Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Tajikistan

The tiny ex-Soviet country of Tajikistan, located in Central Asia, has almost as many residents as New York City, at 8.2 million. It doesn’t have much to draw attention to its economy except for one thing: it is currently, by a wide margin for all countries where data is available, the national economy most dependent on remittance money transfers from its citizens abroad.

In 2013, 48.8% – or nearly half! – of Tajikistan’s 2013 GDP came from remittances from Tajikistani workers in other countries, who sent home $4.2 billion to their families, according to the World Bank.

Most of these workers are in Russia, the source for three-quarters of all remittances flowing to Tajikistan, which is very typical of the other ex-Soviet states in the region. Russia is, in fact, one of the top five destinations in the world for migrant workers.


For Central Asia’s economies, in some ways, the Soviet Union never really ended. Four of the top Tajikistani remittance sources are other former Soviet countries and neighboring Afghanistan – the Soviet invasion target that became the Union’s military undoing – is a fifth.

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan holds the title of second-most dependent on remittances with 32% of its 2013 GDP coming from them and nearly 80% of that coming from Russia.

Tajikistan’s domestic economy has remained severely hampered by geopolitical chaos since the formal dissolution of the USSR in 1991. A brutal 5-year civil war broke out almost immediately between the Communists, ethnic opposition and Islamists, as part of the continued fallout of the disastrous Afghan invasion.

I’ve mentioned this war in passing previously because it was particularly noteworthy among the post-Soviet wars of the Russian Near Abroad:

[In the months following the USSR’s collapse, newly “Russian” troops] were often ordered by Moscow to remain in place as outside “peacekeepers” (between the fighting populations of countries that had last seen self-rule around the time of the Franco-Prussian War) even though the Soviet Union had opposed peacekeeping as “anti-Leninist” and had thus had provided its troops and officers with zero training on how to conduct peacekeeping operations. In the most extreme case, ex-Soviet Russian troops hunkered down in defensive positions on Tajikistani military bases as a brutal civil war between Communists, democrats, and Tajik/Afghan mujahideen raged all around the bases and any heavy military equipment outside was stolen for use in the conflict.

Then, as its own civil war wound down, Tajikistan participated in the Afghan Civil War (between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban), which ended only with the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The country finally grew rapidly beginning around 2000, on the strength of aluminum and cotton, but this growth was beginning from a very small base. Therefore, Russia has continued to be an attractive source of employment for many Tajikistanis.

Unfortunately, this means the recent instability in Russia’s economy – from sanctions and falling oil prices – puts Tajikistan (and its neighbors) at risk. Migrants in Russia are losing their jobs and the value of their remittances is evaporating as Russia’s currency loses value.

While Tajikistan might not seem ripe for collapse and a return to war (and I certainly hope that is not on the horizon), its proximity to northern Afghanistan (where things are heating up again recently) means it is always in danger of a new flare-up. And the violently genocidal spiral Kyrgyzstan entered very suddenly in 2010 (full archive coverage➚) proved that the right spark at the wrong time can plunge these smaller Central Asian ex-Soviet republics back into chaos in the blink of an eye.

The Battle for Xinjiang (and its energy riches)

One of areas of China bordering central Asia (including a small border with northern Afghanistan, which became important by accident during the U.S. invasion of that country in 2001) is China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Over the past year, there have been a rising number of terrorist attacks on civilian targets in this region, and in other areas of China, performed by separatists from that Xinjiang Region.

Xinjiang, or the “New Frontier” from eastern China’s perspective sometimes, is formerly known as Chinese or East Turkestan in most maps from the Western World. It is China’s largest administrative area and is located in northwest China, north of the Tibet region. Very strategically, it shares borders with several former Soviet Republics, plus Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Map of the de facto territory of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China. (Credit: TUBS - Wikimedia)

Map of the de facto territory of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China. (Credit: TUBS – Wikimedia)

Xinjiang is nearly evenly split between China’s overall majority ethnic group the Han and the ethnic minority Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs) — who are the largest ethnicity in the Xinjian region, a situation which is highly unusual for Chinese minority ethnic groups nationwide and which has fueled a lot of tension.

