Upcoming Elections in the Former USSR, 2015-2018

Considering the ongoing Ukraine crisis and rising tensions between Russia and the West, the former Soviet space is definitely a region to observe in 2015.

Elections in the former Soviet republics are especially important to watch. In some cases, like the authoritarian states of Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, the results are foregone conclusions. However in other more open states, such as Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, they are not. In Russia’s case, it will be interesting to see what happens in 2018, and whether or not Putin will stay on for an additional term.

Below is a schedule of upcoming elections in the former Soviet space over the course of the next four years, from 2015 to 2018.

Correction: Transnistria’s parliamentary election will be taking place in November 2015, not February 2015.

2015

  • February
    Voting in Transnistria (TASS).  In 2015, the locals of this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    Voting in Transnistria. (TASS) In 2015, the locals in this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    • Tajikistan: parliamentary election
  • March
    • Uzbekistan: presidential election
  • May
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): parliamentary election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: parliamentary election
  • November
    • Belarus: presidential election
    • Azerbaijan: parliamentary election
    • Transnistria (Md.): parliamentary election

2016

  • March
    Longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win re-election in 2016. (Photo: AP)

    Kazakhstan’s longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win a landslide re-election in 2016.  He is seen here casting his ballot in the 2011 presidential election with his wife, Sara. (Photo: AP)

    • Abkhazia (Ge.): parliamentary election
  • September
    • Belarus: parliamentary election
  • October
    • Georgia: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Kazakhstan: presidential election
    • Transnistria (Md.): presidential election
    • Russia: parliamentary election

2017

  • January
    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh (Photolur). In 2017, locals in this disputed majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president.  It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent Bako Sahakyan.

    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh. (Photolur) In 2017, locals in this disputed, majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president. It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent president, Bako Sahakyan.

    • Kazakhstan: parliamentary election
  • February
    • Turkmenistan: presidential election
  • March
    • South Ossetia (Ge.): presidential election
  • May
    • Armenia: parliamentary election
  • July
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): presidential election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: presidential election

2018

  • February
    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters)  2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia.  Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president.  It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term.  In 2015, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote for a new mayor.

    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters) 2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia. Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president. It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term. In 2018, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote in the Moscow mayoral election.

    • Armenia: presidential election
  • March
    • Russia: presidential election
  • September
    • Moscow: mayoral election
  • October
    • Azerbaijan: presidential election
    • Georgia: presidential election
  • November
    • Moldova: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Turkmenistan: parliamentary election

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.

How the West Got Moscow’s Eurasian Union Wrong

Will Rogers (Biography)

Will Rogers (Biography)

Will Rogers, the noted American entertainer and radio personality, once famously joked that “Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it’s true.” This holds true today, especially in the Western press.

One example of this is the Russian initiative to form the Eurasian Union, a supranational union comprised of former Soviet republics. This has been largely criticized in the West as either a “New Russian Empire” or a “New Soviet Union.” In 2012, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the project as a “move to re-Sovietise the region.” While acknowledging that the Eurasian Union will not be called “the Soviet Union,” she also stressed “let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” Timothy Synder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, went even further in his denunciation of the concept, referring to it as the realization of the anti-liberal neo-fascist Eurasianist schemes of Aleksandr Dugin. He specifically cited Dugin as “the ideological source of the Eurasian Union” and that his work constitutes “the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration.”

Beyond the headlines, though, what exactly is the Eurasian Union? Is it truly an anti-Western conspiracy of neo-fascists, Bolsheviks, and boogie men opposing liberal ideals worldwide which, like Soviet communism, needs to be “contained?” Or rather is it a supranational liberal economic union promoting free trade and open borders with the former Soviet republics who already share close historical, economic, and cultural links with Russia? For the answer to this question, one must turn to the history of the Eurasian Union idea. Indeed, if one explores the history of the Eurasian Union concept, one discovers that its originator was not Aleksandr Dugin, but in fact, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

As the Soviet system and Soviet communism was collapsing in the early 1990s, then-Soviet President Gorbachev took a bold step that is often overlooked: he proposed the basic framework for a reformed Soviet state. The new state would be a non-communist democratic federation (under Gorbachev, the Communist Party already began to lose its monopoly on power in 1989, a fact that became official with his creation of the Soviet Presidency in March 1990).

