Friday 3 August 2012

Turkmenistan: Dictatorship's Best Hope?

Adam Lenton

Foreign policy dictated by energy is helping to guarantee a future for Turkmenistan's regime. Arabian Oil and Gas.
It's good being Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The President of Turkmenistan's fifty-fifth birthday was not only celebrated with a perplexingly dazzling set of celebrations in the capital, but also coincided with the release of a five-volume epic  'To New Heights of Progress'- a series of speeches, recollections and pieces by the President himself. He also was re-elected President earlier in the year with over 97 per cent of votes- most impressive.

But there's something amiss, and it's not just a lack of scepticism. For someone with such an impressive status within Turkmenistan, Berdymukhamedov has very little- if indeed any- international recognition. Granted, Turkmenistan is a small country of only five million inhabitants and its economy is around a quarter of the size of Manchester's. Most of the country is covered by the Karakum Desert as well.

Yet herein lies the paradox- it may be surprising to find out that amongst other nations it is Libya with which Turkmenistan shares parity, both statistical and otherwise. Both nations are predominantly covered by deserts and have similar sized economies and populations. Its citizens are mainly Muslim, and retain a culture heavily influenced by a nomadic way of life that had pre-existed their respective states for hundreds of years. Yet Libya and its late leader Gaddafi need no introduction; contempt for his regime was internationally voiced once the internal situation deteriorated last year, and Gaddafi himself was repeatedly denounced by the P.M and the Foreign Secretary. Gaddafi's ridiculous cult of personality and whimsical idiosyncrasies have plastered tabloids for decades. 

Turkmenistan doesn't have the same press attention, despite having the 3rd worst press freedom in the world, just below that of Burma and North Korea. Given recent developments in Burma, Turkmenistan might soon have the dubious status as second only to North Korea- something the world cannot brush under the carpet. Berdymukhamedov's impressive landslide victory was certainly helped by this strangulation of opinion, not to mention the fact that all candidates running against him were from his own party. And if opinion isn't choked by this, rife torture in the prison system would certainly dissuade all but the most outspoken to voice their disillusion. The Red Cross was only allowed to visit a Turkmen jail for the first time this April.

Berdymukhamedov didn't create this system; far from it, he inherited it from his Soviet-era predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov. Sasha Baron Cohen's 'The Dictator' may owe its creative inspiration to Gaddafi, but it is in Turkmenistan where the cult of personality is most vivid. Niyazov was President for Life, and appointed himself Türkmenbaşy- Leader of Turkmens. Although he abolished the death penalty and banned smoking in public places (after himself having to quit following heart surgery), the health of Turkmen citizens didn't improve considerably, for nearly all hospitals outside the capital, Ashgabat, were closed down in 2005. Physicians had to swear loyalty to Niyazov, replacing the Hippocratic Oath. More bizarre laws included the banning of opera and ballet for being 'unturkmen-like', the banishing of stray dogs from Ashgabat and the outlawing of men being able to wear long hair or beards. When he didn't ban things, he built his own legacy. In Ashgabat today there is a gold statue of the late President, which used to rotate to face the sun. Nowadays it rests standing- the extent of de-Niyazovisation under Berdymukhamedov.

For all the regime's authoritarianism, there remains the question of why Turkmenistan is treated with such negligence. Britain's entire rhetoric is one of benign indifference. The only statement made by David Cameron on Turkmenistan came in the form of a letter addressed to Berdymukhamedov, encouraging 'closer cooperation in the field of energy'. It's void of any effort to even acknowledge the existence of quite serious issues, which makes Britain's whole orientation towards Turkmenistan not only euphemistic, but complicit.

