Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Turkmenistan Dictator Faces Problems in Transferring Power to His Son, Aytakov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – Personalist dictatorships always face problems in transferring power from one individual to another because such transitions are the occasions which various factions in the elite see as perhaps their best opportunity to increase their position as well as the time of greatest risk that they will lose what they already have.

            That this is the case in Russia has been much discussed, but even in a far more totalitarian dictatorship than Vladimir Putin’s, it is a problem. In Turkmenistan, there is no question that the current dictator, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, wants to hand over power to his son, Serdar; but there are two very open questions, Serdar Aytakov says.

            First of all, how soon does the father want to do this and how much lead time does even his system require so that all the arrangements guaranteeing that the transition will occur? And second, will the father be able to ensure that his desire will be carried out after he passes from the scene? (ng.ru/dipkurer/2021-04-11/11_8125_prince.html).

            Aytakov, perhaps Moscow’s leading academic specialist on Turkmenistan, says that it appears Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow is starting early because he is still in good health and has no plans to leave office anytime soon but adds that despite everything he is doing, key figures in the Turkmenistan elite are likely to oppose Serdar’s elevation at any point.

            Everyone in Turkmenistan is aware that the last transition did not go smoothly but resulted in bloodletting as Berdymukhamedow senior moved to take and then consolidate power, the Moscow analyst says. The current dictator clearly hopes to prevent something similar, with all the unpredictability that such an outcome might entail.

            To that end, he has changed a series of laws in the country so that he and his son will have even greater bureaucratic freedom and control and he has installed his son in a variety of increasingly important positions not only in the executive but in the legislative branch and in the regions to give him experience.

            Because the dictator controls all the organs of government, the changes in the legal code have gone smoothly. But problems have arisen in some of the positions he has put Serdar in. Most critically, the current ruler installed his son as head of the Akhal velayat, the central region which has particular importance because it is the base of the tribe of which he is a member.

            The father directed the son to build a new urban center, Akhal City, and the son proceeded to try. But in the course of beginning that “grandiose project,” Aytakov says, Serdar ran roughshod over local people, demolishing houses and other places owned or at least controlled by those in the Akhal Tekintsy tribe.

            Tribal elders not only resisted what he was doing but protested to Serdar’s father, and the current dictator transferred him to a position in the central government specially created for the son. But precisely because the elders felt they had the right and power to protest then means that they may feel they have the same when it comes to Serdar as successor.

            On paper, Serdar now has control of enough institutions to be able to ensure that he will be the successor, but, Aytakov continues, “there remains one unresolved question: the loyalty of the elites, the higher bureaucracy and the siloviki bloc.”  Those things are now open, especially given the Akhal City fiasco.

            Consequently, the Moscow specialist says, that even in this most tightly controlled dictatorship, “there are no guarantees that this transit will occur in Serdar Berdymukhamedow’s favor.” Others both within the political establishment and among the tribal leaders may decide that they should try to prevent that lest they lose out in the future.

Tajik Leader Says Dushanbe Will Never Trade Away Vorukh Exclave

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon says that he will never trade away the Vorukh enclave as part of a border deal with Kyrgyzstan. That region, with its 30,000 people, has always been part of  Tajikistan and always will, he said after flying into Vorukh (asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/politics/20210409/emomali-rahmon-vopros-obmena-voruha-nikogda-ne-obsuzhdalsya and ru.sputnik.kg/politics/20210409/1052060357/emomali-rakhmon-anklav-vorukh-status-zayavlenie.html).

            Rakhmon’s visit and statement mean that there is little chance for a border deal between the two countries (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/04/vorukh-likely-rock-on-which-kyrgyz.html), not only because Vorukh has become a symbol of sovereignty for Tajikistan but because how it is treated sets a precedent.

            There are currently two other Tajik exclaves inside Kyrgyzstan in addition to Vorukh, but Kayragach and Sarvak are much smaller, but it has long been assumed that whatever deal the two sides reach regarding Vorukh will be applied to them as well (tj.sputniknews.ru/20210410/tajikistan-voruh-kyrgyzstan-1034264735.html).