Gorbachev anticipated a referendum in which Soviet voters would be given the choice to vote on the establishment of this new state in March 1991. This referendum on a New Union Treaty was approved by the vast majority of Soviet citizens, including those in then-Soviet Ukraine, who favored it by 82%. It should be noted that a significant number of West Ukrainian activists had boycotted Gorbachev’s referendum, but even if one were to include the boycotted votes as “no” votes, then the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians still favored Gorbachev’s new union by a wide margin. Additionally, the only other Soviet republics that boycotted the referendum were the three Baltic states (which sought independence), Moldova (which sought to reunify with Romania), Armenia (which was frustrated with Moscow over its indecision on Nagorny Karabakh), and Georgia (under the influence of nationalist dissident leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia). Other than this, the referendum passed overwhelmingly.

Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin

Despite the fact that the referendum was favored by the vast majority of Soviet citizens, it was never implemented. In August 1991, communist hardliners, who bristled at Gorbachev’s glasnost, put the Soviet leader under house arrest in Crimea. In the end, the putschists were faced down by the leader of the then-Soviet Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin and the coup collapsed. Following the coup, Gorbachev sought to pursue the establishment of the new union that the majority of Soviet citizens favored in the March referendum. However, Yeltsin insisted on a confederation of states as opposed to a state federation. Gorbachev was initially opposed, fearing that a confederation would lead to disaster. However, in the end, Gorbachev relented and backed the confederation proposal.

However, even the idea of a confederation was not realized. Without Gorbachev, Yeltsin, along with Ukraine’s Lenoid Kravchuk and Belarus’ Stanislav Shushkevich, formally dissolved the Soviet state at meeting in the Belavezha Forest. Gorbachev lost his position and the 15 Soviet republics were now formally independent states, with some, like the Baltics, Armenia, and Georgia, proposing independence referendums earlier. However, Yeltsin apparently did not want to totally severe Russia’s ties with the other former Soviet states (now known as the “near abroad”). Indeed, the Belavezha Accords also gave birth to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose association of 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics (understandably, the Baltics for historical reasons did not participate).

Nursultan Nazarbayev

Nursultan Nazarbayev

During his administration, Yeltsin never formally lost sight of maintaining Russia’s links with the former Soviet states, despite major problems in Russia itself (most of which were arguably the result of his own policies). In 1992, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was formed, initiating a sort of military alliance among the various ex-Soviet states. Two years later in 1994, in an address to a Moscow university, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed an early concept for an EU-style supranational union of the ex-Soviet states. Then in 1996, this idea evolved into the Treaty on Increased Integration in the Economic and Humanitarian Fields signed by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.  This was followed by the Treaty on the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space in 1999 signed by the same countries along with Tajikistan.  Finally, in 2000, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) was formed.

Again, I have cited three individuals in this historical overview: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Nazarbayev.  All three favored some sort of integration and association among the former Soviet states prior to the major writings of Aleksandr Dugin in 1997, including his controversial fascist-Eurasianist work The Foundations of Geopolitics. The assertions that the Eurasian Union, at its heart, is a Duginist scheme do not take into account the integration processes that were already in progress within the former Soviet Union and therefore are both incorrect and anachronistic.

