Ivanishvili Talks Georgian Politics

Bidzina Ivanishvili

Bidzina Ivanishvili

In light of the recent scandal in Georgia surrounding former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, the Georgian billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili gave an extensive interview on 8 November to the Georgian Public Broadcaster. For observers of Georgian and Caucasus politics, it was perhaps the most insightful interview Ivanishvili gave since he left office as Prime Minister one year ago.

Commenting on the case, Ivanishvili emphasized that it was not a crisis.

“There were some problems which were not pleasant,” he stated, “but this is not a political crisis of the government. There were some signs but all problems have practically been solved.”

“Of course in a short-term perspective,” he added, “there is nothing good in what has happened, but after everything settles and all the questions are answered, I do not think that it will harm the country in the strategic [long-term perspective] and it even might be good. At least we should try to turn it into benefit for the country.”

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

He also accused the media, especially the UNM-backed network Rustavi-2, of hyping up the issue. The billionaire has set his own sights on hosting a talk show on Georgian television. “There is a vacuum in objective information and objective analysis,” he said, “which misleads many experts.” He added that he hopes his new television program will adequately address that concern.  In this regard, he has started “2030,” a new organization which derives its name from Ivanishvili’s vision of realizing a prosperous and advanced Georgia within 20 years. The organization will reportedly “prepare analysts” to appear on Ivanishvili’s new television program, which would also be called “2030” and which would be broadcast weekly for about an hour.

Ivanishvili also spoke about relations with former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, calling his allegations about the Defense Ministry “irresponsible.” With regard to the case, he noted that Alasania still has not addressed “serious questions” over the way in which the Defense Ministry handled the money and noted the suspicious haste in which ministry officials paid contract costs to winner companies in advance.

“The question is why the ministry hurried to make payment in advance, when it has no money for ammunition?” Ivanishvili openly wondered.

Irakli Alasania

Irakli Alasania

In the meantime, Alasania was elected the official party chairman of the Free Democrats on 8 December. He pledged to bring the party to victory in the 2016 parliamentary elections and also gave a strong diatribe against Russia and what he called Russian “imperial fundamentalism.” Calling Georgia a “sworn enemy” of Russia, the hawkish Alasania declared that “today Russia continues implementing its imperial fundamentalist ideas and plans in Ukraine.”

In response to Alasania’s election as chair of the Free Democrats, Ivanishvili stated, “I told him [at the 7 November meeting] that it was not worth it to be elected party chairman in such a situation. Speaking simply, when there are many questions about a leader, the latter must not damage his party and team members. Even if he was the party chairman, he should have resigned. But on the contrary, he was elected chairman and this is a wrong decision from my point of view.”

Ivanishvili said that he “respected” the Free Democrats but that they left the coalition “at the wrong time and for the wrong reason.” However, he maintained that this was not unusual since parties leave coalitions in “all democratic countries” and that “we should use all events for the benefit of our country.” Ivanishvili also said that he was not a “revenge-seeking person” and that he had “nothing personal” against Alasania and that he wants him to have a “good future.”

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Press office photo)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Press office photo)

“I wish them [the Free Democrats] success, there are many friends in the party.” He added that the “positive side” of the split of the Free Democrats is the emergence of a “constructive opposition” inside and outside of Parliament, “unlike [Mikheil Saakashvili’s] UNM.”

Ivanishvili also addressed his intervention in the recent scandal noting that such occurrences were and continue to be very rare. “God forbid – something disastrous should happen in order [for my intervention] to become necessary.”

Ivanishvili then discussed criticism in this regard from President Margvelashvili. Though Margvelashvili sided with the pragmatists in the Alasania scandal by not challenging the dismissal of Alasania, he has also stated, in an apparent jab to Ivanishvili, that “the country should be ruled with strong institutions and not from the backstage.” His comment came amid a falling-out between the President and the billionaire.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Ivanishvili took exception with Margvelashvili’s remark, calling it “irresponsible” and that it was “an insult for the government and an insult for me too” emphasizing that “such allegations are insulting and absolutely groundless.” Making a distinction between “giving advice” to the government and “ruling” the government from “backstage,” he also stated:

It is just impossible to rule the government from the backstage; who has any slightest idea of management, [knows] that it is impossible to manage the government from the backstage. I was in Ureki [at his Black Sea dacha] for six months and I’ve seen Garibashvili only once. Now look at this from my perspective – how [this allegation] insults me. How can you imagine me – with my biography and my past, I did as I said: I came [into power] and then quit… If I wanted to be in politics I could have stayed, who was obstructing me?

As time goes by, Irakli [Garibashvili] is disturbing me less [with questions] and I am very happy about it. If previously he was calling me on phone once in a month or week, now two months can pass without him calling me.

Ivanishvili and Margvelashvili in happier times (Agenda.ge)

Ivanishvili and Margvelashvili in happier times (Agenda.ge)

Ivanishvili then turned to Margvelashvili’s performance as president, criticizing him for “weakening” and “devaluing” the presidency. He critiqued his veto in parliament as a “veto for the sake of vetoing,” just to flex his presidential muscle and “compete” with the government. He likewise criticized Margvelashvili’s many trips abroad and did not understand why Margvelashvili needed to attend the UN Conference on Developing Landlocked Countries in Austria when Georgia is not landlocked. “Like it was a visit just for the sake of visit, he vetoed the bill for the sake of vetoing.”

He also returned to earlier criticism of Margvelashvili, such as his decision to take up residence in the Saakashvili-era glass-dome presidential palace and for also allegedly holding up the declassification of Saakashvili’s controversial spending records. He said that even though he does not “have much suspicion” of Margvelashvili being in collusion with the UNM, “his actions and interests are very much consistent with those of the [UNM].” Indeed, Margvelashvili’s loyalties appear to oscillate between the pragmatists and the hardliners in Georgia depending on how a given situation develops, though he remains in favor of peaceful dialogue with Moscow.  Most of all, it is clear that he seems to simply relish the idea of being “the President.”

Relishing the Presidential post, Giorgi Margvelashvili arrives with his wife Maka Chichua in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on his way back to from a visit to Japan. (Press office photo)

Relishing the Presidential post, Giorgi Margvelashvili arrives with his wife Maka Chichua in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on his way back from a visit to Japan. (Press office photo)

It is unclear what the precise outcome of the ongoing row between Margvelashvili and Ivanishvili will be. There could be a direct meeting between the two in order to create a common dialogue that will resolve their differences. An alternative might be that Margvelashvili, who is not a member of the Georgian Dream or any other party, steps down from his post. A third scenario would be the status quo, in which Margvelashvili will remain as President and continue periodic conflicts with the government, acting as a “decision maker” and a “wild card” factor in Georgian politics. For the time being, this third scenario appears to be most likely.

Aside from Margvelashvili’s veto, Ivanishvili did not comment directly on the debate regarding surveillance regulation in Georgia, though he generally praised the Interior Ministry and appeared to lean more toward their position on the issue.

Ivanishvili and Garibashvili (Tabula)

Ivanishvili and Garibashvili (Tabula)

Additionally, Ivanishvili praised the work of Prime Minister Garibashvili in responding to the Alasania scandal, calling him “a very strong individual and a very strong practitioner.” However, he did criticize Garibashvili’s remarks on Alasania, which he said were “unacceptable” but which he attributed to “emotionalism” and “inexperience.” Still, he emphasized that, as a Prime Minister, Garibashvili is “very sincere, very efficient and energetic” and that he “works round the clock.”

Overall, Ivanishvili’s assessments appeared largely balanced, measured, and sensible. He was cool, calm, and in control in his responses. The interview, broadcast on Georgian public television, likely will have the overall impact of heightening his popularity in Georgian society. By contrast, Alasania, who still commands a popular following, will likely see his credibility eroded by this most recent scandal, while Mikheil Saakashvili and his UNM – despite a planned upcoming rally – appear more politically marginal than ever.

Overall, Ivanishvili remains a true Georgian patriot and perhaps the greatest statesman Georgia has seen in its recent political history. Thus his interview is important for those closely following developments in Georgia, the Caucasus, and the former Soviet space.

Georgia: Crisis Averted

Georgia's embattled former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania

Georgia’s embattled former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.

This week sparks flew in Georgian politics. A corruption case, that involved high level officials in the Georgian Defense Ministry, culminated in the dismissal of Defense Minister Irakli Alasania by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.

Regarded as a pro-Western hardliner within the context of the Georgian Dream, Alasania had uneasy relations with the rest of the ruling coalition. These date back to at least January 2013 when Alasania was demoted from the post of First Deputy Prime Minister by then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili also favored Giorgi Margvelashvili for the post-Saakashvili presidency, passing up Alasania’s long-time ambition for that post. Disagreements emerged between Alasania and Ivanishvili on the future political course of Georgia, with Alasania favoring a strong presidential system and Ivanishvili favoring a parliamentary one. A pragmatist interested in resetting ties with Russia, Ivanishvili also did not trust Alasania due to the latter’s more hawkish stance on relations with Moscow.

Following this, the ruling coalition continued to face tensions with Alasania, who practically managed the Defense Ministry as his own autonomous structure. This deprived the pragmatists in the ruling coalition of control of a critical institution, which Alasania used to push Georgia toward a renewed confrontation with Moscow. Among other things, Alasania played host to visits from major American security figures like Defense Secretary Hagel and NATO commander Breedlove. Such moves, together with the recent granting to Georgia of a “NATO aid package,” further alienated Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Above all, they aggravated and antagonized Russia, which regards NATO expansion as a threat to regional security.

Alasania reviews the troops (Voice of America)

Alasania reviews the troops (Voice of America)

When Moscow officially expressed its concern about a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus on 9 October, Alasania responded that same day, claiming that Russia and its “aggression against Ukraine” represented the only “big threat” to the region. He further stated that Tbilisi would never “bow” to a “diktat” from Moscow over establishing NATO training facilities on Georgian soil.

Such remarks likely embarrassed pragmatists in the ruling coalition who seek improved relations with Russia. When asked by reporters whether or not he agreed with Alasania’s statements, Prime Minister Garibashvili only responded, “Alasania and [his political ally] Petriashvili are members of our government.”

Moscow’s response to the rhetoric was to enhance ties with Georgia’s breakaways and to propose a controversial treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. The text of the proposed treaty sparked negative reactions in Georgia and Abkhazia. It also communicated to Tbilisi that if it did not take Moscow’s concerns with NATO seriously, then it may lose any remaining chance at reconciliation with the Abkhaz permanently.

The corruption cases against the Defense Ministry officials and the subsequent political scandal occurred within this context. However, the rhetoric of Alasania against the government, claiming that the prosecutions represented an “attack” on Georgia’s European integration, was the breaking point.

Irakli Garibashvili

Irakli Garibashvili

This was more than the pragmatists could bear. Prime Minister Garibashvili sacked Alasania and replaced him with Mindia Janelidze.  In his subsequent remarks, Garibashvili harshly and openly criticized the former Defense Minister as a “traitor” and as an “adventurer, stupid and ambitious.” He added:

Personally for me what Alasania has done is a betrayal of the October 1, 2012 victory [of the Georgian Dream in the parliamentary elections]. This is yet another attempt to deceive the Georgian people – he has done it more than once previously and our population will see it, they will see many surprises.

…We are not afraid of adventurers like Alasania… and we will of course easily overcome these absurd obstacles. What he has done, which was done in Saakashvili’s style, raises many questions.

…I want to firmly state to our population that we are the strong state, we are united, strong government and our strength is demonstrated in our democracy; our institutions work properly and there will be no obstacles either in the government or in the Parliament. There is no threat of crisis whatsoever. We will have strong majority in the Parliament and the government will continue to work with more efficiency.

On the other hand it’s not bad – the sooner such traitor people would have been sidelined from our team, the better for us and our people and the country.

Alasania’s dismissal prompted an official split of his party, the Free Democrats, from the Georgian Dream coalition. It also prompted the resignation of Alasania loyalists Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze (Alasania’s sister-in-law), State Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksei Petriashvili, and Georgia’s Representative to NATO Levan Dolidze. Notably, Georgia’s Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, stayed loyal to the ruling coalition, despite rumors that she too might resign given her association with Alasania’s party.

