Thursday, June 16, 2011

'Window on Eurasia' Closing for the Time Being

Because of family medical matters, I am indefinitely suspending my production of Windows on Eurasia. Over the course of almost seven years, I have thoroughly enjoyed producing more than 5500 of them and especially receiving the many comments from all of you that have made me feel part of a larger community. I thus sign off for the present at least with both regrets and thanks. Paul Goble

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Arab Spring Leads Authoritarian Leaders in Post-Soviet Space to Look to Moscow for Support

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 8 – Even if conditions in post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus are so different from those in the Arab world that a repetition of an Arab Spring there remains unlikely, the authoritarian rulers in these two regions are sufficiently nervous about popular unrest that they are looking to Moscow for possible support in the event of disorders.

Indeed, according to an article by Viktoriya Panfilova in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Russian and Uzbek experts say that the possibility of Russian support under such circumstances will be the focus of talks during President Dmitry Medvedev’s meetings with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent next week (

Aleksey Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center explicitly says that “during the negotiations in Tashkent, Islam Karimov will seek to clarify how and to what extent Russia can support Uzbekistan,” an issue that has become more important to the Uzbek leader since the meeting of the Uzbek opposition in Berlin.

“Karimov does not fear the actions of the opposition,” Malashenko says. “Uzbekistan is not Egypt but nevertheless he understands that life is changing. And in this changed environment,” the US is changing its relations with key allies such as Israel. Consequently, for Karimov, “it is important to understand how Moscow will conduct itself.”

That is all the more important for the Uzbek leader because in recent weeks, there have been several developments in Moscow which raise concerns for him. The Duma has discussed introducing a visa requirement for Uzbeks and other Central Asians, and the Russian media have featured articles about Andijan, where Karimov forcibly suppressed his opponents.

At the same time, Panfilova reports, other Russian experts, including Yevgeny Boyko, say that the Uzbek leader has reason for concern about where the West is heading regarding him and his regime. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recently called for an end to assistance to Tashkent until Karimov guarantees freedom of religion.

This conjunction of Russian and American commentary, Malashenko says, means that Karimov may now be afraid of “the possibility of the development of a more consolidated position between Washington and Moscow concerning his own person,” a joint position that he may fear would threaten his political survival.

Boyko agrees, given that the situation of the Central Asian countries and particularly of Uzbekistan has often been profoundly affected by US-Russian relations. Consequently, the “Nezavismaya gazeta” writer suggests, he may seek to try to restore ties with Russia in order to reinsure his regime.

That is all the more so because the US is likely to pull its forces out of Afghanistan in the medium term and thus be less interested or willing to support Karimov’s regime. Moscow thus could be an increasingly important prop, but Moscow, other analysts say, will want a demonstration of loyalty, including the flow of gas northward to Russia rather than to Asia.

Many commentaries have speculated about the possible spread of the Arab Spring to the authoritarian states of the post-Soviet region, but it may be the case in many of these countries that the fears of the incumbent elites about such a political development will play a more important role in the geopolitics of the area than will any “disorders” that may arise.

Indeed, the fears of elites in these countries about challenges from below may drive them into the hands of Russia or open a new set of opportunities for China given that neither Moscow nor Beijing will put as high a value on human rights as the West, and that geopolitical opportunity is likely to be at the center of discussions in those two capitals as well.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Russian Senator’s Proposal to Restore Katorga as a Punishment Criticized

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 7 – A member of the Federation Council has called for the restoration of the tsarist-era system of katorga under which those guilty of especially serious crimes such a terrorism, drug dealing or child murders would be sentenced to harsh physical labor without the possibility of commutation of sentence, or the right of correspondence.

Aleksey Aleksandrov, chairman of the Federation Council’s committee on constitutional law, speaking at a congress of jurists at Moscow State University this past week called for the introduction of the legal category of “evil doer” and the use of the katorga system as punishment for such criminals (

But Russian legal specialists are appalled by this idea. Lyudmila Alpern, the deputy head of the Center for the Support of the Reform of Criminal Justice, for example, told Andrey Polunin of “Svobodnaya pressa” that “our senators do not have a good idea of what katorga involved” in tsarist times or how it might be applied now.

In tsarist times, Alpern pointed out, there were various categories of katorga, some of which involved servitude of up to 20 years and some less with individuals convicted of certain crimes able to earn their way out of katorga while others were not. Thus the notion of permanent katorga would be an innovation.

During the Soviet period, “katorga did not exist.” Instead, “we had corrective labor camps. Of course, they were connected with a form of punishment which existed in tsarist times. This was group punishment,” a form which Europe dispensed with in the middle of the nineteenth century.” Katorga punishment was and is “amoral,” Alpern said.

