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The Crimea Model: Will Russia Annex the Northern Region of Kazakhstan?

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Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula was unlawfully annexed by referendum arranged by pro-Russian separatists backed by Russia. President Putin denies the annexation was politically motivated and driven by Soviet-reunification desires, but rather driven by the need to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea.

The swift annexation of Crimea has many former Soviet states worrying they might be next. Outside of Ukraine, multiple pro-Russian breakaway republics such as Transdnestr in Moldova, the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Georgian Republic welcome Russian rule to achieve and secure their independence. Kazakhstan is a prime candidate for annexation of its Northern region, where there is a high concentration of ethnic Russians residing.

The situation in Crimea provides for a new international affairs model, the Crimea Model, which serves as a blueprint for Russian political and imperial ambitions in the Former Soviet Union. The Crimea Model is based on the recent events in Crimea, where a larger and more powerful state violates the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of a smaller nation as a result of political motivations, but disguises its actions as being motivated by humanitarian or “protectionist” reasons. As a result, the targeted territory within a country or a full country itself was annexed or given a more autonomous self-determination status favoring Russia. There are multiple mandatory conditions of the Crimea Model: deep historical and social linkages, a triggering political event, a willing population to submit to the annexing country (Russia), and the perception the population’s well-being will be improved. There must also be a large ethnic Russian population (relative to) concentrated in one geographic area, Russian-speaking ethnic Russians who are aggressive and nationalistic, perceptions of discrimination among ethnic Russians, a weak government that cannot govern, and poor social conditions. The population that wishes to be controlled and governed by Russia is most likely suffering from a culture and identity crisis, as the population is torn between historic and current social identities.

The Russian policy of protecting Russians abroad is not new. In 1993, then President Boris Yeltsin, proposed that ethnic Russians be granted special status where “national minorities” would be guaranteed full citizenship rights within the new Former Soviet Republics (Erlanger 1993, par. 10). This policy, the Karaganov Doctrine—named after Yeltsin’s advisor Sergei Karaganov—allowed Russia to justify intervention in the former Soviet Republics based on poor treatment of ethnic Russians. This was a proposal precipitated by claims of discrimination and the proposal was heavily rejected for concerns about nationalism, expansionism and territorial integrity, chauvinism, and xenophobia (Erlanger 1993, par.  4). Worthy of note, Kazakh President Nazarbayev was quoted at the time as saying that the Kazakhstan Constitution does not allow for violations of Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity. During the 1990s, Russia was unable to implement the Karaganov Doctrine due to an unpredictable political and economic situation, but with increased economic growth, a more assertive foreign policy and a cautious West, Russia now can implement this policy and claim exclusive interest in the region again.

The situation in Crimea resulted from a combination of factors separate from the EuroMaidan protests and the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych which allowed Putin to evoke the Karaganov Doctrine. In Crimea, there is a large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population; Russian military presence in Sevastopol; increased tensions between the Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and ethnic Russians; and poor territorial governance and social problems which made Ukraine vulnerable.  Crimea is the only part of Ukraine that has political autonomy, which was granted by the Ukrainian Constitution. Crimea has its own Constitution, Parliament, and its own Prime Minister who is approved by the President of Ukraine.  According to a 2001 census, 58% of the two million population of Crimea are ethnic Russian, and 24% are Ukrainians. A December 2008 public poll conducted by Razumkov Center, a Kiev think tank, asked, “With which cultural tradition do you associate yourself?”: 55.5% of those polled identified themselves as Russian and 8.3% as Ukrainian (Razumkov Center 2008, chart).  In a 2009 study conducted by the same group, 32% of Crimeans did not consider Ukraine to be their home country, 48% would like to change their citizenship mostly to Russian, and 63% would like for Crimea to join Russia (Shapovalova and Jarabik 2009, 3). This could be the result of the Ukrainian government failing to incorporate Crimea “fully into Ukraine’s political and social context” (Shapovalova and Jarabik 2009, 4).

Kazakhstan-Russian Relations

Kazakh-Russian relations were not harmonious during the period of 1980-1990 (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 257). The 1980s were marred by ethnic conflicts and nationalism, discriminatory laws, unequal representation in governing bodies, and Kazakh-based favoritism reversing Russification by “policies and processes [that] have the objective of redefining multinational Kazakhstan into a [singular cultural] Kazakh State” (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 262, 257, 258).  The Kazakh nationalist policy was focused on securing Kazakhstan’s independence, the return of Kazakh lands to the Kazakh people, and the establishment of Kazakh religious and language rights (Smagulova 2006, 307). At this time, Russians were still the majority in Kazakhstan, but were also the “political, cultural, and social elite” (Kaiser and Chinn 1995, 306).

Post-Soviet Kazakh-Russian relations were also heavily influenced by the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States as there was great concern over economic ties and “this period saw concerted efforts to establish a new model for bilateral economic and political co-operation” (Vinokurov 2010, 2). Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev was interested in keeping the effects of the Soviet collapse contained and renewing relations with Russia and the Former Soviet Republics to preserve a stable internal political situation, to protect Kazakh interests, and to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Kazakhstan considered itself the “Eurasia bridge” which defined Kazakh relations with Russia and the region, arguably from 1991 until today (Vinokurov 2010, 2). These ideals have been the cornerstone of President Nazarbayev’s regional and his “multi-vector” foreign policy.

Between 2009 and 2014, Russia and Kazakhstan developed a closer economic relationship due to an increased focus on energy policy and energy relations. One common theme throughout Kazakh-Russian relations is increased economic integration, with Kazakhstan taking a proactive approach by proposing new initiatives. After 2000, Nazarbayev began a shift towards Russia, most likely due to changes in Russian leadership (when Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister), which was described as more “pragmatic, capable of achieving tangible results, and determined to restore Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space” (Vinokurov 2010, 6). The bilateral relationship branched off into other areas of integration, including political and security-based relationships, which have continued to enhance the bilateral relationship.