Tamar Beruchashvili (RFE/RL)

Tamar Beruchashvili (RFE/RL)

Initially, some of Panjikidze’s deputy ministers in the Foreign Ministry resigned as well, including Tamar Beruchashvili and Davit Jalagania. However, through person-to-person meetings and swift political maneuvering, Garibashshvili managed to persuade almost all of these deputy ministers to reconsider their decisions and stay loyal to the ruling coalition. The only exception was Davit Zalkaliani, Georgia’s representative for the Geneva talks with Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

It is rumored that Beruchashvili may replace Petriashvili, though Garibashshvili has neither confirmed nor denied this. The position of Foreign Minister also remains vacant. A possible contender for that post might be Georgia’s current envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze. One of the country’s most experienced diplomats, his presence would give Tbilisi more gravitas in international affairs.

The Georgian Dream was also able to retain a majority in parliament, despite speculation from some observers that the resignation of Alasania would prompt a breakup of the coalition and possibly new elections. Instead, three of Alasania’s deputies in parliament have decided to leave Alasania’s Free Democrats and remain part of the Georgian Dream coalition. Conversely one member of the Georgian Dream left the ruling coalition to side with Alasania. Regardless, the addition of the defectors from the Alasania camp and some independent MPs have allowed the Georgian Dream to maintain a majority and prevent a new parliamentary election.

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

Overall, Garibashvili’s moves, combined with his continued reassurances on Georgia’s “European course” managed to maintain the stability of the Georgian government and to avert a potential political crisis.  Only one year into his tenure as Prime Minister, the 32-year-old Garibashvili has already begun to come into his own and prove himself to be a truly effective and pragmatic political leader, with Georgia’s best national interests at heart.

Further, Georgian President Margvelashshvili, abroad in Austria, likewise commented on the situation.  Despite prior disagreements with Garibashshvili, he appeared to side with the pragmatists and did not challenge Alasania’s dismissal. For his part, the philosopher-president called for a meeting to be convened to assess the progress of Georgia’s European integration. At the same time, in recent weeks, he has continued to signal interest in a pursuing a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was proposed by Putin himself during the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, but still remains unrealized.

Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Alasania (Interpress News Agency)

Bidzina Ivanishvili and Irakli Alasania (Interpress News Agency)

Ivanishvili himself weighed in on the Alasania scandal. On 7 November, he met with Alasania in a closed-door meeting at his business center. The precise details of the discussion were not disclosed, though after the meeting, Alasania stated:

We have exchanged views about the current political situation in the country. It was a very frank conversation. An agreement was reached that we should proceed the political process in a way that will not damage the state – that was mainly the substance of our conversation. We discussed many issues, but it will naturally remain between us.

The departure of Alasania and his Free Democrats has significantly minimized the presence of the hawk faction in Georgia’s ruling coalition. The Republican Party of Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili is now the only remaining hardline group within the coalition. This places Usupashvili in a precarious position.

Davit Usupashvili (Agenda.ge)

Davit Usupashvili (Agenda.ge)

Immediately prior to the split, Usupashvili seems to have attempted a mediation between Alasania and the pragmatists in an effort to prevent this outcome. Commenting on the situation to reporters, he stated that the split was caused by the fact that “all main participants of the process have wittingly or unwittingly hurried up excessively.” He also regretted the departure of Alasania and the Free Democrats as an “important loss.”

Meanwhile, Usupashvili’s wife, Tina Khidasheli, openly criticized Garibashvili’s remarks on Alasania, placing the Parliamentary Speaker in an even more difficult spot. In spite of this, Usupashvili is unlikely to step down from his post for now.  Further, he does not represent a seriously destabilizing factor for the ruling coalition in the way that Alasania did.

Reactions on the Alasania scandal from aboard have varied. In the US, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed “strong concerns” about Alasania’s dismissal and about “political retribution” in Georgia. In Europe, Sweden’s recently dismissed ex-Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, one of the continent’s foremost anti-Russian hawks, warned on Twitter of a “grave political crisis” and that the “path of the country is under threat.” Bildt is not well-liked by the ruling coalition. Earlier this year, Garibashshvili accused him of being part of a “club of Saakashvili’s friends.”

Grigory Karasin (TASS / Valery Sharifulin)

Grigory Karasin (TASS / Valery Sharifulin)

Meanwhile, Moscow has been reportedly watching events unfold with great interest. In an interview with TASS, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin remarked that “resignations taking place in the Georgian government, firstly, modify the government itself and secondly, it is important to understand how it will affect the Georgian government’s course.” He added, “we are watching closely and analyzing these developments.”

It is clear that Alasania’s future in Georgian politics will be greatly reduced. Despite his popular following, Alasania simply does not have the mass backing behind him needed to become a real competitor. Predictably, he completely rejected any cooperation with the opposition United National Movement (UNM), the party of Alasania’s bitter rival, Mikheil Saakashvili. Meanwhile, the prosecutions against the arrested Defense Ministry officials continue and Alasania has not ruled out potential investigations by prosecutors against himself. Overall, it was Alasania’s provocative actions and rhetoric that nearly led Georgia into political crises, both at home and in the region. Tbilisi’s pragmatists can be relieved to see his departure, in addition to seeing a political crisis averted.

UPDATE (9 November 2014): Bidzina Ivanishvili gave an extensive interview to the Georgian Public Broadcaster on 8 November discussing current political events in Georgia, including the Alasania scandal.  For more information on Ivanishvili’s interview, see my full analysis here.

Ukraine’s Rebel Elections

Donbas election (RIA Novosti / Aleksei Kudenko)

Donbas election (RIA Novosti / Aleksei Kudenko)

The results of the election in the rebel-held areas of Ukraine’s Donbas were not a huge surprise. Igor Plotnitsky, the President of the self-proclaimed Luhansk Republic, won by 63% of the vote while Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the President of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, won by 75% of the vote.

In both cases, it is worth noting the high voter turnout which exceeded 60% in both regions, in contrast to the low voter turnout (in the 30% range) across the border in the portions of the Donbas still held by Kiev. Therefore, the regional electorate illustrates a preference for the rebel leadership.

Notably, when the first steps were taken toward declaring republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in April, much of the population, though pro-Russian, was indifferent to the rebel cause. What changed popular opinion was the violent “anti-terrorist operation” launched by Kiev and the start of the Donbas war, in which thousands of people perished and over a million became refugees. The conflict included numerous human rights violations and war crimes. These were committed by both sides, but especially by Kiev and the notorious far-right volunteer battalions serving under its watch, such as the feared Azov Battalion.  Civilian areas were shelled constantly by Kiev’s forces and, according to Human Rights Watch, Kiev also used cluster munitions.  Buildings and infrastructure lay in ruins as do people’s livelihoods. The people of the Donbas are angry, and popular support has now been galvanized in favor of the rebels.

Something else changed too. Though the proclamation of the rebel republics was primarily driven by locals, its leadership was largely under the influence of Russian nationalists from across the border in Russia. However, over time, the leadership of the rebel regions has become increasingly more local, as clearly seen in the cases of both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky.  The revolt itself has also become more local and more Donbas-centric.  The rebels have even adopted a “national anthem” called “Вставай, Донбасс!” or “Arise, Donbass!”

Aleksandr Zakharchenko (RIA Novosti / Mikhail Voskresenskiy)

Aleksandr Zakharchenko (RIA Novosti / Mikhail Voskresenskiy)

Zakharchenko, a former coal mine electrician from Donetsk, has an especially “local” character about him which may partially explain why he won by such a large margin. At a press conference on 24 August, he and his defense minister Vladimir Kononov (another Donbas native) disavowed any association between the rebels and the historic “Makhnovtsy.” This was a reference to a history that the Donbas locals would known best, that of the anarchist Nestor Makhno whose “Free Territory” during the Ukrainian Civil War of 1917-21 included portions of the present-day Donetsk oblast. Zakharchenko also seemed to distinguish the Donbas as a region from the rest of Ukraine including even the rest of the Southeast, making statements such as “We didn’t come to you in Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, or Zaporozhia.  Leave us [the Donbas] alone. Let us live free and in peace.” He likewise emphasized the hard-working and working-class character of the Donbas people, an amalgam of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, ethnic Russians, and mixed Russo-Ukrainians.

It also worth noting the specific time in which both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky assumed office. This was in early August, around the same time that Moscow decided to definitively give the rebels military aid to turn the tide against Kiev. Putin was under pressure from the hardliners in the Kremlin to help the rebels for some time. When he finally decided to do so in August, it is likely that one of the conditions for Moscow’s support was that the leadership of the rebel movement had to become more “local.” This would explain the rise of more local figures, such as Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky, to leadership positions in early August.

Overall, it is clear that the only realistic solution for the protracted conflict in the region can be peace. The rebels are ready for talks with Kiev. However, with the strengthened position of “war parties” in Ukraine’s Rada, such a prospect may be diminished or even lost, drowned out by calls from nationalists in Kiev to continue the war. If this does happen, the Donbas rebels are unlikely to back down.

Georgian Defense Ministry in Hot Water

Georgian Defense Ministry Building, Tbilisi (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Georgian Defense Ministry Building, Tbilisi (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

On 28 October, a major scandal erupted in Georgia. Five high-ranking officials in the Georgian Defense Ministry were arrested for embezzling 4,102,872 GEL (over $2 million USD) from the state budget. The court ordered a pre-trial detention of the arrested officials.

The scandal sent shock waves throughout Georgia since it has certain political implications for Tbilisi’s current Defense Minister, Irakli Alasania. Regarded as one of the most prominent anti-Russian hawks in the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Alasania has been a staunch supporter of Georgian NATO membership.  He was abroad when the scandal emerged, on a trip to shore up security ties in Europe.

In the meantime, the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office called for Alasania’s deputy, Aleksandr Batiashvili, to be questioned as a witness and has not ruled out the possible questioning of Alasania himself.  US Ambassador Richard Norland voiced Washington’s “full confidence” in Alasania.

Irakli Alasania (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Irakli Alasania (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Upon his return to Tbilisi on 1 November, Alasania gave full support to his employees.  “I am confident that my brothers-in-arms and my colleagues are completely innocent,” he told reporters.  “I will focus all my attention on them in order not to make them feel that they are oppressed – regrettably there already are elements of this in a  way, how the [court] process was conducted behind the closed doors.”  Later, the Ministry of Defense officially demanded a declassification of the case.

The embattled Defense Minister maintained that “from the security point of view, a huge blow has already been struck to our country with these [arrests].”  He emphasized that he would seek “high-level political consultations” with the President, Prime Minister, and Parliamentary Speaker about the case which he claims has “damaged our country’s security.”  When asked about possible political motives, Alasania stated, “whether there are political motives or not, we will talk about it later.”

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

Irakli Garibashvili (Agenda.ge)

There is now widespread speculation over whether or not Alasania will resign from his position as Defense Minister.  When journalists asked Prime Minister Garibashvili on whether or not Tbilisi would ask for such a resignation, he responded “I think you hurry too much,” adding that “this case is very regrettable. We should all wait for the investigation and we should allow the prosecutor’s office to investigate this case in order not to leave any question unanswered.”

A possible Alasania resignation would not be surprising. His relations with the ruling coalition have been uneasy for some time. After the victory of the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012, Alasania was appointed to two posts simultaneously: First Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister.  He hoped to gain the Georgian Presidency and to this end, secure the endorsement of the coalition’s primary leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.

However, there were political disagreements between Alasania and Ivanishvili over whether or not Georgia should have a presidential or parliamentary form of government, with Alasania favoring the former and Ivanishvili the latter.  Further, Ivanishvili also did not trust Alasania, especially because of Alasania’s hawkish line toward Moscow with whom Ivanishvili sought to restore relations. Consequently, Ivanishvili demoted Alasania leaving him in the post of Defense Minister, passed him up for the presidency, and instead favored the former Education Minister and philosopher, Giorgi Margvelashvili as the new post-Saakashvili President.

An uneasy partnership: Irakli Alasania with Bidzina Ivanishvili (Civil.ge)

An uneasy partnership: Irakli Alasania with Bidzina Ivanishvili (Civil.ge)

Alasania was upset by the move, but this frustration was not only limited to him and his political circle. He also has backers in the West, particularly in Washington, who wanted him to assume the presidency. Notably, following Ivanishvili’s decision, articles suddenly emerged in Western publications such as The Economist, with fresh criticism of the Georgian billionaire and renewed speculation of his being a pro-Russian puppet. However, again, this is not the case. Ivanishvili is pro-Georgian as opposed to being either pro-Western or pro-Russian.

Regardless, Alasania’s relations with the ruling coalition were also tested by his relentlessly push for NATO membership and his anti-Russian discourse, which became especially prominent after the Ukraine crisis. His total promotion of NATO has, among other things, alarmed the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians.  Notably, within the context of Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, Alasania was known as someone willing to compromise with the breakaways. He had especially good contacts with the Abkhaz and earlier sought to build peace with Sukhumi through dialogue. For their part, the Abkhaz liked working with Alasania. Ivanishvili, who made a reconciliation with Georgia’s breakaways a top priority, likely recognized this. Indeed, Alasania’s constructive working relations with the Abkhaz may be part of the reason that he was included in the Georgian Dream coalition initially.

