I don’t have time to provide up to the minute coverage of the Belarusian elections. There are many places you can go to get it and they all do a much better job than I can. Robert Mayer at Publius Pundit has updates as well as links to find blog updates. As mentioned before br23 blog is a good place to go. One can always do a Google news search for Belarus. Hundreds of articles are listed there. And to repeat, RFE/RL has special coverage of the elections. I find the NY Times piece on the Belarusian countryside and why Lukashenka is popular there a good perspective since news tends to focus on Minsk.
For my part, I intend to write a piece that reflects on the elections and what they mean after the smoke clears. That is if it does clear.
Suffice to say, with Lukashenka declaring 82% of the vote with 92% voting, it clear that the oppositions claim that the elections are a farce are solid.
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By Sean — 8 years ago
I haven’t done an update on Kyrgyzstan in several days. While things seemed to have calmed in the southern part of the country, tensions are high, the humanitarian crisis is deep, and the political outcomes are uncertain.
Two questions have been occupying most commentators: Why the violence, or, specifically why didn’t we see it coming? and What are the international ramifications, particularly for the US and Russia? I’m personally less interested in the second question, and for the most part discussion on this has ranged from the ludicrous (for how ludicrous see Michael Hancock’s undressing on Registan), the paranoiac and uninformed, the all too typical, to the regurgitated. Basically, I’ll leave it to the foreign policy wоnks to untangle this mess. I just hope to hear something new as they do.
The “why” question, however, is the thing that seems to be occupying the minds of most Central Asia watchers. This is an observation based on discussions on Registan and articles on Eurasianet.org. The debates on Registan are informed, measured, fresh and invaluable. Posts by Sarah Kendzior, Michael Hancock, and Christian Bleuer are must reads.
As I noted in my last post on Kyrgyzstan, there are a lot of people skeptical of the ethnic roots of the violence. It’s not that they are saying that ethnicity doesn’t matter. It does. Rather, skeptics of the ethnic conflict thesis are questioning the tendency to reduce everything to ethnicity. As always, media commentary tends to engage in this reductionism thereby making ethnic conflict, and therefore the idea of ethnicity or nationality itself, into something that is primordial and eternal. One interesting thing I’ve noticed in some articles is to locate the origin of the conflict in how Stalin drew the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as a means to realize some kind of “divide and conquer” strategy. For example, Peter Zeihan writes, “Kyrgyzstan is an artificial construct created by none other than Stalin, who rearranged internal Soviet borders in the region to maximize the chances of dislocation, dispute and disruption among the indigenous populations in case the Soviet provinces ever gained independence.” Or, Edward Stourton, “The way Stalin designed the region ensured that it would regularly be shaken by inter-ethnic violence.” And the Economist, “In 1924 Stalin divided the region into different Soviet republics. The borders were drawn up rather arbitrarily without following strict ethnic lines or even the guidelines of geography.” These statements misunderstand the history of ethnicity as a concept of identity in this region. True, the borders were drawn by Stalin, as Commissar of Nationalities, but, as Francine Hirsch contends, these borders were to purposely create these nations since the Bolsheviks believed in their evolutionary teleology that becoming a nation was necessary in order for “backward people” to overcome nationality.* Was it a colonial strategy? Most certainly since what Hirsch calls “state-sponsored evolutionism” was the Bolsheviks’ own version of White Man’s Burden. Ironically, in their efforts to destroy nationality and nationalism, the Bolsheviks were their midwives. So if there is anything to blame Stalin for it was playing a pivotal role in creating the geographical foundation for “Kyrgyz” and “Uzbeks” were none “existed” in the first place.
