaks are ethnically and culturally closer to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks; some even classify them as Kazakh.  Thus, Stalin moved the region out of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (S.S.R.) into the Uzbek S.S.R. to dilute Kazakh influence.  But then Karakalpaks caught the brunt of Soviet eco-pillage and central-planning lunacy.  A cotton industry in this desert region required the draining and near-disappearance of the Aral Sea, which decimated the Karakalpakstan’s more traditional fishing economy.  And after the Soviets located a chemical-weapons facility on an Aral Sea island (which soon ceased to be an island as the sea vanished) and then abandoned it to rot and leach poisons after Communism fell, Karakalpakstan has become the world’s worst toxic-waste dump.

Stranded rotting ships in what used to be the Aral Sea
Though Uzbekistan’s 1993 constitution guarantees Karakalpakstan the right of secession, it is generally understood that the brutal regime in Tashkent would never actually permit this.  One United States diplomat has referred to Karakalpakstan as a “time bomb.”  Or perhaps it is only a fuse that needs to be lit, and that the Crimea crisis could do that.  Because Uzbekistan is so closed, it is hard to evaluate how strong Karakalpak separatism is; after all, they are a minority in their own republic, with the nearly 2 million people being about equally divided among three ethnic groups: Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks.

But Karakalpakstan has most of Uzbekistan’s oil, plus it is just to the west of the Transcaspia region of Kazakhstan, a strategic area with a huge Russian minority, many of whom would like to join Russia.  Russia’s expansionist president, Vladimir Putin, surely would not mind encircling more of the Caspian Sea the way he has done in the Black Sea—especially if it meant seizing more energy resources.

How many ethnic Russians, like those in Crimea, will Putin decide need “protecting”?
Kazakhstan itself has long been a likely site of Russian irredentism.  In addition to Mangystau oblast (province) in Transcaspia (ethnically, about half Kazakh and about a third Russian), the oblasts of East Kazakhstan (55% Kazakh and 41% Russian) and North Kazakhstan (almost half Russian and less than a third Kazakh) have seen Russian separatism as well since Communism fell.  Cossacks are a presence in all three areas and have been at the forefront of intermittent drives to secede and join Russia.  As the Ukrainian analyst Anatoly Baronin has noted, Vladimir Shtygashev, the speaker of parliament in Russia’s nearby Republic of Khakassia (which is less than an eighth Khakass and 81% ethnic-Russian) has said that mineral-rich East Kazakhstan, “the so-called Mining Altai, is historically a part of Russia.”  Kazakhstan’s long-serving authoritarian ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is ever mindful of all this and put Kazakh border patrols on high alert when Putin moved into Crimea earlier this year (as reported at the time in this blog (also discussed here)).  At a hastily arranged presidential summit, Putin “convinced” Nazarbayev that his territory would be more secure if he didn’t make trouble and dutifully signed the agreement to create the “Eurasian Union” (Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan) trading bloc, which indeed was inaugurated in late May.  (This is the group which Ukraine’s refusal to join sparked the current conflict there.)

Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev, Belarus’s Lukashenko, and Russia’s Putin are the core of the new “Eurasian Union.”
As Putin tries to rebuild the Soviet Union, his eyes may next be turning eastward.

Special note: This version of the article corrects an original version which misidentifed the nationality of Anatoly Baronin.  Thank you for the reader that wrote me to offer this correction.

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  The book, which contains dozens of maps and over 500 flags, is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Is Gorno-Badakhshan Stirring Again?

Outsiders are still trying to sort out what happened on May 21st in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (G.B.A.O.), the sealed-off eastern half of the Republic of Tajikistan.

According to the Russian news agency ITAR–TASS, three people were killed and seven wounded in Khorog, the Badakhshani capital, in the wake of a drug raid in which police killed two local residents.  Other suspects escaped in a car and shot and wounded four police officers in the ensuing chase.

Khorog, Gorno-Badakhshan’s capital
In response to these deaths at police hands, mass protests were held, cars were overturned, and public buildings were subjected to grenade attacks and set on fire, including a court, a police station, and the public prosecutor’s office.  One policeman was killed in street confrontations associated with the protest violence.  This was followed by demonstrations in the days following, with the public demanding an investigation.

