Russia-Tajikistan: дружба на века

Dushanbe was on high security the last couple of days due to Putin’s visit. They had the main avenue, Rudaki, closed to traffic during large portions of the day, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a large motorcade (possibly Putin’s?) rush up and down the avenue at various points. But it was a successful trip, since Putin got his base extension until 2042 for a nominal fee, and Rahmon in return got the reassurance he needs that Russia won’t turn away Tajik migrants (plus, he got that sniper rifle… not a bad birthday for Rahmon, in the end!). It seemed like a fairly win-win situation: Russia certainly didn’t want to pay the rumored $250 million per year fee Rahmon wanted, and Rahmon is fully aware that labor migrants are a sort of “safety valve” in avoiding political/social unrest. 
I was reading a rather entertaining transcript of Putin’s birthday message to Rahmon on Tajikistan’s Khovar news agency, which has Putin quoted as saying “I’ve always known you are a wise man. You invited us right on your birthday, lured us one might say, since it’s impossible to say no to anything on a birthday. We will have to sign everything that you ask of us” (translated from the Russian article, here). Quite a bold joke for Putin to make, considering Rahmon couldn’t really say no to the base agreement.
Crisis Group’s Paul Quinn-Judge said it is “conceivable” that the Russian troops in Tajikistan would be required to conduct operations in northern Afghanistan, or to assist the Tajik military in protecting against any cross-border incursions from Afghanistan (or even if tensions were to rise with Uzbekistan). It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, the Russian military will do in terms of protection, especially post-2014.

Monday on Monday

After three flights and twenty-plus hours of traveling, I have arrived in Dushanbe on Monday, which is hilariously appropriate seeing as the word dushanbe means Monday. So I’m in Monday on Monday, how fitting.

I’ll be working in Tajikistan for the next three months for an international education organization that manages academic and cultural exchange programs. Although I’ll be based in Dushanbe, the job will involve a good deal of traveling, and I’ll be on the road about fifty percent of the time. I’ll be going to a good number of interesting places, including Khujand, Kurgan-teppe, and Isfara, and will be updating the blog on my travels and (mis)adventures as often as I can. As a result, future posts will be a departure from my analysis-oriented pieces from the past few months.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Criminal or Political Prisoner (or both)?

Since starting my research internship at CSIS I haven’t really focused much on issues I really love, namely, human rights. Instead, I’ve been trying to delve into more political analysis. However, I wanted to do a piece that would combine my interest in international law, my passion for human rights and my knowledge of the Russia/Eurasia region. The following post is a repost of a piece for the CSIS REP blog a few weeks back.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former Russian oligarch and oil tycoon, was once the richest man in Russia. His criminal trials have been two of the most publicized and controversial trials in the history of the Russian Federation. Having already languished for nearly 3,000 days behind bars, Khodorkovsky’s case was recently reviewed in March by Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika. But in early April, President Dmitry Medvedevrejected a pardon for the jailed businessman, going against the recommendations of an expert panel that said Khodorkovksy should be freed. Is Khodorkovsky such a political threat to Putin that he must continue to remain imprisoned?

Like the rest of Russia’s class of super-rich businessmen, Khodorkovsky profited from Boris Yeltsin’s aggressive privatization campaign—in particular the loans-for-shares deals—during the mid-1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Due to high inflation and investor uncertainty, just a few bidders—the soon-to-be oligarchs—bought up large holdings in former state-run industries such as energy and telecommunications, thanks to their connections, capital and confidence. Yeltsin tolerated the rise of the oligarchs because he needed political support. In exchange for their support, which helped Yelstin’s re-election in 1996, the oligarchs received economic incentives and appointments to positions in the Kremlin. Thus, the privatizations of the 1990s came with an implicit obligation: the oligarchs, the new owners of Russia’s prize assets would get the wealth, but could not oppose the Kremlin.

