Monday, December 9, 2013

Ukraine, the EU and Russia: Win, Don’t Whine

By Matthew Bryza

It is understandable that European leaders are angry with Russia for spoiling the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius by pressuring Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to “suspend” signing of Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement (see EDM, November 22, December 3, 4). Moscow’s hardball tactics created a diplomatic debacle for the EU, as President Vladimir Putin (yet again) violated his self-serving maxim of non-interference in countries’ internal affairs by yanking Ukraine from the EU’s open door at the eleventh hour, just as he had done earlier by forcing Armenia to choose the Eurasian Customs Union over the EU (see EDM, September 5). Putin’s closure of Russian markets to Ukrainian exports and his threat to raise natural gas prices struck at the heart of the personal interests of many of the oligarchs who dominate Ukrainian politics; these tactics also infuriated European leaders as economic blackmail aimed at sabotaging EU foreign policy.

But this European anger is somewhat misplaced. Moscow is indeed exploiting weaknesses in Ukraine for Russia’s geopolitical and geo-economic gain. But it is President Viktor Yanukovch and Ukraine’s political elite who are responsible for perpetuating these vulnerabilities. By exploiting Ukraine’s weaknesses, President Putin is acting rationally in pursuit of a centuries-old goal of Kremlin foreign policy, keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit.

Rather than being disappointed with Russia for behaving like Russia, the EU would be more effective if it recognized that Europe and Russia have been playing different games. The EU is engaged in a competition of values to attract Ukraine and the five other Eastern Partners (Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia) to its consensus-based community that has replaced armed conflict with bureaucratic collaboration. Russia is engaged in a competition of power in pursuit of geostrategic influence through economic, political, and even military strong-arming. Regardless of how passionately European leaders argue that EU enlargement poses no threat to Russia, Russia’s top geostrategic thinkers will disagree, given their belief that any increase in EU influence in the region is a loss of Russian influence.

The EU would therefore be wise to stop romanticizing Russia as a strategic partner that shares European values, and then lamenting Russia’s pursuit of its own national interests as somehow immoral. Instead, the EU should start competing with Russia for Ukraine’s political soul.

Now is the time for decisive action. After buckling under Putin’s pressure and returning to Kyiv from Russia and China without an economic rescue package, Yanukovych can now expect hundreds of thousands of protestors on Kyiv’s streets. Absent physical presence by European leaders in Kyiv, pro-EU protesters risk being beaten again (or worse) by the police. And, absent intense political support from European leaders, the protests are unlikely to expand sufficiently to Yanukovych’s political stronghold in eastern Ukraine to compel him to heed his own pro-Europe citizens rather than his Russian counterpart.

Here in Estonia, leaders across society can play two important roles in this broader EU effort. First, Estonia’s top political leaders can sustain their visible presence in Kyiv in support of protesters demanding their democratic rights, as Foreign Minister Urmas Paet did on December 6 during the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) ministerial meeting. Second, Estonian business and civil society leaders can advise their counterparts in Ukraine (as well as in Georgia and Moldova, which initialed EU Association Agreements in Vilnius) on the benefits of and way forward to EU accession. In these ways, Estonia could help the EU ensure a historic victory and underscore that Estonia is a net contributor of security to the Euro-Atlantic community.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Orenburg’s Bashkirs Look to Ufa and Islam for Survival

By Paul Goble

The Bashkirs of Orenburg, increasingly concerned about their present and past mistreatment by the authorities, appear to be stepping up their collective political activity. The Orenburg oblast was created by Joseph Stalin to prevent Bashkortostan from having an external border and thus be able to demand union republic status in Soviet times (for background on this issue, see EDM, November 19).

On November 23, the Bashkirs held the fifth Orenburg oblast kurultay or assembly. They were greeted by Oleg Dimov, the deputy head of the government of the oblast, a delegation from Bashkortostan, which read out a message from that republic’s president, as well as other officials, journalists and scholars ( Among the issues discussed, however, were many that were far more sensitive and controversial: the preservation of the Bashkir language in Orenburg, the protection of Bashkir national sites and mosques there, and government support for the only Bashkir-language publication in the oblast, “Karavan-Saray.”