The answer lies beneath the surface; quite literally, Turkmenistan in recent years has been courted by energy-hungry nations for access to its huge untapped gas reserves, ranked 4th in the world. Owing to the fact that its production is only ranked 20th, there is a future cache to be secured, depending entirely on the benevolence of Ashgabat. This dictates an energy-orientated policy, and one which is not only unobtrusive vis à vis domestic issues, but which necessitates the long-term stability of the regime. Of course, the UK is not alone. José Manuel Barroso visited Ashgabat in early 2011, predominantly to voice a shared 'strong strategic interest in energy security'.

Parallels can again be drawn with Libya. Britain's reorientation of policy in the last decade was seen as an insult to those who died at the hands of state-complicit terrorism undertaken by Gaddafi's regime. In recent years, the repatriation of al-Megrahi and fresh allegations of British compliance in torture of Libyan opposition figures have served only to remove any doubt of the toothless policy adopted by Whitehall. If the UK can undertake such a change of policy towards a regime which killed British citizens on British soil, then it should be no surprise that consciences aren't wavering over Turkmenistan.

What's more, Whitehall doesn't want to encroach on a country which is firmly in Moscow and Tehran's spheres of influence. Iran has recently obtained a lifeline in the form of increases in Turkmen energy imports, and Putin telephoned Berdymukhamedov (who studied in Moscow during the Soviet era) to wish him a happy fifty-fifth birthday.

Cameron's denunciation of Gaddafi was as shallow as Blair's rapprochement a few years earlier. Turkmenistan may not be a country that grabs the headlines or provides politicians with iconic sound-bites, but it is a country where the hypocrisy and spinelessness of governments is acutely felt through indifference. Judgement cannot be cast on the figureheads of regimes- Berdymukhamedov being no exception- when they are propped up, their egos inflated and their coffers aggrandised by complicit governments.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

The Kuril Islands: A historical and cultural dispute

Joanna Christou

Current Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev (then President) visiting the Kuril Islands in 2010. He has repeated his visit just last week, to the ire of Japan. From International Business Week.
Lying to the North of Japan but to the East of Russia, four tiny Islands have represented the source of continued tension between these two states since the end of World War II. The Islands, known as the Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, have in fact influenced relations between these two states to the extent that they have yet to sign a formal treaty settling World War II. In total the Kurils comprise of 18 islands, but only the four Southernmost are disputed.The dispute itself represents an interesting case for international lawyers who often seek to dissect the various agreements, including those signed at Yalta and Potsdam, which have resulted in this inconclusive state of territorial affairs. But this case also represents a valuable compass for anyone seeking to understand how cultural considerations can overwhelmingly affect how such disputes are played out over the years and whether or not they can be easily resolved. 
Russia, in recent years has sought to strengthen both its presence and its claim to the Islands. Dmitry Medvedev visited them personally in 2010 and again a few weeks ago, drawing an irate response from Japanese officials and a further chilling of relations. Furthermore, Russia has sought to strengthen its military presence on this Eastern frontier and such is its commitment that it has even formed a Ministry for the Far East, with the aim of not only strengthening its presence but also seeking to achieve development and business objectives through exploitation of the vast natural resources in these regions. This is no divergence from Russia’s recent and current policy of strengthening its presence at its frontiers and seeking a strong position amongst its immediate neighbours, of which Japan is one. In fact this has manifested itself in the East with the resumption of aircraft and maritime patrols in the far-East, a practise dating back to World War II.