The roots of the conflict, therefore, are quite recent, and though there were tensions between the two groups in the Soviet period, they have exacerbated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, thanks to the widening gap between rich and poor. Inevitably, class and ethnicity became intertwined as the Kyrgyz majority saw themselves losing out to the Uzbek minority. The conflict therefore has local and international economic motors. One of the more interesting analyses on this point is Balihar Sanghera’s “Why are Kyrgyzstan’s slum dwellers so angry?” which puts the inter-ethnic violence in a global economic frame. I found this passage very revealing:
The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation have imposed upon Kyrgyzstan and many other developing countries a package of neo-liberal economic policies. Powerless to resist, governments have had to sign up to these structural adjustment programmes in return for international loans, foreign direct investment and other financial support. Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has undergone an extensive programme of liberal marketisation and privatisation: privatisation of land and property, a break-up of kolkhozes, reductions in subsidies and import tariffs, liberalisation of commodity prices, cuts in state expenditure, relaxation of foreign ownership rules in key sectors (such as gold mines), opening up of home markets to imports, floating the exchange rate and so on. The shock therapy approach to the ‘transition’ to a market economy has had negative consequences on the Kyrgyzstani agricultural sector, and indirectly on urban slums and land invasions.
Given the small allocation of land that each family received in the 1990s in South Kyrgyzstan, most farmers struggle to eke a living, and are unable to absorb family labour, resulting in rural unemployment and underemployment. In addition, marginal and small farmers lack funds to buy adequate fertilisers, to invest into a proper irrigation system, to pay for effective livestock immunisation, or to capitalise their farms for future growth. Many farmers survive by pooling their resources, reviving some aspects of the Soviet kolkhozes. Some have abandoned farming, either by leasing their land rights to larger farmers, who possess the capital to undertake successful commercial farming, or by giving back their tenancy rights to ayil okomotu (local state administration), who then lease them to rich farmers. As a result, the rural society has become pauperised.
How many times have we seen this around the world?
Boris Petric also places the violence in the context of privatization (along with political clan and mafia struggles and the drug trade thrown in the mix):
As the free market ideology gained ground internationally, Kyrgyzstan launched massive privatization initiatives and opened its borders. This led to the collapse of industry and the agricultural sector, as well as causing increased social inequality. With new opportunities in cross-border trading, a new upper class formed, while most of the population lived below the poverty threshold. Structural adjustment policies, which Akayev followed to the letter, encouraged the emergence of new familial economic powers. In the south of the country, and particularly in Osh, many Kyrgyz often associated these economic powers with urban Uzbeks.
After the 2005 Tulip Revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev quickly put an end to the advantages gained by some Uzbeks in Osh during the privatization period. These politico-economic entrepreneurs, of which Deputy Batyrov is a good example, were gradually marginalized. The Bakiyev brothers then set about gaining control of the economy, and encouraged other “Uzbeks” to monopolize major economic resources from the Akayev administration’s former protégés. Control of the economy passed into the hands of Bakiyev’s allies. These new economic leaders were soon required to set up various dummy companies benefiting the presidential entourage.
Events took another turn when Roza Otunbayeva came to power in April 2010. President Bakiyev’s allies in the Osh region were quickly dispossessed of the advantages they had enjoyed. The situation deteriorated rapidly and tensions arose between different groups which aspired to control economic activities. An Uzbek businessman, Aibek Mirsidikov, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. According to rumor, Mirsidikov was involved in Mafia and other criminal activities. He was closely linked to the Bakiyev family, and it was even said that the President’s brother put him in charge of the lucrative Afghan drug trade and reorganizing economic relations in Osh. The fall of President Bakiyev therefore led to a new politico-economic shakeup in the region. The current conflict was probably triggered by the rise to power of some politico-Mafia groups, and the fall of others. The groups that had flourished under the previous government were not willing to accept defeat. Adopting extremely violent tactics, they began settling scores, aided and abetted by the Bakiyev brothers. The extent of these retaliations meant the conflict finally took an interethnic turn.
