By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
7 October 2020
• The Age of the Warlord Is Coming to an End in Afghanistan
By Johnathan Krause
• Post-Lukashenka Belarus: Close Ties to Moscow but Improved Relationship With the West?
By Grigory Ioffe
• China Turning Russia’s Taiga Into a Desert, Enriching Moscow but Outraging Siberians
By Paul Goble
• Can Turmoil in Belarus and Karabakh Inspire a New Patriotic Surge in Russia?
By Kseniya Kirillova
The Age of the Warlord Is Coming to an End in Afghanistan
By Johnathan Krause
October 2, 2018
Memorial of warlord Ahmad Shah Masood (Source: al-Jazeera)
The age of warlords in Afghanistan may finally be ending. The beginning of the end started before Afghanistan attracted the world’s attention on September 11, 2001: thus, September 9, 2018, marked the death, 17 years ago, of Ahmad Shah Masoud, a Tajik commander who was assassinated by members of al-Qaeda posing as journalists (Tolo News, September 9, 2018). And as a bookend of sorts for this period, Jalaluddin Haqqani, another commander, died earlier last month, on September 3, 2018.
Both men were important figures in the war against the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Haqqani rose to prominence as a beneficiary of support from the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Saudi government, and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) (Afghanistan Online, September 18, 2008). Whereas, Massoud repeatedly thwarted Soviet plans to invade the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul (Afghanistan Online, November 18, 2007).
Although the two men were affiliated with national groups like the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, respectively, they were also quasi-independent warlords with their own following. During the Soviet occupation and subsequent Afghan Civil War in the 1990s, Massoud built up a personal army of fighters loyal to him (Afghanistan Analyst Network, May 30, 2014). Haqqani similarly built up his own network. In 1996, the latter man became an ally of the Taliban and provided this militant group with an important base in southeastern Afghanistan, where few of its members had connections (Afghan Analysis Network, September 20, 2012).
The two men’s deaths are representative of a long-term shift occurring in Afghanistan: throughout the country, warlords are becoming obsolete. Over the past two years, the Afghan government has acted against them, including the dismissal and forced exile of important northern commanders. General Abdul Rashid Dostum left Afghanistan for Turkey last year, after allegations of kidnapping and assault on a political rival (Tolo News, August 13, 2018). The Afghan Attorney General’s Office filed charges against him in court for the offense (Tolo News, July 28, 2017). And Atta Mohammad Noor, dubbed the “King of the North” for ruling Balkh Province as governor for 14 years, reached an agreement with the Afghan government to step down (Gandhara, March 21, 2018). President Ashraf Ghani ordered Noor to vacate the governor’s office in December 2017, but Noor initially refused to leave his power base (Tolo News, March 21). Abdul Karim Khudam, a Noor ally and member of a powerful political party, likewise refused to step down after being sacked by Ghani (Tolo News, February 19). Nevertheless, he eventually resigned days later after an agreement between his political party (Jamiat), and the national government (Tolo News, February 20). It is noteworthy that two northern governors were dismissed within months of each other.
The country’s remaining warlords are also losing their grip on power due to factionalism and their inability to control it. Although General Dostum returned to Afghanistan recently this year, he has lost control of his own political party. Dissidents from his faction, Jombesh, formed their own political grouping, New Jombesh, last year (Afghanistan Analysis Network, July 19, 2017). This formation is significant because Dostum had previously reacted violently to dissent within Jombesh. In one instance, his militia kidnapped and tortured another political rival who was preparing to mount a challenge to Dostum’s leadership within the party (Afghanistan Analysis Network, July 19, 2017). The only reaction to the break between old and new Jombesh has been public scorn from the former against the latter. Dostum supporters and “old” Jombesh members called the new party “Agents of the Palace” and accused them of being “affiliated with the government” (Afghanistan Analysis Network, July 19, 2017).