In the wave of privatizations, Khodorkovsky snapped up the fertilizer company Apatit in 1994. A year later he acquiredYukos Oil for $300 million, putting him in charge of Russia’s second-largest oil company. He also amassed political influence, becoming Yeltsin’s Deputy Fuel and Oil Minister. Khodorkovsky used his wealth and political sway to develop Yukos into an empire, with 100,000 employees and over $11 billion in revenues by 2002. In 2003, Forbes magazine ranked him as the world’s 26th richest man, estimating his private assets at $8 billion. However, by this time things had changed in Russia. Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president on December 31, 1999, and adopted a significantly different approach to the oligarchs: the oligarchs could continue to enjoy their profits, but only if they were willing to share it with Putin and his allies, and only if politics stayed off-limits.

Khodorkovsky, too, had changed his approach to Russian politics and business. He wanted to make Yukos a transparent, properly governed company, and hired the American consulting firm McKinsey & Company to overhaul the Yukos management structure and the accounting firm Pricewaterhouse to establish a meticulous accounting system (in 2007, PwC was reportedly pressured by the Russian government to withdraw ten years of Yukos audits). He also created a foundation called Open Russia and used his financial wealth to support non-governmental organizations, and human rights groups. Khodorkovsky also began to fund opposition political parties. Putin may have been able to tolerate Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation, but he could not allow Khodorkovsky to brazenly oppose him. In February 2003, Putin summoned Khodorkovsky and other wealthy Russian businessmen to the Kremlin, where Khodorkovsky stood up to Putin and lambasted the Kremlin for corruption.

On July 2, 2003, Khodorkovsky’s business partner Platon Lebedev was arrested. And on October 25, 2003Khodorkovsky himself was arrested on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion and fraud. The charges included three counts related to his acquisition of Apatit and three violations related to his involvement with Yukos, including tax evasion and embezzlement. While there were some indications that the 2004 trial was politically motivated—Khodorkovsky had been financing political opposition groups at a time when Putin’s priority was to centralize power by bringing Russia’s major businesses under Kremlin control—there was some substance to the tax evasion case. Khodorkovsky, however, was not the only oligarch guilty of tax evasion. But he was one of the few being prosecuted. Like the other oligarchs of the 1990s, Khodorkovsky “happily appropriated state property, paying little or nothing at all for it; like the rest of them, he allowed company managers to siphon off profits and even property,” wrote Masha Gessen in a recent piece for Vanity Fair. After eleven months of proceedings, Khodorkovsky was convicted of violating six articles of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, and he and Lebedev were sentenced to nine years imprisonment in prison colonies in Russia’s interior. Following his sentencing, Yukos was dismantled and its successful product division Yuganskneftegas was bought at auction by Baikal Finance Group, which was acquired by state-owned Rosneft shortly after the sale.

The case brought against Khodorkovsky in the second trial that began in March 2009 and ended in December 2010 drummed up charges to keep the former oil tycoon imprisoned, accusing Khodorkovsky and Lebedev of embezzling all oil produced by the three Yukos production subsidiaries between 1998 and 2003, worth $25 billion. It also accused the pair of embezzling shares held by a Yukos subsidiary in one of the production companies and five other companies, and laundering the proceeds of the sale of the allegedly embezzled oil and the shares in the indirect subsidiaries. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment.

Khodorkovsky’s supporters have always insisted the trial was an attempt by Putin’s administration to punish the oil tycoon for his political aspirations, which of course, the Kremlin denies. Is Mikhail Khodorkovsky a criminal, guilty of embezzling funds and neglecting to pay his taxes, or is he a political prisoner, the victim of the machinations of Putin? Or is he both?

Few actually doubt Khodorkovsky’s guilt; according to a poll by VTsIOM, 44 percent of Russians believe he is serving a sentence for committing real economic crimes. What is in doubt, however, is the process the State used to convict him. This was emphasized in the recent European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Chamber judgment in the caseKhodorkovskiy v. Russia (Application no. 5829/04). Khodorkovsky complained to the court that he was detained unlawfully and for too long in appalling conditions and that the charges against him had been politically motivated. The Court ruled in favor of Khodorkovsky on eight out of fifteen claims, finding that Russia had violated his rights under theEuropean Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on several instances, including, among others, two violations of Article 3 as regards the conditions in which he was kept in court and in the remand prison and four violations of Article 5(4) as regards to procedural flaws related to Khodorkovsky’s detention.