Kazakhstan and the Crimea Model

The current situation in Kazakhstan does not meet all of the criteria for the Crimea Model. However, Putin’s recent rhetoric and the heightened fear of a possible land grab put Kazakhstan at risk. The main condition of the Crimea Model that places Kazakhstan at risk is Kazakhstan’s large ethnic Russian population. Kazakhstan has the largest ethnic Russian population in the Former Soviet Union, 25% of a 17.6 million population. The 1954 ‘Virgin Lands Campaign’ program relocated two million Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian persons to Kazakhstan, which caused Kazakhstan’s non-Kazakh population to skyrocket (Peyrouse 2008, 2).

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the trend reversed. Russians emigrated out of Kazakhstan because of a declining standard of living, policies of Kazakhization, and a bleak future for Russian youth, poor educational opportunities, and loss of identity with the new Kazakhstan. In 1997, only 20% of Russians in Kazakhstan identified with the new post-Soviet Kazakhstan (Peyrouse 2008, 22). In a 1998 poll, “13.2% of Slavs [stated] that there [were] conscious efforts to support one ethnic group and exclude the other” meaning that Kazakhs were favored (Smagulova 2006, 304).

Kazakhstan lost half a million people during the 1970s (the Virgin Lands Campaign ended) and in the 1980s, “Kazakhstan lost an additional 784,000 people (between 60,000 and 85,000 each year)” and experienced a negative migratory outflow: for every 1,000 that settled, 1,256 left (Peyrouse 2008, 2). Between 1989 and 1999, the Russian population decreased from 6 million to 4.5 million “with an average departure per year of 150,000 individuals” (Peyrouse 2008, 6). In the 1990s, emigrating Russians came from the southern and western areas and these regions lost approximately 35% of their population: Astana lost 24%, Northern Kazakhstan lost 20%, and the Karaganda region lost 19% of its population (Peyrouse 2008, 4). By 2000, “migration from Kazakhstan alone constituted more than 28% of the internal migration in former Soviet territory” (Peyrouse 2008, 2). Currently, Russians have considerable populations in the North Kazakhstan Province (48.5% in 2006), Pavlodar Region (38.26% in 2007), Akmola Region (36.5% Russians in 2009), Kostanay Region (28.6% in 2009), and central Karagandy Region (39.17% in 2010).  

Even though Kazakhstan and Russia share a 300 year long history, they do not share deep strategic, military, and cultural historical linkages. The Kazakh-Russian relationship has been based on economics, natural resources, integration, and cooperation, whereas the Russia-Crimea relationship is rooted in war. In Crimea, the Black Sea Fleet is stationed at Sevastopol and gives the Russians naval access to Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the ability to counter the NATO and American presence in the region. Kazakhstan holds more economic value than military value. Russia and Kazakhstan do share Baikonur Cosmodrome which is used to launch Russia’s Proton-M rockets. Russia and Kazakhstan shared multiple memberships in regional organizations including the CIS, the Customs Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the economic-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the newly formed Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU) to come into force in January 2015. The CSTO and the SCO are to act as a political-military counterweight to the European Union and NATO. The CSTO and SCO organizations have held military exercises to combat terrorism, extremism, separatism better known as the three evils among its member-states.

Russia’s desire to maintain a positive relationship with Kazakhstan comes from its wish to be an energy superpower. Russia has repeatedly taken advantage of Kazakhstan to maintain influence over Kazakh energy assets since there is growing competition from China and European entities. The “Kazakh oil is now transported mainly through Russian territory via old Soviet pipelines…as well as via the new [CPC] system [formed in 1992] (Tengiz-Novorossisk)” (Kazantsev 2008, 1085). The pipelines are old, decrepit, could cause environmental problems if they burst, and are costly to repair (Kuniholm 2000, 553). The instability of Russian energy politics and its “energy arrogance” has driven Kazakhstan to seek other energy partners, including “long-term partnerships with major international oil companies…which will enable [Kazakhstan] to exploit [their] natural resources effectively” (Kazantsev 2008, 1086, 1087). Russia has focused on blocking Western access to gas and oil to reduce competition and “in Central Asia, Russia has carried out the task of neutralizing alternatives to pro-Russian projects of integration in the post-Soviet space” (Kazantsev 2008, 1087).

Russian separatist tendencies existed in the past but dissolved due to Kazakhstan’s progressive policies of tolerance and inclusiveness. The Kazakh government has made the effort to fully integrate Russians in political and social life. The Russian language is still dominant in Kazakhstan, and is recognized as an official language, but not a national or state language.  Kazakhstan annually celebrates Slavic Orthodox Christmas. Russians also enjoy political and linguistic rights as granted by the Kazakh Constitution. There are even symbols of Russian and Kazakh cooperation: a plaque equating Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russian author) and Chokan Valikhanov (a leading Kazakh historian and intellectual) stands in Petropavlovsk, a bi-cultural symbol in Kazakhstan, and a monument honoring the poets Alexander Pushkin and Abai Kunanbaev stands in the city (Kucera 2014, par. 7).

