Tatiana Shaumian – Russia

Dr Tatiana Shaumian, Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Moscow, publishes in The Pioneer on 23-11-2005 the following article: Azerbaijan under scanner, by Tatiana Shaumian – Has the wave of ‘orange revolutions’ abated?

The answer of some experts appears to be ‘yes’, following a fizzled attempt by Azerbaijan’s fractured opposition to challenge the results of a fraudulent election in the streets of Baku last week: There seems little doubt that Azerbaijan’s November 6 parliamentary polls were heavily rigged. Over 600 foreign observers, most of them professionals sent from Europe, found massive official manipulation of the process – before, during and after the voting. The New Azerbaijan Party, which supports President Ilham Aliyev, duly declared victory, claiming for themselves and their allies the vast majority of parliamentary seats. Aliyev himself, playing the role of ‘wise leader’, went on TV to admit a few ‘technical violations’ but insisted the elections were valid.

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Sorry, I can not find any photo of Tatiana Shaumian, Russia (see also my comment ‘Brave women without photos‘).

All this has happened before. In Georgia two years ago, in Ukraine one year ago, and in Kyrgyzstan last Spring. In each of those upheavals, the opposition refused to accept defeat and took to the streets. After a few weeks of demonstrations, the governments of those three countries fell, leading to new elections that were massively won by opposition forces.  

In Azerbaijan, the opposition is working from the same playbook and staging street rallies, but appears doomed to fail. It seems worthwhile to analyse the reasons for this, and to ask whether they apply elsewhere. After all, the important Central Asian state of Kazakhstan faces controversial presidential elections early in December and Belarus goes to the polls next year. Should we stop worrying about unrest?

I think not. Azerbaijan is what some Russian experts call a ‘geopolitical exception’. The most important reason for this is that Aliyev is a strong ally of the United States, and he is too important to be allowed to fail. It bears remembering that in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, it was generally pro-Moscow regimes that were unseated in the pro-democracy wave.

But Azerbaijan sits at the nexus of the coming Caspian oil bonanza, which encompasses about 3 per cent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves. The strategically crucial Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which will begin carrying Caspian crude to the West this year, traverses Azerbaijan and Georgia before entering Turkey.

There are persistent rumours that Aliyev will allow the US to base a military rapid deployment unit in his country, to protect the pipeline and oil facilities. There are other, darker rumours, that suggest that US covert agencies may already be running training camps in Azerbaijan for Azeri separatists from northern Iran (there is a huge Azeri minority in Iran, around the city of Tabriz), in preparation for coming US – led military action against Iran. Azerbaijan has also been a loyal member of the “Coalition of the Willing”, maintaining a small but symbolically important troop contingent in Iraq.

For all these reasons, the US has taken a very soft line on electoral fraud in Azerbaijan, compared to other countries. When Ilham Aliyev was elected in rigged polls in 2003, President George W. Bush personally congratulated him on his ‘victory’. Following last week’s voting, the White House issued a statement noting, in gentle language, that the “elections did not meet a number of international standards”. Compare: two years ago, when Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze fixed parliamentary polls to favour his own party, the US thundered that he had “ignored the will of the Georgian people”.

Ironically, protesters in the streets of Baku have been carrying portraits of that great promoter of democratic crusades, George Bush, and shouting slogans like: “America: don’t trade our democracy for oil!” Too bad for them.

Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were relatively open, liberal countries to begin with. Those regimes allowed the opposition to organize, access the media and continue demonstrating till they brought the government down. There is no chance that Aliyev, who is a tough dictator, will permit anything like that. He allowed a few street protests after the voting, probably because the world was briefly watching. Now that most journalists have gone home, further street rallies are being broken up by force.

So, we should watch next month’s election in Kazakhstan carefully. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has tried to straddle the fence between East and West. I know it sound cynical, but this alone could make Kazakhstan ripe for a Western-sponsored ‘orange revolution’. Next up is Belarus, under President Alexander Lukashenko, which has been denouced as “the last outpost of tyranny in Europe” by the Bush administration. The orange wave is set to continue.

book: Tatiana Shaumian: Tibet – The Great Game and Tsarist Russia, Oxford. This book deals with the little-known history of international relations in Central Asia and the Far East on the eve of the 20th century. The author shows that the establishment of Russo-Tibetan relations were connected with the “Great Game” – the Anglo-Russian rivalry in Asia.