In her “The ethnicisation of violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” Madeleine Reeves notes some of the ways these social conflicts have become ethnicized in the Ferghana Valley:
In recent weeks, political tensions, economic anxieties, criminal violence, the freezing of legal process, and what seems to be a quite concerted attempt at ethnic mobilisation and provocation by supporters of ousted former-president Bakiev mean that in southern Kyrgyzstan, mothers, brothers, school-friends, colleagues, neighbours and drinking partners have been “pinned to the wall” of nationhood, reduced to the single category, “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek” in this historically most complex and socially variegated of regions.
Writing to me a few weeks ago, a tri-lingual (Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian-speaking), “Kyrgyz”-identifying friend, with Uzbek and Uighur heritage on his mother’s side, described how his “Uzbek”-identifying wife was increasingly conscious of the appearance of ethnic slurs in the playground when she took her (ethnically “mixed”) children out to play. An Uzbek-identifying friend from Jalalabat noted in the same period a growing sense of disillusion amongst Jalalabat Uzbeks, as ethnically-marked political-criminal groupings sought to take advantage of the change of leadership in the wake of Bakiev’s ouster to seize control of businesses traditionally dominated by Uzbek elites in the city. For both of these acquaintances, ethnicity was a constitutive part of their identity, just as was their age, their gender, their education, and their identification with a cosmopolitan, urban Ferghana culture. Each, in different ways, has written of the horror of being reduced in recent days to that single dimension, “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek”. Talking of this as an “ethnic conflict” misses that essentially processual dimension: it is essentialising; it is depoliticising and it acts as an analytical “stop”. It takes ethnicity as being analytically causal, rather than asking about the complex, messy, deeply political dynamics through which, in a moment of state crisis, conflict has come to be ethnicised.
. . . What we have been witnessing in Osh and Jalalabat over the last few days is a disturbing and distressing spiral of violence. Much of this has been articulated in ethnic terms: evident in targeted attacks on property, homes and in the brutal wounding of those perceived as ethnically “other” whether they be Kyrgyz or Uzbek.
Less reported are the multiple instances where ethnicity has been irrelevant to action: when property has been looted because “they” represent wealth and opportunity that is inaccessible to “us”; when Kyrgyz have sheltered Uzbeks and vice versa; when neighbours have sought to defend their street or their mosque from attack not because they are of the same ethnicity, but because they live in the same neighbourhood and want to have the chance of continuing to do so.
Reeves goes on to add that ethnicity in this case is more like poisonious silly-puddy with its ability to be molded and graft onto a multitude of existing social processes.
“Inter-ethnic conflict” as an explanatory frame is problematic, then, not because ethnicity doesn’t matter, but because the “ethnic group” by itself doesn’t do any meaningful explanatory work (unless, of course, we assume that some ethnic groups are “naturally” pre-disposed to violence). Ethnicity in Osh is socially constituted, as well as socially and spatially organised. It is produced and reproduced in a host of domestic, educational, social and political institutions, from schools to television broadcasts, from religious celebrations to the organisation of domestic and neighbourhood space. Critically, moreover, it is reproduced in a host of business networks, patronage relations, and crimino-political groupings, the activity and violence of which has increased dramatically in the weeks since former president Bakiev was ousted in an uprising on April 7th.
Perhaps it is this hornet’s nest which has made Russia hesitant to dive in military first despite the pleads of the Kyrgyz interim government. Indeed, I agree with the view that the US and Russia just hope the crisis goes away. But crises like this rarely do. Unfortunately for the Kyrgyz, the situation remains dire and continued destabilization may generate the very things that Russia and the US fear the most: regional civil war, increased drug trafficking, and Islamism.
The big test is coming in the next week. The continued “state of emergency” threatens to put the June 27 referendum on a new constitution on hold. The interim government hopes that turning Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary republic will bring political stability. However, if RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier is right it could only exacerbate ethnic tensions. According to him:
“Everyone that I’ve talked to in these Uzbek neighborhoods points out that they don’t have any representation in the government at all — the soldiers are Kyrgyz, all the police are Kyrgyz. If they hold the referendum and then there is something the Uzbeks don’t like, they are going to say, ‘This isn’t our constitution. This is a Kyrgyz constitution.”