In the past, the process of Kazakhization alienated many Russians which increase Russian resentment. Many groups were interested in annexing Northern Kazakhstan, including Russian nationalists and the Cossacks, and beginning in 1992, the “organizations were denied registration or had their registration revoked for engaging in anti-state or pro-separatist demonstrations” (Kaiser and Chin 1995, 268).  Nationalists also formed the “Organization for the Autonomy of Eastern Kazakhstan” (Kaiser and Chin 1995, 267). Viktor Kazimirchuk, the leader of the separatist group “Rus,” was convicted by the Kazakhstan Government in 2000; the group wanted Russia to incorporate the border town Oskemen into Russian territory (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 5). His efforts were silently supported from Moscow. Kazimirchuk was released in 2006 and in 2007, Kazimirchuk stated that there was discrimination against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in East Kazakhstan Oblast mirroring rhetoric that led to the annexation of Crimea (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 26, par. 28). However, there have been no indications among ordinary Russian citizens that they would like to see Northern Kazakhstan annexed. Seventy percent of ethnic Russians in Petropavlovsk acknowledge that the land does belong to Kazakhs (Kucera 2014, par. 4). No ethnic minority has made serious claims to the Kazakh homeland because they have their own, which tends to be either their ancestral homeland or for ethnic Russians, the Soviet Union itself (Smagulova 2006, 306). Russians in Kazakhstan had political rights and would explain the lack of collective political action or protests by Russian minorities in Kazakhstan.

Adding to Kazakhstan’s worries, Russian nationalist and the leader of the LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has claimed that Kazakhstan needs to be examined like Ukraine in terms of nationalism. Zhirinovsky supported the annexation of Crimea and seems to entertain the thought of annexing Kazakhstan. In February 2014, Zhirinovsky called for the creation of a “Central Asian Federal Region” with the capital as “Verny” (the former Russian name for Almaty); he made similar remarks in 2005.

The security situation in Kazakhstan remains stable despite the rise of Islamic extremism in Central Asia in recent decades. In response, Central Asia governments have become more repressive which has only aggravated the situation. There are multiple terrorist and extremist groups in Central Asia, such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (a pan-Sunni Islamic group), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Soldiers of the Caliphate (Kazakhstan), and China’s East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Uyghur-based). There are also several Uyghur separatist groups in Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan Regional Uyghur Organizations, Kazakh Uyghur Unity (Ittipak) Association, and the Uyghurstan Freedom Association (Cheung 2004, 999). There is also the threat from Russia’s North Caucasus, the return of radical jihadi fighters from the Middle East conflicts, and external sources of radicalization.

The unexpected death of President Nazarbayev could trigger unrest as Kazakhstan does not have a Presidential secession plan. Nazarbayev, who is currently 73, has no intention of leaving the presidency. According to Kazakh government officials, he is in good health, despite reports of hospitalization and fewer TV appearances. A succession crisis is unlikely, but if “Nazarbayev begins to lose his ability to manage intra-elite competition in the country,” which is built on “a broad-based economic [base], with significant capacity, financial resources, and political ambitions,” one might occur (Roberts 2012, 2). The dramatic political change could endanger the Russia-Kazakhstan relationship as the new leader might cut Russia out of Kazakhstan’s affairs and trigger a more aggressive nationalist movement, which may result in a drastic change in ethnic equality in the Kazakhs’ favor provoking a Crimea-like response from Russia.

Another concern is growing Kazakh-based nationalism is backlash against Russian-Kazakh integration represented by anti-Russian integration protests in Kazakhstan. Participants in the April 2014 Anti-Eurasia Forum meeting led by ethnic Kazakhs recognized that Kazakhstan will suffer more since it is the weakest among the three member-states (Anceschi and Sorbello 2014, par. 8).. The Anti-Eurasia Forum called the EaEU the “axis of dictators,” and claimed that “Eurasianism is a new form of colonization by Russia” (Anceschi and Sorbello 2014, par. 9).

After the Crimea annexation, the Kazakh government “announced that it intended to introduce laws punishing ‘illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan by up to 10 years in prison’ ” (Kucera 2014, par. 22). Similar to Russian legislation, Kazakhstan has also promised to provide citizenship to Kazakh oralmans (Kazakh for “returnee”) outside of Kazakhstan. In March 2014, there was an order that required oralmans to settle in “Akmola, Atyrau, West-Kazakhstan, Kostanay, Pavlodar, North-Kazakhstan, and East-Kazakhstan provinces”; all but Atyrau and Akmola border Russia and the required areas have high ethnic Russian populations (Pannier and Karabek 2014, par. 19-20). There Kazakhstan government has tried to resettle ethnic Kazakhs to restore the ethnic balance in its northern region and to make ethnic Kazakhs a majority.

Russia has attempted to repeat history by again introducing legislation in March 2014 that would grant Russian citizenship to anyone who speaks fluent Russia, “and had once lived, or who had relatives who lived, on the territory of the Soviet Union” (Trilling 2014, par. 1). The legislation would require the new Russian citizens to waive their citizenship of their current country of residence, but would not force immigration (Trilling 2014, par. 4). This would create a situation where a concentrated number of citizens of one country would live inside the geographic area of another country, potentially creating an enclave of Russians in Kazakhstan or triggering an intra-state conflict. It is unclear if the legislation would provide ethnic Russians abroad with national minority status. If ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan were granted special status that would guarantee them more rights than Kazakh citizens in Kazakhstan and this would provoke unrest. This legislation failed and such a move shows that Russia is serious about protecting ethnic Russians abroad and about expansionism.

Putin’s rhetoric in late August about Kazakhstan’s statehood does increase Kazakhstan’s chances of being annexed. President Putin made strong and chilling comments about Kazakhstan’s status of a state. Putin’s comments at the Seliger Youth Forum— answering a question about Kazakh nationalism in southern Kazakhstan— sends the message to his loyal political partner and friend, President Nazarbayev, that Kazakhstan was not a state until it was annexed into the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan needs to remain under the Russian sphere of influence, and Kazakhstan’s cannot survive without Nazarbayev. Essentially, Putin was essentially labeling Kazakhstan’s independence as an experiment in statehood and that Kazakhstan will remain a state as long as it remains loyal to Russia.