The Soviet-era GULAG was much worse than katorga as it did not make allowances for prisoners to have their families with them. “Of course, for families, [it] was a terrible test: children sometimes died and women had great difficulties. But a fact remains a fact: toward the katorga inmate, the authorities acted in a human way.”

The GULAG system “destroyed this, and that was why it was so different from katorga. In the Soviet GULAG, an individual was connected to no one, he was completely deprived of social possibilities and he was made into an absolute slave,” something that had not been true of those sentenced to katorga.

Alpern said that despite the call for the restoration of katorga, the Russian penitentiary system is very different now compared to tsarist times. The main reason is ideological. In tsarist times, the authorities did not try to reeducate or reform anyone, demanding only work and then leaving prisoners more or less on their own in the barracks.

In those barracks, the tsarist-era prisoners set their own rules, were visited and sent food and even clothes and money by Russians beyond the walls because people at that time “understood that everyone could become a katorga inmate and thus called those arrested ‘sufferers’ or ‘unfortunates.’

Today, Alpern continued, “other norms” govern the situation. Jails attempt to reeducate people, but those outside the prison walls are not so inclined to view them as people much like themselves, instead assuming that they are hardened criminals who deserve whatever punishment they are given.

Conditions in Russian prisons have improved since the 1990s when such institutions were inadequately funded, prisoners forced to wear their own clothes, and disease rampant, but Alpern said, Russia still has a long way to go to come up to the standards of the European penal model, although it has made progress.

Talk about restoring katorga does nothing to promote this process, but it may create another real problem for Moscow. Some Siberians are worried that their land could against be “the place for katorga,” something that will make their situation even more a “genuine” katorga than it already is (

Window on Eurasia: Salafis Employ Flashmob Technique to Bring 5,000 Young Daghestanis into the Streets

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 7 – In a startling demonstration of the spread of new technologies to the North Caucasus, the leaders of the Salafi trend in Islam in Daghestan, one at odds with the dominant Sufi trend there and often associated with political radicalism, used the flashmob technique to bring 5,000 young people into the streets of Makhachaka last week.

In reporting on this event, which was staged in order to demonstrate to visitors from Moscow that people in that republic are not going to sit still for the current situation there much longer, the Islamic Civilization web portal said that this “Islamist flashmob can be called an historic event for Daghestan” (

“For the first time,” the portal said, “Muslim youth have expressed their unambiguous protest to that disorder which characterizes the republic regarding human rights and civic freedoms” and their support for the Salafis who stand against the dominant Sufi trend of Islam in Daghestan.

According to the organizers, the site continued, “they did not have any certainty that even 1,000 people would come” when they issued their flashmob call. “But no fewer than 5,000 did,” an outcome which shows the flashmob technique works even in relatively backward Daghestan and that Salafi Islam can assemble more than trade unions, United Russia or other groups.

This is such a breakthrough event that it is worth recounting in some detail. During the morning of June 1, young people began to assemble on Makhachkala’s Rodop boulevard. Many people were out because it was the Day of the Defense of Children. But “the Salafi youth decided,” the portal says, “to stage a certain flashmob.”

“Among the people were not evident followers of the other bloc, tariqat Islam,” an indication that this was a Salafi enterprise. When about 3,000 had assembled, the crowd moved up Gamzatov prospect toward the National Library where the Russian President’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights was meeting.

According to Daghestani officials, “the Salafis who had assembled at the National Library did not have the right to meet and hence to speak and display placards.” The crowd remained largely silent at the urging of their leader Abbas Kebedov, the leader of the Salafii organization Aklu-s-Sunna val-Jamaa, who asked that they not “give in to provocations.”

At that time, a column of interior ministry OMON troops from the Urals approached. Some in the Salafi crowd then shouted “Allah Akbar,” and the militia formed a defense line apparently fearful of what might happen. If anyone had shot at that moment, there could have been a disaster.

But what happened instead was this: the militia asked the crowd to move away from the National Library, and the Salafi leaders led the group to the Salafi mosque on Kotrov Street.” The crowd moved toward the mosque,” gathering others on the way with “some taking pictures of the march on their mobile telephones.”

After prayers at the mosque, Kebedov arrived along with other Salafi activists. He called on the young people to “preserve” their peaceful approach, “to remain in the mosque and not in any case to go to the forum at the library building,” given that the OMON had brought up armored vehicles.

The Daghestani authorities, Kebedov told the crowd, “do not want a resolution to the difficult situation which exists in the republic.” The only hope therefore is on “delegates from Moscow.” But he continued, “this is our victory; today we have been able to do this.” His speech was “accompanied by shouts of ‘Allah Akbar!’”

The visitors from Moscow “did not come to the mosque as had been decided earlier; insteadof this, five representatives of the Salafi community were delegated to meet with them.” The Salafi representatives were chosen and accompanied Kebedov and others to the forum. According to the Islamic Civilization report, there took place “a sharp and open conversation.”

