Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My Perspective on Sunday's NYT Article on the Nazarbayevs

Many of you probably already read Sunday's NYT article by Eric Lipton about the feud between Rakhat Aliyev and the Nazarbayev family. The article sheds interesting light on the behind-the-scene lobbying activities in Washington, D.C., but provides a limited view of the complex controversy. In Central Asia, politics is personal.  Family connections and marriage symbolize political capital that are essential to gaining power in government and state-owned companies.

First, the Nazarbayev is a powerful political dynasty. President Nazarbayev's three daughters, Dariga (eldest), Dinara and Aliya, are all involved in national and regional politics. Aliya married Aidar Akiyev, son of the former President of Kyrgyzstan Askar Akayev, in 1998 when she was only 18. Their marriage, while not forced upon them by their powerful parents, was viewed as a joining of Central Asia's political dynasties. Sadly, by 2005, the young couple divorced due to irreconcilable differences. Aliya now runs a high-end jewelry line.

Dinara is married to Timur Kulibayev, chairman of the Samruk Kazyna National Welfare Fund. While no one is 100% certain as to who will replace President Nazarbayev in the future, Kulibayev is viewed as a likely contender for the position.

Finally, Rakhat Aliyev was married to Dariga Nazarbayeva, Deputy Chairwoman of the Majilis (Parliament) and of Nazarbayev's Nur-Otan ("Fatherland") party until the couple's divorce in 2007. Aliyev served as deputy foreign minister and then Kazakh Ambassador to the OSCE until he was demoted by President Nazarbayev. A political bloodbath ensued (A Eurasianet article provides some great details on the scandal). Living in Austria, Aliyev depicts himself as a sort of political martyr and victim of patrimonial power-politics. In 2009, Aliyev published his tell-all book, "The Godfather in Law," available to purchase here in German on Amazon.com. I must confess that I have not read "Godfather in Law," but it does not take a rocket-scientist to realize that publishing a book that reveals your personal family details with the President of Kazakhstan's family is not a smart move. Aliyev aired his dirty laundry for the world and elevated the issue to unprecedented political levels.

Family politics are not new to Kazakhstan or Central Asian affairs as a whole. Lipton's argument that the U.S. was drawn into the Aliyev-Nazarbayev dispute is misguided in that the U.S. and other countries regularly deal with Central Asian patrimonial regimes, such as the Karimovs in Uzbekistan and the Aliyev clan in Azerbaijan. Currently, Lola Karimova, daughter of Uzbek President Karimov, is in the midst of a libel lawsuit against Rue89, after suing the French website for calling her father a dictator. Family politics are an inevitable part of dealing with Central Asian regimes.

Finally, the article argues that many Washington think tanks were paid top dollar by the Kazakh government to publish glowing reports. As a student who religiously reads reports on Central Asia and even attends some lectures by D.C. think tanks, I know that many think tanks are extremely critical of Kazakhstan's political system. At the same time, the country has achieved remarkable economic growth and its chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 and hosting of the Astana Summit was a significant diplomatic milestone. As one of my professors would say, "give credit where credit is due."

I am not an expert and I do not know what happened in private discussions between State Department and Kazakh officials in Almaty and Washington D.C. I follow Central Asian politics and simply want to point out that family relations are not new to Central Asian affairs, and that the U.S. may not be more involved in Kazakh domestic politics than other countries. I strongly suspect that if Wikileaks uncovered cables from European countries or neighboring Russia or China, it will become clear that all countries that maintain relations with Kazakhstan have a stake in the Nazarbayev family.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kaz Vegas

Like most New Jersey residents, I spent Memorial Day weekend at the Jersey Shore. While Margate beach (approximately 10 minutes from Atlantic City) is a far cry from the Inner Eurasian steppe, the flashy lights and gaudy architecture of Atlantic City reminded me of a Eurasianet photo essay on Kaz Vegas in Kapshagay, Kazakhstan. Kapshagay hosts 11 different casinos and considering that it is only a one-hour drive away from Almaty, I will DEFINITELY pay Kaz Vegas a visit!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Memorial Day: the Importance of Understanding Central Asia

As many Americans head to the beach to celebrate Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, I would like to use this blog to draw attention to the strategic significance of Central Asia to American foreign policy. When I say to my friends and family that I am spending my summer in Kazakhstan (I leave in a week and a half), I usually receive one of three responses. First, are you filming Borat 2? Second, where (and in some cases, like the saleswoman at the Verizon store, "what") is Kazakhstan?  Third, why Kazakhstan?