In response to Putin’s remarks, President Nazarbayev said they will withdraw from the EaEU if Kazakhstan’s independence is threatened. When the agreement for the EaEU was signed, Nazarbayev firmly stated that the organization will not threaten Kazakhstan’s independence. From Putin’s remarks, it can be extrapolated that Nazarbayev embodies Kazakhstan’s statehood, that Kazakhstan will not exist once Nazarbayev leaves, and that Kazakhstan and its people will need to be taken care of (by Putin). Hopefully, these remarks will force the Kazakhstan government to either hold elections or develop a succession plan for Nazarbayev even if it means undercutting Nazarbayev’s power. Withdrawing from the EaEU might provoke a Crimea-like response from Russia.

Compared to Crimea, the annexation of Northern Kazakhstan (and subsequent governance) would be easier for Russia as Russia has direct access to the Kazakh-Russia border and the ethnic Russian population is concentrated in the north. The hypothetical annexation of northern Kazakhstan would be more beneficial and economical than the annexation of Crimea. To keep access to Crimea, a land-bridge across the Kerch Strait has been proposed but would cost an estimated $4.3 billion (150 million rubles).

If Kazakhstan chose not to cooperate with Russia, it would be held hostage by Russia’s foreign policy. After Crimea was annexed, Kazakhstan was left with no other option than to cooperate with Russian plans for integration and agreement with Russia and Putin’s policies is a way for Kazakhstan to maintain its territorial integrity. Putin’s comments about Kazakhstan’s independence may force Kazakhstan to sacrifice some of its relationships with Western institutions and organizations such as NATO and the OSCE. If Kazakhstan were to express desires to become a full NATO member or choose to make all of their energy agreements with China or the EU, this would most likely provoke Russian action. Nazarbayev’s remarks about Kazakhstan leaving the EaEU might trigger a diplomatic row and shift Kazakhstan away from Russia. Russia has political and economic leverage in the region and over Kazakhstan as Putin has exploited Nazarbayev’s desires for regional integration.

If Kazakhstan were to be annexed or experience a pro-Russian uprising facilitated by ethnic Russians backed by Russia, Kazakhstan would be the biggest loser. If the West is not willing to go to war for the Ukraine, it surely will not go to war for Kazakhstan.

Anceschi, Luca and Paolo Sorbello. 2014.  Kazakhstan and the EEU: the rise of Eurasian skepticism. Open Democracy. http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/vadzim-smok/belarus-and-eeu-caught-between-rock-and-hard-place (last accessed July 11, 2014).

Cheung, Chien-peng. 2004. The Shanghai Co-operation Organization: China’s changing influence in Central Asia. The China Quarterly, no. 180 (December) : 989-1009.

Erlanger, Steven. 1993. Ex-Soviet lands rebuff Yeltsin on protecting Russians abroad. December 25, 1993. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/12/25/world/ex-soviet-lands-rebuff-yeltsin-on-protecting-russians-abroad.html (last accessed July 2, 2014).

Kaiser, Robert and Jeff Chinn. 1995. Russia-Kazakh relations in Kazakhstan. Post Soviet Geography 36, no. 5 : 257-273.

Kazantsev, Andrei. 2008. Russian policy in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region. Europe-Asia Studies 60, no. 6 : 1073-1088.

Kucera, Joshua. 2014. North Kazakhstan isn’t the next Crimea — yet. Al-Jazeera America. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/6/19/north-kazakhstanisntthenextcrimeaayet.html (last accessed July 8, 2014).

Kuniholm, Bruce R. 2000. The geopolitics of the Caspian Basin. Middle East Journal 54, no. 4 (Autumn) : 546-571.

Pannier, Bruce and Karabek, Yerzhan. 2014. A tale of Russian separatism in Kazakhstan. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). http://www.rferl.org/content/qishloq-ovozi-kazakhstan-russian-separatism/25479571.html (last accessed September 12, 2014).

Peyrouse, Sebastien. 2008. The Russian minority in Central Asia: Migration, politics, and language. Occasional paper #297. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/OP297_russian_minority_central_asia_peyrouse_2008.pdf (last accessed August 2, 2014).

Razumkov Centre. N.d. With which cultural tradition do you associate yourself?  Razumkov Centre Web Site. http://www.razumkov.org.ua/eng/poll.php?poll_id=394 (last accessed June 28, 2014).

Roberts, Sean R. 2012.  Resolving Kazakhstan’s Unlikely Succession Crisis. PONARS, Eurasia Policy Memo, no. 231. http://www.ponarseurasia.org/sites/default/files/policy-memos-pdf/pepm_231_Roberts_Sept2012.pdf (last accessed July 5, 2014).

Shapovalova, Natalia and Balazs Jarabik. 2009. Crimea: Next flashpoint in the European neighborhood? Fundacion Para Las Relaciones Internacionales Y El Dialogo Exterior (FRIDE). Policy Brief no. 14. www.fride.org/descarga/pb14_crimea-flash_point_eng_jul09.pdf (last accessed June 29, 2014).

Trilling, David. 2014. Amid Crimea crisis, Russia proposes expanding citizenship in Ex-USSR.
EurasiaNet.org. http://www.eurasianet.org/node/68112 (last accessed August 1, 2014).
United States Energy Information Administration (USEIA). 2013. Kazakhstan. http://www.eia.gov/countries/analysisbriefs/Kazakhstan/kazakhstan.pdf (last accessed June 26, 2014).

Vinokurov, Evgeny. 2010. The Evolution of Kаzakhstan’s position on relations with Russia in 1991-2010. Eurasia Development Bank. http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/22187/ (last accessed August 1, 2014).

Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.

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Central Asia

Russia’s ‘Great Game’ in Central Asia Amid the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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The post-Soviet Central Asian nations are gravely concerned about the Taliban’s rapid offensive in non-Pashtun northern provinces of Afghanistan seizing border crossings with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The region, which is considered Russia’s backyard, is not ready to cope on its own with the aftermath of the Afghan conflict after the US withdrawal on August 31 and to confront new challenges posed by the jihadist threat. This further forces the authoritarian and corrupt Central Asian political regimes to seek outside support rather than relying on their strength.