It can likewise be definitively concluded that, given the fact that organizations like the EurAsEC serve as a direct predecessor to today’s Eurasian Customs Union, the ideology and political philosophy of Moscow’s present-day post-Soviet integration effort is not intended to be a conspiratorial neo-fascist or anti-Western coalition. Rather, it is at its core a liberal idea, intended to promote open borders, free trade, and economic and cultural exchange among the ex-Soviet states, who already share much culture with Russia. In the words of fellow Russia watcher and commentator Mark Adomanis:

Without lapsing into cartoonish Kremlinology, I do think it’s noteworthy and important that Putin is so publicly and forcefully going on the record advancing a broad program of technocratic neoliberalism: harmonizing regulations, lowering barriers to trade, reducing tariffs, eliminating unnecessary border controls, driving efficiency, and generally fostering the free movement of people and goods. Even if not fully sincere, an embrace of these policies is healthy.

…Anything that makes Russia more open to people and commerce is positive and can only serve, in the long-term, to weaken the foundations of its current hyper-centralized system.

Efforts toward Eurasian integration continued apace under the Putin presidency. According to Mikhail Gorbachev in a 2009 interview with the Moscow-backed network RT, Ukraine seemed to have expressed interest in the project as well:

We were close to creating a common economic zone, when Kuchma was still in power. These four countries – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan had 80% of the potential of the whole Soviet Union. It was a great force. And if you look at all the natural resources… But then many things got in the way of this process – Caucasus, Ukraine.

US President George W. Bush with Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili

US President George W. Bush with Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili

The “things” to which Gorbachev referred were efforts by the United States to expand its geopolitical sphere of influence deep into post-Soviet territory, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia. The US administration of George W. Bush, with the aid of Western NGOs and both major American political parties, sought to promote pro-Western “color revolutions” in the ex-Soviet states. They aggressively focused particularly on Georgia, which was Moscow’s historic “center” in the Caucasus, and Ukraine, a country with which Russia shares deep historical, cultural, economic, and even personal ties. The spread of such revolutions also happily, and not coincidentally, intersected with American and Western energy interests in the region. American oil companies showed particular interest in resource-rich states like Azerbaijan and the “stans” of Central Asia.

George F. Kennan

George F. Kennan

The new leaderships of both Ukraine and Georgia also set an overtly pro-Western course to join both the EU and NATO, much to the Kremlin’s annoyance. In the early 1990s, the administration of US President George H. W. Bush squarely promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would “not move one inch eastward” beyond East Germany as a means to ensure Soviet support for German reunification. However in 1997, under the Clinton administration, the United States backpedaled on its promise to Moscow by inviting several former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO and also intimating the promise of EU membership. Though accepted by Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO by Washington annoyed and antagonized Moscow. In this regard, the words of the great diplomat, George F. Kennan in February 1997 were especially prophetic:

Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.

Gorbachev echoed this sentiment in his 1999 book On My Country and the World:

The danger of a new division of the continent has arisen with NATO’s expansion to the East, which will inevitably encourage military preparations in a number of countries on the continent.

Václav Havel

Václav Havel

However, neither Kennan’s nor Gorbachev’s words were ever heeded by Washington policymakers. Eventually, both NATO and the EU expanded to include virtually all of the former Warsaw Pact states in Central-Eastern Europe as well as the three former Soviet Baltic states. The late Czech President Václav Havel likewise observed that while the Kremlin was annoyed by NATO expansion in Central-Eastern Europe, the expansion into the three Baltic states caused even greater concern to them. Now NATO was on the very doorstep of St. Petersburg. Havel specifically recalled in his 2007 memoir To the Castle and Back:

It was no longer just a small compromise, but a clear indication that the spheres of interest once defined by the Iron Curtain had come to an end. Yeltsin had generously supported Czech membership in NATO, but the Baltic republics must have been very hard for Putin to swallow.

Feeling threatened by the prospect of further NATO expansion and by the provocative behavior of the new “color revolution” governments in Kiev, and especially Tbilisi (with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili being especially antagonistic), Moscow redoubled its post-Soviet integration efforts. The groundwork for the present-day Eurasian Customs Union was first laid in August 2006 at an informal EurAsEC summit meeting in Sochi between Putin, Nazarbayev, and Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Efforts toward forming the actual Customs Union intensified in 2008, the year of the NATO Bucharest Summit, the South Ossetian war, and the start of the Eurozone crisis.  They intensified even more the following year, especially after the official formation of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program to bring ex-Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia into the EU. In November 2009, the Presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia officially agreed to form the customs union in Minsk. On 1 January 2010, the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia (today the Eurasian Economic Community Customs Union) was officially launched. In November 2011, the leaders of the three countries met and set 2015 as the target date for establishing the new supranational union. It also recognized the Eurasian Economic Commission, paving the way for the Eurasian economic space in 2012.