In addition to Central Asia's fascinating history -- a story of warring tribes, nomadic empires, and cultural influences from China, Persia, Russia and the Turkic world -- the region is of strategic security importance. Earlier this week, the Center for New American Security (CNAS) published a new report, Beyond Afghanistan: A Regional Security Strategy for South and Central Asia, that provides a comprehensive analysis of the regional security challenges.

I found the most interesting part of the report to be the recommendation for increased trade and transit routes and a "strategic public engagement plan." Promoting inter-regional commercial activity is certainly not a new suggestion in this report. Rather, incorporating a trade-promotion strategy, in conjunction with civilian projects such as "visitor and exchange programs to build relationships," is a fundamental recognition that South-Central Asian security requires a comprehensive, multi-level approach.

What Barno, Exum and Irvine, the report's authors, refer to as "public engagement," is to the State Department, "Public Diplomacy." Last fall at Georgetown, I attended a lecture by Edward Schatz who gave a great lecture titled "Framing Public Diplomacy and Anti-Americanism in Central Asia." While I do not remember all of the details of his lecture, I took away one important point: American public diplomacy in Central Asia at the micro-level would augment America's image.  I remember Schatz explaining how since 9/11, America has used the Central Asian states for strategic purposes and consequently, most Central Asians' interactions with the U.S. is limited to viewing American military vehicles pass through the country. So far, American-Central Asian interactions are limited to high-level power politics. Increased micro-level engagement cognizant of region and culture-specific sensitivities would be the optimal use of American public diplomacy.

So, my answer to those who ask "why kazakhstan" is that cross-cultural understanding is absolutely critical to safeguarding the security of the U.S.A. By learning the languages, understanding cultural norms, values and practices, and appreciating different ways of life, American policy makers and strategic planners will be in a position to make well-informed decisions and be able to better predict the outcome of such decisions. As an aspiring policy maker, I believe engaging at the grassroots level will provide invaluable insight into Central Asian, particularly Kazakh, culture. Simply put -- understanding Central Asian culture is part of America's security strategy. That is why I am going to Kazakhstan.

Happy Memorial Day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kazakhstan's Wild West?

I was struck by an article in RFE/RL, Kazakh Suicide Bombing Puts Spotlight on Western Regions, that discusses rising Islamic extremism in Western Kazakhstan.

While most of the country's oil fields are located in the Western part of the country near the Caspian basin (the most notable fields include Tengriz and Kashagan), most inhabitants of Western and Southern Kazakhstan do not accrue the benefits of the O&G industry. These regions remain economically underdeveloped, with agriculture comprising the predominant form of subsistence. Consequently, the people of Western and Southern Kazakhstan are more conservative in their socio-political orientation.