“Today,” the Salafi representatives said, “five thousand people assembled. Today, they stood peacefully; tomorrow, if nothing is done to stop the situation in Daghestan with kidnappings and murders of innocent people, nothing will stop these young men.” According to the portal, “this monologue, it was clear, had an impact on the guests.”

Window on Eurasia: Non-Russians Winning ‘Memory Wars’ while Russians Still Losing Theirs, Bordyugov Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 7 – The non-Russian countries in the post-Soviet space are more or less quickly “liberating themselves from the Soviet and Imperial past,” but the Russians have not found a way – or do not want to find one – to do the same thing, according to a leading Moscow specialist on contemporary history.

In yesterday’s “Novaya gazeta,” Gennady Bordyugov, a member of the RIA Novosti council of experts, sums up the findings of his latest book, “Memory Wars on the Post-Soviet Space” (in Russian, Moscow, 2011) by noting that “history is again playing a mean joke with Russia” in this regard (

Russia’s inability or unwillingness to make progress in this regard, he says, helps to explain why many Russians have reacted so angrily to what is taking place in the CIS countries and the Baltics in recent years, a reaction that many observers since 2005 have characterized as “wars” over memory.

Such observers, Bordyugov continues, in recent times have argued that these wars are calming down, pointing to the March 2008 appeal of Memorial for “peaceful dialogue about the common past” and to the decision of most but of course not all post-Soviet states to mark Victory Day, arguably the most important civic holiday in Russia.

But in fact, the historican says, Russia will continue to face “memory wars” for some time to come, perhaps less often in the realm of foreign relations than within the country itself. Deep disagreements over Stalin, the Lenin Mausoleum, the approaching 400th anniversary of the Romanovs, the centenary of World War I, and the revolution all guarantee that.

In each of these cases and in others as well, he points out, the essence of the divide will be over how to say “farewell” to the Soviet and Imperial pasts or face their “re-animation in new forms.” And all of those debates will be conditioned by the process of “re-Stalinization or de-Stalinization” now taking place.

The commission formed by the Kremlin to oppose “the falsification of history” will defend Soviet traditional assessments of most historical events, but that commission’s approach will be opposed by another Kremlin body, the Council of Human Rights, which has proposed a broad program of de-Stalinization.

Indeed, Bordyugov argues, the methods of these two groups regarding historical memory are remarkably similar. “Representatives of both sides presuppose the continued politicization of history, the suppression of those who think differently, “a unification of approaches to the past,” and so on, first in the schools and then more generally.

Another reason for that assumption, Bordyugov suggests, is that “de-Stalinization is a reflection of the new ideological course of Medvedev,” a course that ensures that Russians are “on the eve of a new outbreak of ‘memory wars,’” this time as so often in the past one “subordinate to the struggle for power.”

There is “a way out” of all this, the historian says. It requires an end to the politicization of the Soviet past and to the use of discussions about that past as part of electoral struggles. In fact, there should be “a temporary moratorium on themes that call forth a split in society,” as so many of these issues do.

“A wise policy on history could allow for filling the great and tragic Soviet epoch with a human context, in the contexts of which ‘memory wars’ would become senseless,” Bordyugov argues, something that must be approached with care because “the transition from ‘soviet’ to ‘russian’ is far from completion.

Another means of reducing the intensity of “memory wars,” he says, is “the inclusion of national histories within the broader space of the past.” That too will be hard because “our current political and simply human culture to put it mildly is far from perfection” and thus there will always be a temptation to fight about the past.

But while the obstacles to moving beyond “memory wars” are clear, Bordyugov says, their recollection should not become a reason for not trying to overcome them. Moving beyond them is a precondition for achieving “a humane view of the past,” a view which unlike many positions now on offer avoids both demonization and panegyrics.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Internet Changing Russian Political Humor and Russian Politics as Well, Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 6 – Anecdotes about leaders and policies have long been an important part of Russian life, but the Internet is transforming its form and content because falling prices for connectivity are increasing the number of users and rising download speeds are making video clips more widely accessible, according to a Moscow commentator.

On the “Russky zhurnal” portal, Aleksandr Chausov argues that at present Russians are “observing an evolution of the form of jokes about politicians and politics as a whole,” with “the transition from television to the Web and the development of Internet technology being decisive events in this process (

As a result of the spread of the Internet, he says, Russians can now watch video clips and look at thousands of images rather than relying primarily on text alone, and “the video clip is understood by an individual much easier than the typical text, however brilliantly it may be written.” As a result, Chausov continues, humor is increasingly taking a visual form.

In addition, the sense of “anonymity and security” that the Web appears to allow “gives rise to the illusion that everything is possible,” and the increasing use of the Internet and especially video in political campaigns invites those who want to make jokes about the politicians who use this format to do the same.