Uighurs argue (probably correctly) that they are an oppressed minority in China. The Communist Party, in return, doesn’t trust them, both because they are dissimilar from the rest of the country and because they actively waged an Islamic insurgency during the 1950s against the People’s Republic of China. This rebellion was nominally in support of their Nationalist allies, who had fled to Taiwan after the end of the Chinese Civil War at the end of the 1940s, but was of course largely motivated by a desire for self-rule after many generations of outside domination.

In fact, Uighur support for the Nationalists was a rare exception to their historic trend of generally resisting all outsiders, including a Soviet invasion in 1934, the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and various Chinese dynasties that attempted to assert control over the area throughout history.

They are, essentially, another of the many small and diverse warrior cultures of Central Asia, which we’ve seen in action in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the past decade — except that they (now) happen to fall within China, on the map, as opposed to one of the “Stans.” And indeed they are more closely related to the ethnic groups in those areas than to the rest of China, which is one of the exacerbating sources of conflict.

The population, as is true of much of the Western half of China (outside of Tibet), is heavily Muslim. As a result — and due to its borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan — they have been somewhat accidentally caught up in the Global War on Terror.

But beyond the War on Terror, according to a report in The New York Times, there is also an almost mind-blowingly huge potential for energy production and distribution, which is being developed as fast as possible now. And that potential is probably the real reason the People’s Republic of China has been so determined since the 1950s — when the first very major oil field was definitively identified — to hold onto and dominate the Xinjiang region, especially now that the rest of China has such a large need for fuel and power.

At this point, Xinjiang’s strategic energy value is so high to the rest of China and the national government, that probably no amount of separatist unrest will shake them or slow down their energy economy development of the area. Here, from the Times report, is what they are working with …

Oil and gas production:

The foundation of Xinjiang’s energy economy is oil. Xinjiang has an estimated 21 billion tons of oil reserves, a fifth of China’s total, and major new deposits are still being found. This month, a state-owned oil company announced its greatest discovery of the year here, a deposit estimated to have more than one billion tons of oil on the northwestern edge of the Dzungarian Basin, not far from Karamay’s fields. Xinjiang is expected to produce 35 million tons of crude oil by 2020, a 23 percent increase over 2012, according to the Ministry of Land Resources.

Coal mining:

Xinjiang also has the country’s largest coal reserves, an estimated 40 percent of the national total, and the largest natural gas reserves. Those three components form an energy hat trick that China is capitalizing on to power its cities and industries.

Electricity exports:

The main state-owned electric utility, the State Grid Corporation of China, is investing $2.3 billion over the next year to build high-voltage lines, according to People’s Daily, the main party newspaper. Xinjiang will export electricity to more populated parts of China and perhaps to Central Asia.

Energy transit infrastructure:

“Xinjiang is where all the growth in oil, gas and coal is going to be coming from,” said Lin Boqiang, an energy scholar at Xiamen University and adviser at PetroChina, China’s biggest oil producer. “Second, all the imported resources from Central Asia, oil and gas, go through Xinjiang and then get distributed from there.”

Xinjiang produced 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2012, and it aims to increase that to 44 billion cubic meters next year.

Pipelines already transport natural gas from Central Asia and Xinjiang to central and eastern China. A new pipeline from Western Siberia is expected to transport 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year through the Altai Mountains to central Xinjiang, where it would connect with domestic east-west pipelines.

In that light, probably the best the Uighurs of Xinjiang can hope for is additional autonomy (including religious and cultural identity autonomy, as well as freedom from ethnic and religious discrimination in government policy) and more importantly a new revenue-sharing deal to give them more of the export profits and a higher standard of living. Independence or maintaining a Uighur plurality in the region’s demographic breakdown (i.e. keeping out more Han Chinese residents and workers) are just probably not on the table anymore.

I have solution to all our ills, says Russian white supremacist

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a lunatic elected white supremacist Russian politician (born in often race-troubled Kazakhstan) has identified the source of all Russia’s global image problems as that goddam Mongol letter (“ы”) being in the alphabet, goshdarnit!

“Only animals make this sound, ‘ы- ы,'” he said, adding that the regular ‘и’ (‘i’) is enough for the Russian alphabet. ‘Ы’ doesn’t exist in any other European language, argued Zhirinovsky. “This primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don’t like us in Europe,” he told lawmakers.

