A Half-Open Gate to Hell


 With Wojciech Górecki about the Russian-Chinese game, Moscow’s strategy and about preventing burano talks Małgorzata Schwarzgruber.

They say that he who rules Central Asia, rules half of the world. Is it really –strategically speaking – such an important region?

This is a slight overstatement. What defines the significance of Central Asia is its location, mineral resources, and threats it can pose to other regions. Central Asia lies in between Russia to the north, China to the east, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to the south, and via the Caspian Sea to the west it borders Georgia and Azerbaijan, and further on with Turkey and Europe. When planning any Eurasian communication routes, this region cannot be omitted. The mineral resources it abounds with are important for the welfare of the region’s states – I mean the oil in Kazakhstan, or gas in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan.

Talking about threats from Central Asia, you thought about Islamic terrorism?

Central Asia in this case is the source of threat, but not directly. In recent years, there have been several attacks organized by terrorists from this region, e.g. Uzbeks, however they were radicalized outside the region: in Russia, Turkey or in the West. The commander of the special forces of Tadzhik militia, who in 2015, after 20 years of service, joined the radicals, never fought in his own country, but left it to work with the so-called Islamic State. In Central Asia, strong regimes strictly control religion, because they consider it threatening to their authority. The fight with radicalism, drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Europe or illegal migration is rendered difficult by, among other things, lack of political cooperation between the states of the region, and until recently, tense relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbors. There has been hope for changes since the new president of this country, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, came to power two years ago.

Years ago, Central Asia was a field for rivalry for Russia and Great Britain. Today, it has become one for Russia and China.

Russia is the only external player who at the same time is part of the region. Russia’s position is exceptional. Some of these countries are still ruled by politicians brought up in the Soviet Union, and there exist the networks of old relations. Moscow is present in the region in many aspects: politics, but also security (Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kirgistan), or economy, as Gazprom or Lukoil are involved in many energy-related projects. In the region, Moscow also owns such objects as Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and Russian language remains the most popular foreign language. It has smaller economic potential that Beijing, but the Central Asian states do not trust the Chinese and are afraid of them. That’s why they’re trying not to stand out too much. There are also signals that they open new military outposts, such as a watchtower in south-eastern Tajikistan, because they are afraid of the flow of Islamic radicals and drugs to Western China. Russia doesn’t stay behind, though. Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Kyrgyzstan and a detailed agreement on the rules of military presence in this country rather prove that Moscow is planning to open a second military base there.

Russia financially supports Central Asia, but also ignites conflicts there. Is the region’s instability in the interest of Russia?

For Moscow, it is quite advantageous that the regimes prone to include Russian interests in their politics have the power in this region. The countries in Central Asia must reckon with Russia, because Russia has various means of exerting pressure, such as the capability to send working immigrants away – in Tajikistan, for example, about half GDP comes from their money.

Does Russia use similar strategy towards the South Caucasus states?

Russia wants to be present there, because it is an active player in Syrian conflict, and Caucasus is a direct powerbase of the Middle East. Moscow successfully halted western influences, at least for some time, such as Georgia’s access to NATO. Russia also has a significant influence on the situation in this region using the conflict about the Republic of Artsakh.

What role does Russia play in this Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict?

It delivers weapon to both parties of the conflict, and says this is to keep balance. Russia maintains allied relationship with Armenia, and stays in close partnership with Azerbaijan. It is also a top mediator in the peace process. If there is ever any agreement, Russia would be a security guarantor. In this case, the Russian would probably send to the Artsakh region the mediatory, and then peace forces. I should mention here that Moscow cooperated with the west, and its mediatory activity is supported by the European Union and the United States.

Is it at all possible to resolve the conflict for the Republic of Artsakh?

The peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan is hard to imagine today. Partial agreement is possible, though, such as unblocking communication routes or transferring to Azerbaijan part of the lands occupied by the Armenian. It’s not possible however to reconcile the rule of territorial integrity and the inviolability of frontiers, as it is understood by Azerbaijan, with the right of the nations to self-determination, as it is interpreted by Armenia.

