Saturday, February 19, 2011

Among the Sons of Togarmah, Part 1

In my previous post, which introduces the situation in Moldova and Transnistria, and connects that situation via Moscow to the Caucasus, we began to see how Moscow supports breakaway regions in border states that were either Soviet republics or at least communist in nature.

We also noted how there seems to be "ethnic" unrest in a broad part of Russia's periphery, in an arc through which flow both oil and heroin to the West.

I made the comment:

The Soviet Union's borders were designed to prevent the break-up of the Union itself. Republic borders crossed through ethnic regions. As long as the republics were constituents of the Soviet Union, people would be able to visit their relatives, and, in the event of regional disputes, minorities had recourse in Moscow. But, should the Soviet Union dissolve - as it did two decades ago - these would now be international boundaries, and the minorities within the newly-independent republics would be in danger of oppression, making any dissolution of the Soviet Union a tinderbox for ethnic violence.

Nowhere is this communist scheme more apparent than in the Caucasus.


The boundaries of constituent republics of the USSR, shown in red above, ran right through regions such as Ossetia. Also, Azerbaijan was broken up by a strip of Armenia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which was a part of Azerbaijan, was comprised of mostly ethnic Armenians.

Since the Soviet collapse, these two parts of the Caucasus have been among the region's many hotspots.

A short excerpt from Moscow's Troubles in the Caucasus, by Uwe Klussmann and Matthias Schepp, August 3, 2009, helps explain:

Nowhere in the world are so many conflicts raging in such a small region than in the Caucasus, where roughly 40 ethnic groups speaking 50 different languages come together in an area about the size of Sweden. The region is home to only 26 million people, and yet they are separated by a total of 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles) of borders, some of them contested.

Six wars have raged in the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, making it the most dangerous region in proximity to the European Union.

It is precisely through the Caucasus that gas coming from Central Asia and Azerbaijan is expected to flow to Europe one day, bypassing Russia. The pipeline is less than 100 kilometers from the border of South Ossetia, the bone of contention in the most recent war, in a region where Moscow's tanks are now stationed.

A close-up from a map of oil pipelines in Europe shows the growing importance of the Caucasus:


There are numerous pipelines going through Russia, leading to markets in Europe. But, in the close-up, you can see a pipeline skirting Russia, going from Baku in Azerbaijan through Georgia.

One existing pipeline leads to the Georgian coast on the Black Sea, but this region is within easy range of Russian naval power, and, in any case, tankers have to traverse the Turkish Straits, which are increasingly busy with shipping traffic.

Another pipeline is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which runs to Georgia, then turns south into Turkey, going to a port on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. This route is far more difficult to interdict from Russia, and it avoids the Turkish Straits.

As mentioned in the excerpt above, the pipeline also just skirts all of the hotspots in the Caucasus, named in red in the map below:


In the map above, the Nabucco pipeline is shown - it is planned to run the length of Turkey, cross the Turkish Straits, and lead into Austria.

The obvious goal in all of this is to cut Russia out of the loop.

This adds importance to the situation in the Caucasus. Instability in Caucasian Russia ties Russia down, mired in counterterrorism - a war Russia is widely perceived to be losing and frustrated with, despite certain perceived successes.

However, problems in Azerbaijan or Georgia could leave Europe more dependent on Russia.

Consequently, this series should be considered a companion to another, entitled "Treasures in the Land of Az" (Part 1, Part 2), which has a focus on Azerbaijan.

One hotspot in the region is Dagestan, up the Caspian coast from Azerbaijan. The problem is summarized by a Russian general in an excerpt from Islamists Gain Upper Hand in Russian Republic: Part 2: Moscow Tries to Win Hearts and Minds, written by Matthias Schepp in Dagestan, July 30, 2010:

An Unwinnable Struggle

"Everyone here has his own truth," says a high-ranking Russian general who was in command of the effort to fight the Islamists in the Caucasus for years. The general, who doesn't want to be named, says that he no longer believes that the fight against the extremists can be won quickly, despite the tens of thousands of elite troops, police officers and agents that are now deployed in the troubled region. For every dead terrorist, the general says with a sigh, two new ones rise up to take his place. "It will take years to change the situation here."

