Archive for the ‘Topics’ Category


Until recently traditional Muslims and Salafists lived harmoniously side-by-side in Tatarstan. No longer.

For years Tatarstan was held up as a model of stability and tranquillity as the Muslim-majority republics of the Russian north Caucasus became embroiled in a separatist conflict that spawned a still-continuing civil war along religious lines. More than half of Tatarstan’s 4m people are Sunni Muslims who have long enjoyed friendly relations with the rest of Russia. Kazan, the regional capital on the Volga river 450 miles (724km) east of Moscow, is a prosperous and attractive city.

That sense of calm has changed since July, when assassins shot dead a prominent Islamic leader, Valiulla Yakupov, and nearly killed Tatarstan’s chief mufti, Ildus Faizov, with a bomb detonated under his car. The exact motive remains unclear but many in Kazan seem to think it is related to the public campaign of both men to combat the rising influence of Salafism, a fundamentalist form of Islam.

In Soviet times, Islam in Tatarstan was largely a means of ethnic identification and had something of a “folk” character, says Akhmet Yarlykapov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Yet in recent years Salafism, which has gained followers throughout the Muslim world, has made inroads in Tatarstan, especially among the young. Migrants from the republics of the north Caucasus and the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia have also spread more conservative interpretations of Islam.

Estimates of the number of Salafists in Tatarstan vary. A local mufti, Farid Salman, says the public figure of 3,000 is probably far too low. The older generation and those in official religious structures are wary of the Salafist groups, seeing them as imports and gateways to radicalisation. After he came to office in early 2011, Mr Faizov started to remove conservative imams and banned religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia, whereas his predecessor had largely left the Salafists alone. Read more…

As published in on September 1, 2012 (Print Edition).


By Robert D. Kaplan

The following is an excerpt from Robert D. Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, which will be released Sept. 11.

The most important facts about Iran go unstated because they are so obvious. Any glance at a map would tell us what they are. And these facts explain how regime change or evolution in Tehran — when, not if, it comes — will dramatically alter geopolitics from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

Virtually all of the Greater Middle East’s oil and natural gas lies either in the Persian Gulf or the Caspian Sea regions. Just as shipping lanes radiate from the Persian Gulf, pipelines will increasingly radiate from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China and the Indian Ocean. The only country that straddles both energy-producing areas is Iran, stretching as it does from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf. In a raw materials’ sense, Iran is the Greater Middle East’s universal joint.

The Persian Gulf possesses by some accounts 55 percent of the world’s crude oil reserves, and Iran dominates the whole Gulf, from the Shatt al-Arab on the Iraqi border to the Strait of Hormuz 990 kilometers (615 miles) away. Because of its bays, inlets, coves and islands — excellent places for hiding suicide, tanker-ramming speed boats — Iran’s coastline inside the Strait of Hormuz is 1,356 nautical miles; the next longest, that of the United Arab Emirates, is only 733 nautical miles. Iran also has 480 kilometers of Arabian Sea frontage, including the port of Chabahar near the Pakistani border. This makes Iran vital to providing warm water, Indian Ocean access to the landlocked Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Iranian coast of the Caspian in the far north, wreathed by thickly forested mountains, stretches for nearly 650 kilometers from Astara in the west, on the border with former Soviet Azerbaijan, around to Bandar-e Torkaman in the east, by the border with natural gas-rich Turkmenistan. Read more…

As published in on August 29, 2012.


By Fabio Rafael Fiallo

“Cristina, welcome to the club”

The crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the development of social media have provided a renewed impetus to peoples’ aspirations to live under democratic rule. Political movements with dictatorial designs have been obliged to conceal their ulterior objectives and elaborate new tactics aimed at enticing the population and ultimately seizing power.

Nowhere is this opportunistic change of tack more visible than in Latin America. Guerrilla warfare (like Colombia‘s FARC) and attempts of coup d’état (like Hugo Chavez’s in 1992) have gone out of fashion. Far-left parties, which in the past had professed a blatant disdain for the electoral way, now prefer to compete in presidential elections, trumpeting their supposed faith in democracy and extolling their passion for liberty.

This has been the stance taken by the leaders of the so-called ‘Bolivarian axis’ – namely Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales – as well as the Kirchnerists in Argentina.

