Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Water Dispute Heats up on the Dagestan-Azerbaijan Border

By Paul Goble

The Dagestan-Azerbaijan border has been a troubled one since 1991 because it divided communities that had long been united and left people on one side who felt greater affinity for ethnic communities on the other. But that problem, which many observers had thought was moving toward a solution as a result of talks between Baku and Moscow, has now been exacerbated by another that few had assumed would ever be an issue: water rights.

In 1967, the Soviet government mandated that more water from the Samur River on the border go to Azerbaijan than to Dagestan despite a rapidly growing population on the northern bank. That arrangement continued until September 2010, when the two sides agreed to share the transborder river’s waters equally.  But apparently, that has not ended the problem.

In recent weeks, Dagestanis living on the northern bank have complained that Azerbaijan is using more water than it is supposed to under the accord, something that both Baku and Makhachkala deny.  Ramadan Abdulatipov, the head of Dagestan, noted that the Samur is currently dumping nine times as much water into the Caspian as Dagestanis consume, and he accused those of claiming otherwise of having “dry brains” rather than a dry river (, September 18).

But Abdulatipov’s words are unlikely to calm the situation.  For one thing, Dagestanis think they should have first claim on the river’s waters—it originates in Dagestan and flows along the Azerbaijani border for only 38 kilometers of its length. But also they point out that there is no reliable monitoring of how much water the Azerbaijanis are taking out and whether that is related to the declining water levels along much of the river or whether this is simply the result of this year’s drought (, September 13).

One of the local leaders of the riparian communities on the Dagestan side told that the nine villages are having problems not only with water for their crops but even for personal use and that they have complained to both Moscow and Makhachkala, but so far without effect. Apparently, he said, other issues between Russia and Azerbaijan are viewed as more important than theirs (, September 13).

But there are two other reasons which suggest this issue is not going away. On the one hand, many Dagestanis are concerned about the building of a new reservoir on the Samur, something they believe will keep them from collecting the water they need.  And on the other, tensions between the Lezgins and the ethnic Azerbaijanis on the south side of the river, never easy in recent years, appear to be intensifying.

As a result, disputes about water from the Samur River are likely to exacerbate relations between Dagestan and Moscow, which is not addressing that republic’s concerns in this and other areas. But also, frictions is likely to continue between the two aforementioned ethnic groups inside of Azerbaijan, each of which views the other with suspicion.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Announcement of New Polish Government Hints at Less Active Foreign Policy

By Matthew Czekaj

Following the selection, this past August, of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to head the European Council in Brussels, his named successor, Ewa Kopacz revealed the make-up of her new cabinet on Friday, September 19 (, September 19). The new government, in many ways is supposed to represent a seamless continuation of the former one led by Tusk until his official resignation on September 11 to pursue the top leadership position in the European Union. As the new Prime Minister Kopacz told journalists, she will not be changing the number or structure of the cabinet or the individual ministries, and the majority of the ministers (12 out of 18) will continue in their previous roles. Nonetheless, her announced government—ceremonially sworn in by President Bronislaw Komorowski on Monday (, September 22)—included a few important shake-ups, which may presage a decline in Poland’s regional leadership role within Europe.

The most notable, though not unexpected (, September 17; Gazeta Wyborcza, September 3), change has been the replacement of Foreign Minister Radoslaw “Radek” Sikorski with Grzegorz Schetyna. A former minister of interior in the Tusk government (2007–2009), Schetyna was forced to resign amid a domestic scandal that had come to be known as the “Gambling Affair” (“Afera hazardowa”). Once considered a top official in the ruling Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska—PO) and a close confidante of Donald Tusk, Schetyna had more recently been pushed to the margins of the party, apparently after showing too much political ambition during his brief stint as speaker of the lower house of parliament (marshal of the Sejm) between July 2010 and November 2011 (The Economist, September 19). As marshal of the Sejm, Schetyna also constitutionally served as interim president during the period between Poland’s last presidential election and Komorowski’s inauguration to the post. Some members of PO reportedly fear that he may try to use his new position in the government to punish those party factions that marginalized him over the past few years (Gazeta Wyborcza, September 22). Meanwhile, after seven years formulating Warsaw’s foreign policy as Poland’s top diplomat, the outspoken and internationally well-known Sikorski has been sent back to parliament to take over from Kopacz as speaker of the Sejm. Nonetheless, anticipating the question from journalists, Kopacz promised that there would be seamless continuation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs between Sikorski and Schetyna.