Central Asia’s economic and military vulnerability to growing security challenges amid a nationwide Taliban advance has once again turned the region into an arena of geopolitical rivalry between world powers, the US, Russia and China.

By exploiting the Afghan crisis, Moscow is trying to increase its military influence in the wider Central Asian region, also known as Russia’s ‘southern underbelly,’ a term that underscores the sense of vulnerability it feels along its southern border. Putin’s primary goal at this stage is to prevent the US armed forces from gaining a foothold in Central Asia again after their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Because for Moscow any forays by Washington in its ‘southern underbelly’, especially in the military field, represent a potential threat that could reduce its influence in the post-Soviet space.

Therefore, Russian officials are now carefully eyeing the next US moves and scrutinizing each of their contacts with the Central Asian governments. The military escalation near the border areas of its ‘southern underbelly’ is playing into Russia’s hands, as the “Five Stans” have high hopes for the Kremlin security umbrella to prevent possible threats from Afghanistan. Russia, in turn, seeing the dependence of Central Asian nations on it for support and defense, and is mounting speculation over the potential destabilization of the region.

It is noteworthy that Russia views the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as its hard power outposts in the region, which members are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In early July, Tajikistan called on CSTO to help it deal with security challenges emerging from Afghanistan, as its military forces could not handle the instability at the border without external assistance.

Moreover, President Vladimir Putin personally called his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rakhmon and confirmed his readiness to provide Tajikistan with the necessary support, both bilaterally and within the framework of the CSTO. For this purpose, Moscow wants to use its 201st military base in Tajikistan, one of its biggest abroad, to ensure the security of its allies.

The two authoritarian leaders agreed to jointly counter international terrorist threats at the time when some 1,600 Afghan government troops were fled north into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan following a Taliban onslaught in June.

Despite the amorphousness and ineffectiveness of the Russia-led military bloc, Moscow likes to emphasize the mutual defense commitments of CSTO members on the principle that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.” Another tool of Russian military influence in the region is its military base in Kyrgyz Kant, which strengthened its air and missile defense systems, deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and modern Mi-8MTV5-1 helicopters last year. Moscow is also strengthening military cooperation with non-CSTO members, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, in bilateral framework, by arms sales and joint military exercises. Russia has long viewed Central Asia as part of its privileged sphere of influence, and any military-political activity of external actors here arouses its envy and suspicion. The recent intensification of Russian military activity in the region is aimed at hindering the US military presence in Central Asia following its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

US foreign policy strategies towards Central Asia

Recently the Biden administration has cautiously probed a foothold in Central Asia to redeployment of US troops and to temporarily house about 9,000 Afghan interpreters who assisted with the American military’s invasion and occupation of the country. On April 15, the US officials had been in contact with Kazakh, Uzbek, and Tajik authorities about the possibility of reposition some of its troops in the region.

Further, on July 1 in Washington, US top diplomat Antony Blinken met with his Uzbek and Tajik counterparts, during which the parties discussed regional security and the situation in Afghanistan. After the meeting, Blinken tweeted words of gratitude to Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and described Uzbekistan as an essential partner for regional security. “We have strong shared interests when it comes to security in the region, particularly with regard to Afghanistan,” Blinken said. Separately, in his meeting with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, Blinken discussed the military-political situation in Afghanistan and affirmed the US commitment to Tajikistan’s security, stability, and territorial integrity.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan, visited Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in May-June, where he held talks with the leaders of the countries on regional security issues. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the Homeland Security Adviser to the US President, attended the C5+1 meeting in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent on July 15, where she assured that the US will continue to solicit strong regionally and internationally support for the Afghan peace process. Details of US requests for bases in Central Asia have not been disclosed to the press, but the State Department’s increased activity towards the ‘Five Stans’ indicates that Washington is looking for regional partners.

However, their attempts to collect over-the-horizon counterterrorism capacity in Central Asia to support the current Afghan government apparently to have not resulted. It appears that Central Asian governments are playing it cool. Uzbekistan referred to its national defense doctrine, according to which no foreign military base could be permitted on Uzbek soil. Tajikistan recalled that as a member of the Moscow-led CSTO, it has no right to host foreign military bases on its territory without the consent of other members of the bloc. Kazakhstan silently bypassed the Afghan issues. Perhaps the US did not take into account the new Kyrgyz government due to its strong pro-Russian position. Apparently, Central Asian governments also have not replied positively to Washington’s request for temporarily housing some of Afghans who worked alongside US troops and who may be at risk from the Taliban. That was the result of Russia’s undisguised and heavy political pressure on its Central Asian allies.

Russia’s ‘heavy hand’ over Central Asia

The alarming situation along the Central Asian-Afghan border and the return’s threat of Taliban-backed Uzbek and Tajik Jihadists to Fergana Valley have forced the region’s authoritarian leaders to seek protection under Putin’s heavy hand. In May, he received the Tajik president Emomali Rahmon and the Kyrgyz leader Sadyr Japarov in Russia. Over the past three months, Putin has regularly spoken on the phone with his Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen counterparts, during which they discussed the security situation in the region. However, it can be assessed as political pressure considering Putin’s sharp anti-Western stance and his regular contact with the Central Asian leaders during the period when the US authorities were actively looking for a new place to redeploy their troops.