However, the ECtHR did not go so far as to find a violation of Article 18 (limitation of rights for improper purposes) as regards to the claim that Khodorkovsky’s prosecution was politically motivated. The Court observed that while the case might raise some suspicion as to what the real intent of the Russian authorities might have been for prosecuting him, claims of political motivation behind prosecution could not be substantiated due to a lack of incontestable proof: “A mere suspicion that the authorities used their powers for some other purpose than those defined in the Convention is not sufficient to prove that Article 18 was breached” (Para. 255). Moreover, the Court stated that “it is not sufficient for this Court to conclude that the whole legal machinery of the respondent State in the present case was ab intio misused, that from the beginning to the end the authorities were acting with bad faith and in blatant disregard of the Convention. This is a very serious claim which requires an incontrovertible and direct proof. Such proof . . . is absent from the case under examination” (Para. 260).

Similarly, in the recent judgment of OAO Nefteyanaya Kompaniya Yukos v. Russia (Application no. 14902/04), the ECtHR ruled that Russia violated three articles of the ECHR, including Yukos’ right to a fair trial. However, just as in the individual case of Khodorkovsky, the Court found that there was no violation of Article 18. The Court concluded there was no indication that the State had misused the judicial proceedings with a view to destroying the company and taking control of its assets.

The ruling in these two cases is somewhat perplexing, as human rights organizations including Amnesty Internationaldeclared Khodorkovsky and Lebedev prisoners of conscience after the two businessmen’s convictions on money laundering were upheld for the second time. “Whatever the rights and wrongs of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev’s first convictions there can no longer be any doubt that their second trial was deeply flawed and politically motivated,” said Nicola Duckworth, representing Amnesty International. Indeed, Khodorkovsky is no less guilty than any of the “robber baron” oligarchs of the 1990s. However, he was selectively targeted for prosecution by the Putin regime because of his politics. Not only was Khodorkovsky a target of selective justice, but the manner in which his case was handled and how he was treated by the Russian authorities amount to no justice at all.

Ultimately, the importance of the Khodorkovsky case is that it reflects how Russia is ruled—particularly under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, who as of May 7th is president once again. The arrest, conviction, and subsequent treatment of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev raise concerns about due process and the rule of law in Russia, particularly about the judicial independence of courts. Khodorkovsky is a glaring example of Putin’s unforgiving brand of vendetta politics. Moreover, his desire to see a democratic, transparent Russia is a thorn in Putin’s side. In his last statement before his second sentencing, Khodorkovsky said that he was ready to die in jail for his belief that Russia should become a country of “freedom and rule of law, where the law stands higher than [the interests of] bureaucrats… where the secret services defend the people and the law. It is difficult for me, as for anyone, to live in jail and I don’t want to die here. But if it is needed, I won’t hesitate. My beliefs are worth my life.”

Such sentiments have resonated with the nascent opposition movement in Russia. The wave of protests over the last several months in Russia and the emergence of a political opposition are serious challenges to Putin’s authority. So is Khodorkovsky. Putin may not be able to imprison hundreds of protesters (yet), but he can keep Khodorkovsky in jail. As long as Khodorkovsky remains a political threat, and as long as Putin is in power, the man who was once Russia’s richest oil tycoon will not be set free.

Baku State of Mind

The Peace Corps volunteer duo of Brad Kessler and Tim McNaught, also known as The Caspian Dreamers, responsible for the tongue-in-cheek introduction to Baku in their parody of the hit song “Empire State of Mind” are the hosts of a new video, one that essentially seems to be a shill piece promoting all the “improvements” being made to Azerbaijan’s capital ahead of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.