Of the 18 Kuril Islands, 4 are claimed by both Japan and Russia in a dispute dating back to the end of World War II. From the BBC.
For the Japanese, economic considerations also abound. The natural resources present are obviously a massive attraction, particularly as Japan does not possess a particularly large amount of these and has tended to rely on its neighbours and allies, including Russia, for energy, or, has promoted nuclear technology which since last year’s tsunami disaster, has come under close scrutiny and criticism. 
On paper it seems that there is little which these two old foes might agree on in the near future to resolve the situation, and in many ways this assumption could be deemed correct. However, it fails to take into account some of the more culturally ingrained reasons for the continuation of this dispute, which, if addressed, might represent a pathway to some sort of resolution. 
Both countries in many ways cling to their attachment as a result of historical factors and considerations which continue to be perpetuated in cultural terms. An agreement reached in the late 1800s meant concensus existed, but it was shattered by the Japanese defeat of Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. Skip forward 40 years and this time Communist Russia was the victor and Imperial Japan was the defeated, humiliated adversary. These historical events may have been a lifetime or two ago but they continue to manifest themselves in current popular culture in both states. Countless studies have sought to dissect the Japanese reaction to the loss of World War II and subsequent attitudes to its own history. An oft cited example is the continued adoration across sections of Japanese society of Judge Pal, the only Allied justice who handed down a not guilty verdict for Japan’s wartime leaders. In fact even former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe openly praised Pal during a state visit to India (Pal’s homeland) in 2007. While generalisations should and must be avoided, this example does represent a valuable example of how historical events and their cultural perpetuation have in some ways impacted Japanese attitudes regarding World War II. Essentially, as some have suggested, the perpetuation of certain historical or cultural ideas results in reducing ‘the area for maneuver in decision making, which explains the commitment of the Japanese to one course’ in regards to the Kurils.
Meanwhile, the Russian point of view tends to highlight the belief that Russia is entitled to the islands as a result of its victory in World War II and the massive sacrifices it  had to make, particularly in the form of human lives.
So in many ways this dispute is about a lot more than just the abundance resources. In fact, while both countries seek to achieve economic and foreign policy objectives, their desire to achieve these without compromise is perpetuated by historical and cultural factors. This does suggest that a resolution could emerge if the underlying factors were dealt with first. There is evidence to suggest that a cultural ‘understanding’ between the two, or more broadly the achievement of some sort of common ground on a cultural or even humanitarian ground could help foster better relations. Several commentators have noted that relations between Russia and Japan reached a high level in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and its nuclear catastrophe aftermath. 
Obviously, the road to resolving the territorial issue itself would be longer, but when taking into consideration that essentially both seek economic goals, agreement may not be that difficult to reach. There are precedents of co-operation of this type between the two in Siberia, something which only further advances the theory that the cultural element of the dispute is working towards sabotaging any form of agreement. 