This has led, Chausov says, to the appearance of “a new and unexpected phenomenon” as far as Russian mass culture is concerned: the appearance of “political comics on the Net.” In the West, “so called video comics or computer comics” are not a new phenomenon, And in Russia, they are no full-blown, with most including written texts instead of only oral presentations.

But these are instructive as far as political humor is concerned, Chausov argues. “The most well-known [of these] are the super hero comics.” Russian society “unconsciously is waiting for a hero, someone who will come and save everyone.” That is because, however much they joke about it, Russians view the powers as “a sacral phenomenon.”

That in turn means that “the bearers of power are a little super human. They can be ‘evil doers’ or ‘heroes,’ but all the same they are of a different order than ‘the ordinary man.’” That was true of the “Puppets” series on television, and it is even more clearly manifested on Internet video clips about the current leadership.

However, there is one interesting detail, Chausov says. Vladimir Putin in most of these clips is presented not only as a super hero but also as “’a man like everyone else,’” a unique case in Russian humor. While it is unclear how this combination will play itself out – whether the sacred will conquer the ordinary or the other way around – it likely will affect Russian culture.

In the most hopeful outcome, one likely to become more possible as the Internet grows, this will “take out of the mentality of our society the genetic sense of the sacred nature of power,” something that will open the way for a different relationship between those in power and those in society than has ever existed in Russia up to now.

And that possibility becomes clearer if one understands that “in the Russian segment of the Net, there is a somewhat different approach to politics and politicians than in the United States. There, “politics has already for a long time been to a certain degree a show” and politicians as a result “not only administrators and government managers but showmen.”

Window on Eurasia: Russians Now Feel They are Second Class Citizens in their Own Country, Moscow Writer Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, June 6 – Six months after the clashes in Manezh Square, radical Russian nationalists groups are increasing their activity, supported by the increasing number of ethnic Russians who feel that they are second class citizens in their own country because the powers that be are giving more support to North Caucasians and Central Asian immigrants.

In an article in Friday’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” entitled “Russians Feel a Sense of National Inequality in Their Own Country,” Maksim Glukharev provides a wealth of detail on the activities of radical Russian nationalist groups, pointing out that Moscow has banned only three of “about 30” and allowed the banned groups to operate under different names.

But the most intriguing portion of his article concerns the attitudes among ordinary Russians as opposed to members of elite groups that help explain why an increasing number of the former are supporting the nationalists and why few of the latter are willing to talk about this increasingly dangerous trend (

Glukharev suggests that the answers to both questions are to be found in the very different life experiences of the two groups. “It is well known,” he points out, that members of the powers that be in contrast to the population “never personally encounter manifestations of nationalism” by outside groups.

Travelling about in official cars, these elites “do not risk finding themselves” in places where there are “spontaneous” clashes between “extremists and gastarbeiters.” Therefore, they do not risk being accused of being part of disorders simply when they turn out to be witnesses of such events.”

Moreover, while the elites “send their children abroad to study,” other Russians have to send their children to schools which increasingly, albeit informally “are divided into two camps, those for the Russians and those for the Caucasians,” with ever more Russians asking why they are supporting those who are shooting at them.

Glukharev points out that “the activity of the [Russian nationalist radicals] frequently has mass support from the side of ordinary people who observe the complete escape from punishment of representatives of diaspora communities. People,” he says, “feel sharply the injustice of the existing situation.”

Ordinary Russians “do not understand why arrivals from the Caucasus and countries of the near abroad frequently act so boldly, driving about in expensive foreign cards and while ignoring Russian laws engage in firefights in public places?” Where are the law enforcement agencies when these things are happening – and why do they so often let these miscreants go?

When leaders, including Vladimir Putin, deny the obvious, claiming that there is no ethnic dimension to this or that crime, Russians become even angrier because from their point of view it is obvious that there is just such a dimension. “This situation gives rise to that objective component of dissatisfaction which was displayed in the Manezh Square” last December.

That component can be described as the sense that many Russians have that they are being treated less well than members of other ethnic groups and that officialdom is protecting the minorities rather than the ethnic Russians. And not surprisingly, such feelings are being used by “various extremist organizations.”

According to Glukharev, what happened in Manezh Square is “an indicator of deep problems in the attitudes of society -- based, in particular, on a lack of acceptance of the corrupt ties between people from the Caucasus and Asian regions and members of the Russian organs of power.

If this situation is going to change, the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” writer suggests, there must be “at a minimum a discussion in society because in order to resolve such complicated problems, the powers must base themselves on society. But how can they do so when society doesn’t trust them – and has serious reasons for not trusting them?”

After talking about nationalism in Russian society in the wake of Manezh six months ago, the country’s leadership “has not returned to the theme.” The powers that be have an explanation: “any incautious word could provoke new inter-ethnic conflicts. But keeping quiet about these problems is to put one’s head in the sand – and to await the next Manezh.”