Nurislam Kalmantayev, a Bashkir from Orenburg oblast who now teaches at the Bashkortostan State University in Ufa, outlined many of the concerns and complaints that the Bashkirs of Orenburg have.  In his speech to the kurultay, he not only talked about Bashkir resistance to Moscow’s decision to transfer some historically Bashkir lands to what became Orenburg oblast, but also about the assimilatory pressures the Bashkirs of Orenburg now face (

Recent sociological research shows, he said, that most Bashkirs in Orenburg oblast aged 35 to 60 speak Bashkir but that those younger than that do not—the result of two waves of Bashkir-language school closures there, first in the 1960s and then during the last several years.  Despite the claims of some officials, Orenburg’s Bashkirs do not want their schools closed and want Ufa to pressure Orenburg.  But “unfortunately,” Kalmantayev said, “this decision does not depend” on Bashkortostan.

Bashkir activists have asked Orenburg officials to stop the current wave of school closings and to create Bashkir-language sections of Russian schools, where preventing the closures of Bashkir academic institutions is not possible for financial reasons. The Ufa-based scholar said that, in talking with Bashkir parents in Orenburg, he had found that they were ready to sign a petition to that effect.  “The time has come,” he continued, “to speak out on this problem. Today it is not yet too late; tomorrow, it will be.”

He said that the Bashkirs of Orenburg also want the Bashkortostan culture ministry to work with Orenburg to revive national customs. Moreover, the scholar noted, Orenburg’s Bashkirs believes that “for the consolidation of the people, [they] need to use the possibilities of the Muslim religion, to which the young are drawn.”  And they want to rely on organizations like the oblast kurultay because they are finally coming to understand that “no one will solve these problems” except themselves. Kalmantayev appealed to the kurultay to overcome its divisions, to work closely with Ufa, and to ensure that “the Orenburg Bashkirs will occupy a worthy place” in the future.

Monday, December 2, 2013

For Moscow, the ‘Tyumen Matryoshka’ No Longer Exists

By Paul Goble

Vladimir Putin’s plan to eliminate all “matryoshka” autonomies has stalled at the political level. Nevertheless, Moscow is using a reorganization of its oil and gas agency to downgrade the status of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District (AD) and the Yamalo-Nenets AD, which are surrounded by the larger Tyumen Oblast. Indeed, according to Larisa Rychkova, a analyst, “for Moscow, the ‘Tyumen matryoshka’ no longer exists.” Yet, what is “unprecedented” about all this, she argues, is that this latest move also represents “a terrible threat” to Tyumen because it means that Russia’s real “oil capital” will be Yekaterinburg rather than in any of the aforementioned three (

Last week, Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology announced that by April 2014 it will divide the country into 11 districts that Rosnedr, the federal agency that oversees oil and gas extraction, will use in place of its offices in federal subjects. While this may appear to outsiders as a simple act of bureaucratic housekeeping, the three governors of the Tyumen “matryoshka” immediately recognized its political consequences and are opposing it behind the scenes. 

The three saw this move by Moscow as a threat to their prerogatives and power because it would concentrate control over the most important part of their economies even though they are far more important producers than Yekaterinburg, where the new office would be located. Indeed, last year, the three produced 50 percent of Russia’s oil and 90 percent of Russia’s gas, giving them the kind of economic clout that for five years has blocked Putin’s plan to combine them into a single federal subject.

But now, the Kremlin, by depriving the three federal subjects of their longstanding role in the management of this sector, will force all three governors to go to Yekaterinburg. The latter will handle all the lucrative auctions in this sector.  And the three “matryoshka” units will be so weakened that Moscow may finally be able to combine them—but in such a weakened state that even the Tyumen leadership will remain opposed to such a step.

According to’s Rychkova, this “reform” was dreamed up in Moscow in order to ensure that “the ‘Tyumen matryoshka’ [...] will lose its status as the chief oil and gas province of Russia.” Such a step will allow Moscow to further centralize power and weaken the federal subjects involved “by using the logic of an imperial bureaucracy” and appointing someone to oversee Moscow’s interests “who does not have any connection” with the sector over which he is nominally in charge.

The immediate result is that the struggle against regional consolidation is now taking place behind the scenes in the offices of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology. And the best measure of how it is going, Ruchkova says, will be the number of oil and gas geologists who have been working for the federal subject governments but who may now choose to offer their services to private companies.