Friday, April 20, 2018

Moscow Inserts Political Operatives into African Countries Where Elections are Scheduled

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – Even as the United States and other Western countries wrestle with the question of how involved Russian operatives were in recent elections and referendums in their countries, Moscow appears to be upping the ante by sending more such operatives to key African countries for the same purpose.

            But in what may be a cover story, Russian election experts argue that these operatives are more likely seeking to make money than to influence outcomes and will be limited even in doing that because Russia lacks embassies in many of these countries and the kind of infrastructure it has relied on elsewhere.

            Nonetheless, this descent of Russian election operatives into Africa, especially given some of the details of this operation that have surfaced today, is worrisome because it may provide Moscow with an opportunity for political and economic influence there below the West’s current radar screen.

            In today’s Kommersant, journalist Andrey Pertsev says that Moscow is sending operatives to monitor and get involved with elections “in Madagascar, the Republic of South Africa, Kenya and several other African countries where elections are to occur in the next year or two” (

                The operation is being organized by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s former chef and the man who was behind both portions of Russia’s trolling operations against the United States and the United Kingdom as well as the Vagner private military company of mercenaries Russia has been using in Syria, Pertsev says.

            At present, the Kommersant sources say, this project is focusing on monitoring the social-political situation in these countries by means of sociological research, but “experts suggest,” Pertsev says, “that political technologists may work to export Russian political technology,” although they doubt this has the goal of influencing the outcome of these votes.

            But of course, that is exactly what Russian government sources and experts could be expected to say about a project designed to do exactly what they deny it is about. To say otherwise would certainly send up red flags in these countries and could make it impossible for Russia to introduce such personnel into them.

            According to Pertsev, in several African countries where presidential or parliamentary elections are in the offing, “groups of Russian political technologists” are already in place doing the kind of sociological polling and political intelligence gathering that they have done elsewhere.

            How successful they will be remains to be seen. Nikolay Shcherbakov, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute for African Research, says “Russia has no possibility of seriously getting involved in African affairs.” It simply doesn’t have the resources and can’t compete with others like the Chinese.

            In his view, Prigozhin is simply trying to make money. Demand for such Russian “services” has fallen to almost nothing in Europe, and so Putin’s friend is looking for a new market. But another expert, Sergey Polyakov, himself a Russian political technologist, says that even in that quest, the Russians are likely to fail given how out of date their approaches are.

‘As Long as Trump’s in the White House, Putin will Remain in the Kremlin,’ Nemets Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – Many Western and some Russian commentators have seriously misread what the new American sanctions have done to the Russian stock market and ruble exchange rate, US-based Russian analyst Aleksandr Nemets says. Yes, those sanctions initially pushed down both, but both have largely recovered.

            Moreover, the threat of any additional sanctions appears to have passed as has the threat that Russia would be cut off from the SWIFT payments system, something that would have had a most serious impact on the Russian economy and its ability to do business (

            Consequently, Nemets continues, all the media hype notwithstanding, it is a profound mistake that Moscow now is mired in “fear and despair.”  Russians were initially genuinely frightened that the sanctions imposed earlier this month would be expanded upon, but when they saw that was not the case, they breathed a sigh of relief, not despair.

            There are two reasons why the Russian equities market and ruble exchange rate, after taking an initial hit, have come back: oil prices continue to rise, and “talk about new sanctions still remains just that, talk.”  And what Moscow feared most, being cut off from SWIFT, now is not likely to happen.

            Nemets cites with approval a comment by the Bloomberg news agency that this reflects Moscow’s judgment about US President Donald Trump. “Trump,” it says, “is the most valuable Putin resource. It is crazy to deny this. And Putin will take care of Trump and not even try to use the mountain of compromising information he has about him against him.”

            The reason is simple, Nemets argues: “as long as Trump sits in the White House, Putin will confidently keep control in the Kremlin; and the world will become ever more chaotic.”

Will Kazakhstan Ultimately Become an Islamic State?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – In Soviet times, Moscow officials always spoke of “Central Asia and Kazakhstan,” setting off the latter from the former not only because until the mid-1980s, ethnic Russians represented a plurality of the population and ethnic Kazakhs were significantly less Islamic than were the nations of Central Asia proper.

