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2018 World Cup offers Chechnya opportunity to play Middle Eastern politics

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When strongman Ramzan Kadyrov last month opened The Local, a United Arab Emirates-funded luxury hotel in the Chechen capital of Grozny and prepared to receive Egypt’s World Cup qualifying national team as its first guests, he was cashing in on more than the Russian region’s Muslim identity.

Eager to forge close ties to Middle Eastern nations, Mr. Kadyrov, who tightly controls Chechen sports, was cashing in on the fact that he has aligned himself with like-minded governments that not only stand out in their repression of dissent, but also their efforts to oppose Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam.

Mr. Kadyrov, a barrel-chested man who recognizes the political utility of sports and is widely seen as a henchman of Russian President Vladimir Putin, earned his credentials by brutally suppressing an Islamist insurgency in Chechnya during his decade-long tenure.

Speaking to The Washington Post, Beslan Visambiev, a manager of a Grozny-based UAE investment fund, suggested that Mr. Putin was using Mr. Kadyrov as his point man in the Muslim world. “It seems like Putin delegated those powers to Kadyrov,” Mr. Visambiev said.

Mr. Visambiev echoed Mr. Kadyrov’s own words four years earlier when he addressed 20,000 members of his militia in a Grozny stadium.

“The time has come for us to make our conscious choice, and we say this to the whole world that we are the combat infantry of Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Kadyrov said quoting a speech given by his father shortly before he was assassinated in 2004.

Criticism by human rights groups of the UAE’s investment and Egypt’s choice of Grozny has focussed on Chechnya rather than the Emirates and Egypt, even if both countries have recently been in the news for their own alleged violations of basic rights.

The US the House of Representatives last week voted to investigate a potential US role in torture in a UAE-operated network of prisons in Yemen.

A close US ally, the UAE stands accused of being a “colonizing force” in Yemen that supports extremist militias responsible for violence against Yemeni activists and Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood-linked political party, and a bete noire of UAE crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

In recent days, Egypt, whose prisons are filled with an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, arrested   Hazim Abdelazim, a one-time campaigner turned critic for general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and prominent blogger and activist Wael Abbas.

Mr. Kadyrov, whose human rights record, like that of Prince Mohammed and Mr. Al-Sisi, has been questioned, has denounced allegations of abuse as a “myth” designed to destabilise his government.

Yet, Mr. Kadyrov’s notion of a more liberal interpretation of Islam is not dissimilar to that of Mr. Al-Sisi or Prince Mohammed, even if the effective UAE ruler has been not quite as harsh in measures against transgender, gay, and gender non-conforming people.

Both Chechnya and Egypt have in the last year brutally targeted gays, prompting Human Rights Watch to demand that world soccer body FIFA oppose a proposed Egyptian anti-LGBT law and to demand the release of Oyub Titev, the head of Chechnya’s only still operating human rights group.

The bullet-riddled body of Mr. Titev’s predecessor, Natalia Estemirova, was dumped by the road shortly after she was kidnapped in 2009.

The fact that Egypt and the UAE are the vehicles Mr. Kadyrov is using to exploit this month’s World Cup in Russia in a bid to project Chechnya on the world stage in a more positive light and polish his tarnished image is no coincidence.

Both the UAE and Egypt have been in the forefront of efforts to counter political Islam and promote more quietist, apolitical interpretations of the faith that counter Saudi-style ultra-conservatism and are more in line with their vision of autocratic rule even if both countries are closely aligned with the kingdom.

The UAE has quietly nurtured the creation of moderate Islamic institutions such as the Muslim Council of Elders, the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies and the Sawab and Hedayah Centres in a bid to counter the influence of controversial, Qatar-based Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and more militant Islamist forces.

Mr. Al-Sisi, an observant Muslim who in a 2006 paper argued that democracy cannot be understood without a grasp of the concept of the caliphate, has been advocating with limited success that Al Azhar, one of the Muslim world’s foremost institutions and the world’s oldest seat  of Islamic learning, spearhead “a religious revolution” to counter militancy.

Mr. Kadyrov, who professes to be a Sufi, a more mystical interpretation of Islam, facilitated in 2016 a high point of the Emirati and Egyptian efforts when he hosted in Grozny a gathering of prominent Sunni Muslim leaders that effectively excommunicated Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism.

In a frontal assault on Saudi-backed religious movements such as Wahhabism, Salafism and Deobandism, the conference charged that the label Sunni had been hijacked by heretics whose deviant practices distorted Islam.

In defining Sunni Islam, the conference explicitly excluded Wahhabism, the version of Islam long propagated by Saudi Arabia, as well as Salafism and Deobandism from its definition.

Mr. Kadyrov’s alliance with the UAE and Egypt has allowed him to exploit Russia’s hosting of the World Cup even if Chechnya will not be a venue for any of the competition’s matches.