Thursday 5 July 2012

Russian-China relations: more than meets the eye

Adam Lenton

Exterior solidarity, internal rivalry. Sino-Russian relations aren’t as healthy as many in the West like to portray. NY Times (Pool photo by Mark Ralston).
Observers were quick to point to Putin’s recent state visit to the People’s Republic of China as being indicative of a new strengthening of relations that should be of concern to the West. Burgeoning trade figures aside (China has now become Russia’s largest trading partner and the two nations hope to more than double bilateral trade by 2020), attention has gravitated towards their increasing military ties. Only recently the two nations participated in shared naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which solidified a decades-old commercial relationship fomented by Russia’s massive arms industry. 
Russia and China, along with most Central Asian states, have been developing strong military and anti-terror links in the past decade through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is seen by many in the West as being a counterbalance to NATO in the region.
Given recent developments, Western nations’ concern isn’t entirely unfounded. Military cooperation has corresponded with similar diplomatic cooperation. The destruction unfolding in Syria is just as tragic in its substance as it is tragic that the limp inaction by the UN Security Council serves only to prolong it. For the West, the latter is the brazen Realpolitik of Putin, defending Russia’s arms sales to Assad whilst at the same time looking to snub the interventionist approach previously taken to oust Gaddafi. The idea of a joint Sino-Russian behemoth has aroused Western anxieties for a long time; now that their links are solidifying, these sceptics have found that their predictions are becoming self-fulfilling.
But is this necessarily a correct view?  Prying open their exterior stance to the world, one may find that the relationship is far less cosy. Putin’s aforementioned visit to China was much less significant than many- whether Russian, British or otherwise- like to portray; Putin visited both France and Germany before heading east. Medvedev, often assumed to represent the Kremlin’s friendlier face vis à vis the West, displayed little change in continuity as far as foreign visits are concerned. Both Presidents’ first official visits were to Kazakhstan (Medvedev) and Belarus (Putin) - countries which would form part of the proposed Eurasian Union. Clearly, Russia prioritises these states; so much so, that it was seen as the real reason why Putin didn't attend the recent G8 summit.
Soldiers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states performing an anti-terror drill in Kazakhstan, 2010. RIA Novosti.
Unfortunately for Russia, China may not be so content to let another nation vie for influence in this resource-rich region. It may have played a less active role abroad in previous decades, but China is playing catch-up and exerting its influence across the globe- crucially in Central Asia - through soft power and generous loans. Countries like Turkmenistan, shunned by the West for their questionable political freedoms, find China's help a lot less politically questioning.
Russia's relationship with China, too, is economic. Bilateral trade is booming, but it is still ultimately a trade of commodities. Resource-rich Russia is a supplier of, and China a consumer of energy. Consequently, energy pricing is something which has already been biccered about between the formalities and festivities. Decades-long Russian negligence of the Far East has allowed Chinese influence to penetrate. Chinese migrant labour is felt acutely in this scarcely-populated region, and clashes have already broken out between locals and Chinese. With a population of less than 7 million, the Russian Far East is acutely vulnerable to large influxes of migrant labourers.
Moves to rejuvenate the region by Russia can be mutually beneficial. Infrastructural projects in Vladivostok, such as the world's longest cable-stayed bridge, form part of a wider effort to ready the region for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in September. A Pacific-orientated Russia can be of benefit to China. But a conscious decision to strive to be both a Eurasian and a Pacific power has implications that place it in conflict with China's own emerging ambitions. As it stands, Russia and China aren't equal partners- much like the UK and the US aren't. A renewed Russian assertiveness in the Far East and Central Asia may rile those who see Beijing- and not far-off Moscow- as being the real dominant force in the region. The realisation of the Eurasian Union by as early as 2015 (this being Putin's target) might be in response to greater fears of Chinese encroachment in Central Asia. By establishing it in the next few years, Moscow can anchor itself in the region for the forseeable future without having to out-bid Beijing for political power- which is increasingly unaffordable. 
This isn't the only time that relations have had strains beneath the surface. Whenever significant shifts in policy have been undertaken by one nation, relations tend to sour. From Stalin's death in 1953, when ideological parity between the two communist powers was broken, to the break-up of the USSR, abrupt changes have resulted in a cooling of relations. Many forget that the two powers engaged in a seven-month military conflict over borders in 1969. The West has occasionally tried to take advantage of these periods, most notably during the 1970s, when Richard Nixon visited an ageing Mao in an attempt to politically isolate the USSR. Britain and other nations that find concern in the flourishing Sino-Russian relationship only need to look at recent history to realise that consistency is certainly not a feature of the relationship. 
Putin's new tenure in office would appear to signal consistency, but a renewed brazenness by the Kremlin will only be tolerated by Beijing whilst it serves its interests, and certainly not if it comes into conflict with them. On the international stage solidarity between them is useful, but closer to home tensions do exist, even if they are well-concealed. It would do Britain and other Western nations good to keep a watchful eye on events in Central Asia- influence there is a prize which neither Russia nor China will be prepared to share.