Mikhail Gorbachev (NBC)

Mikhail Gorbachev (NBC)

The primary Russian motive behind the establishment of the Eurasian Union is not historic imperial ambition. In fact, from a Russian perspective, some of the ex-Soviet countries can be viewed as a liability. However, for economic, historic, geopolitical, and security reasons, they are viewed as essential. For Moscow, their necessity has been even more pronounced in light of recent American and Western efforts to aggressively expand NATO into the post-Soviet space, despite earlier promises to the contrary. Yet none of this changes the fact that the prevailing popular perception of the Eurasian Union in the West and among some in the former Soviet countries is that it is a “new Russian empire,” a sad commentary on that which is a falsely propagated historical perspective. In his 2009 interview with RT, Gorbachev, referring to the US-backed “color revolution” governments, stated that “they keep thinking that Russia wants to create a new empire.” When asked whether or not this was the case, he immediately responded:

Not at all. Putin was giving an interview to Le Figaro. He got the same question about imperial ambitions. His answer was a definite no. Russia’s position [by Yeltsin] defined the fall of the Soviet Union. If it were not for Russia, the Soviet Union would still exist. This was the first time I heard this revelation from Putin. I think we need economic co-operation [in the former USSR].

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed the same opinion in an interview with Georgian television in August 2013 where he stated that the CU “is not about restoring the Soviet Union. Who needs the restoration of the Soviet Union? We live in the 21st century.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The perception of the CU as a “new Russian empire” happily coincides with Western geopolitical distrust of Russia and with prevailing narratives in the Western media that Russia is engaging in “19th century diplomacy” and that Putin has “neo-Soviet” ambitions (which is a misnomer because Putin is a moderate nationalist, not a communist). Further, in April 2005, Putin himself publicly lamented the breakup of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In that quote, Putin was referring to the conglomerate of republics (USSR), not communism. Though this sentiment is widespread in the former USSR and has been even endorsed by Mikhail Gorbachev, many in the West have taken this quote as evidence of Putin’s clandestine neo-imperial agenda. The same quote has only heightened suspicions toward the CU among many in the former Soviet republics as to the real intentions of the Kremlin-backed geopolitical project. Also, a month later, Putin even clarified his remarks in an interview with German television by stating:

Germany reunites, and the Soviet Union breaks up, and this surprises you. That’s strange.

I think you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater – that’s the problem. Liberation from dictatorship should not necessarily be accompanied by the collapse of the state.

As for the tragedy that I talked about, it is obvious. Imagine that one morning people woke up and discovered that from now on they did not live in a common nation, but outside the borders of the Russian Federation, although they always identified themselves as a part of the Russian people. And there are not five, ten or even a thousand of these people, and not just a million. There are 25 million of them. Just think about this figure! This is the obvious tragedy, which was accompanied with the severance of family and economic ties, with the loss of all the money people had saved in the bank accounts their entire lives, along with other difficult consequences. Is this not a tragedy for individual people? Of course it’s a tragedy!

People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain. We do not regret this, we simply state the fact and know that we need to look ahead, not backwards. We will not allow the past to drag us down and stop us from moving ahead. We understand where we should move. But we must act based on a clear understanding of what happened.

Overall, the Eurasian Union concept is not new.  It is not a Russian imperial conspiracy rooted in Duginist neo-fascist tracts, but rather a liberal pro-market project aimed at opening borders and encouraging economic development among the former Soviet states.  It is this reality that the West should fundamentally understand when analyzing Russia’s Eurasian Union initiative.