The alliance has also paid off in other ways. The UAE last year created the Zayed Fund that aims to support Chechen businesses and is funding construction of a gleaming skyscraper in the Chechen capital. UAE-based carrier Air Arabia launched in April direct flights from Sharjah to Grozny

The UAE-Egypt-Chechnya alliance may have produced economic benefits but appears to have done little to improve the tarnished image of the Russian republic or Mr. Kadyrov himself.

“FIFA’s decision to use Grozny for a World Cup team camp is absolutely shocking and outrageous. FIFA should reverse their decision and move the training camp to another city, ” said Human Rights Watch associate director Jane Buchanan.

FIFA last year conceded that anti-LGBT attacks in Chechnya were in “sharp contradiction to the values of FIFA as an organization and we firmly condemn them” but more recently insisted that it had “no grounds to believe that the choice of the Egyptian FA to locate its base camp in Grozny will cause particular adverse human rights impacts.”

Countered Ms. Buchanan, the author of a report on World Cup worker abuses in Russia: Mr. Kadyrov runs Chechnya “like his own fiefdom and commits human rights abuses with impunity. FIFA’s decision will only legitimize the utterly abusive Kadyrov regime.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Coronavirus: Why Russians Are Lucky to Be Led by Putin

Eric Zuesse

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On Tuesday, March 24th, the following happened:

U.S.A. had the world’s largest number of new coronavirus-19 cases: 10,168. The prior day, there were 33,546 cases; so, this 10,168 new cases were a 30% increase from the day before. 

Russia had 71 new cases, up 19% from the prior day’s 367

Reuters bannered “U.S. has potential of becoming coronavirus epicenter, says WHO” and reported that,

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it was seeing a “very large acceleration” in coronavirus infections in the United States which had the potential of becoming the new epicenter.

Over the past 24 hours, 85 percent of new cases were from Europe and the United States, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters. Of those, 40 percent were from the United States.

Asked whether the United States could become the new epicentre, Harris said: “We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the U.S. So it does have that potential.

Right now, on Wednesday the 25th, the U.S. again has the world’s largest number of new cases reported, 11,074. That’s a 25% increase added to the 43,734 cases total on March 24th. And, within just three more days, America will have the world’s largest total number of cases, if Italy won’t. And after yet another day, the U.S. will almost certainly have the world’s largest total number of cases, because Italy has been adding only around half as many new cases per day as the U.S., though Italy’s total right now is higher than America’s, and is actually the second largest total after only China’s. China will have the world’s third-largest total number of cases by this weekend, the 28th or 29th, and America will be #1 then, not only on the number of new cases, but on the total number of cases, of this infection. That quickly, then, China will become no longer the #1 coronavirus-19 nation, but, instead, #3, behind the #1 U.S., and the #2 Italy. 

America has been in political chaos because each of its two houses of Congress, and both Parties, and the President, have been blocked from agreeing on what to do — all of them were ignoring that this is an existential emergency and thus dealt with it as if it were instead just another way for each to increase its chances of re-election at the expense of the others. Both political Parties, Republicans and Democrats, and Congress and the President, agreed on a “$500 billion fund for corporations” to reduce the negative impact on billionaires’ wealth, but Democrats demanded that limits be placed on executives’ pay, and “included reducing student debt and boosting food stability programs. Some of the ideas would be major sticking points with Republicans: The bill, for example, would invest money ‘to eliminate high-polluting aircraft’ and ‘research into sustainable aviation fuels.’” Democrats also wanted, but Republicans refused, some costly measures to continue workers’ incomes during their plague-induced period of unemployment. Agreement had been reached only on the billionaire-bailouts — protections especially of stock-values. This is the way America’s ‘democracy’ works. Rule by the billionaires is considered to be ‘democracy’. Luxuries are treated as being more important than necessities are. (Billionaires are thought to be superior people, who must be served before anyone else.) Dollars rule, people don’t. And this chaos is the result of that.

On March 23rd, the prominent progressive economist James K. Galbraith headlined “What the Government Needs to Do Next” and described in detail what a governmental policy-response would be that would subsidize the public to deal with this crisis, but not subsidize the billionaires (who already have way too much and can well afford to become merely millionaires while not actually suffering at all), and that would be of maximum benefit to the total economy by protecting the assets of the most-vulnerable (who could then continue to shop and work), but his common-sense proposal wasn’t even being considered by the legislators, nor by the President.

Only a few countries had a faster rate of increase in cases than the U.S. did on March 24th, but all of them had far fewer cases: Portugal, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda. For example, Rwanda had the world’s highest percentage-increase from the day before, almost a doubling, but that was 17 new cases, up from a total of 19 on the day before. So, America’s 30% increase was clearly the world’s worst performance, on that single day.

Russia’s performance is perhaps the world’s best.