            Rakhmon’s hard line strongly suggests that no deal is likely anytime soon, and that in turn means that Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not be able to delimit and demarcate all of its borders as it had hoped and that criminal and radical elements will continue to use the lack of any accord to move goods and people across the borders.

            It also means that more violence between the border guards and people of the two countries is likely, something that could trigger a wider war but at the very least will mean that there won’t be any new era of stability in this section of Central Asia and that outside powers like Russia and China will be confronted with some difficult security choices.

            Given that Russia still has a dominant position in Kyrgyzstan and China an increasingly powerful one in Tajikistan, it is even possible that the Vorukh conflict will affect relations between Moscow and Beijing, yet another case where something apparently so small may grow into something very much larger.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Kremlin Behaving toward Ukraine Now the Way It Did toward Georgia Before 2008 Invasion, Portnikov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – Moscow’s propaganda campaign against Ukraine and its dislocation of troops near the Ukrainian border echo the propaganda it deployed against the Republic of Georgia and the troops it moved up to the Georgian border before invading that country in 2008, Vitaly Portnikov says.

            Because Moscow invaded Ukraine seven years ago in a hybrid fashion, the Ukrainian analyst says, most people are comparing what happened in advance of Moscow’s moves then with what it is doing now. But a far more instructive comparison is provided by what Moscow did in Georgia in 2008 (radiosvoboda.org/a/ukrayina-i-diyi-ta-zayavy-kremlia/31196590.html).

            Vladimir Putin and his representatives constantly accuse Ukraine of being aggressive and unpredictable and of preparing to invade the Donbas. Viewed from Kyiv, these claims look like Russian paranoia. Not only have Ukrainian leaders denied what Moscow is accusing them of, but Ukraine has not made any preparations, unlike Russia which has beefed up its forces.

            In reality, Portnikov continues, what Moscow is showing is not paranoia but cold calculation. It is behaving exactly as it did before the start of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. Then, South Ossetia shelled Georgian territory and Russian “peacekeepers” did nothing to stop it. Instead, Moscow blamed Tbilisi for causing the problem – exactly as Moscow is doing now in Ukraine.

            “And therefore, when Russian forces appeared first on the territory of self-proclaimed South Ossetia and then in Georgia proper, few were surprised not only in Russia but in the world.” Western leaders had been “psychologically prepared” by the Kremlin’s attacks on the Georgian leadership.

            Repeating the same approach in Ukraine gives Moscow three advantages: It allows the Russian government to block negotiations and blame that action on Kyiv. It destabilizes conditions in Ukraine. And “in the event of the start of a real war, it can always explain that by the aggressive actions of Ukraine, about which the Kremlin had warned.”

            To be sure, few believe what the Kremlin is saying. But even Western recognition of the possibility of a new war opens the way for something else the Kremlin wants: Western efforts to negotiate with Putin directly. “They will demand from him that he remove his forces, and he will demand from them that they make Zelensky ‘reasonable.’”

            “And then if a war starts,” Portnikov concludes, “the Kremlin will blame the West” for encouraging Ukraine in its aggressiveness toward Russia and failing to pay attention to Russian warnings, again just as happened in Georgia in 2008.

Russian Diaspora in US Organizes to Stop Putin Dictatorship

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – As the Putin regime has increased repression, Russians in the United States have formed a new organization to stop the Putin dictatorship in Russia and promote a democratic Russia. It organizes protests at Russian diplomatic facilities, sends letters of support to political prisoners at home, and identifies property Putin allies have bought in the US.

            Like most organizations these days, its activists are linked together by a Facebook page, in this case facebook.com/4demrussiaus; but Radio Liberty journalist Dmitry Volchek spoke to activists in Washington, New York and San Francisco who described how the new Russian “Protest America” group is working against Putin (svoboda.org/a/31195474.html).

            The new American group arose, Dmitry Valuyev in Washington, Aleks Zaprozhtsev, and Mariya Boyarkina say, when people around the world were protesting in support of Aleksey Navalny on January 23. There were demonstrations in many American cities not just the three the activists represent.