Independent agencies in Afghanistan have also contributed to the demise of the warlords by taking away an important source of their power—national office. Afghan warlords were once considered among the country’s most influential elites, having gained access to government facilities and jobs in the bureaucracies (Asia Times, May 14, 2018). Nonetheless, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IECC) recently announced that warlords will not be allowed to stand for elections (Tolo News, July 26). Already 25 candidates with links to non-governmental armed groups were removed from the list of parliamentary candidates (Tolo News, August 4).
Lastly, international organizations and European states have stepped up calls for justice against Afghanistan’s warlord class. In mid-August, the ambassadors for the European Union and Norway in Kabul said, in a joint conference, that the case against Dostum (for the assault on a political rival mentioned above) should be concluded via legal channels since he returned to Afghanistan (Tolo News, August 13). They added that “nobody should be above the law” and it is important that all Afghans work together peace, stability, and democracy throughout the country, based on full respect for the rule of law of all citizens (Tolo News, August 4, 2018).
The above actions are a dramatic turnaround in the government’s previous policy toward the warlords. Heretofore, the Afghan state utilized indigenous warlords as powerful allies against the Islamist insurgency. Thomas Rutting, a co-director of the Afghan Analysts Network, noted that private militias and strong men have flourished in modern Afghanistan because of their usefulness in the war against the Taliban (Afghan Analysts Network, March 20, 2015). Warlords were given money, governorships, cabinet positions, and even vice presidencies. In addition, they were afforded access to government facilities and jobs, as mentioned above.
The decline of warlordism is helping to strengthen state sovereignty and boosting President Ghani’s domestic authority. Last year, he pledged that his people will celebrate the sovereignty of law. The law is not sovereign when certain officials consider themselves untouchable or beholden only to the power of the gun, Ghani pointed out (Tolo News, March 15, 2017). The removal of Dostum, Noor and Khadim thus offers him an opportunity to appoint new loyal government officials who will contribute to consolidating Kabul’s control over the wider country. Now, there are fewer strongmen with militias and guns to prevent the writ of the government, especially in former warlord-held areas.
The end of the warlords will almost certainly impact the civilian population the most, promising to dramatically increase overall security. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted, in its 2014 “Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” that there was a 194 percent increase in civilian deaths caused by warlord militia groups from the previous year (Afghan News Network, March 4, 2015). Most of those casualties were caused by fighting between rival pro-government militias (Afghan News Network, March 4, 2015). The UNAMA also noted the “impunity enjoyed by pro-government armed groups, which permitted them to commit criminal acts including assault, intimidation, and lack of protection for civilians and communities” (Afghan News Network, March 4, 2015).”
With the Ghani administration determined to remove warlords from power and the IECC’s use of legal tools to prevent them from gaining power at the national level, the chapter on Afghanistan’s warlords seems to be closing. Once powerful actors, they are increasingly being held accountable for their actions and can no longer wholly ignore the writ of the government or the chorus for justice by the international community. The recent twin deaths of Ahmad Shah Masoud and Jalaluddin Haqqani may thus come to symbolize the end of an era.
Post-Lukashenka Belarus: Close Ties to Moscow but Improved Relationship with the West?
By Grigory Ioffe
October 6, 2020
Arriving at some clarity regarding the situation in Belarus has become harder than ever before. An unstable equilibrium begets a cacophony of opinions that do not lend themselves to generalization or to teasing out a common idea. Alexander Klaskovsky of Belapan writes, “[Presidents Alyaksandr] Lukashenka [of Belarus] and [Vladimir] Putin [of Russia] are sitting in the same anti-Western trench” (Naviny, September 29). Arseny Sivitsky of the Minsk-based Center for Strategic Studies argues, “[French President] Emmanuel Macron’s statement that Lukashenka has to go and Macron’s meeting with [Lukashenka’s chief rival in the August presidential elections] Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius not only derive from Minsk’s reluctance to communicate with the West but also constitute a position Macron reconciled during his phone talk with Vladimir Putin; this position reflects attitudes in the Kremlin” (Forstrategy, September 29). Finally, in an interview with Current Time TV, Arkady Dubnov, a liberal Moscow-based political analyst, posited, “Moscow may turn out to be late installing its creature that would replace Lukashenka, and in that case, it would have to negotiate with Tikhanovskaya, too” (Current Time, September 28).