Friday 22 June 2012

Nagorno-Karabakh: Slowly thawing a frozen conflict

Joanna Christou

The Nagorno-Karabakh borders with Azerbaijan are now heavily militarised and prone to outbreaks of violence. Pictured here, Karabakh soldiers. Photo from Asbarez.
As far as places go, Nagorno-Karabakh is likely unknown to most people outside of the former Soviet territories. However, this little piece of mountainous land has been the cause of a serious and unsolved dispute between Azerbaijan – in whose territory it officially lies – and the majority ethnic Armenian population which resides there, backed by the neighbouring state of Armenia.  
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this conflict is in fact the lack of attention it has garnered. This is mostly due to its current status, which commentators, journalists and politicians alike have dubbed as a ‘frozen conflict’. This term applies to a number of other disputes in the post-Soviet space and tends to characterize ethnic or territorial conflicts which coincided with the demise of the Soviet Union. Following a period of violence, such conflicts were taken off the boiler with a Russian-led truce which halted hostilities, but failed to resolve the cause of the fighting in most cases. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, this unrecognised territory was left in Armenian hands by the settlement, much to the disgust of Azerbaijan.  The results of this frozen status have been heavily militarized borders and an unworkable status-quo for both sides which continues to express itself through border violations.

The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan, declared its independence in 1991 following the fall of the Soviet Union. Photo from Euronews.
Recently however, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has started to heat-up again. While hostilities have been kept to a minimum in previous years, there is now a growth in tensions accompanied with occasional outbursts of violence. Just last week ago a shoot-out between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers resulted in three deaths, the second such incident in recent months to result in the loss of life. The best indication of the seriousness of the situation is the growth in interest from international observers, media and politicians. Just last week, US secretary of State visited the region, holding talks with both sides. Meanwhile, informal discussions on the situation have taken place at the United Nations, while Irish Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore has stated that resolution of this conflict will be a prime aim during Ireland’s Presidency of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE).
Such international attention can only be a good thing. For one, it could provide an incentive for the two sides to talk. This will obviously be a challenge, with some commentators suggesting that violence has only been spurred on by the attention, particularly as tensions seem to have flared in the lead-up to Hillary Clinton’s highly publicised visit, with many seeing this an opportunity for both sides to seek a resolution favouring them. Arguably, Clinton’s visit also suggests that the more major powers have finally understood the importance of seeking to resolve this situation.
Having done little during the last 24 years to help bring stability, the US for its part is hopefully realising that its humanitarian assistance to the region, amounting to approximately US$32 million, probably represents a bottomless pit if efforts are not made to promote a long-term solution and lasting peace. Such thinking can only be encouraged by events in the last year where long-term recipients of US aid such as Egypt have descended into instability, threatening the entire region. This is no doubt thanks to the US’s willingness to accept questionable governance in return for another ally in the Middle East.
Obviously, any attempt at a solution will have to involve Russia, Armenia’s largest patron, and will as a result have to take into account the wider context of US-Russia relationship, as well as the fact that the two regimes involved suffer from a deficit of democratic standards and practices, with Armenia classified as ‘partly free’ by freedom house and Azerbaijan as ‘not free’.
For its part, Russia brokered the ceasefire agreement in 1994, and former president Dmitry Medvedev sought to mediate between the two sides without success. Arguably this is more hands-on involvement that the US has managed to muster across the last two administrations, and, despite Clinton’s visit, the Obama administration’s interest here seems rather lacking. 
If the last year has proven anything, it is that instability in one area can cause the dynamics of an entire region to change. The Middle East is case in point. As such, the heating up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should come as a warning and an opportunity for everyone involved. It is a warning that Armenia and Azerbaijan are still miles apart on the issue, while it is also an opportunity for the major powers involved to take the initiative and work towards peace on the ground, which could in turn translate into overall stability in what has always been a volatile region. Furthermore, it represents an opportunity for both the US and Russia to work together on an issue where peace and a solution could ultimately favour both, possibly resulting in better relations not just between the Armenians and Azeris but also between the Americans and the Russians. What now waits to be seen is if the thaw of Nagorno-Karabakh will be peaceful or violent. This will very much depend on whether the Obama administration decides to proactively build on Clinton’s visit and if the Putin administration finally accepts that the 1994 cease-fire is both unsustainable and a threat to the region overall and Russia itself. 

