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Issue 6 2017 – Central Asia. The forgotten region?

November/December 2017: Central Asia. (Is this how you imagine) The forgotten region? Central Asia is an ethnically, geographically and culturally diverse region, covering a similar land mass as the European Union. Yet, it remains one of the least familiar to the general public in the West. An important region in its own right, located in a volatile geopolitical area between Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran, the five states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan rarely make headlines in the mainstream media. Owing to this neglect the region has fallen victim to orientalist clichés, presenting it as a spacious blank steppe dividing the big players or as a collection of post-Soviet artificial entities devoid of agency in international relations.

October 31, 2017 - New Eastern Europe

The new Great Game that is not

The idea that Central Asia is the nexus of a Great Game between the world’s superpowers is, in the 21st century, largely exaggerated. Undoubtedly, the Central Asian republics are actively engaging with the great powers by relying on their sovereign prerogatives and pursuing their own strategic goals. But this should be seen rather as a strategy of the local players than a competitive game orchestrated from Washington, Moscow or Beijing.

It is not uncommon to hear from academics and pundits alike that Central Asia is now at the centre of a new Great Game between the great powers (namely, the United States, Russia and China), as it was two centuries ago. The term, popularised by Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel Kim and first used by Captain Arthur Conolly of the East India Company’s Bengal Army in 1840, directly refers to the 19th-century competition between the Russian and British empires for control over Central Asia. An example of the pre-eminence of the metaphor in today’s intellectual circles is one of the latest books published on international politics in Eurasia, edited by Mehran Kamrava, titled The Great Game in West Asia, which claims that there indeed is a new great game afoot in the region.

Though vigorously denied by those policy-makers actually involved in the politics of the region, and often criticised by more nuanced and context-aware regional observers, the Great Game is still a widely adopted and popular metaphor, rooted in geopolitical thinking and aimed at simplifying the reality. It refers to the competition between the abovementioned states to vie for influence over and in the region, as well as to the conflicts that their different strategies may elicit in the near future. In the Great Game narrative, the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the board on which the game is played.

October 31, 2017 - Filippo Costa Buranelli

The self-made Apaches of Kyrgyzstan

In the south of Kyrgyzstan, locals work in old Soviet-era coal mines with horrific conditions and little hope of improvement.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economies of many states of the former Eastern bloc found themselves in shatters. Soaring unemployment and poverty engulfed all the countries of Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, people lost their jobs overnight, while Russians hastily abandoned the former Soviet republics to return to the fallen mother Russia. As they fled, they left behind their homes, jobs and factories. What remained was soon looted, including the railway tracks which were sold to Chinese scrap metal dealers.

October 31, 2017 - Magdalena Borowiec

How Central Asia understands democracy

Since gaining independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the republics of Central Asia have undergone a diverse process of nation and state building. However, some common threads in Central Asia have emerged, including a unique understanding of the concept of democracy.

Independence was thrust upon the Central Asian republics in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, necessitating a series of fundamental processes, including state- and nation-building. While the process of constructing a national identity has been multi-faceted and contested, much of the nation-building concentrated on political regimes, who dovetailed this process to their efforts of consolidating power and legitimation. Twenty-five years later, new symbols of nationhood have replaced the old Soviet paraphernalia. Teams of national historiographers, ethnographers and political ideologues have developed new national narratives to valorise the nations. The content of the new national identities has been drawn from a variety of old and new identity markers: Muslim and Atheist, Turkic, Persian, and Slav, Eastern and Western, and modern and traditional.

October 31, 2017 - Mariya Y. Omelicheva

Central Asia and water: No time left for squabbles

A combination of rapid population growth and climate change, which some believe may lead to the vanishing of much of the region’s river-feeding glaciers within the next half century, is going to pose the greatest challenge Central Asia has ever confronted in its history.

This past August an argument about a water reservoir between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan got so bad that it culminated in what amounted to an international, state-sponsored kidnapping. At stake was a relatively unassuming body of water in western Kyrgyzstan, known variously as the Kasan-sai or Orto-Tokoi reservoir. Although it lies several kilometres inside Kyrgyzstan, it has for years been run by Uzbek technicians who managed the outflow of water in accordance with the needs of farmers downstream, across the border.

The arrangement was uneasy but proceeded relatively peaceably until late 2015, when Kyrgyzstan’s government decided by decree to formally claim the facility. The Uzbeks were livid. A few months later, Tashkent flexed its muscles, sending troops onto a road along a disputed section of the border, hindering traffic to and from Ala-Buka, a Kyrgyz town near the reservoir. In a panic, then-Kyrgyz Prime Minister Temir Sariyev travelled to Ala-Buka to plead with furious residents not to take affairs into their own hands.

October 31, 2017 - Peter Leonard

The complex reality of radicalisation in Central Asia

An interview with Bhavna Davé, a senior lecturer in Central Asian politics with the department of politics and international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Interviewer: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

October 31, 2017 - Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska Bhavna Davé

The crawling threat of the Crimea scenario

Kazakhstan staunchly sides with Russia in global affairs and supports many of its integration initiatives in the former Soviet space. However, following the annexation of Crimea the fear that Kazakhstan's ethnic Russian regions might share the peninsula's fate has returned.