            According to Valuyev, “all Russian-speaking America responded to this act of illegality” by Putin against Navalny. “In our union, there are people with great political experience. There are people who have been living here for a long time, 20 or even 25 years, and there are those who came recently.”

            We are united not only in our support of Navalny, he says, but also by a desire to see Russia flourish. Many Russians who are in the US now left their homeland precisely because Putin has made both that and the possibility of criticizing it while remaining at home ever more problematic. The Kremlin may stop us in Russia, but it can’t when we live abroad, he says.

            Boyarkina echoes his words and says the group is now hoping to unite the Russian-language diaspora throughout the entire world. As a first step, it is working on an interactive map for its Facebook page showing where protests occur and providing information about other actions.

            Zaporozhtsev says that he believes Russian demonstrations in the US have an impact not only on American attitudes but on Russian actions. After his friend Ildar Dadin was arrested in Russia, Russians in New York protested and his friend was released. And every demonstration attracts the attention and support of Americans.

            “In New York,” he continues, at times of protests, “Americans constantly approach us and say ‘Thank you. We are with you. We know who Putin is.”

            There are of course pro-Putin groups financed by Moscow who present the other side and whose members Protest America seeks both to expose and to cause them to change their minds. Sometimes they disrupt anti-Putin protests but that seldom works to their advantage, Zaporozhtsev continues.

            “In our staff,” Boyarkina adds, “there is an ‘Agents’ project. We collect information about pro-Putin groups in every American city in order to focus attention on them. If they conduct some action, we must counter them.” The staff also works hard to gather information on the property pro-Putin officials have purchased in the US to expose what is going on.

            The group also seeks “to convince the US Administration that sanctions against the Putin regime should be broadened,” with ever more of them applied to the corrupt officials near the Kremlin. That is necessary, the staffers say, because Putin and his regime threaten not only Russia but the entire world.

Russians Angry Moscow May Suspend Flights to Turkey Because of Pandemic

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – Media reports that Moscow may suspend flights to Turkey because of rising coronavirus infections in that country have angered Russians for whom Turkey remains a popular tourist destination. They have expressed their anger on various Internet platforms (regnum.ru/news/3239632.html and regnum.ru/news/3239390.html).

            Today, Moscow officials reported registering 8704 new cases and 402 new deaths from the coronavirus, as the pandemic continued to ebb and flow across the Russian Federation, down in most places but spiking in several, especially where no vaccine is yet available (t.me/COVID2019_official/2754 and regnum.ru/news/society/3233862.html).

            Moscow continued to rush vaccine to St. Petersburg, one of the continuing hotspots, dispatching 38,100 new sets of doses today alone (regnum.ru/news/3239590.html). But one person who presumably can get the vaccine whenever he wants it – Vladimir Putin -- still hasn’t received the required second shot (regnum.ru/news/3239556.html).

            Elsewhere on the vaccine front, experts from the European Agency of Medicines arrived in Moscow to investigate the standards Russians have used to test and now produce the vaccine (echo.msk.ru/news/2819528-echo.html).

            Meanwhile, in other pandemic-related developments today,

·         A new analysis says that excess deaths in Russia over the last 18 months have less to do with covid than with the inadequate quality of that country’s medical care system. The pandemic only highlighted its shortcomings (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2021/04/10/1896549.html).

·         The Moscow Patriarchate told believers to refrain from foreign travel to religious shrines as long as the threat of the pandemic remains in place (echo.msk.ru/news/2819738-echo.html).

·         And the Higher School of Economics warned that Russians like others must be prepared for a prolonged recession after the pandemic ends. Its experts said that official optimism about the future of the economy was not justified (echo.msk.ru/news/2819670-echo.html).

Ukrainians and Russians Two Distinct Peoples Divided by Worldview More than Ethnicity, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 9 – The hysteria about Ukraine now filling the Russian media much as it did on the eve of Moscow’s invasion in 2014 reflects a fundamental problem that often is overlooked: Ukrainians and Russians are remarkably similar with regard to ethnicity but diametrically opposite in terms of worldviews, Vadim Shtepa says.