In just a few weeks, Azerbaijan will welcome thousands of Eurovision fans. In anticipation of this international song and dance spectacle, the Azeri government has launched a multi-million dollar PR campaign, seeking to portray the country as modern and progressive and has poured millions into rebuilding the city of Baku.

While Eurovision will invite countless voices from across Europe (including European journalists), in Azerbaijan few critical voices are tolerated. Self-censorship has increased for fear of reprisals, and criticism of the President and the government is harshly punished.

Moreover, as Baku undergoes cosmetic changes, Baku citizens have been forcibly evicted from their homes. Human Rights Watch reports:

Authorities have illegally expropriated hundreds of properties, primarily apartments and homes in middle-class neighborhoods, to be demolished to make way for parks, roads, a shopping center, and luxury residential buildings. The government has forcibly evicted homeowners, often without warning or in the middle of the night, and at times in clear disregard for residents’ health and safety, in order to demolish their homes. It has refused to provide homeowners fair compensation based on the market values of properties, many of which are in highly-desirable locations and neighborhoods.

But despite the egregious human rights violations taking place, the international community has largely turned a blind eye to repression in Azerbaijan. Behind the glitz and glamour, sequins and song lie corruption, repression and human rights abuses that should not be ignored. Eurovision should lift the glitzy curtains and expose Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses to millions of people.

Welcome to Yavlenka (2009)

A fellow Peace Corps volunteer from Kazakhstan, who was in the same group (Kaz-19) as me, recently reposted a video he made back in 2009 as our time in Kazakhstan was drawing to a close.

I’m reposting it because (1) the video is a glimpse into a very typical village in Kazakhstan and brings back so many memories of the small towns and villages scattered around the vast expanse of the steppe, and (2) I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my time in Peace Corps, which I like to summarize as “the best and worst time in my entire life”.

I think Tim sums it up best when he makes the aside, “People always thought I was crazy or they thought I was a spy for taking so many videos and pictures of the most mundane in Yavlenka. To me, though, the mundane was anything but.” Somehow, the simplicity of our lives and surroundings in Kazakhstan made our experience there anything but mundane. And it’s that simplicity I often find myself longing for.

I had a conversation recently with a colleague who is an RPCV from Armenia. He was saying that so many of his Armenian friends and colleagues dreamed of living in America so they could have a better life. But then he raised the question of whose life is really richer? We are both working as unpaid interns at CSIS and struggle to make ends meet financially. Even on our meager income, we still earn more than the majority of people we knew in our respective Peace Corps countries. Yes, we have amazing opportunities afforded to us simply by the fact that we live in the United States. But at the same time that simplicity is missing. Life here is busy; so much so that we barely have time to spend with the people we love.

I’m quoting roughly here, but my RPCV Armenia friend said to me, “Here, I get home from my 9 to 5 unpaid internship and then have to go right back out to my restaurant job so I can afford to live in DC. In Armenia, when I was done teaching for the day, I would spend the afternoons and evenings picking grapes with my neighbors or having a meal with my host family.”

Maybe I’m viewing my time in Kazakhstan through rose-colored lenses by longing for the “simpler” life there, but what is undeniable is that there is something about life there that I long for, something that I can’t replicate here.

Of Guns and Glamour, Snipers and Sequins

ImageThe Eurovision Song Contest is an annual televised competition featuring music acts from 56 countries in and around Europe, which draws an estimated 125 million viewers from around the world. Eurovision has given Azerbaijan a unique opportunity to showcase its country when it hosts the event in May. But behind the glitz and glamour, sequins and songs lies real-world conflict. This year’s contest comes amid ever-present tensions and continual low-level armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. In such a tense environment, even the apparently innocent fun of Eurovision is politicized and politically sensitive.

On February 24, a group of Armenian pop singers launched a campaign to boycott the Eurovision contest. In their letter, they expressed their refusal to “appear in a country that is well-known for mass killings and massacres of Armenians, in a country where anti-Armenian sentiments have been elevated to the level of state policy.” This campaign was launched amid anger at the reported shooting of an Armenian soldier by an Azerbaijani sniper, but it ran into controversy after officials announced that he had actually been killed by a fellow serviceman.