The Islamic armed groups are destabilizing the North Caucasus. What is the level of their activity?

In the republics of the North Caucasus, there is no longer any active armed underground, which would refer to radical Islam. Most rebels left for the middle East, the remaining ones have been disrupted. Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia are slowly growing away from Russia in a cultural and civilizational way. Less and less people in these republics speak Russian, and traditional social institutions are getting on significance – the council of elders, tribal courts. Common are three legal systems: civil legal system of the Russian Federation; sharia, which is a religious law; and customary law. This region is becoming its own internal foreign land. These territories formally belong to Russia, nobody talks about secession, but the feeling of foreignness is growing, and this is much bigger problem that armed underground.

Is Afghan terrorism a threat to Asian countries?

This threat is hypothetical. This question is raised instrumentally by the region’s authorities to enforce their position, and justify tense security measures and controlling regional societies. Similar bugbear there is the comeback of fighters from the so-called Islamic State. However, as for now, it’s not escalating.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Central Asian countries went many different ways.

Most densely populated Uzbekistan chose isolationism, the largest Kazakhstan engaged in integration projects and avoided internal conflicts, which were destabilizing their neighbors. Both these countries traditionally were rivals for the leadership in the region. Turkmenistan closed its door to the world to become politically neutral. Tajikistan became dependent from Russia. The only democracy in the region, although somehow enforced and with a little taste of anarchy, was formed in Kyrgyzstan.

Do these countries have in common anything more than many years of Russian dominancy?

The nations of Central Asia have developed esprit de corps towards a certain civilizational community. Almost all of them speak Turkic languages, only the Tajik people speak Indo-European language, close to Persian. Before Russian domination in this region, the most important was the division into the nomads and the settled population. Among the nomads, Islam was weaker, women were in a stronger position, and there was greater moral freedom. The successors of these traditions are especially the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz. In places where people had settled life, Islam was more deeply rooted, and people were more conservative. It is so today in the Fergana Valley, divided between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and South Kyrgyzstan. In the entire region there are growing new generations who don’t remember the Soviet Union, but learn from their schoolbooks where they live: on eternal Kazakh, Turkmen, Tajik, Uzbek or Kyrgyz land.

How deeply the memory about dramatic events, which were numerous in the history of Central Asian countries, is reflected in peoples’ lives?

History is treated instrumentally by the authorities. It is to justify the country’s rights to its existence, enforce the feeling of national unity, as well as own exceptionality and distinctiveness. Except for Kyrgyzstan, everywhere else, to a lesser or greater extent, people seem to forget, deny in their minds, that the Soviet period was there. In Uzbekistan, almost all Soviet monuments have been destroyed, including the one glorifying joint fight of the Uzbeks and Russians during World War II. In the National Museum in Tajik Dushanbe, there is detailed information about the 1997 peace agreement ending a five-year civil war in this country. Not even a word is said about the war itself: no information about the reasons for this conflict, its participants and when it started. It’s because nobody wants to remember the divisions, nor mention any differences within the nation. It is, obviously, falsification of the past, but this manipulation is of a state-building nature.


Why in Turkmenistan were you welcomed with the words: “Welcome to hell”?

„Welcome to hell” – that’s how young people in Ashkhabad greeted me. It seemed they thought about the so-called “Gates of Hell”, that’s how the locals call the Darvaza gas crater, one of the greatest attractions in Turkmenistan. Most probably, however, these young people wanted to tell me their real opinion on their fatherland. This happened in 2004, when Saparmurat Nyýazow, a leader of this country at that time, developed – on an unprecedented scale – the cult of personality. In entire Turkmenistan, 14,000 of his monuments and busts were raised, most of them dismounted today.

To what extent does Russia support authoritarian rules in Tajikistan?

Russia, contrary to the West, does not make its cooperation with other countries conditional on democratic changes. What’s more important are interests and loyalty. Such partner is convenient and doesn’t demand any free elections or fee media. Moreover, Russia, sucking cheap labor force out of Tajikistan, gives work to the most active and competitive people, so they leave their country. If they stayed, they could be a threat to the ruling regime. It seems that Moscow in a way wipes social tensions out and encourages the strengthening of local authorities.