*Francine Hirsch, “Toward an Empire of Nations: Border-Making and the Formation of Soviet National Identities,” Russian Review, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), 202-203.
By Sean — 5 years ago
By William Risch
Last week in Kyiv, I saw that the Maidan had changed. The heart of Ukraine’s protest movement that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych, it looked like a war zone. The Trade Unions Building was a burned-out shell. Entire sections of pavement were gone, the stones used as weapons against riot police the previous month. Piles of tires lined barricades. Boxes of bottles kept for Molotov cocktails were stowed away near tents. Unlike January, the students were gone. Nearly everyone was gone. Only a few dozen people mingled around the Maidan, mostly the elderly, curious tourists, and “revolutionaries” spinning doubtful, though anguished, tales.
Men in green camouflage uniforms also roamed the Maidan and the Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard. Among them were members of Right Sector, a radical right organization that had helped fight street battles with the Yanukovych regime. Wearing insignia, armbands, or scarves with trademark colors of the far right (red and black), they guarded buildings Right Sector had seized, including the Hotel Dnipro on European Square and three stores on the Khreshchatyk. One afternoon I saw a guard briefly pop out of one store with a rifle and then quickly return inside.
It was a frightening scene. One colleague made it even more frightening when he reported seeing such paramilitary types on the Khreshchatyk beat up a man with metal bars until he bled.
Yet all week, as I traveled back and forth in the rest of the city, Kyiv was just like it always was. Police patrolled the streets. People went to work and did their shopping. Even trains were running to Simferopol and Sevastopol, which by the week’s end had wound up in Russia.
What I’d seen in Kyiv last week epitomized the dubious power of Ukraine’s “far right,” as defined by Western and Russian media. While making quite a show in downtown Kyiv, neither Right Sector nor the Freedom (Svoboda) Party have much potential electoral support or real political power. While appearing to threaten the new government, these forces look like they are on the verge of dying out.
After Oleksandr Muzychko (Sashko Bilyi), Right Sector’s coordinator for western Ukraine, was killed in a gun battle with Sokil special forces near Rivne on March 25, Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh called for the immediate resignation of Acting Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov and the arrest of Sokil’s commander and Sokil agents responsible for Muzychko’s death. It looked like the new government was about to battle Right Sector as well as Russian forces across the eastern border.
However, the next day, March 26, a set of opinion polls suggested the far right was not much of a threat. A mere 2.5 percent of likely voters indicated that they would support Oleh Tiahnybok, leader of Svoboda, in May 25 presidential elections, and only 1.4 percent Dmytro Yarosh, leader of Right Sector. The same polling agencies – SOCIS, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, Reitinh, and the Razumkov Center – polled Ukrainians on their opinions about early parliamentary elections, which have not yet been scheduled. A total of 5.2 percent of likely voters expressed a desire to support Svoboda, and only 2.7 percent Right Sector. On March 27, Right Sector rallied in front of the Supreme Rada, demanding that Avakov be fired and that former Acting Minister of Defense Ihor Teniukh face justice (presumably for his handling of the Crimean crisis). They brought tires to the entrance and broke some of its windows. Some activists forced their way inside. The drama soon ended here. After some debating, Right Sector decided not to storm the building, and by 10 p.m., Right Sector members had left the Supreme Rada’s premises.
The far right has strong symbolic presence on the Maidan and on the Khreshchatyk. They can voice popular grievances with police forces still perceived to be just like they were under the old regime. Svoboda members are in such government positions as General Prosecutor of Ukraine (Oleh Makhnits’kyi), Deputy Prime Minister (Oleksandr Sych), Environment Minister (Andriy Mokhnyk), and Agriculture Minister (Ihor Shvaika). While the General Prosecutor is a crucial position, Svoboda has only three posts in the Cabinet of Ministers, while the rest of the interim government is made up of members of the Fatherland (Bat’kivshchyna) Party, which is not on the far right, and independents. Given the overwhelming support for early parliamentary elections (65.8 percent, according to Ukrains’ka Pravda) and low polling numbers for Svoboda and Right Sector, it is doubtful the far right will have a serious presence in Ukraine’s state in the near future. Ineffective government, the threat of economic collapse, and Russia’s invasion of Crimea endanger Ukraine’s fragile revolution much more than Right Sector’s men standing guard in downtown Kyiv.