On March 22nd, CNN headlined “Why does Russia, population 146 million, have fewer coronavirus cases than Luxembourg?” (that’s a country of 628,000 people) and reported that 

Russia’s early response measures —  such as shutting down its 2,600-mile border with China as early as January 30, and setting up quarantine zones — may have contributed to the delay of a full-blown outbreak, some experts say.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to criticism over the number of recorded cases.

A strong record on testing

“The director-general of WHO said ‘test, test, test,’” Dr. Melita Vujnovic, the World Health Organization’s representative in Russia, told CNN Thursday. “Well, Russia started that literally at the end of January.”

Vujnovic said Russia also took a broader set of measures in addition to testing.

“Testing and identification of cases, tracing contacts, isolation, these are all measures that WHO proposes and recommends, and they were in place all the time,” she said. “And the social distancing is the second component that really also started relatively early.”

Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s state consumer watchdog, said Saturday that it had run more than 156,000 coronavirus tests in total. By comparison, according to CDC figures, the United States only picked up the pace in testing at the beginning of March.

On March 20th, the permanently anti-Russian U.S. organization, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (whose “Orwellian” name was perhaps one of the inspirations for George Orwell’s permanent-warfare novel, 1984) headlined “Confronting the Challenges of Coronavirus, Russia Sees Its Worldview Vindicated”, and tried to put as bad a face on Russia’s coronavirus performance as they could, such as by alleging that (alleged) dictatorships were performing no worse than ‘democracies’ at controlling the coronavirus threat:

The state has reasserted itself as the prime actor on the global scene. International institutions like the World Health Organization have become mere statisticians, and even the EU has taken a back seat to the governments of member states.

The world’s democracies are not faring better in the crisis than nondemocracies.

However, back on 27 July 2015, that organization had bannered “How Authentic is Putin’s Approval Rating?” and reviewed more than 15 years of Putin’s approval ratings from the Russian public, and reluctantly concluded that it was and had always been “Authentic,” and almost always high.

Internationally, too, Putin’s leadership of Russia is more highly regarded than is the current U.S. President’s leadership of America.

Back in 2017, the British firm of WIN/Gallup International issued “Gallup International’s 41st Annual Global End of Year Survey Opinion Poll in 55 Countries Across the Globe”, which sampled 1,000 persons in each country in order to determine in each one the percentage of the public who rated “Favorable” and who rated “Unfavorable” each of the following 12 national heads-of-state (listed here in descending order of their net favorability, or “favorable” minus “unfavorable”): Merkel, Macron, Modi, May, Xi, Putin, Saud, Netanyahu, Rouhani, Erdogan, and Trump. (Merkel globally scored highest, Trump lowest.)

Amongst Russians, the score for Putin was 79% Favorable, 11% Unfavorable, for a net score of +68%.

Though Germany’s Merkel had the highest score worldwide, her score in Germany was only 54% Favorable and 44% Unfavorable, for a net of +10.

Macron’s net score in France was -1%.

May’s net in UK was -18%

Rouhani’s in Iran was +37%

Erdogan’s in Turkey was +22%

Modi’s in India was +72% (that’s 84%-12%)

Trump’s in U.S. was -23% (35%-58%) — the worst of all.

The following leaders weren’t surveyed in their own countries: Xi, Netanyahu, and Saud.

So: Putin’s net +68% score amongst his own country’s population was second ony to Modi’s — and, whereas Modi had been in office for only 3 years and had not yet begun his controversial actively anti-Muslim campaign, Putin had led Russia for 17 years, and was a very firmly established high performer in these figures. Here are some of the reasons for this.

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Russian-Japanese dialogue in the context of amendments to the Constitution

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As Russia discusses amendments to the Constitution, an issue of particular concern has been the amendment that prohibits the alienation of Russian territories. The amendment will likely be put to vote on April 22. It is not surprising that it has evoked interest abroad, especially in Japan, where they still expect to regain control of the so-called “northern territories”. Unlike a great number of categorical alarmist comments in the Japanese press on this issue, Sankei Shimbun writes: “The amendment includes the wording “except for cases of demarcation or re-demarcation of borders with neighboring states”. Thus, negotiations on the Japanese “northern territories” can be considered not in conflict with the new Constitution. “

Are there grounds for such an interpretation of the amendment in question? “Any moves aimed at alienating territories, as well as calls for such actions, are not permitted,” – the presidential amendment says, specifying that it is not indeed about delimitation, demarcation, or re-demarcation of the state border.

Japan, claiming the southern islands of the Kuril Ridge, cites the Soviet-Japanese Declaration of October 19, 1956 “On ending the state of war between the two states and restoring diplomatic and consular relations”, according to which the USSR pledged to transfer the Shikotan and Habomai Islands. The Declaration, ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, has not been abolished. Another presidential amendment to the Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulates that Russia is the legal successor of the USSR in its territory and as a member of international organizations and international treaties.