Kazakh citizens arriving at the railway station in the northern sleepy town of Petropavlovsk may find it puzzling that the clocks on the station’s walls show a time different than the local time zone. The oddity stems from the fact that the Petropavlovsk station, as well as many other Kazakh stations in North Kazakhstan region, lies along Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway and is operated by the Russian Railways company – hence, the clocks show Moscow time, which is three hours behind the local time. North Kazakhstan is also one of the two Kazakh regions, along with the neighbouring Kostanay region, where ethnic Russians still outnumber ethnic Kazakhs, despite the continuing depopulation processes caused by the emigration of ethnic Russians to Russia and higher birth rate among ethnic Kazakhs.

October 31, 2017 - Naubet Bisenov

A looming humanitarian crisis in the land Orwell forgot

Turkmenistan, a desert republic of 5.6 million people and widely considered to be one of the world’s most repressive states, is heading towards a humanitarian catastrophe the effects of which could be geopolitically significant.

October 31, 2017 - Christopher Schwartz

In search of the enemies of the state

Despite a declaration of religious tolerance, the system developed by President Emomali Rahmon in Tajikistan can be referred to as authoritarian secularism. Religion is pushed to the margins of public and social life and replaced by a new artificially created tradition.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting ideological vacuum, Islam found new ground in Central Asia. Formerly oppressed religious groups began to mushroom with the help of Saudi, Turkish and Iranian funds flowing into the region in support of brothers in faith. Tajikistan, located in the contentious area adjacent to the Afghan border, is considered one of the most religious countries in the post-Soviet Central Asia region. It has a Sunni majority adhering to Hanafi mazhhab and a small minority of Pamiris following the Isma’ili branch of Islam. Religious leaders have played a very important role here and religious families are part of the local aristocracy, influencing both the formal power structure and society. Apart from the mainstream “clergy” (theologians, imams, mullahs), Tajikistan has a network of semi-formal spiritual leaders, including Sufi masters, vagrant mullahs, healers, clairvoyants, as well as female religious leaders (bibi otun/bibi khalifa) who conduct various religious and spiritual services.

Today, however, religion is being pushed to the margins of the public life. Religious and spiritual leaders have become enemies of the system, which mirrors some of the bleakest periods of the Soviet era.

October 31, 2017 - Anna Cieślewska

Putin and his monsters

The Russian president is flipping the switch after 17 years in office. At the start of the new presidential campaign Vladimir Putin has already attempted to gain the sympathies of the younger generation, but avoids facing the worrying reality created by his system.

Russia is in a nervous period of transition as preparations are being made for the next presidential election in March 2018. Vladimir Putin was already asked by “ordinary Russians” from a village in the Buryatia region to run for office for the fourth time since 2000. He replied that he still needed time to make his final decision, but he also indicated he does not want to retire. According to sources at the RBC news agency, the Kremlin has already set plans for the presidential campaign and the one and only real candidate will be Putin. Meanwhile, the president is said to announce his decision at the end of the year during a large event in Moscow.

This presidential term that Putin will soon be completing is the first six-year term of the Russian presidency (prior to 2012, terms were only four years). The five and a half years of this term were tough, nervous and full of conflict – both domestically and internationally. Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is combined with the harsh treatment of independent media and NGOs in domestic policy. Putin decimated the separation of powers in the early 2000s and after the 2012 election he made the system more repressive, allowing it to intervene into the private lives of Russian citizens.

October 31, 2017 - Artem Filatov

The Kremlin sets its eyes on YouTube

In Russia YouTube is becoming the main platform for political conflict and a battleground for young voters. While the opposition is able to attract followers with content, the authorities are experimenting with ways to establish control over the video portal.

The year 2017 has definitely become the year of YouTube. Already in 2016, the video sharing social network became the second most visited website in the world after Google.com. In June 2017 YouTube claimed that its monthly audience of registered users passed 1.5 billion people. In Russia, 87 per cent of internet users watch videos on YouTube and the number of monthly active viewers is more than 62 million unique users. Some research indicates the figure could be even more than 80 million. In addition to a growing audience, it is important to emphasise the main advantage that YouTube has: younger generations of Russians now prefer YouTube over traditional media as their main source of news and information. Those within the 25-34 year-old age group are the most active users of YouTube in the country.

Despite its rapidly growing popularity, the Russian authorities at first did not pay much attention to YouTube. This changed in March this year, however, when a single film brought tens of thousands of people to the streets in 82 Russian cities. The majority of the protesters were young.

October 31, 2017 - Svitlana Ovcharova

Central Europe is more vulnerable than it appears

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, far-right and extremist organisations in Central Europe have redirected their attention to geopolitical issues. They not only agitate against NATO and the European Union, but also share a particular sympathy towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Clear evidence points to direct support for groups coming from Russia or pro-Russian sources.

In April 2014, just a few weeks after Russia annexed Crimea, Tamás Gaudi-Nagy, a Hungarian lawmaker from the far-right party Jobbik, gave a speech to the Council of Europe’s General Assembly. The tone of his speech reflected his t-shirt which read “Crimea legally belongs to Russia, Transcarpathia legally belongs to Hungary”. After the “legitimate” annexation of Crimea by Russia, he argued, it was time for Hungary to take back lost territories such as Transcarpathia – a part of Ukraine that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1920.

One year later, in autumn 2015, Gaudi-Nagy made an even stranger statement during a TV debate: he claimed he was encouraged by his Russian counterparts while he was delegated to the Council of Europe to revise the border with Ukraine, hinting that Russia would back such a move. He said the time has come to change the course of history. But these performances were not the only actions by the far-right and extreme right to put pressure on Hungarian and Ukrainian authorities to aid in the secession of Transcarpathia.

October 31, 2017 - Edit Zgut Lóránt Győri Péter Krekó

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