While the entire Central Asian region encounters a variety of security threats, mostly from transnational criminal networks, Kazakhstan is widely regarded as the regional beacon of security. Moscow confronts violent groups in the North Caucuses, Dushanbe struggles to secure the 1,500 kilometer boarder with Afghanistan while governing a country deeply divided and underdeveloped, and Bishkek is trying to prevent a north-south conflict. Meanwhile, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a designated terrorist organization that reportedly retains ties with al-Qaeda, was founded in 1999 with the distinct goal of ousting President Karimov. Just last week, NATO forces launched a raid targeting IMU members operating inside Afghanistan. The authoritarian Karimov is notoriously aggressive in targeting the IMU and members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (e.g. Andijan Massacre 2005). Finally, Turkmenistan is a tightly controlled police state that has not confronted major domestic instability, largely attributed to the policies of the illustrious Turkmenbashi and current President Berdymukhamedov. One need not look further than the gold-plated statue that rotated to constantly face the sun Turkmenbashi erected in Ashgabat to honor his "immortality" to observe the unique chutzpah of one of the world's most oppressive dictators (too bad he died in 2006 and his statue was taken down in 2010). Meanwhile, Kazakhstan, under President Nazarbayev since independence, is certainly not without its problems, but has achieved 8% annual GDP growth rate for the past ten years. The IMF recently (March 2011) predicted the Kazakh economy will grow by 5.9% this year.

The security situation in the neighboring Central Asian Republics and Kazakhstan's relative stability explains why the suicide attack by Makhatov in Aqtobe last week comes as a surprise. Does the attack in Aqtobe indicate a growing movement of domestic extremism in Kazakhstan? This could be an isolated incident, as all countries confront domestic threats. On the other hand, as the RFE/RL article details, Russian authorities claim that inhabitants of Western Kazakhstan work with groups in the North Caucuses.

I certainly do not know the answer to this question. While I will spend most of my time in Almaty, which is right next to China and a hop, skip and a jump away from Bishkek, I do plan to travel to Western Kazakhstan for a weekend trip and am curious to witness for myself the difference in political persuasions and economic subsistence.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Kazakh DG of the IMF?

As you already know, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was the Director General (DG) of the IMF until he recently resigned over allegations he sexually assaulted a hotel maid in NYC. Amidst the legal and media blitz surrounding the DSK scandal, the more relevant (and arguably more interesting) question is who will take over the IMF?

The acting DG is American banker John Lipsky. Traditionally, an American heads the World Bank (current President Robert Zoellick), while the leadership of the IMF is reserved for a European.  Controversy surrounding the leadership of international organizations is nothing new, as developing countries in Asia, Latin America and MENA argue that different leadership is necessary given the multipolarity of the political global economy.  International organizations require international leadership. Given the IMF reforms from the G-20 Summit in Seoul (Fall 2010), the IMF is now in a position to diversify its leadership and embrace a qualified candidate from a non-European state.

So...how about a Eurasian? At the May CIS meeting in Minsk, member-states supported the nomination of Grigory Marchenko, chief of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, to replace DSK as DG of the IMF. Marchenko has years of experience in banking and has headed the National Bank of Kazakhstan after it was nationalized in December 2008 during the global financial crisis. Not an easy job. Much to Marchenko's credit (and the business-friendly policies of Massimov and Nazarbayev), Kazakhstan is Central Asia's leading economy.

Still, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde represents the leading contender to replace DSK. It is still too soon to tell...

I'm now a little more than two weeks away from jetting off to Kazakhstan and am loving the exchange rate (1 tenge = .0069 USD, or 1 USD= 145.35 tenge)!!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kyrgyzstan to Host NATO Offices

Kyrgyzstan is in the business of hosting foreign military headquarters and participating in multilateral military exercises. The country already hosts the American Transit Center at Manas and the Russian Kant Air Base. Earlier this month, Kyrgyzstan hosted counter-terror exercises under CIS auspices. Just recently announced, NATO will move its Central Asian office from Astana, Kazakhstan, to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

The move of NATO's Central Asia office from Astana to Bishkek is interesting given Kyrzystan's participation in multilateral security affairs. If you recall in 2009, then-Kyrgyz President Bakiyev closed down Manas after securing financial assistance from the Russian Federation. While the U.S. managed to prevent the closure of Manas after agreeing to pay a steeper fee, thereby out-bidding the Russian offer. Establishing an office for NATO, the Cold War-era military alliance created to counter the Soviet Union, in Kyrgyzstan is something Russia is probably not too happy about. Given that Russia already has a presence in the region through the CIS, SCO and CSTO, NATO's position in Kyrgyzstan is not likely to cause issues.