Relations between the two countries continued to sour as Azerbaijan marked the 20th anniversary of Khojaly, the alleged massacre carried out by Armenians during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, on February 26. Reports from the Azeri media included inflammatory language, stating that the Khojaly incident was one of the most “heinous and bloodiest tragedies of the 20th century” and blaming the “Armenian aggressors” for “genocide”. Two days later, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev stated, “our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians under their control.”

Amid this renewed tension and increasingly threatening rhetoric, Armenia withdrew from the Eurovision competition. Citing the recent hostile and anti-Armenian remarks made by Aliyev, Armenian Public Television released a statement about its withdrawal, which said: “We can conclude that the president of a Eurovision host country is officially stating that all Armenians, including those who would be included in the Eurovision delegation, are the enemies of Azerbaijan. Therefore, it would make no sense to send our participant to a country where they would be received as an enemy. We are convinced that the atmosphere created by this and other anti-Armenian statements and actions cannot ensure equal conditions for all singers participating in Eurovision.” Moreover, the statement continued, “Despite the fact that the Azerbaijani authorities have given security guarantees to all participating countries, the Azerbaijani president made a statement that enemy number one for Azerbaijan were the Armenians.”

A senior Azerbaijani politician reacted to the Armenian withdrawal, saying that Armenia had no genuine reason to boycott the competition: “The Armenian refusal to take part in such a respected contest will cause even further damage to the already damaged image of Armenia,” said Ali Ahmedov, the executive secretary of the governing party. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov also commented on the Armenian boycott, stating “The Eurovision song contest should not be politically exploited and especially not in this conflict.”

Despite the apparent innocuousness of a multinational pop song competition, Eurovision has been politicized in recent years. In 2009, Azerbaijani authorities interrogated 43 citizens who had voted for Armenia’s entry, the duo Inga and Anush. The accused citizens had to justify their vote and affirm their loyalty to Azerbaijan. Also in 2009, the introductory video clip—or “postcard”—leading into the Armenian performance depicted “We Are Our Mountains”, a statue located in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. After complaints from the Azeri side, the European Broadcasting Union removed the clip. Ostensibly in retaliation for the Armenian display, Azerbaijani television blurred out the Armenian voting number as well as distorted the TV signal when the Armenian entry was performing on stage.

The tit-for-tat spat surrounding the Eurovision contest is a small-scale reflection of the larger Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been embroiled in for the past two decades. Nagorno-Karabakh, the landlocked, mountainous, Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan, has been the subject of a two-decade long dispute between the two countries. Conflict over the region began in 1988 with smoldering antagonism and small-scale violence during the collapse of the Soviet Union and erupting into a full-scale war by 1992. The war resulted in an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people dead and more than one million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in May 1994. Though it has thus far prevented another all-out war, the Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the region remains the site of frequent sniper attacks and low-level violent skirmishes. Meanwhile, both sides—Azerbaijan in particular—have been escalating their arms race and resorting to bellicose rhetoric.

Nagorno-Karabakh is often described as a “frozen conflict,” but in reality it is a simmering stalemate, and recent actions taken by both sides indicate that the conflict is heating up. A 2011 International Crisis Group (ICG) report stated that there has been significant deterioration in the region’s fragile peace, with an increase of 53 percent in ceasefire violations. Moreover, both sides have stepped up their vitriolic rhetoric: according to an article in The Economist, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev warned of war in at least nine separate speeches in 2010. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan responded by strongly underlining his country’s readiness to respond to any attacks.