However, the Tokyo Declaration indicated that the de facto transfer of these islands to Japan would be executed after the signing of a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan. In addition, the Soviet Union was also far from happy about the presence of American military bases on Japanese territory.

At present, what obstructs progress on the islands and the peace treaty is Japan’s unwillingness to take into account Russia’s strategic concerns about the status of the four islands of the South Kuril Ridge. In particular, Russia would like to receive guarantees about the neutral status of these territories and the non-deployment of US military bases on them.

The main thing is that while considering the issue of concluding a Peace Treaty with Japan, Russia insists that Japan recognize the results of World War II – something it has refused to do for many years. This approach is regrettably deeply rooted in the minds of the Japanese establishment and expert community. The abovementioned newspaper, for example, cites the opinion of Professor Sindzo Hakamada of Niigata University that “if Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes part in the celebration of Victory Day this year, it will mean acknowledgment of a blatant distortion of history by Russia and its uncompromising policy towards Japan.

From the Russian point of view, such statements are characteristic of the position of Japan. History, by the way, remembers cases when Tokyo changed this position depending on the political situation. A. Koshkin writes that in the spring of 1945, amid fears that the Soviet Union could participate in the war against Japan on the side of the Allied Powers, the Japanese leadership began to develop plans to “interest” the Soviet government by the concessions which Tokyo could make in exchange for Moscow’s neutrality and consent to mediate in armistice negotiations, including the abandoning of claims on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

Some Japanese experts, for example, M. Sato, believe that even after the amendments are made, there are two ways to resolve this problem so that the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan does not contradict the Russian Constitution. “The first way: to confirm that the transfer of Japanese islands to the USSR was recorded in the Yalta agreement of February 1945 and that in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Kuril Islands, which Japan turned down, do not include Habomai and Shikotan. The transfer of Habomai and Shikotan is not an act of alienation of territories, but the result of demarcation of borders, so this will not run counter to the Constitution of Russia. The second way: since the Soviet-Japanese declaration is an international agreement signed long before the approval of the Russian Constitution, the provisions of the Fundamental Law of Russia should not apply to it.

In any case, the presidential amendment that delimitation, demarcation and re-marking of the state border do not fall under the alienation of territories is fairly substantial. There have been similar situations in the past, for example, how would the Russian leadership act when considering the demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border in 2005 or the Russian-Norwegian border in 2010?

However, in the case of Japan, the formality – when and if the presidential amendment is adopted – is less important than content. The Russian-Japanese dialogue on a Peace Treaty is still possible and may end to the benefit of both parties if they manage to accept the terms of the Tokyo Declaration taking into account the new realities. In my opinion, this is what the presidential amendment to the Russian Constitution is all about.

From our partner International Affairs

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Coronavirus: A blessing in disguise

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Last week, many universities and colleges in Europe and other countries canceled classes and moved to online instruction amid coronavirus fears as the authorities are trying to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, such measures can prove beneficial to the world’s leading universities that practice online training and have developed platforms for this, above all in Russia, where the oldest educational institutions have long been using digital technology in teaching.

St. Petersburg State University (SPbU), the alma mater of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is among the institutions, which are best prepared to go on-line, and a large number of dedicated courses developed by the university can already be found on federal educational platforms such as https://openedu.ru/. The issue of digital education featured prominently on the agenda of the 4thInternational Labor Forum held in St. Petersburg in February – the last major international event held by the university before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking at the forum, the university’s rector, Nikolay Kropachev, described SPbU as being at the forefront of the development of online courses and distance learning.

Nikolay Kropachev also said that the university had come a long way in promoting international cooperation, and was among the first to protect foreign students from being subjected to irrational and ill-advised measures related to the spread of coronavirus. In February, after many Russian politicians proposed isolating all students from Southeast Asia, Nikolay Kropachev appealed to common sense, questioning the need to place in quarantine for several months students who have not been in their home country since their last vacation.

Now that the entire university has gone on a kind of “antiviral” vacation, St. Petersburg State University is working out an algorithm of distance learning, including by foreign students, who come for a year or two studying in English and other languages. Thus, even if the coronavirus epidemic lingers on, students will not lose a semester or two and will be able to fully communicate with their tutors via a computer screen. Also, everyone is welcome to come aboard and join the training process. For more details, go to the University website.

Note: St. Petersburg State University is a complex of early 18th century buildings – the city’s oldest stone structures, which housed the ministries of Russia’s first emperor, Peter the Great. Nikolay Kropachev wants to move some of the classrooms out to create in their place several museums dedicated to Russian history and Russia’s greatest scientists. Just like other Russian universities, SPbU now has chance to check the effectiveness of its achievements in the field of distance learning. “A blessing in disguise” as the Russian proverb has it. 

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