In the 1990s Kyrgyzstan was called the Switzerland of Central Asia. Can you say the same about this country today?

This country is diversified, divided into north and south, linked only with one road, in the winter sometime even impassable. The fact that presidents leave when their terms end, that election results are hard to predict, that there are many powerful non-governmental organizations stems to a great extent from the weakness of the state and its institutions. State elites are weak, and the country is too diverse to introduce rigid authoritarian rule. The price for this freedom and democracy is however a low level of life and a continuous threat of destabilization. During last 30 years, twice there were in Kyrgyzstan fights and pogroms with the Uzbek minority – in 1990 (still in the USSR), and in 2010. Two first presidents were abolished in color revolutions.

Recently, we heard about Kazakhstan when President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned after 28 years of ruling. What will this change bring?

For the time being, there is a new president – Kasim-Jomart Tokayev, a former Senate chairman, who declared that he would continue the policy of his predecessor. On June 9, there will be presidential elections which should definitively regulate the question of succession. Nazarbayev resigned from his presidency, but he saved a decisive influence on state affairs, remaining a lifelong leader of the nation, as well as the chairman of Security Council and the chairman of the ruling “Nur Otan” Democratic People’s Party. Perhaps other leaders of the region will follow Kazakhstan’s example, because this way of transferring power prevents destabilization and fights between coteries. Nazarbayev, free from his daily duties but still respected in his country and the entire region, can take a position of a super arbiter and a sage who has his say in the most important matters or mediations.

Fifty years ago, Ryszard Kapuściński wrote a book entitled “Kirgiz schodzi z konia” (“A Kyrgyz dismounts the horse”). You entitled your last book “Buran. Kirgiz wraca na koń” (“Buran. A Kyrgyz is back on the horse”). What does this symbolic back on a saddle mean?

This – among other things – is about the restoration of traditional communication routes, which no longer lead to the West – yes, for that part of the world, Russia is the West! – but to the East and South. A Kyrgyz, who is back on the horse, symbolizes the return to Asian culture, to the increasing role of tradition and religion. The Soviet school was the European school, students were studying the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante. Now, young people often study the works of classic authors of the Orient. This is of course just a beginning of the process, but the representatives of active in the region Polish NGOs say that it’s easier for them to communicate with an old man than a young one, even a student. And it’s not about their weaker knowledge of Russian language.

Buran is a blizzard, which is close to cataclysm. To survive it, one needs a shelter. How the people of Central Asia defended themselves against the buran of the Soviet power?

Their defense was their family, than tradition, and to a lesser extent – religion, because Soviet authorities fought with Islam. They didn’t manage to completely suppress it, though. In Tashkent, for example, the Islamic institute was active. The intelligentsia, despite being rooted in Russian culture, managed to be anti-Soviet and remember their old bards. Ryszard Kapuściński, recalling his visit there in 1967, wrote: “I was struck by the fact that underneath this official, hard shell of the Soviet Union, these culture existed and was alive. This feeling of separateness, dignity and otherness of being a Muslim, a Tajik or a Kyrgyz was very strong”. These words are still up to date.

Will Central Asia remain the region continuously torn by conflicts? The risk of them being transformed into the crisis demolishing the post-Soviet regional order doesn’t seem high, but could they be prevented?

I hope time can be beneficial for stability. With time, people get accustomed to existing borders and new reality. But potential seeds of conflict still exist. Perhaps in Kazakhstan there is less of them, because Kazakh president was aware of them and worked to weaken them. It would have to take some kind of a catalyzer to activate the tensions and break the existing order. This could be a war on a grand scale in the neighborhood, which would require taking sides, or a tremendous economic crisis combined with crop failure. You can then imagine the appearance of a strong leader who – probably under the banner of Islam – would pull the crowds to a revolution.

Wojciech Górecki – a historian and a journalist specializing in the affairs of Central Asia. He works as an analyst in the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW). During 2002–2007, he was the first secretary, and then an advisor in the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Baku.

Original source:   Polska Zbrojna

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