What nobody calls into question is that the Belarusian political regime has survived the street protests and, despite a few widely publicized acts of disobedience, the entire power vertical, especially law enforcement, retained the appearance of a monolith. It is also becoming exceedingly clear that although the social base of the protest movement may be fairly wide, President Lukashenka’s base of support is not that narrow either and extends beyond the habitual formula of “country and small-town folks, retirees and the less educated.”
Opinions about Lukashenka’s legitimacy vary. As Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba put it, “Lukashenka does not have legitimacy anymore, but the opposition does not enjoy enough of it yet” (Tut.by, September 30). However, according to philosopher Viacheslav Bobrovich of Belarusian State University, if Lukashenka has lost legitimacy in the eyes of a critical mass of the Belarusian public, it is only in a narrowly defined political sense. His administration remains orderly and performs its functions vital for everyday life reasonably well, and it is not awash in corruption (Facebook.com/vbobrovich, September 26). Kirill Koktysh, a Minsk-born professor at Russia’s MGiMO University, observes that Belarus witnessed the third recent failed color revolution, following those in Venezuela and Hong Kong (Author’s interview, October 2).
Arguably, a tentative consensus has developed suggesting that the “unstable equilibrium” in Belarus is not so much because of continuing protests but due to the uncertain actions of the Kremlin. Actors on all sides of the Belarusian political divide seem to stress the necessity of reaching out to Russia. “We do have contacts with Moscow,” acknowledged Pavel Latushko, one of the exiled leaders of the protest movement, in an interview with Radio Liberty (Svaboda.org, September 29). Against this backdrop, the European Union’s sanctions imposed on Minsk do not elicit a serious reaction. About 40 Belarusian officials and security service authorities—but not Lukashenka himself—are now personae non gratae in the EU (BBC News—Russian service, October 1). The reputable Minsk-based analyst Artyom Shraibman describes Western sanctions as pro forma a demonstration of Europe’s self-respect but thoroughly impotent in terms of exerting any influence. Yet he suggests that a miniature Marshall Plan for Belarus could eventually begin to matter in the eyes of the Belarusian nomenklatura, if Moscow does not depose Lukashenka but the economy sharply declines (T.me/shraibman, October 2).
In contrast to the EU sanctions, Minsk’s responses prove more important, as these actions will further reduce Belarus’s exposure to Western influence. For example, Minsk demanded that the Lithuanian embassy to Belarus reduce its personnel from 25 to 14 diplomats and the Polish embassy from 50 to 18. The Belarusian government claims this order was prompted by “destructive activity” carried out by these countries inside Belarus (Svaboda.org, October 2). Since the Baltic States’ travel sanctions on Belarus target many more people than the EU’s and include Lukashenka, Belarus announced symmetrical restrictions (Tut.by, September 29). On October 2, Minsk annulled the accreditation of all foreign media correspondents. Reaccreditation commenced three days later, prioritizing journalists who are citizens of the countries that their respective media outlets represent. This strategy may let down quite a few Belarusian citizens representing these foreign media outlets (Svaboda.org, October 2).
Concerning the Vilnius meeting between Macron and Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian foreign ministry caustically called the exiled opposition leader an “attraction” in the Lithuanian capital that foreign visitors are now mandated to visit (BelTA, September 29). Whereas Lukashenka, as a “politician with experience,” issued advice to the “immature” Macron to stay away from Belarus and preoccupy himself with his own country’s problems. The Belarusian leader even crudely counseled his French counterpart against paying too much attention to the former presidential candidate in Vilnius lest Macron wind up with personal problems simply because that candidate, Ms. Tikhanovskaya, happens to be a woman (Tut.by, September 29).