Though the situation seems to have calmed down since then, it may have had an ethnic and sectarian dimension.  Gorno-Badakhshan—along with the adjacent part of Afghanistan, the eastern “panhandle” province of Badakhshan—is home to the Pamiri minority.  Pamiris, who like Tajiks speak a language related to Persian (see map below), follow Shi’a Islam—and in particular are Ismailis, i.e. followers of the Aga Khan—unlike the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other Sunni Muslims who make up the other 97% of Tajikistan’s population.  An estimated 100,000 Pamiris and members of a related ethnic group, the Gharmis, were slaughtered in the civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1997 after Tajikistan’s separation from the Soviet Union.

A scene from the violence in Gorno-Badakhshan in 2012
Since then, Gorno-Badakhshan, which covers nearly half of Tajikistan’s territory, has largely run its own affairs, without molestation by the central government.  The conflict was revived in 2012, when the government moved in to reoccupy the region for a while following the murder of a central-government security-chief, which Tajikistan blamed on Tolib Ayombekov, a Pamiri warlord from the 1990s who became a major drugs and weapons trafficking boss.

It is hard to know what goes on in Gorno-Badakhshan.  The area is sealed off from much of the world. But its fate has wider strategic implications.  The Russian government acted aggressively to snuff out the civil war in the late 1990s out of fears that the ascendant Taliban government in Afghanistan could take advantage of ethnic affinities across the Afghan–Tajik border to gain a foothold there.  Both Pamiris and Afghanistan’s ethnic mainstream, after all, had long-standing resentment of Soviet and Russian influence.  It is not as though the Taliban has particularly much influence in the Pamiri areas of Afghanistan; but the appearance or threat of it could be enough for authorities on either side to take overly precipitous action.  The area also borders the People’s Republic of China, in particular the vast and predominantly-Muslim Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the Beijing government is using separatist violence by the oppressed Uyghur people (some of which might even be staged, in “false flag” operations, as many Uyghur exiles believe) as the excuse for a crackdown—and for building cross-border alliances with Tajikistan, Pakistan, Russia, and other states to crack down on “separatist” and “terrorist” networks.

This map of Central Asian languages, seems to classify Pamiri (controversially) as Tajik.
It also shows, in pink, the presence of Kyrgyz people in eastern Gorno-Badakhshan.
One Central Asia expert, Omar Ashour, believes that the currently ongoing winding-down of the United States and NATO war in Afghanistan may be leading to instability (which of course is different from suggesting that those forces should stay). Some groups—the Taliban among them—are betting that the drawdown will leave power vacuums that they can fill. “I think what the NATO departure will do,” Ashour says, “is just make all the major players in Tajikistan think that they can expand their influence without having some big brother in the neighborhood intervene to empower one side or the other.”

Tajik soldiers display weapons captured in Gorno-Badakhshan raids, in 2010.
Surely, in a larger sense, China and especially Russia feel that way too. In particular, the new aggressive “Monroe Doctrine” approach to the former Soviet lands which President Vladimir Putin made public earlier this year with his annexation of Crimea lends extra significance to any unrest in Soviet successor states. The possibility, or even the fear, that events are the work of Kremlin-directed agents provocateurs creating a pretext for Russian intervention or annexation, will help determine the progress of any conflict.  We already see this happening with the ongoing coup d’état situation in the unrecognized Russian puppet state of Abkhazia, on Georgia’s territory.  Tajik instability also serves Russian interests by making Tajiks feel they would be safer inside the new “Eurasian Union” trade bloc of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus inaugurated last week as a counterbalance to the European Union.  Putin has already baldly exploited territorial anxieties to arm-twist Armenia (a prospective Eurasian Union member) and Kazakhstan to pull closer to Russia.

Tajik-Americans angered by the lack of information coming out of the violence-torn
areas in their homeland demonstrate in front of the Tajik embassy in Washington, D.C.
Ashour added, “Tajikistan is really on the brink at the moment and I think without some kind of international pressure to start some serious reforms in the security sector, in the military sector, and the political system, I think this country may see another cycle of heavy violence.”

