Central Asia Program Series

Russia’s Weaponization of the Diaspora: Lessons from Georgia, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan

By Marintha Miles

CAP Papers 190
July 2017

In mid-May 2017, the Russian Ministry of Justice moved to revoke the registration of the All-Russia Azerbaijani Congress (ARAC), the largest and most influential Azerbaijani diaspora organization in Russia. This is nothing new: Russia dissolves diaspora groups regularly, and policies toward diaspora groups on Russian soil work to serve Russia’s interests both at home and abroad. It is likely that in 2001, when ARAC was formed, that it was not wholly a grassroots effort by Azerbaijani diaspora members, and was at least coopted and funded by Russia. At the time, the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin gave their blessing to the formation of the organization. It was only when Russia no longer had control over the organization and it failed to serve Moscow’s interests that the group was dissolved.

A comparison with Russia’s control over two other diasporic communities, Georgian and Tajikistani, shows a pattern of Moscow’s long-term policy and actions regarding diasporic communities. While much research has been done on how Russia utilizes its diasporas in places like the Baltics in hybrid warfare, Russia’s weaponization of foreign diasporas on its own soil is underexplored. An understanding of how diaspora organizations are formed in Russia and by whom, how they are funded, what their goals and aims are, and how these goals are carried out sheds light on how Russia might act to bring the Azerbaijanis diaspora back under Kremlin control.

Diaspora Organizations in Russia

For every country of the former Soviet Union, dozens of diaspora organizations exist in Russia, with a range of goals. Some are youth organizations, others are set up as cultural centers, some aim to support migrant workers, and some are collectives of business owners who seek to increase trade between the countries. While some of the groups have permanent facilities, distribute literature, and hold meetings and events, others exist mainly on the internet to facilitate communication between compatriots, ranging from friendship and camaraderie to supporting during migration to political dissent against the home government. Regardless of the often-disparate nature of the groups, Moscow has a clear policy agenda for diaspora organizations.

The Kremlin recognizes that many former Soviet countries have a high reliance on remittances from Russia, which encourages migrant workers to seek out others and form diaspora networks. Even workers from countries with lower numbers of migrants and lower rates of remittances form diaspora networks and organizations to support migrant rights and further their other interests. On the other hand, the Russian government seeks to control illegal migration and crimes associated with it, and any disruption of labor by migrants, such as organizing or picketing. Moscow also has a long history of using migrant laborers as leverage for their own political aims: that is, to coerce cooperation out of labor-sending countries. Therefore, the Kremlin works to control diaspora groups.

A prominent public leader of a diaspora organization in Russia in 2013 outlined the threefold mission of Russian created and/or supported diaspora groups as:

  • Russian Law: to ensure Russian migration laws are adhered to, to encourage legal migration and curb crime;
  • Politics: to influence the politics of the home (migrant-sending) state, and protect and promote the political interests of Russia;
  • Commerce: business and commerce coordination with Russian business to build capital in Russia and coordinate business deals in the home country.

He was emphatic, however, that securing the human rights of immigrants was not a goal: “Human rights organizations on Russian territory don’t help migrants, but are only ever working in the political interests of other countries. Human rights groups should therefore not be acknowledged.”[ii]  With this clarity and these three goals, the cases of Georgia and Tajikistan can be examined and used to predict Moscow’s actions toward Azerbaijan’s diaspora.

While Russia allows diaspora organizations and groups to form on Russian soil under the law, it disbands organizations that fail to work within the framework of Moscow’s domestic and foreign policy goals. Importantly, Russia has a policy of both organizing diasporas—including handpicking leaders—and coopting existing organizations. A loose coalition of the leadership of Kremlin-backed diaspora groups—in addition to official government structures like the Council of Nationalities of the Government of Moscow (CNGM), which reportedly represents over 70 nationalities—provides the similitude of grassroots efforts to support migrant worker rights, while allowing Moscow to control legislation and policies, as well as the narrative behind them.