Russia’s top diplomat Sergey Lavrov has long cautioned Central Asia’s governments against deploying US troops in their countries. Otherwise, the Russian authorities openly warned that such actions would have far-reaching negative economic and political consequences. Moscow fears that Washington intends to use Central Asia as a foothold to simultaneously challenge its two principal competitors: Russia and China. According to Putin’s geostrategists, the US can exploit Russia’s ‘southern underbelly’ as fulcrums to strike at the core of the Kremlin.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, another heavyweight of Putin’s anti-Western team, toured Central Asia, attending a meeting of the Council of Defense Ministers of the member states of the CSTO in April. In his speech, he mainly criticized the West, stressing that “the actions of the US and NATO in the European region contribute to the growth of the military danger.” While in Dushanbe, Shoigu and his Tajik counterpart Sherali Mirzo announced the creation of a unified air defense system between Russia and Tajikistan. As part of his tour, Sergei Shoigu also visited Tashkent where together with the Uzbek counterpart Bahodir Kurbanov presented the strategic partnership program between Russia and Uzbekistan in the military field for 2021-2025. Notably, the main goal of his tour was to reassert Russian military influence in Central Asia and to counter deploying the US troops in the former Soviet Central Asian nations following their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin envoy on Afghanistan, stands out against the general background of Russia’s anti-American chorus, who recently stressed that “the US withdrawal cannot and must not turn into a redeployment of US and NATO military infrastructure facilities to countries neighboring Afghanistan, especially in Central Asia.”

Previously, the Central Asia states in their foreign policy tried to maintain neutrality in the Russia-China-USA triangle, consistently participating in all regional projects proposed by the superpowers: Moscow’s ‘Eurasian Economic Union’, the Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ and the Washington’s ‘C5+1’. However, the Central Asian governments were unable to maintain a balance of neutrality when the interests of global players over the US military presence in the region came into contradiction.

As a result, the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan provided the opportunity for Moscow to strengthen its political and military influence not only over its soft “southern underbelly”, but also beyond the Eurasian space. Geopolitical competition of global powers for the post-war future of Afghanistan has shown that the Central Asian nations, despite their 30-year experience of independence, still remain dependent on the Kremlin position.

Can Moscow step into the same Afghan river twice?

Notably, Afghanistan was a “geopolitical arena” between Moscow and Washington since the Soviet military intervention in 1979, where two world powers competed for geopolitical, military, economic and ideological superiority. It seems that now Russia’s leader, who greatly regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union after its shameful defeat in the Afghan war, has decided to pay the US in their own coin. Putin, whose anti-Western firm beliefs were shaped by the Soviet KGB, is imposing his will upon Central Asian weak leaders to side with Moscow rather than Washington in the “Great Geopolitical Competition.”

Over the past twenty years, the Russian GRU repeatedly attempted to undermine the US counterterrorism activity in Afghanistan guiding by the principle “what is bad for Washington is good for Moscow.” In June 2020, the US accused Russia of offering the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan. Moscow, then, as usual, denied the accusation.

Now Russian officials and experts gloated over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Particularly, pro-Kremlin media automatically credited any of Washington’s failures in favor of Moscow. According to Russia’s chief diplomat, the US mission in Afghanistan had “failed”, and its hasty withdrawal from the country destabilized the region, which in turn exacerbated the terrorist threat in the region. Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan made another accusation that Afghan government forces are losing the war to the Taliban because the US and NATO failed to create a combat-ready army during their twenty years of occupation of the country. Thus, the pro-Kremlin media, which still have a strong influence in the post-Soviet region, are fueling anti-American sentiments on the Afghan problem.

In conclusion, the “Great Game” around Central Asia over Afghanistan indicated the lack of foreign policy independent of the five post-Soviet nations. They are still highly vulnerable before Russian political and military influence even after 30 years of their sovereignty.

Outright US adversaries such as Iran and China have also made efforts to counter the deployment of US forward operating bases in Central Asia. Beijing’s tremendous economic pressure on its western neighbors forced them to react coldly to US proposals. In addition, the Afghan Taliban, whose influence began to spread outside the country, made several statements warning Central Asia’s neighbors not to provide its territories to US forces.

The coldshoulder of the Central Asian nations to US requests was the result of Washington’s passive foreign policy over the past two decades. While U.S. foreign policy was strategically adrift, Putin’s Russia regained its posture in the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Today, both Moscow and Beijing are aggressively challenging US interests in Central Asia on multiple fronts.

Thus, the Central Asian states have provided Russia moral satisfaction by supporting it in Putin’s “Great Game” in rivalry with the West. However, having sided with Russia, they have not fully achieved an improving of their geopolitical positions, strengthening of defense capability and ensuring regional security. Because, despite its global ambitions, Moscow has very limited political, financial and military resources to protect its Central Asian allies from the post-American Afghanistan security challenges.

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Central Asia

Power without Soft Power: China’s Outreach to Central Asia

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The People’s Republic of China has become increasingly interested in the Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—for both internal and external motives. As such, the resurgence of terrorism and religious extremism—Islamic and Buddhist—in mainland China has prompted Beijing to increase its upstream presence with military troops stationed in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan (officially to combat narcotics trafficking) while implementing a policy of re-educating Uyghur Muslim dissidents in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China.

Beijing’s approach has been severely criticized in the United States and Europe, and Western countries are exploiting the Xinjiang Vocational Education and Training Centers (Xinjiang internment camps) to damage Beijing’s international image, without necessarily taking into account the reality on the ground in a region of the world where China’s policy is helping to contain the spread of Islamist groups, including ISIS.

The Chinese dual approach, which is essentially aimed at containing radical Islamism in the immediate periphery and at home, is likely to be reinforced in the years to come, as the U.S. Department of Defense recently announced the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, thus leaving Beijing in charge of security in the region, as Central Asian states do not have the financial and logistical means (e.g. GEOINT) to contain the spread of terrorism. The Chinese presence also avoids the need to ask for help from Russia, whose involvement is often perceived as a form of “post-Soviet colonialism.”

In Central Asia, where resources—especially water—are scarce, coupled with a high birth-rate and a lack of economic and military means, Beijing’s presence is seen as an economic advantage by all, although it gives rise to differing political views regarding such topics as religion.