William Risch is an Associate Professor of History of Georgia College and author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011)
By Sean — 10 years ago
The Russians say they’ve pulled out of Georgia. George Bush and Nicholas Sarkozy charge they didn’t pull out. All this talk of pulling out sounds like they’re arguing whether Russia knocked up Georgia.
Well something is certainly gestating in Georgia. And the Russia-Georgia love child appears to be occupation. Russia’s gradual pull out has left a string of posts along the border of South Ossetia as part of a plan to leave 2500 peacekeepers inside a security buffer zone. The zone, according to Deputy Commander Anatoly Nogovitsyn, will be 6 to 18 kilometers thick, and will effectively allow Russian troops to occupy Georgia. The Guardian reports that Russian troops were seen digging trenches 7 km. outside of the port city of Poti. Hundreds or thousands of Georgians (it depends on who you listen to) demonstrated against the presence of twenty Russian troops yesterday, shouting at them to go home. You gotta love the protest signs in English. What a publicity stunt.
The Russian security zone and beefed up peacekeeping force will certainly pour gasoline on the theories about how Russia planned all of this from the beginning. The main proponent of the master plan thesis is none other than Pavel Felgengauer. Felgengauer agues, first in Novaya gazeta and then in the Eurasian Daily Monitor, that Russia’s war against Georgia was concocted as far back as April. Why did the Russians “provoke” this war? Why Georgia’s aspirations to join Nato and geopolitical positioning, of course. Felgengauer writes,
It seems the main drive of the Russian invasion was Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO, while the separatist problem was only a pretext. Georgia occupies a key geopolitical position, and Moscow is afraid that if George joins NATO, Russia will be flushed out of Transcaucasia. The NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, last April, where Ukraine and Georgia did not get the so-called Membership Action Plan or MAP to join the Alliance but were promised eventual membership, seems to have prompted a decision to go to war.
According to Felgengauer, the goal of the Russian invasion was to knock out Georgia’s military and maintain a permanent military presence in Georgia. Medvedev and Putin must really love it when a plan comes together. It happens so rarely. Most of them time they can’t get anything right, let alone effectively rule their own country. Now the diarchy are master manipulators of not only the hotheaded Saakashvili, but the world. I can imagine Putin explaining to Medvedev his role in the whole plot like Ed Wood did to Bela Lugosi (played brilliantly by Martin Landau) in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994):
Bela/Medvedev: Eddie/Vanya, what kind of movie is this?
Ed/Putin: Well, It’s about how people have two personalities. The side they show to the world, and then the secret person they hide inside.
Bela/Medvedev: (delighted) Oh, like Jekyll and Hyde! Ah, I’ve always wanted to play Jekyll and Hyde! I’m looking forward to this production.
(Ed/Putin stops typing. He pours Bela/Medvedev a drink.)
Ed/Putin: Ehh, your part’s a little different. You’re like the God that looks down on all the characters, and oversees everything.
Bela/Medvedev: I don’t understand.
Ed/Putin: Well… you control everyone’s fate. You’re like the puppetmaster.
Bela/Medvedev: (getting it) Ah, so I pull the strings!
Ed/Putin: Yeah. You pull the strings — (he suddenly gets a look) “Pull the strings”… hey, that’s pretty good!
(Ed/Putin quickly starts typing again.)
That is the real beauty the Russians. When we need them to be incompetent bunglers who are mired in perpetual backwardness, they’re there to play the part. When we need them as conniving, master plotters with their evil claws ready to “pull the strings,” they play that role too. You gotta love their dramaturgical range.