Yep, nailed it. THAT is why “people don’t like” Russia “in Europe” these days. Nothing to do with invading Crimea.

The politician seemed to have a longstanding issue with the “guttural” letter, which he claimed his son wasn’t able to pronounce as a child. “He once told me, ‘Dad, dad, look, there’s a ‘мишка’,” the Russian word for ‘bear.’ “I thought ‘What ‘мишка’? A bear? But he meant ‘мышка’,” the word for “mouse.”

Curiously, the same man just last month called for Russia to annex back its Central Asian republics as “subject” states. Because nothing gets rid of “nasty Asiatic” influences in your culture like re-occupying your imperial-era Asiatic conquests.

Then again, as he is also famous for advocating that people only kiss one another on the forehead, I guess he’s not one for embracing bulletproof logic. Not that racists typically are, really, I suppose.

Such irredentist rhetoric — advocating for seizing territories formerly held by one’s country, to reunite with ethnic populations abroad — is swirling around Russia’s political class in full fury right now to justify the Crimea invasion. He’s far from alone on that point. Small wonder then that many non-Russian folks in Central Asian countries with large Russian populations, such as Kyrgyzstan, are starting to worry that they are next.

And Kyrgyz and Kazakh speakers are definitely not nostalgic for the idea of returning to direct rule by those who see their languages as inferior and “primitive,” as Zhirinovsky labeled them.

Beside the Russian and Belarussian Cyrillic alphabets, the letter ‘ы’ also exists in most of the Turkic languages spoken in former Soviet republics, including Kazakh and Kyrgyz, which use the same alphabet.

The vowel is widely used in Kazakh and Kyrgyz, sometimes several times in the same word. “Ырыс алды—ынтымақ,” (“Yrys aldy—yntymaq”) reads a Kazakh proverb, which translates as “There is no abundance without solidarity.” The letter ‘ы’ also makes up most of the vowels of a well-known Kyrgyz saying— “ырысы жоктун ырымы күч” (“yrysy zhoktun yrymy kuch”)—that means “a person with no confidence believes in superstition.”

The history of Russian rule over Central Asia is largely one of Russian white-euro supremacy being inflicted on the local populations to try to stamp out their languages and cultures.

1992: The Great Russian Withdrawal from the Near Abroad

Flag_of_Russia_(1991-1993)-200pxA while back I posted the story of the experiences of the Soviet cosmonauts who were in space as the Soviet Union was breaking up.

While that was a pretty extreme situation, I just came across this article from 1997 about Soviet military units deployed in the non-Russian republics of the USSR (the “Near Abroad”) as it was breaking up. What were they supposed to do: withdraw immediately — hold in place? It was a logistical and political nightmare.

In many cases, ethnically Russian Soviet troops suddenly found themselves under Russian national command hundreds if not thousands of miles outside of the new country they were serving. Some units immediately started marching and driving back toward Russia, overland, abandoning in place any equipment they couldn’t take with them. Other units found themselves completely cut off and trapped in deployment locations as long-dormant ethno-religious and political conflicts broke out around them.
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OSCE may send advisers to Kyrgyzstan

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has announced the deployment of a small team of police advisers to Kyrgyzstan, in response to the widespread reports from ethnically Uzbek Kyrgyzstani civilians of police and military abuse by Kyrgyz Kyrgyzstanis over the past few months in southern Kyrgyzstan. From the OSCE press release:

The agreement [with Kyrgyzstan’s government] said the group would comprise 52 [unarmed] police officers with the possibility to send an additional 50 officers at a later stage. The group would be in Kyrgyzstan for four months, with a possibility to extend as needed and agreed.

“The tasks of this mission is first of all advising the Kyrgyz police. The Police Advisory Group will have contact with all parts of the population in southern Kyrgyzstan,” Salber said. “They will be assisting and also monitoring the Kyrgyz police. They will accompany them in their work with the communities there with the objective of strengthening the confidence in this area, in particular between the police and the population.”