And yet, as soon as elections are won, a sinister mechanism is put in place; one aimed at progressively corroding freedom of expression and association, the independence of the judiciary and political pluralism.

Independent journalists and opposition leaders are persecuted, subjected to astronomic fines, jailed or forced to exile. Rebellious judges are removed and even sent to prison, at the same time as the judiciary is stuffed with flunkeys ready to execute the government’s diktats. And just like in the old banana republics, securing life presidency – through constitutional reform and rigged elections, if need be – becomes the incumbent’s overriding goal. Read more…

Fabio Rafael Fiallo is an economist, writer and former UN official. His latest book, “Ternes Eclats”, or “Dimmed Lights” (Paris, L’Harmattan), presents a critique of international organizations and multilateral diplomacy

As published in on August 30, 2012.


By Anders Åslund

Russia has shown itself to be an international spoiler with its ardent support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The contrast with its benign policy toward Libya in 2011 reflects how Russian foreign policy changed with the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin. On foreign policy, at least, Russia’s former president, Dmitri Medvedev, mattered more than is commonly understood.

Russia has resumed its aggressive anti-American policy of 2007-2008, which culminated in war with Georgia in August 2008. Ironically, this bellicosity harms Russia the most, because it alienates all but international pariahs, such as Syria, Venezuela, and Belarus.

Even in the former Soviet Union, almost all countries are seeking trade and security with anyone but Russia, because Putin is using all sticks and no carrots. His three main policy instruments toward the post-Soviet states are the customs union implied by his proposed “Eurasian Union,” Gazprom, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Each intimidates Russia’s neighbors, while none benefits them, leaving them with few reasons to cooperate with Russia.

Currently, Putin’s top priority is to persuade as many countries as possible to join the customs union, but so far only Belarus and Kazakhstan have done so. Belarus set a high price, demanding a bailout of no less than $20 billion last year, while geography condemns Kazakhstan to get along with Russia. But the other post-Soviet countries resist, because a customs union with Russia would force them to raise their import tariffs, hindering their trade with other countries.

If Russia were serious about economic integration, it would promote free-trade agreements to facilitate trade in all directions. In fact, in October 2011, Russia initiated such a new multilateral free-trade agreement in the post-Soviet space; but, owing to the Kremlin’s single-minded pursuit of the customs union, only Belarus and Ukraine have ratified it, leaving its relevance in doubt. Read more…

Anders Åslund is senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and author of “The Last Shall Be the First: The East European Financial Crisis, 2008-10″.

As published in on August 28, 2012.


China is rising — fast and furious. So why can’t the rest of Asia get its act together?

By Rowan Callick

Over the past decade, East Asian countries have surprised observers with their eagerness to work together. After all, this is a region where ancient (and not-so-ancient) hatreds run deep. But observers shouldn’t get their hopes up: Modern rivalries and historical baggage still stand in the way of transforming these arrangements into genuine regional cooperation.

On paper, progress appears to be occurring rapidly. In 2010, China, Australia, and New Zealand implemented free trade arrangements with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), providing preferential access to each others’ markets. China, Japan and South Korea are negotiating a free trade agreement. Even erstwhile enemies China and Taiwan entered into an economic agreement that reduces trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas on both sides: trade between Taiwan and China reached $128 billion in 2011, a 13 percent increase from the previous year, when the agreement went into effect.

But East Asia’s patchwork of economic alliances is weighed down by history and hobbled by ineffective security arrangements. The region’s three biggest flashpoints stretch back decades, if not centuries, and are like volcanoes — mostly dormant but occasionally deadly. Besides the French, U.S., and Chinese wars with Vietnam, the last full-on slugfest was the Korean War, which ended almost six decades ago. But its repercussions linger until the present day: North Korea and the United States never signed a peace treaty and technically remain at war. Similarly, Imperial Japan’s invasion of China, Korea, Taiwan, and practically all of Southeast Asia was the greatest cause of upheaval in 20th century Asia. World War II also remains far more politically explosive in Asia than it does in the United States — as the July torpedoing of a South Korean-Japan military pact because of lingering anti-Japanese sentiment shows. Read more…

Rowan Callick is Asia Pacific editor of The Australian.

As published in on August 22, 2012.

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