Georgia

In line with Russia’s threefold mission of diaspora organizations on its territory, Russia creates and supports Georgian diaspora organizations, and uses wealthy diaspora elites to disrupt politics in Georgia. They support Moscow’s political aims by funding political candidates and parties, and work to build Russia’s economy.

There are conflicting reports of the number of Georgians living in Russia.[iii] Like other former Soviet countries, Georgians have a long and rich history with Russia. Many diaspora organizations have come and gone over the years, mostly built around cultural traditions and ties to Russia. Like the Azerbaijani ARAC, some of the organizations are shut when cooperation is not going Russia’s way. For example, the Union of Georgians in Russia (Soyuz Gruzin v Rossii), founded in 2007, was dissolved in 2015 amid Moscow’s conflicts with Georgia, although the exact reason remains unclear. The Union of Georgians in Russia had been incredibly active throughout Russia, including with Georgian youth diaspora organizations, and was close to the Moscow Patriarchate. The president of the Union, Mikheil Khubutia, was awarded the medal of the first degree of Venerable Serge of Radonezh (Sergey Radonezhskii) and the Patriarchal Bull for a Blessing for Great Contribution to Glorifying the Russian Orthodox Church.

The World Congress of Georgian People (Vsemirnyi kongress narodov Gruzii) (WCGP) was founded by Georgian-born Russian businessman, Alexander Ebralidze, in 2009 in Vienna, Austria; its first Russian branch opened in Saint-Petersburg in that same year. The organization was also registered in the Public Register of Georgia. The vice president of the WCGP, Alexander Khomeriki, is also a founder of The Foundation for the Russian and Georgian Nations Unity. Uniquely, the WGCP openly discusses political ambitions and both overtly and covertly funds political parties and candidates in Georgia.

Russia’s weaponization of diaspora organization is not lost on the Georgian government. Mikheil Saakashvili claimed that that the Union of Russia’s Georgians was founded by the Kremlin and therefore could not be trusted. Former Chief of Intelligence Services Gela Bezhuashvili also claimed that “Russia aims at toppling down the Georgian authorities and for this they have actively been working with the Georgian diaspora.”[iv] While some experts claim that the manipulation of the Georgian diaspora for political purposes was (and is) driven by businessmen for commercial profit, rather than carefully orchestrated by Russian authorities, the truth is likely more nuanced. Wealthy Georgian businessmen-turned-diaspora-leaders-turned-politicians, like Alexander Ebralidze, are clients of Russia’s thick patronage networks. It is in Russia’s interest to funnel money into diaspora-run businesses and groups to bend political outcomes toward Moscow. On the flipside, it is in the interest of Georgian clients who want to continue making large sums of money on Russian soil and who benefit from patron relationships to do what Moscow wants. For wealthy businessmen like Ebralidze, allegiances are to profits rather than Georgian national integrity or to Russia (except as a patron state).

Recognizing the impact and potential of the diaspora on the economy and development of the country, Georgia has a model diaspora engagement program. However, while the largest number of Georgians outside of Georgia reside in Russia, Russian diaspora groups are noticeably absent from the engagement website. Despite the reality that Russia continues to be a key contributor to remittances and the largest contributor to Foreign Direct Investments,[v] diaspora groups from Russia are blocked from being listed and engaged with through official channels. As Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze noted in April 2017 during a public lecture at the George Washington University, the Georgian diaspora in Russia is viewed as an inherent political threat. Money is funneled into the businesses of wealthy Georgian-born diaspora members and used to disrupt the Georgian government, through elections and other means, to Moscow’s benefit.[vi] Russia’s threefold mission and diaspora policy to maintain law capture state politics through disruption and monetary means, and efforts to build the economic power of elites in Russia are thus carried out.

Tajikistan

Similar to the Georgian case and in line with Russia’s threefold mission of diaspora organizations on its territory, Russia creates and supports Tajikistani diaspora organizations, with a few key differences.[vii] Tajikistan lacks the rigorous political culture of Georgia; political opposition parties on Tajikistan’s soil are essentially absent, and Tajikistan’s main source of income, at nearly half of the economy, is migrant labor remittances from Russia.[viii] While Moscow cannot fund political parties and field candidates in elections the same way it does in Georgia, Moscow adapts and employs effective mechanisms for political control and disruption of Tajik politics through diaspora organizations in Russia.