Multiple publications have declared the ultimate failure of Belarus’s multi-vector foreign policy; some have fatalistically entertained the idea of shutting down the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which would hardly be needed if Minsk is not allowed to maintain relations with any foreign powers besides Moscow (Naviny, September 22). Andrei Savinykh, a former diplomat who chairs the Foreign Affairs Commission of Belarus’s House of Representative (lower chamber of parliament), has been particularly vocal in repudiating Minsk’s multi-vectoralism: in the current geopolitical situation, the West has demonstrated its irrelevance and hostility toward Belarus, whereas Russia embodies all hope (BelTA, September 29).
Clearly, however, not all inside Belarus or in the West agree. Thus, in their article aimed at the Western audience, Yauheni Preiherman of the Minsk Dialogue Council and Thomas Graham of the United States Council on Foreign Relations, suggest that contacts with Minsk should be retained at all costs and a US ambassador should quickly be sent to Minsk. After all, talking about Belarus only with Moscow over Minsk’s head will show Belarusian society that it does not matter in the eyes of the West. “A post-Lukashenko Belarus, with close ties to Moscow but an improved relationship with the West, remains a possible medium-term outcome of the current crisis. It might not be the one many in the West had hoped for, but it is still a good alternative and perhaps the best option in the current climate. Well-crafted policy could make it a reality,” the two analysts conclude (Foreign Affairs, October 2).
China Turning Russia’s Taiga into a Desert, Enriching Moscow but Outraging Siberians
By Paul Goble
October 6, 2020
Logging in Siberia (Source: RT)
Since Vladimir Putin became president, Russia’s forests have declined in size by 45 million hectares, some 6 percent of the country’s total. The shrinking forest cover has been the result of the spread of uncontrolled forest fires (80 percent) as well as increased harvesting (20 percent), much of that for export. That distinction between losses from fires and regular cutting, however, is less sharp than one might expect: many Russians allege that some of the fires, especially in Siberia and the Russian Far East, were set deliberately to conceal illegal cutting (Newizv.ru, September 9). True or not, the issue is becoming ever more political for two reasons. First, a large part of the new logging operations are being carried out by Chinese firms or Russian subcontractors working for them. And second, the profits from exports of wood (processed and unprocessed) to China are going almost exclusively to oligarchs in Moscow rather than to people in the regions that are being left without forests and more at risk of fires and flooding than ever before.
The main drivers of this development, Russian experts say, lie in the new legal code governing forests, the Putin government’s commitment to supply China with lumber both to earn money and to cement ties between the two Eurasian giants, as well as the fact that in the most-affected regions, the governors are not local people but appointed outsiders. Those Kremlin-imposed non-local governors tend to show less concern for putting the interests of their federal subjects first (Rusmonitor.com, October 2).
Both Soviet legislation and Russian laws adopted in the 1990s provided significant protection to Russian forests. But the forestry code adopted under Putin’s tenure eliminated most restrictions on the use of forests, shut down fire-watch and fire-fighting centers, and handed over large segments of the country’s seemingly endless forests to businessmen, whose only interest has been to profit from them even if stripping the timber increased the chronic risk of catastrophic fires and floods. The Kremlin took these steps to ensure that it would continue to enrich itself and its private-sector allies as well as to please Beijing, which looks north to Siberia and the Russian Far East for wood and pulp. China is currently responsible for logging and exporting 90 percent of all timber products from those regions for its own needs. This conversion of areas forested from time immemorial into what some call “lunar landscapes” is becoming a political issue, with local politicians demanding a return of local control over the use of forest, while Moscow plays defense.