A second major difference between the outgoing Tusk and incoming Kopacz governments has been the elevation of the defense minister post—still occupied by Tomasz Siemoniak—to a deputy prime minister position. Kopacz, noting that this was her first decision in forming the new cabinet, justified her rationale by stating, “I want him [Defense Minister Siemoniak] to be one of my closest partners, not only because today’s world requires a strong army, but principally because of his qualifications and strength of character” (Rzeczpospolita, September 19).

The new Polish government—and in particular, the replacement of Sikorski with Schetyna—has stirred up a great deal of controversy from multiple directions. Well-known journalist for The Economist and a long-time observer of Central-Eastern European affairs, Edward Lucas, has been particularly harsh in his evaluation of the new cabinet, calling it “v[ery] shaky” and unimpressive compared to what came before it (, September 19). He criticized the nomination of Schetyna as foreign policy chief during such a difficult diplomatic and regional security environment for Poland, noting Schetyna’s lack of experience or, heretofore, interest in international affairs. And Lucas’ magazine, meanwhile, lamented the passing of the outspoken, polyglot Sikorski from the world stage, where he has become well known and respected among world leaders, only to be replaced by the mostly unknown Schetyna—who has very limited knowledge of any foreign languages (The Economist, September 19).

Nor has the reproach come exclusively from abroad. Days before the final cabinet’s announcement, even Schetyna himself told the press that he thought Sikorski should be allowed to finish out his term as foreign minister in light of current international challenges (, September 17). And apparently, Schetyna’s own mother confirmed her son’s opinion (, September 19).

The opposition in parliament has also openly criticized the new government, calling it little more than a reshuffling of PO politicians already seen before in previous Tusk-led cabinets, and whose make-up will only satisfy Civic Platform (, September 19). Opposition politicians have also lambasted the naming of Sikorski as the next marshal of the Sejm, arguing that due to his fiery personality, his role as speaker will result only in arguments, political attacks and gridlock between the ruling majority and the minority parties (, September 19;, September 12;, September 15).

A number of theories exist as to why Sikorski was dismissed from his position at the head of the foreign ministry and sent to chair the lower house of parliament. On the one hand, Kopacz claimed that the new post was meant to be a promotion for Sikorski. And indeed, according to the Polish constitution, the chair of the Sejm—which is first in line to the presidency in an emergency—is one of the most powerful positions in the country’s political system. However, Jacek Gowin, a politician with the opposition Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc—PiS) party, argues that Sikorski used his influence to extort the Sejm speaker post for himself as a platform from which to rebuild his political stature and simultaneously attack Prime Minister Kopacz in a struggle for control of PO (, September 15). Alternatively, rumors from a source close to Tusk suggest that President Komorowski himself pressed Kopacz to keep Sikorski out of the new government due to his prominent role in the recent eavesdropping scandal (Gazeta Wyborcza, September 3). Considering that both Sikorski and former interior minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz (another politician whose controversial recorded conversations were released to the media) lost their ministerial positions on Friday, this may be an apt theory.

Domestic political intrigues aside, the make-up of the new government, and in particular the off-the-cuff responses to journalists by the new prime minister, suggest that Poland’s continuing foreign policy direction may not be quite as unbending as Kopacz had promised. Of course, Schetyna’s relative lack of foreign policy experience bears watching. But the struggling government in Kyiv likely took note of Kopacz’s prosaic answer to a journalist’s question about whether Warsaw would be assisting Ukraine with arms sales or helping in a multi-national coalition against the Islamic State. She replied that the country should react to outside threats like a “rational Polish woman,” who responds to a threatening individual she meets in the street by turning around, going home, locking the doors and minding after her children. “Our country, our home and our children are the most important,” Kopacz proclaimed. She added that Warsaw should not take a position counter to the rest of the European Union, but should follow the consensus, suggesting both that her government would not be taking stances counter to the interests of the West, but at the same time be unlikely to take a leading role in formulating policy toward Russia or the ongoing crisis in Ukraine (TVN24, September 19).

Granted, it may be too early to pass judgment on a government several days old. But signs are already apparent that Prime Minister Kopacz’s government may possibly adopt a more inward-looking foreign policy compared to the robust, European-directed diplomacy that was built up by Sikorski and Tusk over the last seven years.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Russia Imposes New History Textbooks on Crimean Schools

By Paul Goble

History teachers, the deputy education minister in Russian-occupied Crimea says, are going to have to make “a 180-degree turn” in their work, eliminating Ukrainian histories and replacing them with Russia-centered texts. While “Ohm’s law remains Ohm’s law” even in Crimea, Vladimir Buyakevich said, every historical event has a distinctive national coloration, reflecting the ideology of the state in which the schools are located (, September 9).