            But now the Russians have lost their plurality, and Kazakhs have been speculating about the possibility that they may be an even more ethnically homogeneous country than many others. (See, and

            Now, in the wake of a poll which found that 79.6 percent of Kazakh youth are religious (Muslim) and ten percent of them are actively so, some in that country are asking what may be an even more fateful question: will Kazakhstan remain a secular state or will it become Islamic when this generation displaces holdovers from Soviet times?

            According to Central Asian Monitor analyst Saule Isabayeva, “almost all our experts, who are older, are inclined to the view that the secular character of the state will be preserved,” but “few of them deny the possibility of a second scenario” given young people’s interest in Islam “and not only classical” (

            At present, she says, evidence of the Islamization of Kazakhstan is relatively scarce, but there are signs that it may grow, given calls to make Fridays a non-working day and suggestions that the government should allow the opening of private schools with Islamic instruction rather than secular.
            Only a few years ago, such proposals “would have seemed absurd and unacceptable,” Isabayeva continues. But now there is a sense that “sooner or later the authorities will be forced to look for some kind of compromise despite their current principled position on these questions.”

            She asked three Kazakhs for their views on whether Kazakhstan could become an Islamic state and what that would mean if it happened.

            Serzhan Amanov, a biologist, responded that young Kazakhs are turning to religion largely because of “the degradation of ideology in Kazakhstan which is leading to a decline of moral values in society and to the conclusion that religious values are a salvation.” That so many young people have made that choice reflects “the sharp decline” in the level of education.

            What we are seeing, he said, are “the first symptoms of a religious state which in our case will be a Muslim state.” And Kazakhs should realize what that will mean: they don’t need to imagine anything, they simply need to look at Kazakhstan’s neighbors, Iran or Afghanistan, to see what that would mean.

            Madina Nurgaliyeva, a political scientist, offered a somewhat different view. She says that her research shows that there is no close link “between religiosity and faith” especially among the young. Instead, young people look at religion almost as a fashion, and that in turn is leading to “the banalization of religion” and “the loss of its sacred content.”

            “The absolute majority of ‘believers,’” she said, “are from religious families where both parents or at least one of them, most often the mother, are believers.” But there is a portion of young Kazakhs who have gone one step further: as Muslims, “they do not want to have any relations with non-believers and want to see Kazakhstan be a country” where religion dominates.

            Given such attitudes, the state will need to make some compromises; but the real challenge is not to fight off the rise of an Islamist state but rather to come up with “the choice of a more acceptable model of a secular state,” one in which religion will matter more for individuals but not dominate the country as a whole.

            And Kanat Nurov, head of the Aspandau Educational Foundation, observed that “the further Islamization of Kazakhstan’s society” is happening and Islamism is not a challenge to the secular nature of the state.  It isn’t a case of something 20 or 30 years in the future but rather an issue right now.

            With the rise of Islamic youth, Kazakhstan will become more Islamic. “In the best case, it will become like the Turkish or Uzbek state,” secular at one level but with Islam playing a far greater role than now.   It is hardly likely that it will become a theocratic state like Iran although that cannot be excluded entirely.

            Should that happen, he suggested, the ethnic face and identity of Kazakhs would be radically changed or even lost.  A movement toward pure Islam would lead to the discarding of many of the uniquely Kazakh aspects of Kazakh identity, and that would be a tragedy for those like himself who are proud of being Kazakh, Nurov continued.

            If Kazakhstan became an Islamic or Islamist state, the scholar said, there would be some pluses: less alcoholism and drug abuse, for example. There also wouldn’t be any problem with the birthrate.  “But there would be less personal freedom,” and the country would close itself off from the broader world. 

            Having fought off Russification and other forms of assimilation in the past, he said, “we could ourselves with the help of Islam eliminate our national identity and lose our former self-identification.”  

            Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he noted, “was forced to give the Turks what was in essence a new and quite abstract ‘Tyurks,’ because the Seljuks (Oghuz) had begun to call themselves simply Muslims.”  Something similar could happen to the Kazakhs. To fight that, Kazakhstan must promote its current model of Islam lest the Kazakhs themselves suffer.