Thursday, May 23, 2019

A Danger Sign: Jehovah’s Witnesses as Dangerous as ISIS to Central Asia, Commentator Says


Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 22 – Russia still casts a dark shadow on the former Soviet republics in many ways, and one of the worst of these occurs when Russia persecutes a group at little or no cost to itself because many are unwilling to condemn a nuclear power and then other post-Soviet states pick it up confident that they will either avoid criticism or enjoy Russia’s support.

            One of the most notorious and vicious Russian campaigns in recent months has been Moscow’s attack on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with the entire religious organization declared illegal, its members harassed and, in many cases, arrested, and large numbers forced to seek (but not always to get) asylum abroad.

            Now there are indications that this Russian effort is about to be copied in Central Asia.  On the CentrAsia portal, Fergana-based commentator Abbos Khalikov argues that while many focus on ISIS as a threat to the region, groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses are equally threatening if not immediately then certainly in the longer term (centrasia.org/news.php?st=1558519080).

                More and more people in the region recognize, he says, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, like other nominally peaceful Protestant groups, are “’delayed action bombs’” which when they do go off could prove just as dangerous as an Islamist group. 

            The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been extremely successful in their missionary activity in Central Asia, Khalikov says; and despite what some may think, they are anything but an innocent and harmless religious organization. Their assertion of superiority over other faiths, he says, led Russia to declare them extremist; and Central Asian states should follow.

            According to the Fergana commentator, the Jehovah’s Witnesses share many of the characteristics of radical Islamist groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir, including a pyramid-like hierarchy designed to ensure the flow of tithes upwards and control of believers from those above them and a “door-to-door” form of missionary activity that divides communities.

            In addition, and like Salafi Muslims, Khalikov continues, “the Jehovah’s Witnesses call on their followers not to observe local law if it violates their teachings” and not to maintain ties with representatives of other faiths even if those in the other are family members or close relatives.

            Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have already recognized this threat, he says, and banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But in other countries of the region, they remain more or less free to conduct what Khalikov says is their destructive work. In Kazakhstan, there are some 60 kingdom halls and approximately 20,000 followers and in Kyrgyzstan, 40 churches and 6,000 faithful.

            The commentator argues that they should be banned everywhere because they threaten the unity of the overwhelmingly Muslim population and spark enmity where there should be peace. What is especially disturbing is that except for this reference to Islam, Khalikov makes exactly the same arguments Russian advocates of repressing the Jehovah’s Witnesses do.


Governors Seen Learning Lessons of Yekaterinburg but Probably Not Fast Enough


Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 22 – Poll results showing that, after weeks of protests, 77 percent of Yekaterinburg residents oppose building a new cathedral in a central park and only seven percent back that idea have already led the mayor there to say that if any cathedral is erected, it will have to be put up in some other part of the city.

            But Yekaterinburg is not the only place in Russia where the lesson that opposing the position of the overwhelming majority of the population is a mistake and can be dangerous.  Over the past five years, protests against church construction have taken place in 28 cities and more are now likely (vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2019/05/21/802088-protiv-stroitelstva-hramov and znak.com/2019-05-22/v_rossii_rastet_chislo_gorodov_gde_protestuyut_protiv_zastroyki_parkov).

            There are already indications that some city and regional leaders are backing away from their unqualified support of the Russian Orthodox Church and thus trying to avoid the kind of protests that roiled Yekaterinburg and that could threaten their own positions in power, the AfterEmpire portal says (afterempire.info/2019/05/22/protesty-hramy/).

            But the big question now is whether they can move quickly and effectively enough to avoid being ousted.  Vera Chernysheva and Leonid Fedorov of the URA news agency argue that “the protests in Yekaterinburg will bring about a new wave of retirements of governors” as Moscow struggles to prevent more protests (ura.news/articles/1036278114).

            Yevgeny Minchenko, a Moscow political consultant with whom the two spoke, says that what has happened in Yekaterinburg is likely to be repeated in other cities and that Moscow will want to ensure a more adequate response by installing new people in places where it already has doubts about incumbents.

            And Konstantin Kalachev, another Moscow political analyst, says that “the situation in the Urals shows that local authorities must, even under conditions of a unitary state and a centralized system be able to solve problems without advice from above and take responsibility for their actions.”

            Finding that balance is not going to be easy, and more governors are likely to lose their jobs as the Kremlin seeks to find a way forward in which small protests will not grow into major ones and thus threaten not just those in power in the regions but those in power at the center as well. 

Spetsnaz Troops Said They’re Ready to Shoot Protesters But Only Out of Fear of Reprisals, Moscow Media Say


Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 22 – A day after the Navalny organization reported that some Russian spetsnaz troops say they won’t obey orders to shoot demonstrators who threaten the regime (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/05/some-russian-soldiers-now-being-asked.html), Moscow media outlets are reporting that these forces are fully prepared to take such action.

            But the reports show that the situation is not quite as the powers that be at the center would like. According to soldiers, they said that they declared their readiness to shoot protesters because the survey wasn’t anonymous and they didn’t want trouble (znak.com/2019-05-22/specnazovec_rasskazavshiy_o_nashumevshem_oprose_minoborony_raskryl_znak_com_lichnost).

            According to the spetsnaz soldier who gave his name to Znak, “he and all 1110 men in his unit responded unanimously” to the January survey that “they do not support any of the opposition politicians (ten possibilities were listed in the survey) and were prepared if the order was given to open fire on the protesters.”

            There was no other choice, the soldier said. “The survey wasn’t anonymous.” We had to write out names. “All answers as the powers that be in the structure would want them to because what sense was there to response otherwise, to give one’s opinion” if negative and targeted consequences would certainly follow.

            That is why he says he sent information about this to the Navalny staffs in various cities. “That was the only place it was possible to go,” he suggests. 

            Mstislav Pismenkov of the Znak news agency says that the Russian defense ministry had called the Navalny report “’a primitive falsification.’” But he notes that the ministry did not respond to his inquiry as to whether commanders had in fact conducted the survey of troops that the Navalny organization reported.

            There is now little doubt that such a survey occurred and that the soldiers gave the response that is being reported (themoscowtimes.com/2019/05/22/russian-soldiers-say-theyre-willing-shoot-protesters-serviceman-claims-a65696), but there is also no doubt that they did so not out of conviction but out of fear of punishment.