[You can read more about Gorno-Badakhshan and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

Monday, June 2, 2014

“Busty Culture Minister” Natalia Voronina Claims Donetsk Rebels Appointed Her without Asking First

While the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (D.P.R.), in what most of the world regards as southeastern Ukraine, endures an internal power-struggle between an insurgent “Vostok Battalion” of mercenaries and militants from Russia within its ranks, a bit of a comical cabinet shake-up is playing out on the sidelines.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic claims the territory
of Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast (province).
As part of the bizarre forefronting of photogenic models and sex symbols among the pro-Russian political leadership in this part of the world, a Donetsk fashion designer and model named Natalia Voronina (Наталья Воронина) was (as reported recently in this blog) made Minister of Culture of the chaotic quasi-state governed mostly out of administration buildings occupied by pro-Kremlin (and, most likely, Kremlin-directed) militiamen throughout Ukraine’s industrial Donetsk Oblast.  But now it turns out Voronina never gave her assent to the appointment.

As she told an interviewer recently, “It was like this: the people of the republic’s leadership invited me to a meeting and explained that they wanted to get advice in the field of cultural development in the newly created republic.  ...  I’m against the lawlessness of the Kiev junta.  Apparently, my friends saw me as a person whose political views and organizational skills could help in the development of the D.P.R.  But, you know, I’m a creative person and a good organizer, but the ministry of culture for me—it’s too loud.  And I’m not yet old enough to hold such a position.”

Voronina may be slightly modest here: she does have a law degree. And her husband, Aleksandr Kalyusskiy (Александр Калюсский), is the D.P.R.’s Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy. (As far as I can tell, he actually assents to this appointment, which occurred at the creation of the republic in April.)


Voronina turned down the position point-blank at her first opportunity, but the D.P.R. leadership, she says, were hesitant to accept her refusal, and it was not publicly reported for a while.

This “Donetsk People’s Republic” “citizen” makes a fashion statement
more representative of the quasi-state’s politics.
In recent days, the Minister of Energy has also resigned.  That appointee, Alexei Granovsky, tendered his resignation on May 20th because he could not go along with the leadership’s plans to nationalize the energy industry.  (They do seem to be taking the whole “people’s republic” business pretty seriously at times.)  Also, as reported in this blog, the originally announced Minister of Health, Konstantin Scherbakov, is another case of someone who, like Voronina, only heard about his appointment in the media and had to turn the position down.  As Scherbakov said at the time, “I never agreed to this, I never signed any papers, it was a complete surprise.  I work at a medical university.  I have things to do.”  See that same recent article from this blog for the even more bizarre story of the adjacent Lugansk People’s Republic’s minister of culture, Irina Filatova (Ирина Филатова).

The new Russian empire’s fashion culture needs Natalia Voronina more than its
political culture does: she posted this photo to her VKontakte social-network page
to illustrate the fashion crimes committed by those who neglect to place themselves
in the hands of the Voronina fashion house.
For Voronina, part of the surprise was seeing photos of her lifted from social media (including her VKontakte account—that being the Russian equivalent of Facebook) and published and broadcast alongside reports of her appointment, often with the media nickname “the Busty Culture Minister” (Пышногрудый миминистр культуры).

Voronina runs a successful fashion house, where, according to one report, her employees greet her each morning with “Good morning, goddess.”

“Good morning, goddess.”
But who will start the day being greeted with “Good morning, Minister of Culture?”  Apparently, the D.P.R. is in talks with one Svetlana Zolina (Светлана Зорина), the former director of the department of culture for the city of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.  She was removed from office and charged with criminal counts in April for disobeying a court order to reinstate a museum director whom she had fired.  As a result, she is now on the run from the law and living in rebel-controlled Donetsk oblast.

Svetlana Zorina may be ready to fill Voronina’s (very expensive gold lamé) shoes.
A version of Kyiv’s municipal flag sits on her desk.
It is not yet clear whether Zolina will be appointed the unrecognized republic’s new culture minister.  But she has two of the qualifications which the D.P.R. apparently demands in a minister of culture: she has extensive experience in administration of cultural institutions, and she is a smokin’-hot redhead.  Poor Natalia Voronina only really met one of those criteria.

Svetlana Zorina
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  (That is shorter than the previous working title.)  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]

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