According to the general, the Islamists cannot be controlled with the normal means that a state based on the rule of law has at its disposal. He thinks that it is naïve for Western Europeans to hope that radical Islam can be forced into retreat by improving social conditions. "If these people seize power, we will have fascism cloaked in religion," the general predicts.

This "fascism cloaked in religion" is a nice summary of what Islamic extremists seek to bring everywhere they are active; the potential for it to crop up in Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere is very real. Even if democratic governments should arise in the wake of revolutions, that is no guarantee that Islamic extremists won't take over somehow. The only good news is that many extremists will not accept a mandate that has been voted on; there is a strong current of thought in extremist Islam that to be true Islam, it must be forced on people (though apologists point out that there is no compulsion in religion in Islam).

Continuing with the excerpt:

Another problem is that the fronts in the multiethnic Republic of Dagestan are particularly unclear. In addition to Islamists, the underground consists of a mix of common criminals, hustlers and con artists. But it's also a haven for drug addicts unable to pay their debts and vicious murderers fearing acts of retaliation by the survivors of their victims.

But criminals work on both sides of the law. From Islamists Gain Upper Hand in Russian Republic: Part 3: Islamists Obtain Funds Through Protection Rackets (I fixed some spelling errors that obscured the meaning):

The Russian propaganda machine never tires of claiming that the Islamists are being funded from abroad. In reality, however, they generally raise their own funds by robbing banks and businesses. SPIEGEL has obtained a video that shows a group of rebels dividing up their loot after robbing a mobile phone store.

The protection racket is the most important source of income for the Islamists. In many cases, all it takes to intimidate a victim is a text message with a reminder about zakat, the principle of giving alms to the poor described in the Koran. The Islamists' targets range from the owners of bakeries, kiosks and sporting goods stores to local oligarchs. The victims fear for their lives, but at the same time they feel that by submitting to the protection racket, they are also protecting themselves for the event that the Islamists ever seize power in their village or region.

Conversely, Moscow's agents try to bribe Islamists with money and thus convince them to switch back to the Russian side. But the successes are few and far between. The secular state is losing its appeal, now that Dagestan is no longer capable of guaranteeing its citizens prosperity and security.

'Unparalleled Corruption'

"Is 15 minutes enough for you?" Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev recently asked one of his officers who was about to report on the situation in Dagestan. But it took the colonel three times as long to describe a litany of problems, including the ubiquitous practice of buying one's way into office, contract killings, hostage-taking, protection rackets, drug and arms dealing. The colonel wasn't describing the activities of criminal gangs, however: He was talking about conditions in Dagestan's Interior Ministry.

Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika has said in Moscow, behind closed doors, that the blame for unsolved crimes is simply pinned on the Islamists, that statistics are manipulated, and that the "level of corruption is unparalleled."

In Dagestan, subordinates reported that Lieutenant Colonel Shamil Omarov, the head of a police unit in Makhachkala, embezzled the compensation money for the survivors of police officers under his command who had been killed in action. He also sold the gasoline for police vehicles and paid salaries to relatives who were not even required to report for duty.

Corruption is also a major problem in nearby Chechnya. Beyond that, Russians seem to have little understanding of what is going on there. From Chechnya is worth defending, by Elena Milashina, February 14, 2011:

The Chechens are worth fighting for. What they want is at once little and much. They need Russia's support. We were waging war there because some Chechens wanted independence. We killed many people there because they, too, killed our soldiers. We have not apologised, but we demand their loyalty. We know nothing about the Chechens who have always been on Russia's side. We are not even aware that there are such Chechens. We are not aware that they form the majority.

Unfortunately, the Chechens have a fierce reputation, including as bandits and mafiosos. Consequently, many Russians are frustrated with Chechnya especially; some are ready to grant Chechnya its independence just to be done with the problem, while Russian officialdom seems to use a heavy hand in dealing with the rebels there.

Corrupt government officials at the highest levels (Medvedev and Putin, and Obama, Biden and Clinton), inept and incompetent politicians dealing with power politics, petty corruption, fundamentalist Islam, organized crime and heroin trafficking, and big business and the profit incentives of big oil... this is the brew that is simmering fiercely in the Caucasus.

More to follow.

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