Moving the Central Asian NATO office to Bishkek is more of a practical move that reflects Kyrgyzstan's security needs. Transnational criminal networks stemming from Tajikistan transit Kyrgyzstan, and the country has been divided along ethnic and North-South lines since the change-of-power last April 2010 that ousted Bakiyev.  For Kyrgyzstan, by accepting the presence of NATO, CIS and SCO, reflects the belief that any security presence is better than no security presence. Kyrgyzstan is open to multilateral engagement, particularly in the security arena.  Given the instability in South and Central Asia, it will be interesting to see how the presence of multilateral security institutions materializes in the near future (2-3 years) as well as in the extended future (5,10 years).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Kazakhstan Chairs the EurAsEC Meeting

Without question, Kazakhstan is the leading Central Asian state that not only participates in international organizations, but also seeks to lead and transform multilateral institutional discourse. In 2010, Kazakhstan was the first former-Soviet Central Asian Republic to Chair the OSCE. The country also chairs the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) (2011) and retains the SCO Presidency (2010-2011). Recently, at the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia on May 15, Kazakhstan assumed the chairmanship of the EurAsEC Inter-Parliamentary Assembly.

Interestingly, at the May EurAsEC meeting in St. Petersburg, participants discussed the establishment of a EurAsEC court to handle economic affairs between members of the EurAsEC Customs Union, which currently includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Given its commercial purpose, the EurAsEC customs union court will function like a dispute settlement body, similar to that of the WTO. Having just completed a course on international organizations, international courts are particularly fascinating institutions. Unlike domestic courts, international courts lack an institutionalized hierarchy (like the U.S. court system, which has local municipal courts all the way to the Supreme Court), presides over sovereign status, and lacks formal enforcement mechanisms.  

Interestingly, this is not the first time members of EurAsEC created an international court. The EurAsEC Court of Justice, founded in 2000, was charged with settling economic disputes between parties so long as the issue was related to the implementation of a resolution by EurAsEC bodies and the provisions of EurAsEC treaties. In March 2004, the CIS Economic Court of Justice assumed the functions of the EurAsEC Court of Justice. In November 2009, the Community Court of Justice was granted authority to settle disputes within the EurAsEC Customs Union and in July 2010, an amended version of the Statute of the EurAsEC Court of Justice was adopted. Given that the EurAsEC court was formally incorporated into the CIS, granting the CIS Court of Justice jurisdiction over EurAsEC affairs, it will be interesting to observe how this EurAsEC Customs Zone court materializes, its effectiveness in acting as a dispute-settlement authority, and its legal, operational and political autonomy. International courts, particularly dispute-settlement bodies, must be operationally and politically independent in order to fulfill their mandates. 

As Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Session, it will be interesting to see how Kazakhstan approaches the establishment of the court. Kazakhstan must prove to multilaterally engage with the international community by establishing a credible and independent EurAsEC court to handle disputes between members of the Customs Union. While Kazakhstan is leading the law-making efforts in EurAsEC, the real measure of its leadership within Eurasian regional institutions (SCO, EurAsEC, CIS), will be its ability to self-bind to the court's decisions in the future and to provide the court with sufficient funds to carry out operations and make legal decisions independent of third-party political influence. So while I salute Kazakhstan's international engagement as a great first step in the right direction, Kazakhstan's foreign policy makers must ensure that this EurAsEC court retains its autonomy and is not usurped by third-party influence (Russia, CIS, or other states).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Afghanistan to gain SCO observer status?

FINALLY -- All of my final exams and papers are complete. Summer is here.  Of course, I am so excited to catch up on sleep and some reading before I head off to Kazakhstan on June 8th.