Like Georgia, official numbers vary on how many Tajiks are in Russia. It was estimated that 1 in 8 Tajiks was a migrant worker to Russia before the economic crisis. Remittances peaked to account for roughly 50 percent of Tajikistan’s economy in 2008, but have since fallen to around 30 percent due to Russian sanctions and the economic crisis. Like Georgia, Azerbaijan, and other diasporas with a heavy presence in Russia, dozens of Tajik diaspora groups and organizations exist (a partial list can be found here). Conflicts between the groups and accusations of corruption are common. The Union of Tajiks in Russia (Soyuz tadzhikistantsev Rossii) was founded with the support of the Republic of Tajikistan and the Russian Federation in 2007. After the Union of Tajiks in Russia was dissolved by the Russian Supreme Court, the former leadership of the organization was approached by the Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS)[ix] in 2012 and asked to head a new diaspora group Russia wanted to create. The former leader claims he was hesitant to do so, but officials from the FMS were quite persistent. After they explained their plans for Tajikistan’s new diaspora organization, including the threefold mission of Russian-created diaspora groups, he asked them why they needed him at all. They replied, “Because we don’t speak Tajik.”

Key leaders in the Tajik diaspora community created the new Union of Tajiks of Russia (Soyuz tadzhikov Rossii, UTR) in that same year.[x] Similar to the close connections enjoyed by both the Georgian and Azerbaijani diaspora organizations with the Russian Orthodox Church, the Union of Tajiks in Russia is directly funded by the Russian Orthodox Church with money earmarked from the Kremlin to fund the Union. The money pays for printing and distribution of literature, meeting places, and other needs. The UTR also receives funds from other unspecified ‘sponsors’. It is interesting to consider how these funds might be used.

Tajikistan lacks the robust political culture of Georgia, but at the time the UTR was formed, some opposition minority parties were actively participating in political processes in Tajikistan. In the summer of 2012, Tajik businessman Umarali Quvvatov founded a new political party in Russia, Gruppa 24, meant to unite the Tajik opposition in preparation of the 2013 elections. He was shortly thereafter detained in Dubai, at which time the president of UTR and other key figures of UTR and members of Gruppa 24 began actively campaigning for his release via Odnoklassniki and through press releases propagated via Facebook.

While Quvvatov’s case garnered attention largely because of the advocacy of leaders of UTR who were active in Gruppa 24, Quvvatov was not a well-known figure in Tajikistan, nor among the diaspora in Russia. His political party was not taken seriously. It was not until the founding of Tojikiston Nav (New Tajikistan) in early 2013 in Russia by Zaid Saidov, a well-known wealthy Tajik businessman and popular Tajik government official, and his subsequent arrest, that Gruppa 24 gained any real traction. While Quvvatov and Gruppa 24 had no close connections to Saidov, leaders of UTR (who did have connections to Saidov) moved to make him the new face of Gruppa 24.

In an interview in 2013, the UTR leadership described engagement with youth in the diaspora, especially using internet and social media, as part of Russia’s diaspora agenda. Odnoklassniki is by far the most popular social networking site for Tajiks. Of the roughly 1.2 million Tajik users of Odnoklassniki in 2013,[xi] approximately 10 percent became members of Gruppa 24’s Odnoklassniki page.  Leaders of the UTR also quietly began a Facebook page, Virtual’noe Pravitel’stvo i Parliament Respubliki Tadzhikistan (Virtual Government and Parliament of the Republic of Tajikistan, VGPRT). In addition to the Facebook group, the moderators held regular meetings called Training Club, which were recorded and posted on YouTube and advertised in Gruppa 24, and in the Facebook group, Platforma.[xii] The stated purposes of Training Club were:

  1. All group members will meet, discuss, and propose paths to solve these and other problems;
  2. Based on results of the initial discussions, group members will select candidates to serve as “government ministers”;
  3. “Government” conferences will be held monthly to discuss real topics that arise within the Tajik diaspora or in Tajikistan; and
  4. The accepted “solutions” will be promulgated through the media and /or Internet sites.[xiii]

The president of UTR said that one of the purposes of Training Club was to train young people to run diaspora groups in Russia and the government of Tajikistan in the future.[xiv]

Gruppa 24 was declared an extremist organization in Tajikistan in October 2014. Purported members in Tajikistan, which were few (most were in Russia or other countries), were arrested.  Tajikistan has attempted to extradite members from Russia and elsewhere. Odnoklassniki closed the Gruppa 24 page by government request, which at times did contain some content advocating violence, with some evidence material and posters seeking to draw members to Syria. However, the group continued to gain new members, particularly after the assassination of Quvvatov in Istanbul in March 2015. His assassination made him a martyr and spurred the popularity of Gruppa 24, especially among young men.

Gruppa 24 does not appear to have any new leadership, and in early 2016 several members in Moscow and Europe both claimed to be the new official leaders. Further, members in Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, and Turkey are not as organized with as much funding as Gruppa 24 members in Russia, who in April 2017 began regularly broadcasting new videos.

Given the evidence of Gruppa 24’s links to the Kremlin-formed and -funded UTR, as well as Russia’s pattern of formation, cooptation, and disruption of diaspora movements, it would be extraordinarily naïve to believe that Russia is not the guiding hand behind Gruppa 24, or that it takes an entirely hands-off approach to the organization’s European affiliates. This does not mean that members of Gruppa 24 in Russia or in Europe are not real dissidents and do not truly seek change in Tajikistan, nor that they are not at risk of physical harm in Tajikistan. However, Gruppa 24 should be understood, at least in part, as an instrument of Russia’s political aims in Tajikistan.

States with high levels of migration to Russia are wise to be cautious about the motives and goals of diaspora groups, which often operate at the behest of the KremlinMarintha Miles

Russia’s multifaceted strategy for the Tajik diaspora

Whereas in Georgia political disruption includes capturing the business interests of wealthy businessmen, labor migration is Tajikistan’s biggest export. Capturing the hearts and minds of migrant laborers is one of Russia’s critical goals. Along with Russia’s threefold mission of diasporas, Gruppa 24 allows Russia to: 1) consolidate and ascertain dissent within the Tajik population; 2) pressure President Emomali Rahmon by enabling and supporting dissent and proving to Rahmon that Russia can harbor dissenters or extradite them at will; 3) develop governance alternatives among members that are friendly to Russia (should they need them), as well as use security forces to counter elements unfriendly to Russia’s goals;[xv] and 4) keep tabs on, and control, violent and extremist elements who may be a threat to Russia or Tajikistan.

Like Georgia, Russia’s weaponization of the diaspora is not lost on Tajikistan’s government. The Migration Service of the Republic of Tajikistan periodically sends researchers to Russia to investigate the human rights of migrant workers and migration processes; they generally keep the results confidential, but researchers have reportedly been barred from working with certain segments of diaspora groups, including the leadership of UTR. In June 2014, when the government of Tajikistan held a joint conference with the International Organization for Migration Dushanbe on diaspora engagement, the UTR president was reportedly forbidden from attending.[xvi] However, UTR continues to be active in diaspora and migration activism in Russia and, for example, participated in the International Organization for Migration Moscow-sponsored International Conference on Migration in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in Kazan in September 2017. Further, especially in light of the April 2017 terror attack in St. Petersburg, Russia sees the benefit of strong diaspora leadership in curtailing extremism. In May 22, 2017, Chechen Shamsail Saraliyev, a deputy council member of Russia’s Duma, met with diaspora leaders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan’s UTR to discuss the “prevention of extremism and terrorism among young people.”[xvii]