Giorgi Margvelashvili (Civil.ge)

Giorgi Margvelashvili (Civil.ge)

However, in his position as Defense Minister, Alasania’s total advocacy for NATO has only created greater distrust with Sukhumi and Tshkinvali. Both view potential Georgian NATO membership as “proof” that, despite the rhetoric, “Georgia is really not interested in dialogue” and that “nothing has changed.”  Other Georgian leaders, such as President Giorgi Margvelashvili, have sought to allay Abkhaz and Ossete fears, emphasizing that NATO membership is not intended to be against them. Pragmatists within the ruling coalition likely see the pursuit of NATO as more of a negotiating chip with Moscow in return for a future peace plan with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

However, such reassurances did little to assuage fears in Sukhumi and Tshkinvali, especially given the history of conflict between these two regions and Tbilisi both in the early 1990s and again in 2008. Instead, as they have done traditionally, both regions have sought greater security ties with Moscow, which shares their disapproval of a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus. To this end it was reported immediately before the September NATO summit in Wales that Moscow intended to bolster ties with both regions.

Alasania and Hagel (Getty)

Alasania and Hagel (Getty)

At the NATO summit, Georgia was granted a “NATO aid package” which would establish a NATO training facility in Georgia and allow for the “occasional” holding of NATO military exercises on Georgian soil. Moscow, already faced with a crisis in Ukraine, was understandably alarmed and even more so when individuals such as US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO commander Philip Breedlove, began to appear in Georgia. It is likely that Alasania and the Defense Ministry played an instrumental role in organizing such visits, irritating Moscow and testing the Russo-Georgian reconciliation process.

On October 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed fresh concern over plans to place “NATO-linked infrastructure” in Georgia. Defense Minister Irkali Alasania immediately retorted that the only “big threat” to the region is Russia itself, given its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and what he deemed was “ongoing aggression carried out by Russia against Ukraine.” He also told reporters that Russia cannot stop Georgia from establishing NATO training facilities on its own territory. “We will never bow to the Russians,” he said “to a ‘diktat’ from Russia on what is better for Georgia.” Predictably, his controversial remarks sparked anger in Moscow. They also must have embarrassed Tbilisi, and seemingly contradicted efforts by Margvelashvili and Garibashvili at pursuing a more pragmatic approach toward Russia.

Alasania’s statements also came amid rumors that he may even leave the ruling coalition to pursue his own political ambitions in Georgia in the 2016 parliamentary elections. If he does leave the ruling coalition, it is unlikely that he will join Georgia’s foremost hardliners, the United National Movement (UNM), due to his bitter relations with his rival, former President Saakashvili.

The tipping point for Tbilisi must have been Moscow’s proposed treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia. The text of the proposal called for deepening ties with the breakaway republic, so much so that it would have integrated Abkhazia’s military and economic structures almost entirely with Russia’s. It would also enhance the number of Russian troops along the de facto Abkhaz-Georgian border.

The reaction to the treaty was negative in both Abkhazia and Georgia. Though the Abkhaz support the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union, they viewed the treaty as going too far and “infringing on Abkhaz sovereignty.” Even the newly-elected Abkhaz President Khajimba, known for his close ties with officials in Moscow, voiced his disagreement with it. In Georgia, the proposed treaty caused more alarm, with some decrying it as an attempt by Russia to “annex” Abkhazia.

Grigory Karasin (newsinfo.ru)

Grigory Karasin (newsinfo.ru)

In reality, the proposed treaty was likely intended by Moscow to communicate to Tbilisi how seriously it regards a potential NATO presence in the Caucasus. It also signaled to Tbilisi that, while it still has a chance at reconciliation with the Abkhaz, it could lose such an opportunity permanently if it continues to pursue NATO.

The Abkhaz issue dominated the discourse at a subsequent meeting in Prague between Georgia’s Russia envoy, Zurab Abashidze and his counterpart Grigory Karasin.  At the talks, Abashidze beseeched Karasin to have Moscow reconsider the proposed treaty. Karasin retorted that the treaty only concerned both Moscow and Sukhumi, and that nobody could determine the relations between Russia and Abkhazia. He also gave Tbilisi some blunt advice from Moscow: tone down the rhetoric.

Whether or not the recent scandal in the Defense Ministry has anything to do with Alasania’s hawkish posturing remains to be seen. However, his departure would no doubt be a welcome relief for pragmatists in Tbilisi, eager to reset ties with Moscow and to explore realistic solutions to the protracted Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts.  The scandal also comes amid a greater backlash across Europe against anti-Russian hawks, such as Poland’s Radosław Sikorski and Sweden’s Carl Bildt, in light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

UPDATE (4-5 November 2014): On 4 November, Irakli Alasania was officially dismissed from his position as Georgia’s Defense Minister by Prime Minister Garibashvili.  In Alasania’s place as Defense Minister, Tbilisi appointed Mindia Janelidze.  Subsequently, Aleksei Petriashvili, the State Minister for Euro-Atlantic integration and a member of Alasania’s Free Democrats stepped down from his post.  More resignations followed, including that of Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, Alasania’s sister-in-law, on 5 November.  That same day, Alasania formally announced the official split of his party from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.

Ukraine’s Parliamentary Poll: Results and Reflections

Ukraine concluded a parliamentary election this weekend, electing parties largely with a pro-Western and nationalist platform. Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front won first place, edging out his main rival, Petro Poroshenko. In third place came the West Ukraine-based Self-Reliance Party. Fourth place was the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, which brings together the remnants of Viktor Yanukovych’s old Party of Regions. Then, in the fifth and sixth places respectively were Oleg Lyashko’s Radical Party and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party.

Many in the West have already hailed the election as a “clear victory” for Ukraine’s “European majority.” However, such an assessment is questionable. In fact, it was an election that really did not help to bring Ukraine any closer to unity. The voter turnout in the country illustrated this.

Voter Turnout, 2014 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election

Voter Turnout, 2014 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election

Overall, the national turnout for the election was 52.42%. On a regional level this varied. In the Southeastern oblasti, the turnout was low, with the lowest recorded in the Kiev-controlled sections of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti.

Lower voter turnouts were also registered in the far-western oblast of Zakarpattia (Carpathian Rus’) as well as in Chernivsti oblast on the Romanian border.  Turnout was low throughout Zakarpattia, home to the Rusyn-speakers and a distinct region in its own right.  However, it was lowest in districts on the border with Hungary, inhabited by ethnic Hungarians.  Likewise, in Chernivsti, the areas with the lowest voter turnout were those with significant populations of ethnic Romanians.

Not surprisingly, electoral patterns were more divided in the Central oblasti, with an average turnout ranging from 50 to 60%. Of these, Kirovograd oblast registered the lowest turnout. Finally, in the Western oblasti, turnout exceeded 60% and in Lviv oblast, it reached 70%.

It is also interesting to observe which parties managed to win which oblasti in the nationwide election results.

Nationwide Election Results by Oblast

Nationwide Election Results by Oblast

In this regard, Petro Poroshenko managed to carry much of the South and the far-western oblast of Zakarpattia (Carpathian Rus’). His contest with the pro-Western nationalist and current Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was most heated in the Central oblasti. Of those Central Ukrainians who participated in the election (about half of the region’s registered voters), most were primarily divided between Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk. With the conclusion of the election, Poroshenko was able to secure three Central oblasti: Chernihiv, Sumy, and his native Vinnitsya. He lost most of the others by as little as a single percentage point.

In addition to securing most of the Central oblasti, Yatsenyuk and his People’s Front secured their greatest victories in much of the Western oblasti, including all of historic Galicia and Volhynia and Yatsenyuk’s native Chernivsti. Yatsenyuk and his party are known for their more hawkish stance toward Russia, which may explain their appeal to many in the Western part of the country.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk inspects his wall project on the Russian border (Getty)

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk inspects his wall project on the Russian border. (Getty)

In fact, Yatsenyuk’s main pet project has been the construction of a large Berlin Wall-style rampart along the entire Russo-Ukrainian border.  Yatsenyuk is fully committed to this grandiose and costly scheme, even as Ukraine’s economy spins into bankruptcy.  Ironically, in March, it was Yatsenyuk who, in an apparent attempt to channel Ronald Reagan, called for Putin to “tear down this wall.”  In response to news about the proposed plan, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev stated, “I am against all walls,” adding that “let’s hope that those who are planning such a ‘construction’ come to their senses.”

Finally, the Opposition Bloc managed to secure much of Ukraine’s Eastern oblasti. This included Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhia, and the Kiev-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Other pro-Russian parties also fared well in the East, including the Communist Party which placed second in Luhansk. The conclusion one may derive from the latter is that, even without the presence of the Donbas rebels, the locals are still largely pro-Russian.

Yet, overall, Ukraine’s new parliament has very little pro-Russian representation.  Among other things, the election marks the first time in Ukraine’s entire post-Soviet history that the Communist Party will have no representation.  The Opposition Bloc will be the only major pro-Russian force in the Rada.

By contrast, most of the remaining newly-elected parties in parliament are primarily pro-Western and nationalist in character. Though some commentators have been quick to label some of them as “fascist” or “neo-Nazi,” the fact is that their stated ideologies, while fiercely nationalist and hawkishly anti-Russian, are not explicitly fascist.

Ukraine's far-right Svoboda Party marches in Kiev.  The party did not receive enough votes to retain its position in parliament.

Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda Party marches in Kiev. The party did not receive enough votes to retain its position in parliament. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)

Additionally, Ukraine’s two overtly neo-Nazi and fascist parties, Svoboda and Right Sector, garnered only 5% and 2% respectively and thus will not be among the major parties in parliament. This is despite the fact that these two parties played a significant role in the success of the Maidan Revolution.

At the same time, it is important to note that there are some political figures with fascist proclivities and UNA (Ukrainian National Assembly) connections among the “mainstream” nationalist parties. One of them is Andriy Parubiy of Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front. It was Parubiy, together with Oleh Tyahnybok, who founded the original Svoboda (then known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine) in 1991.

Further, the major parties will only occupy half of Ukraine’s parliament. The rest will be representatives from single-mandate districts and these include far-right activists, not just from Svoboda and Right Sector, but from the feared Azov Battalion as well.  In fact, Right Sector’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, even won a single-seat constituency in Dnepropetrovsk.  Additionally, Right Sector, Patriots of Ukraine, and other far-right groups still have influence on the streets and certainly in Kiev’s volunteer battalions that have fought in the “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donbas.

Darth Alekseyevich Vader (The Independent)

Darth Alekseyevich Vader in Kiev (The Independent)

Meanwhile, one of Ukraine’s more interesting candidates, the elusive Darth Alekseyevich Vader, also sought political office. A candidate of the Internet Party of Ukraine, Mr. Vader pledged to turn Ukraine into a “galactic empire.” However, the Sith Lord was denied registration for his candidacy after refusing to remove his mask.

Another loser of sorts was Yulia Tymoshenko. The “gas princess” and self-styled Marianne of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko’s arrest sparked a cause célèbre in Europe against the Yanukovych regime. How ironic it must seem to otherwise uniformed outsiders that Tymoshenko was barely able to make it into parliament and had to compete against Svoboda (of all parties) to assume that place. However, to Ukrainians who are familiar with Tymoshenko’s role in plundering the country since its independence, such a result was to be expected.

Ukraine's Oleg Lyashko in the Rada

Ukraine’s Oleg Lyashko in the Rada

In a twist of fate, Tymoshenko actually placed lower than the formerly marginal Oleg Lyashko, leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party. A flamboyant populist known for instigating brawls in Ukraine’s parliamentary circus, Lyashko has used the Maidan revolution, the Donbas war, and Ukrainian nationalism to advance his political career. His Radical Party is a typical post-Soviet personality-based party, serving as a mere vehicle for his political aims.

The eccentric and controversial politician has advocated for a buildup of nuclear arms in Ukraine and has a laundry list of promises, albeit few explanations on how to deliver on them. He has also become an active participant in the Donbas War, where his actions and abuses have been criticized by the human rights organization Amnesty International among others.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Lyashko’s party, like Yatsenyuk’s and others in Ukraine’s newly elected parliament, also advocates a continuation of the Donbas war. The fact that these “war parties” have been emboldened by their recent election victory will present a serious challenge to President Poroshenko, who will have to forge a coalition with them.  The “chocolate king,” as Poroshenko is often known, is in a tough spot, caught between his domestic hawks and pressure from the European Union (especially Germany) and Russia to maintain the ceasefire and find a diplomatic solution to the Donbas conflict.  He is in an unenviable position.

