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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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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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