One Russian commentator, Vladimir Vorsobin, says that this has sparked “a small civil war” between those engaged in logging and profiting from it and the surrounding populations (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 2). Some of the protesters in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East (see EDM, August 3, 4), have raised this issue. But the most dramatic engagement in this “war” came last week (October 2), when Vorsobin published an open letter to President Putin summing up the anger of Russians living along the Russian-Chinese border and demanding that he change course. In fact, the commentator writes, Russians are outraged that Putin has promised to limit Chinese exploitation of Russian forests repeatedly but, in fact, has continued to profit from the sale of timber to Beijing. From their point of view, he continues, Russians now believe Putin is selling out the interests of the people of Siberia and the Russian Far East for profit, a view that combines class and regional anger at Moscow and is becoming the foundation for a serious political challenge to the center.
At a meeting in early October, Putin promised that he would take steps to regulate the situation, especially after officials said that much of the money from sales to China is going into the coffers not of the central government but into shadowy illegal firms. Opponents of the current approach to forest management were hopeful when business people were excluded from the meeting; but they were troubled by Putin’s failure to take a tough line and even more by the subsequent absence on the Kremlin website of any details regarding what might be done. Some observers have concluded that nothing serious is likely to happen—banning the export of raw lumber, the main announcement Putin did make, will mean that the Chinese will simply process the felled wood in Russia and use its own workers to do so, further outraging local Russian residents. Instead, the Russian taiga will continue to disappear into Chinese hands, and any profit from it will flow out of the local regions (Newizv.ru, October 2).
The conflict over this issue between the central government and business on the one side and the people on the other has not been limited to blog posts, however. Some activists in the Russian Far East have set fire to lumber already harvested and set to be exported to China. “Local bloggers,” one Russian commentator, Aleksandr Nemets, says, “are calling this a partisan war” against both Beijing and Moscow, which supports the Chinese enterprises. Activists have organized large protest gatherings, including in Khabarovsk, whereas Moscow has removed regional officials, including the Communist governor in Irkutsk, who tried to block the export of wood to China (Kasparov.ru, January 9).
According to Nemets, who resides in the United States though closely tracks developments in Asiatic Russia, he does not know how things will develop in the Russian Far East. China remains in a very strong position and has Moscow’s backing. “But obviously, the southeastern regions [of the Russian Far East] have already passed the point of no return,” he concludes (Kasparov.ru, January 9). If this assertion proves true, the Kremlin will eventually face much bigger problems east of the Urals than fires, floods and critical internet posts.
Can Turmoil In Belarus And Karabakh Inspire A New Patriotic Surge In Russia?
By Kseniya Kirillova
October 6, 2020
Protests in Belarus and the fighting in Karabakh have upended relations between the Russian authorities and the leaders of Minsk and Yerevan. In the past, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, despite generally acting in conjunction with Moscow, have nonetheless tried to distance themselves from Russia as much as possible and periodically sided with the West in condemning certain Kremlin actions (Ukrinform, September 7, 2018). However, in recent months, each of them, for his own reasons, has had to turn to Russia for help. Lukashenka, rejected by what appears to be a majority of his own people and not recognized by the West as the legitimate president (Eeas.europa.eu, September 15), began to seek Vladimir Putin’s support. He has sought to affirm his absolute loyalty to the Kremlin and prove Belarus’s irreplaceable role in protecting Russia “from Western aggression” (YouTube, September 9). Similarly, Pashinyan, in seeking Moscow’s support in Armenia’s war against Turkish-backed Azerbaijan, also promised his loyalty (Gazeta.ru, September 30).
All this encouraged the Russian authorities in recent weeks to launch a new round of pro-imperialistic propaganda. Using the statements of the leaders of Belarus and Armenia, the media began to promote the idea that only Russia can help its neighbors, which automatically demonstrates the Russian Federation’s status as a great power (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 30). At the same time, Russian propaganda emphasizes that the only way for the post-Soviet states to survive is to abandon their “multi-vector” approaches and fulfill a number of conditions set by the Kremlin, including recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, integrating more deeply with the Eurasian Economic Union, lobbying for the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions, reducing the United States’ influence and banning a number of pro-Western non-governmental organizations (NGO), and so on (T.me/russica2, September 28). The general editor of RT, Margarita Simonyan, notably stated, “Armenia is either doomed to return to Russia or simply doomed” (Twitter, September 28). Various Russian observers argue that Armenia cannot survive without becoming part of Russia.