In addition, Ukraine is bankrupt and its economy is in total disarray. The newly-elected parliament will soon discover that being pro-Western, nationalist, and anti-Russian is simply not the answer for Ukraine’s mammoth economic problems.

Russia and Georgia: In Search of a Caucasian Peace

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

In October 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition swept into power, dealing a severe blow to the ruling party of Mikheil Saakashvili. First and foremost, the Georgian billionaire promised to adopt a more pragmatic approach toward relations with Russia and to entice its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia by peaceful, diplomatic means.

Two years later, Russo-Georgian relations are at a standstill. Communications appeared to be heading toward a thaw in February when, during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to meet the newly-elected Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such a meeting would have been the first between the Russian and Georgian leaderships since the 2008 South Ossetian war. However, this proposed summit was postponed indefinitely, overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

Russo-Georgian relations remained in a state of “freeze” since that time. Meanwhile, in the absence of official diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, the region is becoming increasingly more militarized. Encouraged by Washington, Tbilisi continues to pursue NATO and was recently granted a NATO security package at the recent NATO Summit in Wales. Among other things, the package allows for the establishment of a NATO training facility on Georgian territory and for NATO to “occasionally” hold military exercises in Georgia.

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

Moscow has reacted to this with alarm. Indeed, their fears seemed confirmed when, on October 13, it was announced that the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship for the US 6th Fleet in Europe, would land at Batumi. According to Washington, the visit was intended to “strengthen ties with NATO allies and partners like Georgia, while working toward mutual goals of promoting peace and stability in the Black Sea region.”

That same day, Moscow proposed a treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia as a means of strengthening ties with the rebel region.  Among other things, the proposed draft called for a total standardization of the Abkhaz and Russian militaries and for additional Russian troops to be stationed along the de facto Abkhaz-Georgian border. It also called for looser border restrictions, a standardization of Abkhazia’s customs legislation with that of the Eurasian Union, a gradual “harmonization” of Sukhumi’s budgetary and tax policies with Moscow’s, and for Russian diplomatic aid in expanding Abkhazia’s international recognition.

Moscow’s move was likely a gambit to call Tbilisi’s bluff on its NATO aspirations. It also indirectly signals to Georgia that it regards NATO as a very serious threat to its security. It further communicates that while Tbilisi still has a realistic chance at reconciliation with Sukhumi now, it may lose such an opportunity permanently if it continues to pursue NATO membership.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

As expected, the draft agreement was received negatively by official Tbilisi, which warned that it “will seriously endanger the process of normalization of the Georgian-Russian relations” and may represent a de facto “annexation of Abkhazia.” The Abkhaz have reacted negatively as well. Though most Abkhaz support the idea of one day joining the Eurasian Union and of having Moscow’s backing on security, they see the proposed treaty as going too far and “infringing on Abkhaz sovereignty.” Even the new Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba, who is usually known to be close to the Kremlin, spoke out against it.

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Talks in Prague between Tbilisi’s special envoy to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, and his counterpart Grigory Karasin, have failed to yield results. Meanwhile, Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and at least one politician from within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have called for a total cessation of any dialogue with Moscow. Indeed, UNM members have argued that the Abkhaz treaty is clear proof of Moscow’s sinister intentions toward Georgia. Consequently, in their view, there is no purpose for future talks and they should be cancelled completely. Of course, such a reckless move would have negative implications for both Georgia and Russia. Abashidze, a veteran diplomat from Shevardnadze-era Georgia and from the USSR, knows this better than anyone and has been quick to defend continued talks.

Do these most recent developments indicate an end to the efforts by the Georgian government toward a Russo-Georgian rapprochement? Are the options for a peaceful and diplomatic solution between both sides exhausted?

Hopefully not.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi are still searching for the right moment to reset relations beyond practical economic and trade issues. In fact, as it became increasingly apparent that the ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbas appeared to be holding, Georgian President Margvelashvili expressed renewed interest in finally realizing his proposed meeting with Putin.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

In media interviews in September and October, Georgia’s philosopher-president stressed that relations between Tbilisi and Moscow must first be eased before serious talks can begin on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He likewise warned Moscow of the potential danger of the status quo, and expressed interest in greater dialogue.

In one such interview with the Georgian edition of Forbes magazine on 8 October, Margvelashvili stated that “it is difficult to talk about Putin in such an open discussion. Putin is interesting to me as the real decision-maker in the most difficult issues for Georgia. I do not personally know him, but I hope he is rational and supports a rational policy. I hope at some point it will be possible to construct the Georgian-Russian relations in favor of our countries’ interests. I hope for this.”

A potential Putin-Margvelashvili meeting would do much to improve relations between both countries and may even lead to a future compromise resolution over Georgia’s breakaways. While it is difficult to imagine that Russia would simply “unrecognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is possible that Moscow could offer an equitable solution to the problem through a co-equal federal or confederal structure among Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali. A Moscow-backed peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways would also ameliorate Russia’s concerns of seeing an enlarged NATO on its southern flank.

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

In this regard, Georgia has sought to pursue a more balanced policy toward its estranged regions, emphasizing peaceful dialogue and coexistence as opposed to military confrontation. On 12 October, the Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili engaged in one peace initiative with his Ossetian counterparts by donning a football jersey. He and other members of the Georgian government, together with current and former Georgian football players, engaged representatives from South Ossetia in a football friendly in the city of Gori. The captain of the Georgian team, Garibashvili, decided to switch sides in the second half and joined the South Ossetians. The game ended 4:4 in yet another variation of Caucasian “football diplomacy.”

“We don’t want to be enemies of Ossetian and Abkhazian brothers, we want fraternity with them and today’s game was a clear demonstration of it,” stated the Prime Minister after the match. “I have an amazing feeling. It was a step towards confidence building. I am so glad that our Ossetian brothers have so sound generation. I am really in a good mood. I felt love and friendship coming from them.”

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Garibashvili has been another voice of reason in Georgia, calling for the continuation of talks and dialogue. Reacting to the proposed Abkhaz treaty, he emphasized that Moscow confirmed that the treaty was still incomplete and remained only “under consideration.”

“I am very interested in the Russian government’s final position,” he said. “I do not want to believe that the Russian government intends to respond to our constructive and pragmatic policy by such a step. This should not be in anyone’s interest.”

He continued stated that “we started a direct dialogue, which was a direct recommendation from the international community. We successfully continued the pragmatic policy, launched by Bidzina Ivanishvili as early as two years ago, and as a result of this the trade and economic relations were normalized with Russia, resulting in increased export to Russia. We have not spared our efforts to demonstrate that we are a maximally pragmatic, constructive and stable government.”

At the same time, he also noted that such efforts still have “not significantly affected the political situation” outside of trade and economic ties. Indeed, immediate talks between Moscow and Tbilisi would be in the best interests of both countries. In this regard, a direct meeting between Putin and Margvelashvili would do much to restore confidence on both sides and would lead to a serious and constructive dialogue on important and difficult issues. Overall, it is clear that diplomacy is the best route toward normalization, compromise, and resolution.

UPDATE (20 October 2014): Vano Machavariani, the Former Foreign Affairs Advisor to the President of Georgia has stated today that Tbilisi had been preparing for a direct meeting between Margvelashvili and Putin but that it had been indefinitely postponed due to the “government’s reluctance.”  While he notes that the situation is “more complicated now” and that “it is difficult to organize a high-level meeting,” he also emphasized that such a meeting is still possible

“If the partner countries will engage in [this meeting],” he stated, “some steps can be taken.”  He also maintained that such a move is particularly important now, given the recent controversy over Moscow’s proposed treaty with Abkhazia.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Davit Zalkaliani and Tbilisi’s envoy to Moscow Zurab Abashidze have stated that they were unaware of such preparations.  However, Zalkaliani does not exclude that Machavariani may have been pursuing extra diplomatic efforts.  He also noted too that a potential visit is still possible.

“As you know, the organization of a visit is a very serious matter and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be involved in it,” he stated.  “All organizational issues are agreed on through diplomatic channels. We do not have diplomatic relations with Russia. Hence, it should have been done through the Swiss Confederation, though we have not sent any note or letter.”

Abkhazia’s Man of the Hour

Abkhaz President-Elect Raul Khajimba (ITAR-TASS / Valery Matytsin)

Abkhaz President-Elect Raul Khajimba (ITAR-TASS / Valery Matytsin)

Abkhazia’s Raul Khajimba is the man of the hour. The victor of Abkhazia’s snap presidential election on Sunday, Khajimba has appealed to many Abkhaz as both a man of action and as a patriot. A nationalist with a history of refusing compromise with Georgia, let alone granting ethnic Georgians Abkhaz citizenship, Khajimba may be a cause of concern for some in the region. However, behind his nationalist posturing, he may also be the man to bring about a compromise, the kind that could help unite a region that is increasingly fragmented by ongoing geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West.

Georgia has signed on to a European economic and political Association Agreement, and more hawkish members of Tbilisi’s political elite insist that it join NATO. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Tbilisi’s two breakaways, remain in a sort of geopolitical limbo, recognized by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru but not by the rest of the world. Further south, Armenia has signed on to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union. To the east, oil-rich Azerbaijan, under the autocratic regime of Ilham Aliyev, remains free of any geopolitical union. Yet, Baku’s penchant for human rights abuses and bellicose statements regarding Armenia and the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh continue to be a cause for concern. Meanwhile, the crisis and conflict in Ukraine continues.

It is far from certain what path Khajimba will take Abkhazia. If he pursues a narrow ethno-nationalist policy, then it is doubtful that it will be beneficial for the Caucasus region as a whole, let alone Abkhazia. However, he could instead opt for a more pragmatic policy and use his position to pursue a path of engagement.

A good starting point would be the Abkhaz-Georgian railway, which directly linked Armenia with Russia in Soviet times and which was closed during the war in Abkhazia of the 1990s. Armenia and the Armenian community of Abkhazia have signaled their support for such an initiative. In Georgia too, Bidzina Ivanishvili, during his tenure as Prime Minister, sought to put this issue on the table.  Though vocally opposed by Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party, the opening of the railway with Abkhazia has widespread popular support in Georgia.  Meanwhile, Abkhazia’s political elite has been uncertain about opening the railway.  No serious action toward a resolution of this issue alone has appeared in either Tbilisi or Sukhumi beyond mere rhetoric.

Khajimba could make this happen to the benefit of Abkhazia, Georgia, Russia, and Armenia. Such a move would also set in motion the right process to engage in broader dialogue between the Abkhaz, Georgians, and Russians on issues such as a compromise resolution on the Abkhaz conflict. This would bode well for the stability of the Caucasus region as a whole.

Khajimba does indeed have connections in Moscow and received his first congratulations from Russian President Putin, even before the official announcement of his victory in Sukhumi’s Apsny Press agency. Notably, in 2004, Putin favored Khajimba for President of Abkhazia.

The newly-elected Abkhaz leader’s Kremlin connections may make him more amiable to a pragmatic political solution. However, this requires political will and, even more importantly, courage. Whether or not Khajimba opts for a path of informed pragmatism vs. one of narrow nationalism remains to be seen. Though one thing is for certain, Abkhazia, Georgia, and the Caucasus can only benefit from peace.

UPDATE (28 August 2014): On August 27, Khajimba met Putin personally at Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow.  The talks were focused on enhanced cooperation between Abkhazia and Russia.  In an exclusive interview with ITAR-TASS, the Abkhaz leader noted that he was considering reducing Abkhazia’s border checkpoints with Georgia.  He also indicated that he was open to dialogue with Georgia but stressed that this can only be possible if Georgia signs a non-use-of-force agreement.  “We understand we won’t get away from Georgia as a neighbor anywhere, we’re destined to live side by side and to build up a relationship that will make it possible for us to minimize external risks and threats,” he said.

 

Independence Day

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Mikola Lazarenko / RIA Novosti)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (Mikola Lazarenko / RIA Novosti)

Today, on 24 August, Ukraine will celebrate its independence from the Soviet Union. Yet, if one observes the developments in Ukraine for the past two decades, it quickly becomes apparent that there is very little to celebrate. In the 23 years since the breakup of the USSR, more than seven million people have emigrated from the country. Now, as the conflict in the Donbas continues, that figure is over eight million and, with Russia’s incorporation of Crimea, this number becomes nine million. Between the 2004 Orange Revolution and the recent Maidan Revolution alone, approximately four million people have departed from Ukraine.