            The editor of the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal says that many Russians follow Vladimir Putin and believe that Russians and Ukrainians are in fact “one people,” forgetting that what makes a people a nation is often less ethnic differences than those of even deeper worldview perspectives (in Estonian at epl.delfi.ee/artikkel/93096171/vadim-stepa-kas-putin-plaanib-toesti-tahistada-21-aprillil-kiievi-hoivamist; in Russian at region.expert/swirl/).

            Russia feels itself a self-standing empire, while Ukraine feels itself to be a part of the West, Shtepa continues. And because Russians can’t imagine themselves as an empire if they don’t control Ukraine, they and especially the Kremlin feel “an irrational hatred” to a Ukraine that is not only independent but wants to be fully part of the West.

            And such Russian attitudes explain why Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine, recently observed that “Russia doesn’t see Ukraine in any other role besides as one of its own gubernias” and that “the alternative is thus the destruction of Ukraine as a state” (gordonua.com/publications/kravchuk-rossija-mozhet-sduru-pojti-v-nastuplenie-na-ukrainu-krysha-mozhet-poehat-dazhe-u-putina-1547017.html).

            Putin’s insistence on the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are one people is “doubly mistaken,” the Russian regionalist writer says. They are “two different peoples but the dividing line between hem is not ethnic but one of worldview: one stands on the side of the Kremlin empire, while the other is against that in principle.”

            Of course, Shtepa says, Russia has a variety of more limited goals in mind as it contemplates expanding its invasion of Ukraine. It wants to restore the patriotic upsurge that followed the Crimean Anschluss. It wants to mobilize Russians behind the ruling party in advance of the Duma elections. And it wants to distract attention from Russia’s problems.

            But as at least some people in Moscow know, this time around, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine would not be a hybrid one but rather a direct clash between the armies of two states. And that could mean that the Kremlin by launching such a war would be laying the groundwork not for the destruction of Ukraine but for that of itself.

            That risk may yet stay Putin’s hand, but his failure to understand the difference in worldview between Russians and Ukrainians means that even if this crisis passes, another will arise unless and until Ukraine is fully integrated into the West and Moscow has no choice but to swallow what for it would be a most bitter pill.



Ukrainians Inspired by Azerbaijan’s Qarabagh Victory, Russian Activist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 9 – Aleksandr Averin, a Russian who served with the pro-Moscow forces in the Donbass, says that “the Ukrainians have found inspiration in the recent war in Qarabagh” and that they “feel themselves “a little like Azerbaijanis” especially because like the latter, they too now have drones they can use against any invader.

            Averin, who served three years in a Russian prison and was recognized by The Other Russia Party as a political prisoner, is in this way focusing attention on a larger issue which other analysts have mentioned but that most have treated as at most something marginal (svpressa.ru/politic/article/295092/).

            The Qarabagh war showed that new weapons systems especially when combined with unexpectedness can transform a military situation that most had assumed was frozen. Possessing drones from Turkey and Israel and using an envelopment strategy allowed Baku to defeat Armenians who were well dug in and had expected to enjoy Russian support.

            Ukrainians now feel they can take this page from the Azerbaijani playbook and others may as well, Averin says, in an article that suggests that Kyiv will attack first and that Russia must be ready to defend the Donbass against such attacks. But he says Ukraine has lost the element of surprise and can’t be sure of Western backing.

            As a result, the opposition politician and former political prisoner says, a Ukrainian move will “hardly come in April.” Kyiv will wait until later, but it will act on the basis of confidence that Azerbaijan’s victory has shown it the way. It is Russia’s responsibility, Averin says, not to allow that to happen.

            Whether the Russian activist is right or not about timing, he is certainly correct that the Qarabagh war has changed the way many in the former Soviet space think about conflicts there and about the balance of forces. To that extent, the Qarabagh factor should now be added to the assessments of any of them.