However, there are critical caveats to consider regarding Russia’s control of the Tajik diaspora. While Gruppa 24 publicly advocates for Saidov and other political prisoners, multiple sources put UTR leadership on the plane delivering Saidov back to Tajikistan in 2013.[xviii] UTR’s president travels between Tajikistan and Russia without arrest. Furthermore, arrests and extradition of Gruppa 24 members from Russia to Tajikistan are selective, while funding for the group continues in Russia, as well as support for the production of materials like videos. These are indicators that there is a high likelihood of Russian and Tajikistan cooperation regarding the existence of Gruppa 24, which can be mutually beneficial in weeding out and controlling dissidents. The cultivation of Gruppa 24, using opaque methods and instrumentalizing both Quvvatov and Saidov as pawns, proved a successful move toward the creation of confusion and state capture.

As if the leadership of UTR was not busy enough in 2012, a top leader also met with the Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Iran in Moscow. He was impressed with the Ambassador’s deep knowledge of the social and political conditions in Tajikistan, as well as his affinity for and understanding of the use of online outlets and social media to engage with the diaspora. With increasingly cozy cooperation between Russian and Iran, Iran’s interest in working with Russia-backed diaspora groups is not surprising. Ties to diaspora groups are even more crucial to Iran now because of strains on Tajik-Iranian relations after Iranian banker Babak Zanjani’s money-laundering and embezzlement scheme involving Tajik banks and businesses cost Iran billions. Iran and Tajikistan’s linguistic ties facilitate easier communication between Russia-Iran joint business ventures such as the Russia-Iran joint gas company, which is managed by members of the Tajik diaspora in Moscow. Whether Tajikistan likes it or not, the UTR remains a Kremlin supported player in Tajik politics and, unlike Azerbaijan’s ARAC, currently holds favor with Russian officials.

Conclusions

Russia’s dissolution of Azerbaijan’s biggest and most influential diaspora organization, ARAC, fits a broader pattern of Russia’s diaspora policy aims and goals. Russia both creates and coopts diaspora organizations to ensure migration laws are adhered to; curb crime; influence the politics of migrant-sending states while protecting and promoting Russian political goals; and coordinate business and commerce across borders. Russia’s diaspora policy should be viewed as both domestic and foreign policy; it protects Russia at home and at the same time critically shapes Moscow’s interactions with countries within its sphere of influence.

As in the cases of Georgia and Tajikistan, Azerbaijan’s diaspora organizations can only exist and thrive with the approval of the Kremlin and (quite literally) the backing and blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is likely that, as in the cases of Georgia and Tajikistan diaspora organizations, ARAC was under Moscow’s influence but was dissolved when it was no longer doing the work of the Kremlin. Following a pattern of diaspora organization creation and cooption, new diaspora organizations of Azerbaijan are certainly being cultivated by the Kremlin to serve Russia’s domestic and foreign policy aims. As hostilities heat up between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region, the Kremlin’s control of both Armenian and Azerbaijani diaspora groups are crucial to Russia’s goals.

Financial support to diaspora groups backed by Moscow comes in three main forms: funds from the Russian Orthodox Church earmarked for these diaspora groups; unidentified sponsors; and donations from wealthy businessmen. Domestically, the funds are used to support buildings, produce literature, and produce multi-media and videos to influence diaspora communities in Russia’s favor. The internet makes it easy to distribute materials both within Russia and across borders to diaspora home countries. Monies are further used to interfere with political processes. In Georgia, Russia-friendly political parties and candidates are financially supported, and efforts to influence election processes are endemic. In the case of Tajikistan, opposition parties are founded and developed on Russian soil, and the opposition platform, targeting mainly young men, is distributed via the internet.

Given Azerbaijan’s current political climate, Russia has the option of adopting both methods used in Georgia and Tajikistan to disrupt politics. Like Tajikistan, Ilham Aliyev’s repressive government breeds discontent and makes the country ripe for the formation of opposition groups abroad. However, as in Georgia, transnational business interests are of primary importance to Azerbaijan’s economy. Russia can both cultivate opposition, as in Tajikistan, and at the same time infiltrate the business community, as in Georgia. Iran and Russia’s combined gas industry interests may be one channel where the countries cooperate more, and diaspora meetings with Iran’s ambassador in Russia would be instrumental in the achievement of these aims.