Additionally, the Ukrainian economy is in decline and default and, today, it stands on the precipice of total collapse. Even IMF-sponsored “reforms” will not be enough to bail out Ukraine’s mammoth debt and the added “bonus” of IMF-backed austerity will send the population reeling. Likewise, corruption has not halted at all in Ukraine, and has only become worse. Even the Maidan Revolution was not able to fundamentally change this problem in Ukrainian society. Today the Ukrainian political elite remains just as corrupt as it was when the Maidan Revolution broke out in November 2013. In the Rada, fist fights between rival politicians continue and it is unclear whether or not Maidan has also eased the country’s problems with poverty, unemployment, human trafficking, or organized crime.

Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, the divisions in Ukrainian society have become worse. The Ukrainian nationalists of Galicia today hate Russia or anything Russian-oriented with greater intensity than ever. By contrast, those Russian-speaking Ukrainians in South and Eastern Ukraine continue to reject any notion of membership in NATO or the EU, and they refuse to sever any ties with Russia. Meanwhile, divisions persist among Central Ukrainians while the Rusyns of Zakarpattia view the situation with exasperation.

In the Donbas, war between official Kiev and pro-Russian rebels has given way to a humanitarian catastrophe. Throughout the conflict, Kiev’s forces, including rogue far-right militias like the feared Azov battalion, have relentlessly shelled and attacked civilian infrastructure and the area’s Russian-speaking civilians. Refugees have fled en masse to Russia while others have escaped into more peaceful regions of Ukraine. Thousands died in the conflict, not only civilians, but also Ukrainians from other parts of Ukraine who were recruited to fight against their own ethnic kin. Families have become ideologically split over the conflict, while the industry in the Donbas, which is so crucial to Ukraine’s economy, has come to a total standstill. Cities like Slavyansk are in ruins. Everyday livelihoods of neighborhood bakers, doctors, and others have been disrupted. Daily institutions like grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, and schools have been destroyed or closed. Questions still remain unanswered with regard to the tragic shootdown of the MH17 Malaysian airliner.

Now, as Ukraine prepares to celebrate its 23rd independence day, reports are rife that the government of President Petro Poroshenko will seek to capture the city of Luhansk at any cost. This inevitably means more attacks on civilians, more indiscriminate shelling, and more destruction. Instead of working to declare an “independence day peace,” he is instead alienating more of his citizens against him. As a catastrophe consumes the Donbas and problems persist throughout the rest of Ukraine, including an impending economic collapse, ordinary Ukrainians will inevitably ask: “What is there to celebrate?”

Ukraine: Where Nation-Building and Empire Meet

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

Ukrainian Girl by a Fence, Ilya Repin, 1876

As the Ukraine crisis continues, there are debates emerging with regard to the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, in language, culture, and history.

The vast majority of ordinary Russians view Ukrainians, though linguistically distinct, as being a fraternal East Slavic nation, closely bound to Russia by culture, history, and intermarriage. They further assert that Ukraine is an integral part of Russian civilization, owing to the particularly special significance of Kiev to both Russians and Ukrainians. More nationalistic Russians go even further and claim that Ukraine is merely a “concept” and that the people known as “Ukrainians” are merely an extension of the Russian nation who speak a dialect of Russian.

Some Ukrainians, particularly in the Central part of the country, would sympathize with the argument that Russians and Ukrainians are a fraternal people. In the Russian-speaking Southeast this would be further elevated to Russians and Ukrainians being “the same people.” However, as one might imagine, the nationalist discourse in Western Ukraine, particularly Galicia, is radically different. To Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainians are “completely different” from the Russians. They have they own culture, language and history which they believe is “entirely disconnected” from anything to do with the Russians. Some more extreme Ukrainian nationalists even claim that the Ukrainian language is not only distinct from Russian, but also distinct among all Slavic or even Indo-European languages as well.

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Cossack on the Steppe, Ilya Repin, 1890

Of course, the truth exists somewhere in-between these conflicting narratives. It is true that Ukrainians do speak their own language and that there are aspects of Ukrainian culture that are indeed unique to Ukrainians. However, it is also true that Kiev is the common point of origin for all East Slavs including Ukrainians and Russians; that at one time in their common history, they used to speak the same language (Old East Slavic); and that the contemporary Ukrainian and Russian languages (though not exactly the same) are indeed very similar. It is also true that the Ukrainians and Russians have much in common in terms of culture, and they have both had a major impact on one another. Examples of this cultural exchange include the squat-and-kick prisyadka dance move and the beet soup borscht, both of Ukrainian origin but deeply influential in Russian culture. Nikolai Gogol was a famous Russian-language author of Ukrainian origin who often included Ukrainian themes in his writings, e.g., Taras Bulba.  The great Russian painter Ilya Repin, though himself an ethnic Russian, was born in Ukraine and also included many Ukrainian themes in his work, signaling his great love for his fellow East Slav brothers.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Mixed Russian-Ukrainian Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Ukrainian wife Raisa.

Intermarriage is also a major component of the Russo-Ukrainian relationship. Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were both products of mixed Russo-Ukrainian parentage; their wives, Nina Kukharchuk and Raisa Titarenko, were both fully Ukrainian. Another former leader, Lenoid Brezhnev, was also of mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage while another, Konstantin Chernenko, came from a Russified Ukrainian family. In music, the famous Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuck is Ukrainian and the Bessarabian-born Russian tango singer of the 1930s Pyotr Leschenko was also of Ukrainian background. Additionally, the dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the great Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolyov were all born to mixed Russian-Ukrainian parents.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus' to Christianity in the 10th century.  He is widely respected by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Kievan ruler Vladimir the Great was baptized at Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) and converted the Kievan Rus’ to Christianity in the 10th century. Vladimir is widely revered by all East Slavs (including Russians and Ukrainians) to this day.

Rus’, Malorussia, Ukraine, and the Politics of Identity

Another aspect of the very close relationship between the Russians and the Ukrainians is the historical development of the identity of the Ukrainian people. At one point, all of the East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Carpatho-Rusyns) used to comprise a single people – the people of the Rus’ – who used to speak a single language known as Old East Slavic. Their faith was Orthodox Christianity. The only exception to this were the Kievan territories of Galicia and Volhynia. Forming the westernmost regions of the old Rus’, Catholic and Polish influence was very strong in these areas, particularly Galicia, and their princely families even intermarried with nearby Catholic Polish and Hungarian houses. Significantly, while there was a distrust of Catholicism in the other Rus’ territories further east, in Galicia and Volhynia, Catholic and Western ideas were welcomed and fully embraced. This early cultural division would later play a role in Ukraine’s regional identity differences centuries later.

Another key factor was language. In the 13th century, the Kievan Rus’ fell into decline and became subjected to the Mongol invasions. Its western principalities (largely correspondent to much of modern-day Central Ukraine and Belarus) were absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which later unified with the Kingdom of Poland at the Union of Lublin in 1569, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The gradual “break-up” of the single Old East Slavic language into several different languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Carpatho-Rusyn – occurred during this period. Yet, even into the early 20th century, many of these East Slavs still self-identified as “Rusyni” and spoke a language which they called “Rusynski,” both referring to the old Rus’ state.

Foreign rule further created a new dimension to the situation which involved religion. Rus’ lands under Mongol rule remained free to worship and practice their Orthodox Christian faith. By comparison, in those Rus’ lands under Polish-Lithuanian rule, Orthodoxy was at first tolerated. Later, however, the separateness in faith concerned the Polish monarchs as the Orthodox locals of the historic Rus’ lands saw their affinity not with Catholic Poland or Western Europe but with the world of Russian Orthodoxy. As such, Orthodox Christians were persecuted under Polish rule until in 1595, in exchange for an end to this persecution, the Orthodox clergy of the Polish-ruled lands agreed to the Union of Brest, forming the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (or Uniate) Church. However, in subsequent centuries, as the Russian Tsars later reclaimed the old western Rus’ lands from Poland-Lithuania in the 18th century Partitions of Poland, the Orthodox faith was reintroduced.  Significantly, in the Partitions, the Habsburg monarchy in Austria acquired the Catholic- and Western-leaning region of Galicia.

Additionally, an entirely separate situation existed further west in the region of Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia). This distant western region was a borderland frontier area at the time of Kievan Rus’.  It fluctuated between the control of Orthodox East Slav Kievan rulers to the north and east and Magyar (Hungarian) Catholic rulers to the south and west. With the fall of Kievan Rus’, this Carpathian territory fell under the complete control of the Hungarian monarchs. Overtime, the close proximity of the Catholic Slovak and Magyar populations combined with the area’s separateness from the other historic Rus’ lands due to the Carpathian Mountains led it to develop its own entirely distinct identity and language (Carpatho-Rusyn). This difference was reinforced with the Union of Uzhgorod in 1646 in which the Orthodox Rusyns joined the Catholic Church as part of the Byzantine rite, forming the separate Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.  A native of Central Ukraine, Gogol was the author of Dead Souls among other works.

Renown Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.

As mentioned earlier, the Russian Tsars later reclaimed much of the old western Kievan Rus’ territories in modern-day Ukraine in Belarus during the Partitions of Poland in the 18th century.  Orthodoxy was also reintroduced in these regions. The “Rusyni” identity of old persisted among the locals and, during the 19th century, two rival nation-building projects on the territory of contemporary Ukraine sought to supplement this old “Rusyni” identity with a new identity. One was the Malorussian (“Little Russian”) identity, with the name “Little Russia” derivative from old Byzantine maps referring to modern Ukraine as “Lesser Rus'” or “Rus’ Minor.” The Malorussian project claimed that modern Ukraine was a natural extension of the Russian nation. In the Malorussian view, the Ukrainian language that developed from the break-up of Old East Slavic had to be supplemented by a common standard language. In their view, this was to be Russian, a language seen by Malorussian activists as the “successor” of Old East Slavic. Nikolai Gogol, an ethnic Ukrainian who wrote in Russian, was among those who favored Malorussianism.

Taras Shevchenko

Taras Shevchenko

Opposing Malorussianism, was Ukrainianism. Ukrainianism postulated that the East Slavic language that developed in Ukraine signified the development of an entirely separate ethnic identity, independent of other East Slavs. They called their nation “Ukraine,” a name that like “Malorussia” developed from cartographic toponyms and has been literally translated as “borderland.” Ukrainianists emphasized the unique and distinct culture of the people of the area above all else, with a special emphasis on language and culture. Of course, this did not exclude those who viewed themselves as “Ukrainian” but also saw Russia as a fraternal East Slavic nation nonetheless. The writer Taras Shevchenko is perhaps best representative of the “Ukrainianist” group, writing almost exclusively in the Ukrainian language, though occasionally writing in Russian as well.

Of these movements, Malorussianism was favored by the Tsars who regarded themselves as the legitimate successors to the rulers of the old Kievan Rus’. Consequently, the Malorussianist policies of official Petersburg should be viewed not within the context of an empire attempting to force an assimilation on a “conquered” people, but rather as part of a nation-building project, as part of the great “reunification of Old Rus'” and “gathering of the Russian lands” as the Tsars saw it.

A similar national project was also taking place in Italy, which had just been unified under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi. There, the Italian language, based on Tuscan and the Central Italian dialects, was to become the literary standard. However, in the southern island of Sicily, the locals spoke their own Romance language Sicilian, related to Italian but also distinct in its own right. In Rome, the king regarded Sicilian just as the Tsar regarded Ukrainian, as a backward provincial dialect which, with the expansion of education and literacy, would be eventually supplemented by “clean Italian” or in the Tsar’s case, “clean Russian.” Indeed, like Ukrainian, Sicilian developed distinct from other languages in Italy by virtue of its geographic separation from the mainland and historical invasions of the island by Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spanish, and others. Yet Sicily was viewed by Italianist advocates as an integral and historical part of Italy, just as Ukraine was regarded as an integral and historical part of Russia by the educated class, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy.

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91, Ilya Repin

An additional development to all of this was the emergence of three new historical territories overtime. They included Zaporozhia which established itself in the “wild fields” south of Polish-ruled territory in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In this region, rebellious Orthodox Christian Cossacks fought against the Polish monarchs.  Then, in the 17th century, the area of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine) emerged around the cities of Kharkiv and Sumy.  Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the area of Novorossiya was formed along the Black Sea after the Russian Tsars had finally succeeded in taking Ottoman-held territory along the coast.  In all of these regions, Ukrainian (or Malorussian) populations played primary roles in their historical formation and settlement.  Further, in all three of these regions, Orthodoxy was the primary faith.