As you may know, Kazakhstan is hosting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) jubilee summit in Astana on June 15, 2011, commemorating ten years since the group's inception.  Currently, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are full SCO members. India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan retain observer status, Belarus and Sri Lanka are considered dialogue partners, and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan are guest attendees. The SCO is a strategic alliance with two standing permanent bodies: the SCO Secretariat in Beijing, China and the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  In combatting the three evils of separatism, extremism and terrorism, the SCO hosts multi-country anti-terror drills and military exercises (such as a recent one in Xinjiang, China), and holds regular summits convening Eurasian heads of states and for the first time in April 2011, a meeting of military chiefs.

I found this interesting article in The Hindu on granting Afghanistan observer status at June's SCO meeting. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that Afghanistan submitted an application for observer status, while Pakistan and India both applied to upgrade their status to one of full members. In anticipating a new wave of terror following the death of Osama bin Laden, the SCO ministers are particularly keen on maintaining security in the region, but is granting Afghanistan observer status part of that strategy?

While the SCO is unlikely to admit Pakistan and India as full members, granting Afghanistan observer status is a significant step for the future of South-Central Asian geopolitics. First, if admitted as an observer, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan will retain equal status in a military organization that includes the hegemonic China and Russia. After all, it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that bankrupted the Soviet economy and contributed to the USSR's dissolution. Afghanistan's desire to join Russia and several other former Soviet Republics in the SCO indicates that the country's leadership is ready and eager to embrace a post-Cold War arrangement whereby Afghanistan can cooperate on strategic matters with its Eurasian neighbors. Afghanistan's observer status would also grant the SCO increased authority in assisting Afghanistan in the GWOT, particularly given the presence of NATO forces in the NDN.

Secondly, if Afghanistan is granted observer status and India is granted full status, this would place Pakistan in a difficult position given the immense security challenges. The Pakistani civilian and military leadership are under international pressure following bin Laden's death, and the country confronts various terrorist organizations (many were not affiliated with bin Laden). At Georgetown, I have a good friend from Pakistan. She told me that she fears bin Laden's death will only cause more instability in the region --- after all, he is only dead. His memory and ideology (unfortunately) do not die with his demise. Plus, other extremist groups (e.g. LeT, LeJ, LeO, etc.) threaten South Asian stability. So is the SCO the proper organization to counter these threats? Will increasing SCO membership to include terror-stricken South Asian states effectively combat extremism, or is it a way to increase Chinese military involvement and counter NATO forces in the region? Will an SCO with Afghanistan, Pakistan, India in the same military grouping as China, Russia and most of the former Soviet CARs prove to be an effective group in combatting extremism, separatism and terrorism?

Of course, these are big questions that I am still pondering. Any thoughts?

Until next time, so long!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Victory Day!

Today, May 9, 2011, marks the 66th anniversary of Victory Day, commemorating the submission of Nazi Germany to the superior Soviet forces! Soviet participation in World War II was critical to Allied victory. While there is the famous Victory Day Parade in Moscow, the holiday is celebrated by all CIS states, and is also celebrated in Western Europe as "European Day."

Back to studying for my International Trade Final Exam....so long comrades, and celebrate a merry Victory Day!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

One month countdown

Today marks the one-month countdown until I ship off to Almaty!

I am currently entrenched in the middle of final exams. I have a final Tuesday evening, Wednesday morning, another one Wednesday afternoon, and a paper due Saturday. This time next week, I will be done with my sophomore year in college. What a bizarre concept... where did the time go?!

I spent much of today studying for my "History of Central Eurasia" Exam. The class is absolutely fascinating and covers some 25,000+ years of Eurasian history -- from the Scythians, to the Mongols and the subsequent Chingissid dynasties up to the Soviet Union and the modern states. Historically, the region that comprises the modern day "stans" was not geopolitically confined as such, but was linked to regions in  Xinjiang, China, areas of Afghanistan (Transoxania), and Iran (Persia). Nomads regularly traversed the Eurasian plateau, spreading religions and cultures and trading goods.