States with high levels of migration to Russia are wise to be cautious about the motives and goals of diaspora groups, which often operate at the behest of the Kremlin. On the other hand, diaspora organizations with political agendas are easy targets for state actors who choose to claim they are the mouthpieces of Russian state propaganda or, in the case of Tajikistan, extremist organizations. What is clear is that the political activities and goals of diaspora groups in Russia often have dubious foundations. The actions of diaspora leaders and their connections to the Russian government demonstrate blurred lines between domestic and international politics and the role diasporas play. Ultimately, diasporas play a crucial role in Russia’s hybrid warfare.

 

 

[i] Marintha Miles is currently a PhD student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. Her research explores the political intersections between migration, transnationalism, economics, gender, and religion in Tajikistan. She has periodically lived in Tajikistan, and has worked and researched in the country since 2011. She previously received a MA in Anthropology from The George Washington University, and a BA in International Studies from California State University.

[ii] Interview with the author.

[iii] The information on the Georgian diaspora in Russia contained in this article draws on Mariam Gachechiladze, “Russia’s Georgian Diaspora and Georgian-Russian Relations.” Research Report, Caucasian House, 2016. Available at http://regional-dialogue.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/
Diaspora-ru-PDF.pdf

[iv] Gachechiladze, “Russia’s Georgian Diaspora…,” 65

[v] One of my interlocutors at CARIM East – Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration – claims that Russian and Georgian statistics on migrant numbers in Russia, as well as FDI and remittances, are hugely exaggerated for political gains on both sides. Greece and Turkey are also primary destination points and large contributors to the Georgian economy through migrant processes. See also: “Georgian Diaspora and Migrant Communities in Germany, Greece and Turkey Transnational realities and ties with Georgia.” International Centre for Migration Policy Development, Vienna, 2014.

[vi] Response from Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze at the conference “Russia’s Hybrid War on Georgia: 2008 and Beyond,” Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, April 20, 2017.

[vii] Information on Tajikistan in this article is drawn from Marintha Miles, The Political Activities of the Tajik Diaspora in Russia and Implications for the Future of Tajikistan (2013); Marintha Miles, Blurred Borders: Social Media, Politics, and the Tajik Diaspora in Russia (2014); Marintha Miles, Russia’s Weaponization of Diaspora in Hybrid Warfare (Working paper); and Interview (on the record) by the author with the leadership of Union of Tajiks in Russia.

[viii] In comparison, remittances to Georgia from all countries contribute only 10%-12% of the economy. See International Centre for Migration Policy Development, “Georgian Diaspora and Migrant Communities…”

[ix] The Federal Migration Service was dissolved in 2016, and its duties transferred to the Main Directorate for Migration Affairs MVD.

[x] While the translation in English Union of Tajiks in Russia appears to be the name of both groups, there is a discrepancy in Russian between the words tadzikistantsev (таджикистанцев) and tadzhikov (таджиков). The first, and the first group mentioned, implies citizens of Tajikistan, while the latter connotes ethnic identity.

[xi] The number has since more than doubled.

[xii] Careful analysis of VGPRT, Gruppa 24 (Odnoklassniki), and Platforma, all created in 2012, reveal a very high likelihood the groups were run by the same people. However, Tajikistan Nav’s Facebook page and group were run by different individuals and there does not appear to be cooperation with the UTR supported groups. For an example, see “Trening Klub [Training Club],” 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oM-lyAGI2xI&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

[xiii] The Facebook group can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/266632096733351/?fref=ts

[xiv] Interview with the author, 2013

[xv] Central Asian and Russian security services are suspected of colluding in the killing of dissidents throughout Europe and Turkey. For an example, see here.

[xvi] Personal communication with the author.

[xvii] Posted on the Facebook page of Shamsail Saraliev.

[xviii] Personal communication with the author.

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