The Malorussian-Ukrainian debate also took place across the border in the Austro-Hungarian-ruled East Slavic territories of Galicia, North Bukovina (Chernivsti), and Carpathian Rus’. There, the debate existed between Ukrainianists and Russophiles (effectively Malorussian activists under a different name). It became even more complex in Carpathian Rus’ ruled under the the Hungarian realm of the dual monarchy, between Ukrainianists, Russophiles, and Rusynists (those who chose to self-identify as Rusyn or Carpatho-Rusyn). In Galicia where Catholic influence of both the direct Roman Catholic and Uniate strands remained strong, the debate was eventually won by the Ukrainianists. However, in Carpathian Rus’, the debate over ethnic identity still persists to this day.  Notably, during this period, many people from these Austro-Hungarian-controlled territories (particularly Galicia and Carpathian Rus’) also emigrated further west in search of opportunity.  They arrived in the United States and Canada, establishing the core of what would become the contemporary Ukrainian and Carpatho-Rusyn diasporas of today.

National Identity in the Soviet Era

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko's "Earth" (1930).  The film is perhaps Dovzhenko's best-known work and it is part three of the director's "Ukrainian trilogy" which also included "Zvenigora" (1928) and "Arsenal" (1929).

Original avant-garde poster for Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930). The film is perhaps Dovzhenko’s best-known work and it is part three of the director’s “Ukrainian trilogy” which also included Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929).

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the civil war in Ukraine of 1917-21, and the establishment of the USSR, Ukrainianism as a movement won out over Malorussianism.  In the 1920s, the new Soviet government undertook a “Ukrainization” policy in the newly-declared Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as part of its broader nativization or korenizatsiya (коренизация) policy toward nationalities, by promoting and advancing the Ukrainian literary language. This had the effect of encouraging a major cultural and literary renaissance in Ukraine during the NEP that many Ukrainians still fondly remember today.  The advent of new art forms, like film, helped advance this renaissance, in which the great Ukrainian filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko played a leading role.  A pioneer of early Soviet film, Dovzhenko is credited for not only his contributions to the development of Ukrainian cinema but also for Soviet and Russian cinema overall.

The Ukrainization policies were abruptly halted in the 1930s under Stalin whose NKVD purged the republic of real or perceived nationalists, “kulaki,” and “enemies of the people.” Yet, it should be noted that Stalin was not interested in the Malorussian-Ukrainian identity debate, but more concerned with strengthening his position throughout the entire USSR, and to this end he purged writers and intellectuals in all Soviet republics.

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Joseph Stalin smoking his pipe at his desk. (Getty)

Compounding all of this was the terrible Soviet famine of the early 1930s. The famine hit Ukraine very hard and some Ukrainian nationalist historians even go so far as to assert that what happened was a deliberate attempt at genocide against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government. However, this fails to take into account the fact that the famine also affected many non-Ukrainians too, including Germans, Poles, Jews, and Russians.  Likewise, the famine also hit southern Russia and northern Kazakhstan, two other major cereal-producing regions of the Soviet Union, very hard. Among those who witnessed the starvation was a young Mikhail Gorbachev, a native of southern Russia, who personally experienced the horrors of the terrible famine first-hand. It affected his own family and killed off half of his village.

Millions starved to death in this cruel campaign of forced collectivization and suppression of the so-called “kulaki.”  Yet, Western correspondents like Walter Duranty disguised the facts while Stalin and Soviet officials claimed that the campaign had made the “eternally happy” people of the Soviet agricultural heartland “dizzy with success.”  Overall, ethnicity meant little to Stalin.  Nobody was safe from the terror of the vozhd.  He was an equal-opportunity mass murderer.

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Stakhanovite Movement in the Donbas

The Soviet era also saw the rise of industrialization.  The heavily industrial coal-mining region of the Donbas (Donets Basin), centered on the cities of Donetsk (also known as Yuzovka or Stalino) and Luhansk (also known as Voroshilovgrad) really emerged during this period.  Prior to this, the Donbas had been an area with a mixed Ukrainian and Russian Cossack population divided between historical Sloboda Ukraine, Novorossiya, and the Don Cossack Host.  The Soviet era firmly established the Donbas as a unique region in its own right, a truly working-class “Soviet” region where Russian was the primary language.  It was in this area that, during the Stalin era, Aleksei Stakhanov and the Stakhanovite movement emerged.

World War II left an indelible mark on Ukraine.  In the war, most Ukrainians fought alongside the Russians against the onslaught of the Nazi German war machine.  Many Ukrainian villagers in present-day Central and Southeastern Ukraine experienced violent atrocities at the hands of the hated Nazi invader and the country’s sizeable and historically significant Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust.  The war also brought about the unification of Ukraine with the West Ukrainian territories of Galicia, Volhynia, North Bukovina, and Carpathian Rus’ (Zakarpattia).  The addition of these new territories not only “unified” Ukraine but signal a “reunification” of all East Slavic territories for the first time in history since the fall of the Kievan Rus’ in the 13th century.  The new territories also presented (and continue to present) new complications for Ukraine’s collective identity.

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a "hero."

Stepan Bandera, a man regarded throughout much of Ukraine as a wartime collaborator with Nazi Germany and in Western Ukraine (especially Galicia) as a “hero.”

While the vast majority of the people in Central and Southeastern Ukraine view World War II as the “Great Patriotic War” and the Red Army as “saviors,” the view is different in Western Ukraine.  In Galicia (centered on the city of Lviv), the Soviet Union is looked on as a “conqueror” or “oppressor” while the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and Stepan Bandera who are viewed throughout most of Ukraine as wartime collaborators with the Nazis, are seen as “heroes.”  The “hero” view of Bandera also exists but is less prevalent in Volhynia where there are more positive views of the Red Army.

Meanwhile, in North Bukovina and Carpathian Rus’, the view of the Red Army as a “liberator” is much more common and there are reasons for this. North Bukovina’s Slavic population had been repressed under Romania’s chauvinistic government. Meanwhile, Carpathian Rus’ faced attempted Magyarization under Hungarian rule and neglect as part of Czechoslovakia. This, together with the region’s traditional Russophile sentiments, led the locals to welcome inclusion into the Soviet state.  Further, the additional factor of the unique Carpatho-Rusyn culture of Carpathian Rus’ also added to the complexity of Ukraine’s collective identity.  The region’s absorption into Soviet Ukraine also signaled their official shift in ethno-identification from “Carpatho-Rusyns” to “Ukrainians.”  Still, a sense of distinctiveness among the people of Zakarpattia continued to persist.

Following Stalin’s death, Ukraine experienced a very brief renaissance under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  Khrushchev, who was himself of partial Ukrainian background, even awarded the peninsula of Crimea to Soviet Ukraine, partially out of Slavic sentimentality, partially for economic and irrigation reasons. However, by the 1970s, Ukraine, along with the rest of the USSR, began to fall into stagnation.

Still, Ukrainian speakers co-existed alongside Russian speakers with no problems. Intermarriage and cultural exchange with Russians was commonplace.  The only issue with which the Soviet government had to deal was in newly-acquired Galicia, where the insurgent forces of the OUN continued conducting guerrilla operations into the mid-1950s. Yet, overall, Ukraine remained well-integrated into the Soviet Union.

By the time of glasnost, no significant national movement emerged in Ukraine except for the Rukh movement based in Galicia. Generally, most Ukrainians were uninterested in nationalism and more interested in a stable country and a working economy. 72% backed Gorbachev’s New Union Treaty in 1991, though later that year, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of a vaguely-worded referendum on “independence” with no explicit mention of an actual separation from the USSR (which was present, for example, in the wording of Armenia’s referendum on independence).

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine's first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin with Ukraine’s first post-Soviet President Lenoid Kravchuk.

Post-Soviet Ukraine

Following the Soviet collapse, Ukraine was widely expected to do well as an independent state. Despite the stagnation of the Soviet economy, Ukraine fared as one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. It had an extensive Black Sea coast, rich farmlands, Carpathian Mountain pastures, and heavy industry. However, these expectations faded within the first years of the country’s independence. From the outset, Ukraine faced two challenges: state-building and nation-building.  Its corrupt political class was unable to meet both.

In terms of state building, Ukraine had to develop independent institutions and a functional national economy. Kiev was able to develop institutions which were basically successors to the pre-existing Soviet republican institutions. However, Kiev was never able to establish a national economy. Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president oversaw a corrupt privatization in the 1990s. An oligarchy and a corrupt political elite quickly emerged, stifling Ukraine’s potential development. Poverty, unemployment, organized crime, human trafficking, and other social ills that became characteristic of Ukraine’s post-independence landscape also came to the fore.

Regional politics also remained. Throughout the post-Soviet era, the people of Galicia, the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism, continued to vote for candidates with nationalist, pro-Western, or anti-Russian credentials. By contrast, the Russian-speaking Southeast (including the Donbas and Crimea) consistently voted for pro-Russian candidates. The more divided, Surzhyk-speaking Central oblasti oscillated between candidates, as did the remote Rusyn-speaking Zakarpattia oblast. Outside of Galicia and Western Ukraine, nationalism generally gained little traction. In the Center and Zakarpattia, it was viewed with indifference and distrust. In the Southeast, it was met with outright hostility.

Orange Revolution 2004 (FotoArt.org.ua)

Orange Revolution 2004 (FotoArt.org.ua)

The Impact of the 2004 Orange Revolution

Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, backed by Washington and American NGOs, was viewed by many Ukrainians as a means of solving the country’s problems and bringing it back on its feet. However, it only exacerbated them. Fundamental issues, such as corruption, remained largely unaddressed. Meanwhile, the pro-Western and nationalist policies of President Viktor Yushchenko enhanced the divisions among Ukrainians. His total affinity for Washington, his push to see Ukraine join the EU and especially NATO, as well as his efforts to rehabilitate and bestow awards on controversial figures like Stepan Bandera, created joy in Western Ukraine, confusion in the Center, and anger in the Southeast. Notably, in 2006, the landing of the US marines in the Crimean city of Feodosiya as part of a US-Ukrainian military exercise prompted major anti-NATO protests from the local population.

The Orange Revolution also intensified these regional divisions on an electoral level. Before the revolution, the politics of Central Ukraine had been more divided, with its oblasti acting as “swing states” and “election spoilers” between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates. But the Orange Revolution somehow changed this pattern. Though divisions in Central Ukraine persisted and still do persist to this day, the threshold majority began favoring more pro-Western politicians. Coincidental to this development was the rise of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (henceforth PoR) which claimed to represent the interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Ukraine. In elections, the PoR began to secure the solidly Russian-speaking oblasti from Odessa to the Donbas.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (AFP)

Most striking how these new political divisions began to change historical relations between oblasti in Ukraine. A good example is the division that now exists between Sumy and Kharkiv. Historically, these two cities and their oblasti had a long history together, going back to their common foundation in the 17th century as part of the frontier region of Slobozhanshchina (or Sloboda Ukraine). In post-Soviet Ukraine, both the Sumy and Kharkiv oblasti followed each other’s electoral patterns. However, starting with the Orange Revolution, these two oblasti began to diverge from one another. Sumy, despite its Russian-speaking culture and heritage, was the native region of Viktor Yushchenko who became “nationalized” in Galicia. Yet, despite his nationalist ideology, Yushchenko’s place of birth in Russian-speaking Sumy strengthened his credentials in Washington and among American NGOs as “the man who could bring East and West together.” However, as the case of Sumy illustrates, Yushchenko only intensified the divisions. As a result of the Orange Revolution, the Sumy oblast and city began to be carried by pro-Western politicians. Pro-Russian politicians still came close to them in elections, but the overall political orientation began to shift. By contrast, Kharkiv became a solidly pro-Russian PoR oblast.

Superimposed on all of this was the growing geopolitical competition between the United States and Russia for influence in the post-Soviet space. Many commentators warned against the expansion of US influence in the region, particularly with regard to the NATO military alliance. Yet in the 2000s, Washington began to push beyond expanding NATO into Central-East Europe. They also began to look toward the former USSR, particularly the two most strategic ex-Soviet republics: Ukraine and Georgia. The sponsorship by Washington and American NGOs of the Rose and Orange Revolutions in these countries deeply troubled Moscow. The Kremlin subsequently began to throw its support behind the PoR and Yanukovych as the most “pro-Russian” force in the country.