Monday 11 June 2012

Ukraine and Euro 2012: disjointed responses from short-sighted EU leaders

Adam Lenton

Euro 2012 can help foster closer ties between Ukraine and the EU, and in turn encourage necessary reform. UEFA.
Spectators may lament the cacophonous jeering and put-downs that so often resonate in the Commons, but seldom have issues provoked such passions that result in physical violence.  So it’s extraordinary to see that in the Ukrainian Rada a brawl managed to break out over language policy- not least of all because such an issue is relatively unimportant in the UK. 
Yet in Ukraine language is at the heart of politics. Simply depending on the speaker’s preferred language of either Russian or Ukrainian, you can make a reasonable assumption as to which kinds of political parties they vote for and what their opinions are even on thorny issues of nationalism, independence and relations with Russia and the West. So it should come as no surprise that the debate on whether to make Russian a co-official language in certain parts of the country caused a fury. 
This couldn’t contrast more with the bouts of jubilant flag-waving that have infected the mood in the UK. At a time when the future of the Union is increasingly uncertain, the very flag which could cease to exist is experiencing an uncharacteristic surge in popularity- an Indian summer of sorts represented in a shared feeling of national pride. As Ukraine prepares to host its own major international event in the form of Euro 2012, the contrasting fractures could not be more apparent in what is proving to be a rather sad year for Ukrainian politics- at a time when things should be at their most jubilant.
Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko showing bruises during her imprisonment. Photo: AP. 
Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, now serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office in what has been described as "justice being applied selectively under political motivation", has attracted the most attention from outside. A vociferous critic of the current pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, Tymoshenko’s imprisonment has heralded a new willingness from the Yanukovich adminstration to push the limits on what is acceptable conduct. 
EU leaders have responded in kind by making it clear that the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine will not progress without the implementation of the rule of law. Germany, taking a leading stance with Angela Merkel spearheading a campaign to boycott the games, seems to have succeeded in coaxing other governments- including the French- to not attend matches in Ukraine unless Tymoshenko is released. This garbled attempt to force pressure has so far not had the desired effect, for the simple reason that the Yanukovich administration is unlikely to make a humiliating about turn, and even less likely to go so far as to overturn what they believe to be a perfectly legitimate conviction. 
So far the UK has been reticent to join the political stalemate, and a lack of any unified EU policy regarding the tournament has enabled the UK to keep its distance. In addition to this, England’s fixtures are all in Ukraine. And unlike France and Germany, the UK is careful not to politicise a major sporting event just weeks before the Olympic Games begin in London. Whilst in other EU countries the focus has been on politics of whether to boycott or not, in the UK the focus has been more on football hooliganism and racial hatred, with ex-England captain Sol Campbell decrying scenes of racist abuse shown on a BBC Panorama documentary.  Some of the sensationalist articles about extreme right-wing hooliganism display a contemptuous level of hypocrisy that seems to forget England’s appalling contribution to the history of football violence, with former captain John Terry facing a racism trail after the tournament. Similarly, European leaders cannot both denounce racism in Ukraine, yet be blind to the kind of racism that haunts black footballers such as Mario Balotelli in EU states like Italy (which incidentally hopes to secure the 2016 tournament).  
However, both the UK’s and other European nations’ policies have been disjointed, ineffective, and worst of all, incredibly hypocritical. The UK needs to develop a response to the situation. Simply allowing a discrediting media campaign to ferment does not constitute a well-reasoned response to the political issues at stake, nor does it help strengthen ties between both countries. It is worth remembering that a reinvigorated Putin is in an advantageous position to further draw pro-Russian Yanukovich closer to Moscow should European governments act too belligerently. 
Ukraine may not host such an important tournament for decades to come, and boycotting the games, or by remaining silent in the face of media discouragement will hurt ordinary Ukrainians more than it will the administration. If the EU wants political and legal reform it must realise that Yanukovich will need far more encouragement to do so than his pro-EU predecessors did. In turn, that means choosing which battles to fight and coming to the conclusion that in the long run, Ukraine will stand a far better chance of becoming an EU member if sport is not tainted by politics, and that EU citizens give Ukraine a chance and develop stronger ties with each other.