Nevertheless, independent economists and sociologists are inclined to believe that, unlike in 2014, the Russian authorities will not succeed in sparking a new “patriotic surge” within Russian society based on neo-imperial ideas. Economist and the director of the Center for Post-Industrial Society Studies, Vladislav Inozemtsev, believes the military conflict in Karabakh is worrisome for representatives of the Armenian and Azerbaijani diasporas in Russia, but not for ordinary Russians. “In addition, people understand quite well that the leaders of neighboring countries only turn to Russia for financial support, and nothing more,” he said (Author’s interview, September 29).
Elena Galkina, a political analyst and doctor of historical sciences, agrees. “Imperial propaganda is accompanied by another devaluation of the ruble and, accordingly, a rise in prices, which today worries Russians much more than foreign policy influence. As for Belarus, ordinary Russians will rather regret that Belarusian sausage and milk will disappear in stores, which will certainly happen if Belarus is absorbed by Russia,” the expert suggests (Author’s interview, September 29).
These analysts’ conclusions are supported by sociological data. Based on the results of an August poll, the deputy director of the Levada Center, Denis Volkov, noted that although the majority of Russians support the further development of economic cooperation between Moscow and Minsk, the desire to “annex Belarus” and “include it in Russia” is marginal—only a small number of elderly respondents express support for such unification (Forbes.ru, September 6).
The continuing decline in economic well-being also does not contribute to the readiness of Russians to make new sacrifices for the sake of the “greatness of the empire.” According to the state pollster Rosstat, every fourth child in Russia lives below the poverty line (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, August 7). Experts argue that the government is unable to solve the problem of declining incomes; by the end of 2020, 16 percent of the working-age population may live below the poverty line (Gazeta.ru, June 3). Such a situation does not lead to an increase in patriotism but, on the contrary, to a feeling of dissatisfaction with life and distrust of the authorities (see EDM, July 8).
For now at least, the Belarusian street demonstrations against Lukashenka are incapable of inspiring Russians to increase their own protest activities. “Russian media are sending contradictory signals to the domestic audience, hinting that the situation [in Minsk] is under control. Only if a successful political revolution really takes place in Belarus, will it be able to influence Russians,” Galkina believes. “Many [ordinary Russians] stand in solidarity with the Belarusian opposition, but they hardly think about replicating its experience,” Inozemtsev clarified (Author’s interview, September 29).
At the same time, Russian sociologists note that the country’s liberal opposition is extremely divided and does not have a clear program of economic reforms or understanding of issues of state structure. According to Sergei Belanovsky and Anastasia Nikolskaya, the prevailing feeling among the opposition manifests itself in “an atmosphere of expectation of a social miracle that will supposedly come true when the existing regime is replaced by a democratic one.” The two experts contended that “there is a gap between the real programs of state and economic reforms and ideas about these reforms among the democratic opposition.” And yet the supporters of liberal reforms, despite their lack of professional knowledge, are not ready to cooperate with “latent dissidents” among the lower and middle-level professional officials (Riddle, September 6).
Belanovsky and Nikolskaya fear the Russian opposition may fragment if an opportunity to democratically transform the country suddenly presents itself. This breakup could, in turn, lead to a stream of insoluble political conflicts that will again revive a desire within Russian society to “return to the idea of a ‘strong hand’ that will restore order” (Riddle, September 6). However, even in such a case, the Russian people only appear inclined to support authoritarianism as the “lesser evil” compared to anarchy—not as a result of imperial nostalgia and a desire to “save” neighboring countries.
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