Therefore, the development of divergent political forces domestically within Ukraine, combined with the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West, have effectively set the stage for the present-day conflict in the country.  A solution to Ukraine’s protracted crisis can still be found – but it first and foremost requires a ceasefire, humanitarian aid relief for the people of the Donbas, and, most importantly, political will.   Moscow has signaled its readiness for such a process.

For more information on Ukraine’s historical, regional, and linguistic dynamics, see my earlier entries: What Is Ukraine? (2 March 2014, updated 15 May 2014), Who Are the Rusyns? (19 April 2014), The Historical Geography of Ukraine (15 May 2014, updated 24 August 2014), and 10 Points on the People of Southeastern Ukraine (21 June 2014).

A Guide to the “Stans” of Central Asia

Location of Central Asia in the former Soviet Union

Location of Central Asia in the former Soviet Union

One of the most interesting parts the former Soviet space is Central Asia. It is a region of diverse geography and beautiful people, with a lot of fascinating history behind it. In the West, the five countries of the area have become colloquially known as the “stans” because all of them bear the Persian suffix “-stan” meaning “land of.” The majority of the ethnic groups who live in this region are Sunni Muslims, with the exception of the Orthodox Christian Russians, the Ismaili Pamiris, and other smaller groups. The majority of the titular nationalities also speak Turkic languages, the only exception being Farsi-speaking Tajikistan.

In the Russian language, the term “Средняя Азия” (Srednyaya Aziya), literally “Middle Asia,” is used to denote the former Soviet Central Asian republics. By contrast, the term “Центральная Азия” (Tsentralnaya Aziya), or “Central Asia,” denotes a much broader geographic region, encompassing not only the former Soviet Central Asian states, but also Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Afghanistan, portions of southern Siberia, and other areas.

Post-Soviet Central Asia was gradually absorbed into the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Russia’s expansion into the area prompted concern from the British, who governed India further south. The result was what Rudyard Kipling called the “Great Game,” as the two great powers vied for influence in the region. The sporting geopolitical competition ended in 1907 with the Anglo-Russian Entente. In the end, much of the region went to Russia and later its successor, the Soviet Union. The Soviet government set to work on establishing ethno-national entities in the region, which eventually became full-fledged union republics. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, these countries became fully independent states. Below are concise overviews of each:

Countries:

Location of Kazakhstan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Kazakhstan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Kazakhstan
Capital: Astana
Official language(s): Kazakh, Russian
President: Nursultan Nazarbayev
Area: 2,724,900 км²
Population: 17,948,816 (CIA 2014 est.)
GDP per capita: $14,100 (CIA 2013 est.)
Geography: Steppe, grassland, arid desert, mountains
Ethnic groups (2009 census): Kazakhs (63%), Russians (23%), Uzbeks (3%), Ukrainians (2%), Uygurs (1%), Tatars (1%), Germans (1%), Others (6%)

Eagle hunters in Kazakhstan (Getty)

Eagle hunters in Kazakhstan (Getty)

Overview:

Kazakhstan is the largest of all the ex-Soviet Central Asian countries. It is the homeland of the Kazakhs (not to be confused with the similar-sounding Slavic Cossacks) who are a nomadic Turkic-speaking people with strong Mongol cultural influences.  Falconry, especially eagle falconry, and horsemanship are very popular among the Kazakhs. The Kazakhs are divided among three historical hordes: the Great Horde in the Southeast, the Middle Horde in the Center and North, and the Lesser Horde in the West.

Baikonur Cosmodrome (NASA / Bill Ingalls)

The “Gagarin’s Start” Soyuz launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  It was from here where the famous cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (after whom the launch pad is named) launched into space on Vostok 1 in 1961. (NASA / Bill Ingalls)

In addition to the Kazakhs, there are also many ethnic minorities in Kazakhstan, including a very large ethnic Russian minority concentrated in the North.  The sizable Russian community has a historic presence in Kazakhstan, dating back to the Tsarist era.  The community grew in the Soviet era, especially in the 1960s during Nikita Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Campaign.  Ethnic relations have been peaceful between the Kazakhs and the large Russian minority. Likewise, relations between the governments of Kazakhstan and Russia are also very amicable. The great Baikonur Cosmodrome from which the famous Sputnik and Vostok operations were launched, is located on the territory of Kazakhstan. However, it is still controlled by Russia per a treaty between Moscow and Astana.

Viktor Tsoi

Viktor Tsoi

Kazakhstan’s ethnic mosaic also consists of a variety of other minorities such as Uzbeks, Uygurs, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Koreans, Crimean Tatars, and others. Many of these have a long history in Kazakhstan. Others arrived during the Stalin era as part of a series of forced population transfers.

Notably, the late glasnost-era Soviet rock musician, Viktor Tsoi, was partially descended from Kazakhstan’s significant Korean community. The film, The Needle (Игла), which starred Tsoi, was produced in Kazakhstan and directed by the New Wave Kazakh filmmaker, Rashid Nugmanov.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1997 (Robert D. Ward)

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1997 (Robert D. Ward)

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since Mikhail Gorbachev appointed him to lead then-Soviet Kazakhstan in 1989. Though he essentially runs the country as a one-man dictatorship where corruption remains a major problem, he nonetheless enjoys popular support for keeping stability, a balanced relationship with Moscow, and for tirelessly promoting Kazakhstan on the international stage. Nazarbayev has also been a vocal proponent for integration among the ex-Soviet states.  He has likewise succeeded in attracting foreign investment to Kazakhstan for its vast natural resources, including oil, natural gas, uranium, manganese, copper, and more.  In 1997, he moved Kazakhstan’s capital from Alma-Ata (Almaty) to Astana in a more north-central location of the country.

Location of Kyrgyzstan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Kyrgyzstan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan
Capital: Bishkek
Official language(s): Kyrgyz, Russian
President: Almazbek Atambayev
Area: 199,951 км²
Population: 5,604,212 (2014 CIA est.)
GDP per capita: $2,500 (2013 CIA est.)
Geography: Mountains, fertile valleys
Ethnic groups (2014 census): Kyrgyz (73%), Uzbeks (14%), Russians (6%), Others (7%)

Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov

Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov

Overview:

Kyrgyzstan (also known as Kirghizia) is a small and mountainous country located south of Kazakhstan and just west of China. The Kyrgyz are a Turkic-speaking people who, like the Kazakhs, have a nomadic tradition and share many cultural influences from the Mongols. The Tian Shan mountain range runs through much of the country’s west near the much-celebrated Issyk Kul lake. Issyk Kul was a famous resort in Soviet times and also the setting for the Issyk Kul Forum.  Founded by the Soviet Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov during glasnost, the Forum was a way of bringing intellectuals from the East and West together. Aitmatov, who passed away in 2008, was a friend and advisor of Mikhail Gorbachev. The Kyrgyz author is still widely respected throughout the former Soviet Union and his stories are still cherished by many in the region to this day.

Kyrgyz yurt (nomadic dwelling) near Issyk Kul

Kyrgyz yurt (nomadic dwelling) near Issyk Kul

Though not as rich as its northern neighbor Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan has distinguished itself as the most democratic country in post-Soviet Central Asia. The current President Almazbek Atambayev claims that this derives from a democratic tradition among the Kyrgyz nomads and thus has labeled his country a “nomadic democracy.” Despite this, Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to unrest. Since the end of the Soviet era, this small country has experienced two political revolutions, one in 2005 and another in 2010. It has also seen ethnic unrest between the dominant Kyrgyz and the significant Uzbek minority in the southern city of Osh in the Fergana Valley. Clashes occurred in both 1990 and most recently in 2010. Kyrgyzstan is still recovering from the more recent ethnic riots.

Kyrgyz women in traditional costume (AFP)

Kyrgyz women in traditional costume (AFP)

After September 11, the US opened the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s Vladimir Putin initially approved of this move and allowed the US to operate this base in former Soviet territory as part of its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, as US-Russian relations became strained, Putin decided to pull the plug on the Manas base and sought to have Bishkek close it. After his election in 2011, Kyrgyz President Atambayev announced that he would seek the closure of the base when its lease expires. In June 2014, the US vacated the base.

Location of Tajikistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Tajikistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Tajikistan
Capital: Dushanbe
Official language(s): Tajik
President: Emomali Rahmon
Area: 143,100 км²
Population: 8,051,512 (2014 CIA est.)
GDP per capita: $2,300 (2013 CIA est.)
Geography: Mountains, fertile valleys
Ethnic groups (2010 census): Tajiks (84% including Pamiris), Uzbeks (14%), Others (2%)

Tajik woman in national dress

Tajik woman in national dress

Overview:

Geographically, Tajikistan is the smallest of the ex-Soviet Central Asian states. It is also the most mountainous. The Pamir Mountains cover most of the eastern part of the country in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. The Tajiks are basically a subgroup of ethnic Persians. Their native language, Tajik, is a dialect of Farsi, distinguishing them from their Turkic-speaking neighbors.

The Tajiks live not only in Tajikistan but also in significant numbers in neighboring Uzbekistan and to the south in northern Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance was an ethnic Tajik. In addition, Tajikistan is also home to the Pamiri people who are natives of Gorno-Badakhshan.

Spetsnaz troops in the Tajikistan Civil War (Ussuriysk Military School / Dmitry Ivlyov)

Spetsnaz troops in the Tajikistan Civil War (Ussuriysk Military School /
Dmitry Ivlyov)

Tajikistan is the poorest ex-Soviet state in Central Asia and it has a history of instability going back to the time of the Soviet collapse. After independence, the country plunged into a violent civil war.  The civil war had its origins in the unequal power distribution among the country’s regions.  The government was dominated by people from the Leninabad (today Khujand) region in the north and the republic’s security forces were dominated by people from Kulyab in the south. The people from the central Garm region and the eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, inspired by Gorbachev’s glasnost, demanded more of a say in the government. Their political coalition was an ideological hodge-podge mix of liberal democrats, nationalists, and Islamists. Ultimately, the government refused to share power and it was this that led to the civil war between the sides.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (Getty / Majid Saeedi)

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (Getty / Majid Saeedi)

The conflict in Tajikistan lasted until 1997 when a power-sharing peace deal was finally agreed upon with the help of negotiation by Moscow.  Since then, the country has been relatively stable. Emomali Rahmon, the country’s longtime strongman, has remained in power since the 1990s. The drug trade, which runs from neighboring Afghanistan, seeks to use Tajikistan as a major transit route to the former Soviet states and Europe, posing a serious challenge for the government.

Recently, Tajikistan has sought to enrich itself by capitalizing on its major glacier and water resources.  Water resources are highly valued in a region like Central Asia which includes large arid desert areas.  Tajik interest in using their water resources for hydroelectric energy has created tension with drier neighbor Uzbekistan.  Tashkent is fearful that such projects could adversely affect its water supply and, by extension, its cotton production.

Location of Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Uzbekistan
Capital: Tashkent
Official language(s): Uzbek
President: Islam Karimov
Area: 447,400 км²
Population: 28,929,716 (2014 CIA est.)
GDP per capita: $3,800 (2013 CIA est.)
Geography: Arid desert, fertile valleys, mountains
Ethnic groups (2000 estimate): Uzbeks (78%), Russians (5%), Tajiks (5%), Kazakhs (4%), Karakalpaks (2%), Others (6%)

Samarkand (Malika Hotels)

Samarkand (Malika Hotels)

Overview:

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia. Uzbeks, a Turkic-speaking people,  are the dominant population of Uzbekistan.  Their ethnonym “uzbek” literally translates as “his own lord,” meaning a “free” or “independent” person. The country also includes many ethnic minorities including Russians, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks. The capital Tashkent was founded in the 8th century as an oasis on the Silk Road. Uzbekistan is also home to great Islamic cultural centers such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and the historic Khwarezm capital of Khiva, all boasting visually stunning art and architecture.  Many Tajiks live in Samarakand and Bukhara and some Tajik nationalists have even claimed these cities for Tajikistan.  However, the beauty of these great centers go beyond any ethnic or national divisions and are treasured by all Central Asians as part of their collective cultural heritage.

Kyzyl Kum (VisitUzbekistan)

The Kyzyl Kum (VisitUzbekistan)

Uzbekistan’s landscape is diverse. Much of the country’s west is covered by the hot Kyzyl Kum (“Red Sands”) desert. The large Aral Sea used to be a major feature of western Uzbekistan. However, due to Soviet-era irrigation schemes involving the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers and the Karimov government’s inaction, the once-great sea has now shrunk to near-nonexistence. The eastern part of Uzbekistan, centered on the Fergana Valley is more fertile, though this part of Central Asia has also been known for ethnic tension, disputed borders, and Islamic extremism. The country also has a wealth of natural resources including natural gas, oil, and gold and is renown for its cotton growth.