These monitors would, best case scenario, serve to deter further abuses or acts of genocide against the Uzbek population while they are present. Sadly, it likely won’t be enough… After all, one of the worst atrocities during the Bosnian War happened in front of 400 United Nations peacekeepers inside sanctuary zones, but the rules of engagement, lack of supplies, and ratio of combatants to peacekeepers prevented intervention. But I guess this is better than nothing.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Kyrgyz gov’t rounding up Uzbek community leaders

Ethnic persecution of Uzbek communities in Kyrgyzstan continues, according to the Times:

Dozens of Uzbek community, religious and political leaders have been arrested recently by the local police and accused of inciting ethnic violence, rights groups say.

They were detained as part of an investigation into the unrest that raged through ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods here last month in which thousands of people, most of them Uzbeks, were thought to have died. The investigation itself, which was authorized by the government of Kyrgyzstan’s interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, has been turned into a campaign of persecution against ethnic Uzbek political and religious leaders, human rights groups say.
The arrests are based on a section of the Kyrgyz criminal code that bans inciting ethnic hatred, after the ethnic Uzbek leaders accused the police and army of instigating and in some cases participating in the original violence. “We are concerned that most of the arrests seem to be targeted against the Uzbek communities,” said Ole Solvang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who documented what he called unjustified detentions of Uzbeks, in a telephone interview. “The government has to investigate, detain and prosecute all violators, and not just members of one ethnic group.”
Valentina A. Gritsenko, director of a local human rights group, Justice, confirmed in a telephone interview that several of the Uzbek leaders who made public allegations of police or military complicity in the ethnic violence had been arrested.

Azimzhan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek and the director of a human rights group in the town of Bazar-Kurgan, was arrested on this charge, according to his lawyer, Nurbek Toktokunov, who said Mr. Askarov had bruises on his back suggesting he had been tortured in custody.

This week, Front Line, a Dublin-based group monitoring mistreatment of human rights workers, said two activists in southern Kyrgyzstan documenting the causes of the violence were interrogated by the police and later approached on a street in Osh by unidentified men and threatened.

Various people interviewed agreed with suggestions (that I’ve mentioned previously) that they won’t feel secure as long as they’re at the mercy of the domestic Kyrgyz police and military and would prefer an international security force.

The Kyrgyzstani military and police are dominated by ethnically Kyrgyz members and were involved in the violent attacks against Uzbek civilians in southern Kyrgyzstan — near the border with Uzbekistan — several weeks ago. It’s also unclear how much control they’ve taken over the interim government, but it seems the civilian authorities aren’t in charge to the degree they claim.

Kyrgyz troops attack Uzbek civilians

This morning, acting this time under the official pretext of clearing barricades and restoring government order and control, ethnically Kyrgyz troops from the government of Kyrgyzstan beat two dozen ethnically Uzbek civilians in southern Kyrgyzstan, killing two. NY Times:

Over the weekend, Kyrgyz troops removed the barricades, which residents had built during four days of ethnic violence that started June 10. At dawn on Monday, security forces began a house-to-house sweep of the area, the Uzbek village of Nariman, demanding information about a Kyrgyz police official who was killed there earlier this month.

Witnesses said the troops kicked men and severely beat them with rifle butts during interrogations. One died of a gunshot wound, another died later of his injuries, and 25 were hospitalized, said Telman A. Badalov, a supervising doctor in the local hospital.

Regional officials at first denied that there were any casualties, but at a news conference later in the day, they acknowledged that two residents had been killed and 23 wounded, saying that troops had opened fire because they faced armed resistance and that their actions were justified. A law enforcement official told the Interfax news service that seven men were arrested on suspicion of being “hired snipers.”

But the list of confiscated weapons released by the Osh regional superintendent’s office — two grenades, 40 rifle cartridges and two Molotov cocktails — included no firearms.

The attacks today, which many eyewitnesses said were unprovoked and unwarranted, confirmed the fears expressed this weekend that there was a heightened risk for Uzbek civilians and that they could not trust either the government or the military. In the initial wave of violence and killings, eyewitnesses saw and recorded troops assisting rioters and attacking civilians, and so the remaining Uzbek civilians in several cities, towns, and villages tried to barricade their neighborhoods against these incursions, which led to the raid this morning.
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