In addition to aggressive rhetoric, both sides have been arming up. Reports estimate Azerbaijan’s defense spending will rise by 1.8 percent this year to $3.47 billion, topping Armenia’s entire state budget, although the official defense budget for 2012 is reported to be only $1.7 billion. In an effort to keep up, Armenia’s military budget for 2012 was increased to about $400 million—the country’s biggest annual defense outlay ever, despite being a mere fraction of Azerbaijan’s budget. Azerbaijan has been utilizing this huge defense budget to amass weapons: according to ICG, Azerbaijan purchased Mi-24 “Crocodile” attack helicopters, 29 BTR-70 armored vehicles and some 35 122-mm and 152-mm artillery pieces from Ukraine in 2009 and reportedly 62 of its 180 T-72 tanks from Russia. It also reportedly closed a huge $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel. Although Armenia’s official defense budget pales in comparison to that of its neighbor, Yerevan enjoys support from the Russian base in Gyumri, which currently houses MiG-29 fighter jets and S-300 missile systems, as well as some 5,000 troops. There have also been several claims from the Azeri side that arms transfers from Russia to Armenia via the Gyumri base have occurred. In January 2009, Azerbaijan claimed that Armenia was provided with $800 million worth of arms, including 21 T-72 tanks, some 50 armored vehicles, artillery pieces, “Strela-10” and “Strela-2” surface-to-air missile systems, although these claims were denied by Russia.

Efforts to find a political solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are being spearheaded by the OSCE-led Minsk Group, and the Armenian and Azeri presidents have met for negotiations on several occasions. However, progress has stalled. Given the failure of repeated international efforts to broker a peace deal, grassroots peacebuilding may offer the best solution to the impasse. Joint bilateral civil society dialogue processes, including cultural interaction, can provide a forum for meaningful exchange. The symbolic idea of various nationalities uniting under a common theme of music and entertainment—no matter how camp or cheesy it may be—was underscored (somewhat ironically, considering the harsh statements from the Azeri side) by Azerbaijan’s First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva: “The language of music is clear to everyone, regardless of nationality and religion. And it’s very symbolic that during these days in May representatives of different countries, different musical styles will stand on the same stage and sing songs in different languages.” Music can indeed, unify, and the Eurovision competition offers a unique opportunity for people-to-people dialogue and cultural interaction.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Ambassador Robert Bradtke, U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group, emphasized the importance of people-to-people dialogue as a peacebuilding tool:

“If you look back from the 20-year perspective, what we now see is a generation in Armenia and Azerbaijan growing up that has really not lived side by side. They have not had the personal relationships that might help them understand better the perspectives of the other sides and that might help them overcome stereotypes that one sees all too often in the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan. So people-to-people contacts can help play a role there, but one of the challenges is to do this in a way that is constructive [and] to do it in a way that is genuine. People-to-people contacts don’t work if they are used by the sides for political purposes or are politicized. If they are used to continue arguments about who was at fault or who did wrong to whom 20 years ago, that’s not going to help move things forward. It may need to be bringing people together to discuss common problems.”

Thus, the more Armenian and Azeri artists travel to each other’s countries, the better they can build trust and restore confidence on a personal level.

Eurovision 2012 had the potential to bring both sides together. Although Armenia’s withdrawal from Eurovision is not the same as walking out of peace talks, it is a negative move in a decades-long effort to solve the intractable Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. If the Armenian delegates had decided to attend even in the face of bellicose statements made by the Azeris, and the Azeri authorities had welcomed them, Eurovision’s party atmosphere could have provided a rare opportunity for the two sides to unite. This, however, was not the case, and Armenia and Azerbaijan remain deadlocked in the conflict that continues to grip the region.

This entry is a reposting of my own work from the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program blog.

Terrorism and Kazakhstan

Антитеррор – Нас не запугать! / Anti-terror – We will not be intimidated!

I’m not entirely sure what the intended message of this public service announcement from Kazakhstan actually is. Yes, the title seems to indicate that regardless of the unprecedented spate of terror attacks in Kazakhstan throughout 2011 the people of Kazakhstan will not be held hostage by fear. But what I find most interesting about the video is the profile of the suspected “terrorist”. Middle-aged, Kazakh male… is this the profile of Kazakh “terrorists”? I’m not entirely convinced.