The change-over to Russian history textbooks this year promises to be so difficult and dramatic that some of the teachers on the Ukrainian peninsula have decided to form an Association of History Teachers in order to discuss best practices and consider how to make the transition. Its leaders have indicated that they will devote particular attention to older students who have been taught in one, Ukrainian direction, but now must be instructed in another, Russian one.

This shift represents an attempt to de-Ukrainianize the peninsula and also to play down the role of other ethnic groups as well. As such, it is likely to provoke complaints that it falls under the United Nations definition of genocide, which holds that any efforts to wipe out a people’s historical memory—and not just physical destruction—is genocidal.

And such complaints are even more likely because the Russian occupying authorities are restricting the number of course hours for the Ukrainian language and even more for Crimean Tatar, with pressure being applied on parents to not ask for such courses. Meanwhile, their responses are being used as justification for cutting the amount of class time for these two national languages to one-fifth or even one-sixth of the amount devoted to Russian and making the study of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar optional rather than required (, September 11).

But even if these Russian moves do not constitute acts of genocide, they are certain to infuriate both ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars living on the occupied Ukrainian peninsula as well as members of both nations living elsewhere in Ukraine. They are also likely to lead many non-Russians in the Russian Federation to conclude, as some already have, that what Moscow is doing in Crimea is what it intends to do in Russia as a whole. And that, in turn, means that what looks like a simple bureaucratic move in Crimea could become a political problem not only there but across Russia, where non-Russian languages have been under pressure for decades and where most of the smaller languages are at risk of dying out, according to UN reports.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Putin’s Journey Along the Sino-Russian Border

By Gregory Shtraks

Last week (September 2), Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli for the opening of the China-Russia gas pipeline and the Russian president’s subsequent sojourn to Mongolia, his first state visit to Ulaanbaatar since 2004, made headlines throughout the world (Renmin Ribao, September 2).  Putin’s tour of the southeastern Russian provinces of Amur, Altai Republic, Altai Krai and the Tuva Republic, on the other hand, were hardly noticed by the international media. Still, both his international and domestic trips deserve closer analysis.

The Russian leader’s visit to Mongolia resulted in the signing of several economic and political agreements, best viewed as part of an ongoing tectonic trade shift in the wake of the Ukrainian war. Ironically, the most consequential sanctions resulting from the war so far have not been those placed on Russia, but rather the food produce restrictions placed by Russia on the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada and Norway. Sellers from countries as disparate as Brazil, Turkey, Israel, India and Argentina have rushed in to fill the vacuum in Russian supermarkets. It appears that Mongolia will also profit from this phenomenon as Russia is set to lift decades-old restrictions on Mongolian livestock (RT, September 3). Nonetheless, its livestock and metallurgy notwithstanding, Mongolia’s primary importance to Russia is as a conduit to China. In fact, in his remarks to journalists in Ulaanbaatar, Putin emphasized the need to improve Mongolian infrastructure so as to make it a better transit corridor between Russia and China (this was also the interview in which Putin introduced his seven conditions for ending the Russo-Ukraine war) (, September 3).

China was clearly also the main catalyst for Putin’s trip to Blagoveshensk (Amur Oblast), a border town on the Amur River that is mirrored by Heihe—a Chinese city on the opposite bank of the Amur (, September 1).  Coming on the heels of Putin’s visit to Yakutsk (Sakha Republic in Russia’s Far East)—where he met with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang—it is not difficult to discern that Putin’s voyage to the Sino-Russian border had less to do with the construction of the Chita-Khabarovsk super highway (the ostensible reason provided) and more with booming Sino-Russian border trade. In addition to the recent oil and gas deals, China has lost no time in capitalizing on Russia’s demand for more fruits and vegetables. China’s leading fruit seller, Baoring, has set up a giant wholesale market and warehouse in Dongning, just outside of Vladivostok (RT, August 12;, August 12). Putin has made the development of the Russian Far East a top priority and his time in Blagoveshensk included an all-day conference on the socio-economic development of Russia’s far eastern provinces. The Russian head of state has appointed not one, but two, top-level ministers charged with developing the region’s economy. At the conference, Yuri Trutnev, the presidential envoy for the Far East, and Alexander Galushka, the minister for Far Eastern development, took turns trying to impress President Putin with their preferred projects, almost all of which are dependent on increased Chinese investments (, September 1).