While China is a technological leader and the best economic opportunity for Central Asian states, Beijing’s approach to curbing the spread of Islam is frowned upon by many Central Asian countries. As a matter of fact, Islam has grown in influence since the disappearance of shamanism (the native religion of the Central Asian peoples) and the end of the Soviet Union (atheistic policy), which is nowadays leading to growing diplomatic divergences between China and the neighboring states.

Chinese Politics in Central Asia

Beijing’s approach to Central Asia and Afghanistan is not comparable to that of the United States or the Soviet Union in that Beijing is offering to deploy its military troops as compensation for paying the debts of countries, with the agreement of the local governments.

As of today, all Central Asian countries are economically dependent on China for both exports and imports of goods, especially medical equipment and pharmaceuticals where Beijing is a world leader; and the debt is growing.

Initially, the Central Asian countries tried to balance their trade with Beijing, notably by exporting gas. China imported a total of 43 billion cubic meters (bcm) from Central Asia in 2019, according to the estimates from the BP Statistical Review. Back in 2010, that figure was just 3.4 bcm. Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s largest gas exporter, became especially dependent on China when its exports to Russia slid to zero in 2016. In mid-2019, Russia agreed to resume importing 5.5 bcm per year of gas from Turkmenistan, a fraction of what goes to China.

It soon became clear, however, that selling gas would not be enough to pay off the debts, which meant Beijing was given the option of stationing troops in countries such as Afghanistan with the approval of the neighboring states.

Therefore, Chinese diplomacy in Central Asia is not based on soft power as Beijing opposes the spread of Islam, an attitude that offends Central Asian citizens, and there is little exposure to the Chinese language or spontaneous adoption of Confucianism considering China’s economic prominence in the region.

Beijing adopts a similar attitude; and while countries, such as Kazakhstan, are a necessary route for the transit of Chinese products to the European Union and Great Britain, China sees the Central Asian countries as antagonists due to their religion and to historical factors, as the former nomadic conquerors (e.g. Genghis Khan) still leave a negative resonance in the Chinese mind. In addition, there are territorial disputes between China and Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan, which hinders any deep development of diplomatic relations with Beijing when one considers the importance China attributes to its territorial sovereignty (e.g. Taiwan and the Diaoyutai Islands).

As such, cultural differences push China to cooperate with Central Asian countries within the framework of international organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, rather than on a one-to-one level, allowing it to take a global view in the region and avoid mentioning bilateral frictions.

Chinese Military Approach in Central Asia

In contrast to the cultural dimension (soft power), China has a more proactive stance in the military sector. For instance, it collaborates with Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) members and with the countries of Central Asia in carrying out joint military exercises.

Moscow and Beijing moved their relations towards a global strategic partnership of coordination in a new era, committing themselves to closer coordination on global security issues and mutual support. For the second consecutive year, China took part in the Russian strategic command and staff exercise (TSENTR-2019) held this year in the Russian Central Military District. The aim of the exercise was to test the readiness levels of the Russian army and interoperability between regional partners, while simulating a response to terrorist threats in Central Asia. China represented the largest foreign contingent, deploying some 1,600 ground and air troops from the PLA Western Theatre Command and nearly 30 planes and helicopters, including H-6 bombers.

However, in the Chinese perception, Central Asian countries are of little military relevance and Russia remains the main partner, so exercises with Central Asian and CSTO countries are a way to strengthen cooperation with Moscow but not fundamentally with the Central Asian countries.

This Chinese vision seems relevant insofar as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are not nuclear powers and do not have sufficient military means to envisage an equal partnership with Beijing. China’s military budget in 2020 was $252 billion, while that of Central Asia as a whole was $2.2 billion in the same year.

Beijing is therefore using the motive of joint exercises and the repayment of national debts of the countries in the region to increase its military presence, especially in the Wakhan Corridor.

The Wakhan Corridor

The Wakhan Corridor is a narrow strip of territory in Afghanistan, extending to China and separating Tajikistan from Pakistan and Kashmir. The corridor, wedged between the Pamir Mountains to the North and the Karakoram range to the South, is about 350 km long and 13-65 kilometers wide and has been used as a trade route to connect China since antiquity.

Beijing is specifically interested in this region because it is in Afghanistan, one of the strongholds for Islamic terrorism, and easy to send troops from the mainland. With the withdrawal of American forces and the reduction of NATO’s presence expected in September 2021, China can then try to replace the United States in the region. Furthermore, the Corridor leads directly to the Chinese border, and Beijing’s (unofficial) military base in the region ensures control of the illegal traffic of drugs and weapons.

In addition, having a facility in the area allows for rapid intervention in the two countries that share a border with the Corridor—Tajikistan and Pakistan—with the latter also known to be a bastion for terrorist hiding from the rest outside world (e.g. Osama bin Laden).

Unlike in the case of Djibouti, China refused to openly mention its military presence in the Corridor and has used the fight against drug trafficking as an excuse since a number of reports of a permanent Chinese military presence have emerged. The reason for this Chinese secrecy is due to several factors:

  • It is likely that a large part of the military activities is actually fighting against drug trafficking which is common in the area (Afghan opium) [1];
  • The Chinese presence in Djibouti has been seen by the United States, France, Italy and Japan as a significant development that aims to supplant their influence on the continent. Similarly, such open display of Chinese ambitions in Central Asia has reinforced international apprehension about China’s global military ambitions.

Although aware of China’s activities in the Corridor, the Kremlin could perceive a Chinese official communication on this subject as a deliberate choice by Beijing to challenge Russian military influence in the post-Soviet space.

Russia’s presence has been limited since the end of the USSR and the end of the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), and apart from the Russian language, Moscow is now a secondary economic partner in Central Asia, behind China, so the loss of Russian military influence could be misinterpreted.