Uzbek Leader Islam Karimov (RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneev)

Uzbek Leader Islam Karimov (RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneev)

Of all the post-Soviet Central Asian states, Uzbekistan is the most repressive. The president, Islam Karimov, was elected to lead the country in 1990 and has remained in this position, establishing himself as an authoritarian despot. Rampantly corrupt, Karimov’s regime is particularly notorious for its use of medieval-style torture. Though potential Islamic extremism is a serious concern for Uzbekistan, the government has used this liberally as an excuse to crackdown on any dissent in the country. As a police state, it keeps a watchful eye on all of its citizens.  In 2005, a popular uprising against the regime in the eastern city of Andijan was put down brutally, with the Uzbek government forces cruelly firing into a crowd of men, women, and children. Estimates of those killed range from 400 to more than 1,000.

Gulnara Karimova (Getty)

Gulnara Karimova (Getty)

In recent years, Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara, has also been in the news. An oligarch with a taste for fashion and pop-singing, she is regarded as a very controversial figure. She lost her influence in Uzbekistan after she criticized her father’s repressive regime. Since then, her father has attempted to silence her, but she has continued her criticism of his policies regardless.  She was recently arrested.

After the 9/11 attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed the US to use Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad Air Base for its operations in Afghanistan. However, after the US criticized Karimov’s crackdown at Andijan, Tashkent told Washington to vacate the base. Russia, whose relations were already souring with the US at this time, approved of the evacuation of the base.  However, relations between Moscow and Tashkent have also been uneasy. In 2012, Uzbekistan withdrew from the Moscow-backed CSTO military alliance.

Location of Turkmenistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of Turkmenistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Turkmenistan
Capital: Ashgabat
Official language(s): Turkmen
President: Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov
Area: 491,210 км²
Population: 5,171,943 (2014 CIA est.)
GDP per capita: $9,700 (2013 CIA est.)
Geography: Arid desert
Ethnic groups (2010 estimate): Turkmen (79%), Uzbeks (9%), Russians (3%), Kazakhs (3%), Others (6%)

Turkmen man with camel, early 20th century (Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky)

Turkmen man with camel, early 20th century (Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky)

Overview:

Turkmenistan (also known as Turkmenia) is the homeland of the Turkmen, a traditionally nomadic Turkic-speaking people. The country borders Iran to the southwest and Afghanistan to the southeast. About 70% of its territory is covered by the inhospitable Karakum (“Black Sands”) Desert and its population is consequently sparse and spread out. Camel herding is a major occupation for many Turkmen and it is not uncommon to see dromedaries lazily walking alongside Turkmenistan’s vast desert highways. Many great powers have passed through far-flung Turkmenistan’s desert landscape over the centuries, particularly the Persians who left behind historical ruined cities like Merv and Nisa.

Darvaza Natural Gas Crater, Turkmenistan (National Geographic / Nick Hannes and Hollandse Hoogte)

Darvaza Natural Gas Crater, Turkmenistan (National Geographic / Nick Hannes and Hollandse Hoogte)

On the surface, Turkmenistan appears to be a desolate country with little to offer. Yet appearances can be deceiving.  Underneath Turkmenistan’s barren land are rich deposits of oil and especially natural gas. In fact, Turkmenistan has the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world. This has attracted a lot of interest, from the traditional power of Russia to new players in the region, such as the US and China. Perhaps the best illustration of the scale of Turkmenistan’s reserves is the fiery Darvaza natural gas crater (also known as the “Doorway to Hell”) located in the middle of the Karakum. In 1971, Soviet engineers began to drill for natural gas in this area. However, the ground beneath the drilling rig sank below grade, creating a large pit. The Soviets decided to burn the pit, fearful of the release of poisonous gases. It was initially believed that the gas would burn out in a matter of weeks. However, it has persisted for nearly 43 years.  The first human expedition of the fiery pit was made by explorer George Kourounis in November 2013.

Saparmurat Niyazov gold statue in Ashgabat (Robert Preston)

Saparmurat Niyazov gold statue in Ashgabat (Robert Preston)

One of the more unusual phenomena to emerge from Turkmenistan since the Soviet collapse has been its late President Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov was an authoritarian leader who was just as eccentric as he was autocratic. Channeling Turkey’s Atatürk, he Latinized the previously Cyrillic-based Turkmen alphabet and styled himself “Turkmenbashi,” meaning “Leader of the Turkmen.” He established an all-pervasive personality cult and even erected a gold statue to himself in the capital Ashgabat. Niyazov also issued bizarre decrees such as banning ballet, opera, makeup, and lip-syncing, and named months after his own family members. In addition, he authored a book known as the Ruhnama, a text comparable to Mao’s Little Red Book or Muammar Gaddafi’s Green Book, containing a mix of spiritual guidance, pseudo-history, autobiography, and poetic verse. The book was made mandatory in all Turkmen schools and a monument to it was even built in Ashgabat. Following Niyazov’s death in 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov reversed many of his absurd decrees and removed his personality cult. However, Berdymuhamedov too appears to prefer ruling as an all-powerful authoritarian leader as opposed to introducing any sort of competitive democracy to Turkmenistan.

Anatoly Kuznetsov as Comrade Sukhov in White Sun of the Desert

Anatoly Kuznetsov as Comrade Sukhov in White Sun of the Desert (1970).

In the post-Soviet world Turkmenistan is also widely renown as the setting for the much celebrated 1970 Soviet film White Sun of the Desert (Белое солнце пустыни). This film, which featured the famous song Your Honor Lady Luck (Ваше благородие, госпожа Удача) by the bard Bulat Okudzhava, was one of many in the Soviet “Ostern” genre.  These “Osterns” (or “Easterns”) very much resembled American Westerners, except they were set in the deserts of Soviet Central Asia as opposed to the American southwest. Directed by Vladimir Motyl, White Sun of the Desert also introduced many common phrases into the Russian language including “Восток — дело тонкое” (“The East — a delicate matter”), “Вопросы есть? Вопросов нет!” (“Are there any questions? Of course not!”), “Таможня дает добро!” (“Customs gives the green light!”), and “Гюльчатай, открой личико!” (“Gyulchatai, show your face!”).

Autonomous regions:

Location of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast within Tajikistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast within Tajikistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan
Capital: Khorog
Official language(s): Tajik (Pamiri languages widely spoken)
Governor: Shodikhon Jamshedov
Area: 64,200 км²
Population: 218,000 (2008 est.)
Geography: Mountainous
Ethnic groups: Pamiris, Kyrgyz

Overview:

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast is perhaps the highest region in the former Soviet Union. It is almost completely covered by the Pamir mountains which, along with the nearby Himalayas, have been dubbed the “Roof of the World.” The tallest mountain peak of the former Russian Empire and the former USSR, Peak Kommunism (now Ismoil Somoni Peak) is located in Gorno-Badakhshan.

Pamiri children in Barchadev, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan (Robert Middleton)

Pamiri children in Barchadev, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan (Robert Middleton)

The population of the oblast is primarily comprised of ethnic Pamiris, an Iranic people distinct from the Tajiks who speak the Pamiri languages, not Farsi. Unlike the mostly Sunni Tajiks, the Pamiris are Ismaili Muslims (an off-shoot of Shiism). In addition to their homeland in Gorno-Badakhshan, the Pamiris also live in Afghanistan’s northernmost province of Badakhshan and in the westernmost portions of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (particularly in the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County). They are closely related to the Wakhi speakers of Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor and Pakistan’s far-northern Gilgit-Baltistan territory (part of disputed Kashmir).

Khorog, capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (Bakhriddin Isamutdinov)

Khorog, capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (Bakhriddin Isamutdinov)

The region was the last part of post-Soviet Central Asia to become part of the Russian Empire in 1895.  It was also the last territory acquired by the Russian Empire before the Revolution of 1917. [CORRECTION (11 Sept. 2016): The last territory acquired by the Russian Empire was actually the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago in the high Arctic in 1913.  Other northern islands were also claimed by the Russian Empire prior to 1917, including Franz Josef Land, Victoria Island, and Wrangel Island.  However, all of these islands would only be formally annexed to Russia in 1926 by the Soviet government.]

The boundary was drawn dividing the historic Badakhshan region between the Russian and British Empires (the latter of which controlled the foreign affairs of Afghanistan).   The Chinese Qing dynasty also had claim over the region.  It was not until 2002 that the People’s Republic of China finalized its frontiers with then post-Soviet Tajikistan.  However, the Republic of China, exiled in Taiwan, refuses to recognize this and continues to claim Gorno-Badakhshan as part of mainland China.

During the 1990s civil war in Tajikistan, the Pamiris of Gorno-Badakhshan sided with the Garmis in demanding more equal power from the government.  Many people from Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan had been relocated to the country’s south and western cotton-growing areas during the Soviet era.  During the early part of the war, many of the Garmis and Pamiris in this part of the country faced attacks and expulsions from government forces in what Human Rights Watch dubbed an “ethnic cleansing campaign.” Many fled back to their traditional native regions in Tajikistan, while others fled across the border into Afghanistan.  The result was a radicalization of the sides and an intensification of the conflict.

Clashes in Gorno-Badakhshan, 2012 (Reuters)

Clashes in Gorno-Badakhshan, 2012 (Reuters)

The civil war continued in Tajikistan until a power-sharing a agreement was brokered with Russian assistance in 1997.  Since then, Gorno-Badakhshan has remained relatively peaceful. However, in 2012, clashes erupted in the region between loyalists of the warlord Tolib Ayombekov and the Tajik military. Moscow observed the situation with concern.  After intense fighting on July 24, Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon called for a ceasefire. Peace and stability have since been restored to the area.

Location of the Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Location of the Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia

Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic, Uzbekistan
Capital: Nukus
Official language(s): Karakalpak, Uzbek
Governor: Musa Erniyazov
Area: 164,900 км²
Population: 1,711,800 (2013 est.)
Geography: Arid desert
Ethnic groups (2007 estimate): Karakalpaks (33%), Uzbeks (33%), Kazakhs (25%), Others (9%)

Overview:

Karakalpakstan is an autonomous region that encompasses much of western Uzbekistan. Linguistically and culturally, the Karakalpaks closely resemble the Kazakhs more than the Uzbeks.  It is noteworthy that the area was once an autonomous region within Soviet Kazakhstan during the NEP era of the 1920s, before its jurisdiction was transferred to the Russian SFSR in 1930 and eventually to Soviet Uzbekistan in 1936. The name “Karakalpak” roughly translates as “black hat,” but the origin of this name is obscure. There are theories linking the Karakalpaks to the Chorni Klobuky (“black hat”) mercenaries of the Kievan Rus’ from the 11th and 12th centuries, though aside from the common meaning of their names, there is no evidence linking these two groups.  The Karakalpak homeland is arid and almost completely covered by desert.

Photographs illustrating the diminution of the Aral Sea. From left to right: (top row) 1973, 1989, 1999, (bottom row) 2001, 2003, 2009 (US Geological Survey and NASA)

Photographs illustrating the diminution of the Aral Sea. From left to right: (top row) 1973, 1989, 1999, (bottom row) 2001, 2003, 2009 (US Geological Survey and NASA)

Karakalpakstan was once a prosperous region in Soviet times. However, in the post-Soviet era, the region has fared badly within independent Uzbekistan. It has become the country’s poorest region and has suffered the greatest from the rapidly diminishing and now disappearing Aral Sea, which used to be a major feature of the region. The area is now experiencing a severe drought. Temperatures have increased. Sea salt and other chemicals from the dried bed of the salient sea have become wind-borne, poisoning the local environment and creating serious respiratory problems for the people living in the area. Meanwhile, the sea continues to shrink and Tashkent has done nothing to prevent what many regard as an environmental catastrophe. There are rumblings by some Karakalpak activists about possible independence from Uzbekistan, though Tashkent has been quick to deny this.

Nukus Art Museum (Panoramio)

Nukus Art Museum (Panoramio)

The ancient oasis region of Khwarezm encompassed a significant portion of modern Karakalpakstan, particularly in the Amu Darya river delta.  As such, the area has inherited many historic ruins and archeological sites of interest.  Additionally, the capital Nukus is also the home of the famed Nukus Art Museum, or more formally the State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, after I. V. Savitsky. The museum houses the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the world after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Igor Savitsky, the museum’s founder, collected them at great risk of his own life, especially during Stalin’s era. In 2010, the museum was prominently featured in the documentary, The Desert of Forbidden Art with narration by Ben Kingsley and others.