After two days in Blagoveshensk, on September 4, Putin visited the Altai Republic and Altai Krai, two remote provinces that the Russian president had never been to prior to this trip, but which happen to share a short border with China (on the western side of Mongolia) (, September 5). This border connects Russia’s western Siberian oilfields with the Chinese western province of Xinjiang. During the ten-year negotiations that culminated with the signing of the Sino-Russian gas deal last May (see EDM, May 22), Moscow strongly lobbied for the gas pipeline to go through this section of the border, before finally capitulating and agreeing to have the pipeline start in Yakutsk and pass through the eastern section of the border instead. Nonetheless, the construction of a highway that would connect Russia and China in this remote locale is very much in Russia’s interests and undoubtedly played a role in Putin’s visit.  

Last, but certainly not least, on September 6, Putin visited the Tuva Republic to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the unification of Tuva and Russia (, September 6). Observers of eastern Ukraine would do well to pay close attention, as there is no better example of forced “Anschluss” than Russia’s annexation of Tuva—a province whose population is almost entirely composed of ethnic Mongolians. Furthermore, it is an unlikely coincidence that a presidential trip that began with an expression of Sino-Russian friendship in Yakutsk, and continued with a state visit to Mongolia, ended with a trip to Tuva. After all, the Tuva Republic was the last part of the Qing Empire to be annexed by Russia. Tuva was taken under “Russian protection” in 1914 in the aftermath of Outer Mongolia’s declaration of independence. It then remained a mostly autonomous region until 1944 when the Soviet annexed Tuva in “gratitude” for the sacrifices of Tuvan “volunteers” during World War II.

The deterioration of Russia’s relationship with the West has pushed Moscow closer to Beijing. The Sino-Russian relationship is arguably closer than it has been since the 1950s and may grow closer still. Beneath the affable surface, however, the two powers continue to play geopolitical games on their Central Asian peripheries as they compete for influence in countries such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Putin’s trip to Siberia in the midst of the Ukrainian war shows just how crucial China is becoming to Russia. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

No Crimea or Novorossiya Likely In Kazakhstan

By Paul Goble

More ethnic Russians have fled Kazakhstan to go to the Russian Federation than their counterparts in any other former Soviet republic, and many still there are unhappy with Astana’s language policies. And yet, the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan today—who number 3.6 million and form a fifth of the population, now down from a majority only a generation ago—have little interest in backing the equivalent of a Crimea or Novorossiya separatist project in their country.

Such enterprises certainly do not require majorities to succeed. However, in Ukraine they have worked best where local ethnic Russians backed the inclusion of their home territories into the Russian Federation (such as in Crimea) and at least required some organized popular discontent along ethnic lines (as in “Novorossiya”). Consequently, both Russian and Kazakhstani observers say, there is little chance that Moscow will make a move in that direction inside the largest Central Asian republic. And this is despite the recent suggestions by extreme Russian nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky that Moscow will turn its attention to Kazakhstan after it subdues Ukraine and notwithstanding recent Russian military maneuvers along the Kazakhstani border (, August 22).

According to experts, there are three reasons for this: First, there is little ethnic tension in Kazakhstan because the ethnic Russians and ethnic Kazakhs occupy different socio-economic niches and do not compete as they do in Ukraine. Overwhelmingly, those ethnic Russians who left earlier did so because of the economy rather than because of ethnic hostility. Second, a failed attempt in the late 1990s by some Russians to secede and either form a separate state or join the Russian Federation was thoroughly crushed by the Kazakhstani authorities, and its leaders were fully discredited. Hence, there is almost no interest in the idea now. And third, most ethnic Russians remaining in Kazakhstan are focused on their personal lives rather than on political projects. There are few of the latter, and they involve only a minute portion of the population. Indeed, in the words of one close observer of this scene, “despite all the moral and other discomfort” some of them feel about the current situation, “the majority of the Russian community retains its loyalty to the Kazakhstani state” (, August 22; see EDM, August 13)

Nonetheless, Russia’s moves in Ukraine and the appearance of supporters of imperial projects in the upper echelons of the government in Moscow has prompted Kazakhstan’s government to re-evaluate the situation. Its leadership has concluded, says, that “separatist attitudes, if they exist in the northeastern districts [of Kazakhstan], this is exclusively at the level of conversations and has never acquired any even semi-official forms.” Moreover, the experts say, most ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan believe that the introduction of Russian forces into Kazakhstan would harm them more than the Kazakhs.

But at least some involved in this review say Kazakhstan’s very success in economic development means that Moscow will continue to try to promote instability there even if the prospects for success are not great. That is because, in the words of one of the participants, while successful countries are pleased by the success of others, those which are falling behind are typically angry. Right now, across a wide range of socio-economic criteria, Kazakhstan is more successful than the Russian Federation, and that may make it a target for Moscow, even if the local Russians do not want to be involved.