Further, Tatiana Shaumian writes in ‘cdi – the center for defense information(edited by David Johnson): One of our most famous historians, Nikolai Karamzin, once remarked that “Russia has two misfortunes: its roads and its fools”. It was a very sharp perception in its time, but that brilliant scholar of two centuries ago could have never imagined how those two malign factors have come together in post-Soviet Russia to create real mayhem.

The roads of Moscow were designed in Soviet times to be broad and impressive. Most of the traffic in those days consisted of official cars tearing down those vast avenues at full speed, as if no one else existed. Even in the 1980’s, when quite a few ordinary people had acquired cars, the streets still looked empty. A traffic jam seemed an unimaginable thing. Since the collapse of the USSR, every fool in Russia has expressed his sense of liberation by purchasing an automobile – preferably a big, growling American or German one. Suddenly Moscow’s roads are crammed with cars, millions of them, crawling like legions of ants through every corner of the city, filling the air with choking smog and creating a constant background rumble. Yet each Russian man tries to drive according to the only example he knew in his youth: official cars. He tries to speed down the street, weaving between cars, potholes and pedestrians, as if he were on crucial state business. If a road is jammed, he might jump the curb and go racing down the sidewalk, scattering people to all sides as if they were peasants of Czarist days. If his car has an accident or breaks down – both very common occurrences – he will leave it sitting in the middle of the road, snarling traffic and creating mayhem, while he goes off to find a repairman.

When you add the Russian weather to this mix, the result can be total paralysis. During several big blizzards last month, some traffic jams lasted for 16 hours or more. I know a man who left his downtown Moscow workplace at 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and finally arrived at his suburban home at 11 o’clock the next morning! I myself have sat in my car for 9 hours, trying to complete a journey that should normally take half an hour. Experts say the situation is one of the worst in the world, due to the combination of bad roads, ill-considered traffic rules and maniacal, idiotic drivers. I know what my Indian readers are thinking: that Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai are just as bad. I used to think there could be nothing more chaotic than the thick gasoline fumes, careening three-wheeled vehicles and stampeding traffic of a big Indian city. Now I know there is. It is the total breakdown that has occurred in Moscow, where the streets are so choked with cars that normal mobility has become impossible. Thank goodness Moscow’s metro system still functions like clockwork, swiftly and efficiently transporting about 18-million people per day to most points of the city. But those underground trains have also become crowded to the point of being dangerous, and experts say the old Soviet-era system is exhausted and badly over-extended.

Don’t imagine that Moscow’s post-Communist traffic madness is at least democratic. It is not. Russian officials still travel as they always did, by forcing the peasants to get out of their way. I happen to live on the Uspenskoye Highway, a suburban region which is home to President Vladimir Putin and many other top government leaders. Twice daily the entire 30-kilometre route from Putin’s home to the Kremlin is closed down by police, who order cars to the side of the road and back them up at intersections, just so the President’s 8-car cortege can race from home to work, and back, without any inconvenience. The delay for ordinary drivers can be 30 minutes or more each time. If this were a privilege enjoyed only by President Putin, it might be understandable. But in Russia it seems that every government minister (there are over 50 of them), innumerable deputy ministers, rich oligarchs, crime bosses, military chiefs and god-knows-who-else has the power to charge down the road with sirens blasting, lights flashing, and police waving everyone else out of his way.

Moscow’s traffic pandemonium is far beyond being just a nasty irritant. It is a creeping social, economic and environmental catastrophe that threatens to overwhelm Russia’s capital city, and drag it under. It may also be a looming political problem. President Putin remains the country’s most popular leader in many decades, but I have often heard drivers cursing him furiously as they wait at roadside for his cortege to sweep past. If I were him, I’d worry about things like that.

links:

David Johnson’s Blog;

The Pioneer;

an article: ‘the three Musketiers‘;

an article about Amercian’s Roman Way;

UN press release;

Foreign Relation of Tibet.

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