China and the Water Crisis in Central Asia

While the international community focuses on the Uyghur Muslim and the Wakhan Corridor, the main threat to the Central Asian states will continue to be the lack of water supplies, which will lead to conflicts between countries in the region and, perhaps, with neighbors such as China and Russia.

The mismanagement of water resources had been a recurring theme in the CIA’s analyses, which as early as the 1960s mentioned the long-term effects of overuse of the available capacities. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Central Asian countries have failed to implement a relevant strategy to save water and stem population growth, ultimately leading to an emerging crisis.

China will have to ensure the security of its own national water resources but also develop an approach to supply the countries of Central Asia with blue gold to avoid a major economic crisis that could harm Chinese gas supplies and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Researchers at Oxford University ran 738 simulations combining possible changes in water consumption with 80 future climate scenarios, ranging from warmer and drier to warmer and wetter conditions. Most of the simulations point to the same grim conclusion: Central Asian states are running out of water.

The lack of water is not only due to a poor management on Central Asian states. In 2020, an American-Kazakh-Chinese team using satellite data estimated that irrigated cropland on the Chinese side increased nearly 30 percent between 1995 and 2015, and they found no significant increase on the Kazakh side in the same period.

To avoid further tensions, a long-term option for China would be to provide water management solutions to Central Asian countries in exchange for the gas and other resources they have to offer.

Conclusion

Chinese military presence is expected to increase from September 2021 because of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Although critical of its national policy towards the Uyghur, the fight against terrorism in China and abroad is producing results in a region of the world where radical Islamism abounds.

The Chinese military presence is, therefore, an opportunity for the Central Asian countries, but also for the Western world insofar.

Although it may seem paradoxical, Pakistan as a Muslim country has understood the importance of China’s policy; for this reason, Islamabad continues to serve as Beijing’s communication bridge to the Muslim world.

In 2016, China announced that it will set up an anti-terrorism alliance including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, while in December 2018, Pakistan’s government even defended China’s re-education camps for Uyghur Muslims.

Pakistan’s support for China’s policies is not an excuse for practices that violate human rights, but attests to the Islamic threat in the region that is detrimental to its development.

The water crisis is also going to be a fundamental factor in the development of terrorism and extremism in Central Asia from the summer of 2021, as the lack of resources drives the development of radical ideologies. For this reason, the water issue will certainly become central to BRI’s development policy and to bilateral relations between China and the whole of Central Asia.

[1] In 2008, less than 8,000 tons were produced, mainly in Afghanistan, and this drug remains in Chinese minds because of the Opium Wars, two wars waged between the Qing dynasty and Western powers in the mid-19th century.

From our partner RIAC

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Central Asia

China and Russia Build a Central Asian Exclusion Zone

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Last month, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted the China+Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ meeting in the Chinese city of Xi’an. This is the second such meeting, which increasingly focuses (with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) on geopolitical issues. More broadly, it signals China’s lack of concern for what Russia considers its vital economic and political interests in the region. Top of the agenda was Afghanistan, as China worries about possible spillover to Central Asia and its eastern provinces as U.S. and allied troops prepare to evacuate in September.

Yet the greatest issue in Central Asia’s changing geopolitical landscape is economics and trade. China promised a number of new projects during the Xi’an gathering. Increased cooperation was pledged in agriculture, health and education, trade, energy, transportation, and even archaeology. More importantly, China vowed to help Kyrgyzstan to alleviate its debt pile and pressed it to approve a railroad linking China to Uzbekistan. Set to play a major role in connecting China with the Middle East and South Caucasus, the project has seen constant delays. Partly, that is due to economic and political troubles in Kyrgyzstan, but Russia too is partly responsible, fearing the corridor would divert a significant portion of transit cargo from its railroad tracks. Regardless, the direction of travel is clear: each economic agreement makes the region more closely aligned to China.

China has recognized that large and unwieldy summits often fail to provide the expected results and now increasingly favors small meetings. It does the same with other regions, including South-East Asia. This is far more efficient and as by far the biggest power in the room, it can dominate the agenda and outcome.

Naturally, these developments have a significant effect on Russia, the traditional powerbroker in Central Asia, and invites the question of whether it has been eclipsed. It certainly maintains significant military capabilities — recently improved — through bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and intermittent military cooperation with the region’s other countries. Russia is also a powerful economic player: it is a major trade partner for the five states, a vital source of investment, and a significant source of remittances from Central Asian migrant workers. Furthermore, Russia has joint security and economic initiatives in the region such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Last but not least, the region is close culturally to Russia through the use of Russian as the lingua franca.

China has taken aim at every sphere of Russia’s influence, and it would be surprising if these developments did not cause grievances. Certainly, there is a growing narrative in the West about an impending geopolitical showdown between the two sides in Central Asia.

The reality, however, might be more nuanced and the analysis mere wishful thinking.

To understand the nature of the China-Russia competition in Central Asia it is crucial to look into the evolving world order and what non-liberal powers seek to achieve. One of the peculiarities of the post-liberal order is the extreme regionalization of geopolitically sensitive areas. Large powers neighboring the region seek to exclude third powers. Russia pursues it successfully in the South Caucasus where together with Turkey and partially Iran, it seeks to dislodge the collective West. A similar process is underway in Syria and can be applied to the South China Sea, where China tries to settle territorial problems directly with its neighbors and without U.S. involvement.

Appearances might be deceptive. Russia and China are competitors, but they are unlikely to turn into rivals. The West should reconsider some fundamental aspects of its thinking in regards to this Central Asian partnership.

Engagement with Central Asia could certainly help, and its absence would simply hand over Central Asia to the two powers. The region is in a dire need of rebalancing, and more room to maneuver. Both Russia and China are appreciated and feared in Central Asia. The West’s position will be critical though, and it must formulate a coherent strategy for economic and political engagement with Central Asia, or be locked out.

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