I recently came across an interesting article on Eurasianet by Richard Orange on increasing security at the Kazakhstan-China border. Since I have spent the past 10 hours studying historical Central Asian steppe empires, I read this article from a different perspective than I usually would. It strikes me how a region that was historically a natural passageway is now a border, clearly defining two different countries, identities and ways of life. Of course, creating borders across areas that previously were connected is not unique to Central Asia, as there are examples in every continent of the world. From a historical perspective, given the influence of nomadic empires in the Tarim Basin (Xiongnu) and the centrality of the Zhungaria in the movement of nomads, increasing border security is an interesting concept... I understand the need to promote regional security, maybe I've just been in the library for too long and not sleeping enough...

On that note, I'm going to get some sleep before another day of studying. Happy Mothers day!!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Does Osama bin Laden's death affect Central-South Asian relations?


Here in Washington, the death of Osama bin Laden is welcomed as an American victory in the GWOT. Certainly, his demise bears symbolic significance and for many victims of 9/11, may provide some sense of closure.

Amidst the hype surrounding the death of bin Laden, recent developments in South and Central Asian political affairs speaks to the dire need for security in the region and the sheer potential for mayhem if the security situation plummets.

First, just last week representatives from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India  (TAPI) met in New Dehli and signed agreements for the TAPI natural gas pipeline. The four states plan to meet again at the end of July to sign final pricing agreements. While officials hope to have the TAPI pipeline operational by 2016, there are serious doubts surrounding the feasibility of the project given the region’s instability. This past week, the Afghanistan legislature approved the TAPI pipeline agreement.

Uzbekistan is the only country (perhaps in the world) to not report the death of Osama bin Laden to its 30 million inhabitants. The country is also offering reduced price electricity to Pakistan. Uzbekistan’s omni-powerful President Islam Karimov is known in the West for his anti-extremist views and oppressive crackdown on the free exercise of religion, all in the name of security. Uzbekistan already provides Afghanistan with electricity and its offer to provide Pakistan with affordable energy, while the Pakistani government copes with the international political fallout of bin Laden’s death, signals Uzbekistan’s desire for regional stability and to cut off Islamic fundamentalist thinking from the country.

There is such a bizarre tension in Central and South Asia. On one hand, the security situation remains unstable and no one seems to know what will happen next or what to prepare for. At the same time, governments are endeavoring to cooperate on tangible issues related to infrastructure development. As we wait and see if TAPI and Uzbekistan’s offer to Pakistan materializes, the sheer fact that Central Asian regimes are cooperating with Pakistan and Afghanistan reveals a different approach to the region than we see her in America. To the CARs, South Asia represents a potential political ally and valuable market. Central Asian regimes recognize that a stable and secure South Asia is absolutely essential to a stable and secure Central Asia. Ultimately, bin-Laden’s death in itself will likely not affect Central-South Asian relations. Rather, his demise will only have an impact if the security situation deteriorates precipitously and results in widespread outbreaks of violence.

Readers, I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Do you think the death of Osama bin-Laden is a factor in Central-South Asian relations? 

The Sholk Road Adventures

Welcome to my blog! My name is Dena Sholk and I am studying International Politics with a concentration in International Security in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. I am proficient in French. I also possess a healthy obsession with Central Asia. More specifically, I am interested in the five Central Asian Republics (also called the "stans): Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. People frequently ask me "why Central Asia?" While I can't pin-point an exact reason, all I can say is that I am absolutely fascinated with the region's politics, history, culture and development!

I am looking forward to finally have the opportunity to travel to the silk road of antiquity!! I will be spending two months studying Russian at KIMEP and living with a Kazakh host family in Almaty, Kazakhstan this summer! I will regularly update this blog with the details of my adventures abroad, from drinking kumys to exploring the city of Almaty (and beyond) and maybe even riding a bactrian camel!

This leads me to the name of the blog - "The Sholk Road Adventures."Sholk means silk in Russian, so the title literally means "The Silk Road Adventures."

I will also use this blog to comment on current events in Central Asia!

I'm now in the heat of final exam season, so back to the books! So long comrades!