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EU Opens Door to Three Eastern Neighbors, Russia Tightens Migration Rules

Plus, a movie about the Chechen deportations raises questions in Moscow, and former Soviet strongmen reflect on the long career of Uzbekistani leader Karimov.

by Ky Krauthamer, Jeremy Druker, Mane Grigoryan, and Madeleine Stern 27 June 2014

1. Three former Soviet states take big steps toward Europe


Leaders of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia this morning signed landmark partnership agreements with the European Union.


The agreements, which were signed at a summit in Brussels, establish closer economic ties between the economically weak states and the EU. They obligate the countries to observe EU regulations governing customs, exports, and economic competition, and will allow them free access to European markets, the BBC reports.


Poroshenko European Commission 350Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko with the heads of the European Commission and European Council, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, after signing an association agreement with the European Union. European Commission photo

The agreements are also expected to be economically beneficial to the EU, which exported about $33 billion in goods and services to Ukraine last year. The agreement with Georgia is seen as important to Europe’s continued energy security, as trade liberalization with the country could provide easier access to oil and gas from neighboring Azerbaijan.


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hailed the signing as a hard-fought victory in Ukraine’s struggle for closer integration with Europe, calling it possibly the “most important day” for Ukraine since its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, Radio Free Europe reports. The rejection of the agreement by the previous government was instrumental in sparking mass protests that forced his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, from power in February.


Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca said the agreements give Moldova “a future.”


Russia remains unwavering in its opposition to the agreements, which it says could be seriously detrimental to the Russian economy, the BBC reports. In response to the agreements, Russia has threatened a battery of protectionist economic measures, which include restrictions on trade with Ukraine.


“As soon as the association agreement comes into effect, we can talk about taking protective measures,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov was quoted as saying. Russia is Ukraine’s largest trading partner after the EU and is the source of about 32 percent of its imports, according to Bloomberg.


Ukraine and Georgia are now likely to move ahead with their long-sought goal of visa-free travel to the EU, a privilege Moldova achieved in April. 


2. Russia raises bar for would-be labor migrants


Russia is to tighten entry rules for citizens of most Commonwealth of Independent States countries. Citizens of many former Soviet republics now need only an internal passport to enter Russia, but will have to produce an international passport starting 1 January 2015, Russia Beyond the Headlines reports.


The new rule is expected to have the greatest impact on labor migrants from Central Asia, who number in the millions. Federal Migration Service (FMS) data as of 1 June recorded 2.6 million Uzbeks and 1.2 million Tajiks in Russia. The rule will also affect many of the 1.6 million Ukrainians in the country.


Moscow has been raising barriers to entry for migrants for some time, and recently instituted tests in the Russian language, history, and laws, also starting 1 January.


Citizens of Eurasian Economic Union members Belarus and Kazakhstan are exempt from the new passport requirement.


Estimates of the number of legal and illegal migrants vary, but unregistered visitors far outnumber legally registered migrants. A United Nations study last year said Russia had the second-largest population of foreign migrants in the world, more than 11 million, according to the Russian Legal Information Agency.


The FMS estimate was 9.5 million foreign nationals in Russia in 2012, the government-sponsored Russian International Affairs Council wrote last year. The agency said about 4.5 million foreign nationals were engaged in legal or illegal labor.


The FMS has denied entry to 810,000 foreigners so far this year, agency head Konstantin Romodanovsky told Itar-TASS. Russia operates 81 special deportation centers for migrants, he said.


The centers are “not prisons,” he said, although residents are not allowed to leave without permission. 


3. Controversy in Russia over Chechen deportation film


Disputes continue to swirl around a controversial film depicting the killings of hundreds of Chechens during World War II-era deportations. The film Ordered to Forget, which was surprisingly shown at the 19-28 June Moscow International Film Festival, is either banned, if you ask the film’s producer, or not, if you ask the Russian Ministry of Culture.


At issue is not the depiction of the mass deportations that took place in 1944, after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered that the entire Chechen and Ingush nations be summarily sent off to Central Asia within a few weeks. Official Russia does not dispute the deportations happened. The sore point with the Culture Ministry seems to be the movie’s account of a mass killing in the village of Haybakh, when 700 people were allegedly forced into a barn, which was subsequently set on fire.


Chechnya Mass deportation to Central Asia 350Chechens waiting to be sent to Central Asia in the mass deportations of February-March 1944. Photo:


In a Facebook post, producer Ruslan Kokanayev said he had received a letter from the ministry’s cinema department that said officials could find no evidence in the secret police archives that proved the atrocity occurred – meaning the scene represented “a historical falsehood,” The Moscow Times reports. For that reason, and the movie's potential for “inciting ethnic enmity,” the ministry would not grant a distribution license, needed for the film to be shown in Russian theaters or on television.


Writing in RFE/RL’s Caucasus Report blog, Liz Fuller recounts the “shockingly banal” rationale behind the Haybakh massacre and ongoing efforts to bring the tragedy to light. When local officials realized they could not meet the strict terms of Moscow’s order to transport all Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia in a 15-day period beginning 23 February 1944, “rather than incur the wrath of the regime by failing to comply, they simply killed the population of some villages on the spot.”


Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had famously denounced Stalin’s crimes, ordered the first investigation into the Haybakh events, but nothing was ever publicized. Only in the late 1980s, after Mikhail Gorbachev backed a policy of glasnost (openness), did journalists, Chechen officials, and historians start digging into the past and uncovering evidence that mass killings took place. RFE/RL mentions an interview that Kokanayev gave to Caucasian Knot, in which he says he based his script on a book by Chechen scholars who had used witness testimony about Haybakh.


The Moscow Times, citing, reported that the Culture Ministry has now claimed that the film was not banned but sent for examination.


4. Little progress on reopening Armenia-Russia rail link


Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Georgian officials discussed reopening the rail connection from Armenia to Russia during his 18-19 June visit to Georgia, reports.

Abkhazia Armenia Railroad 350An Abkhazian passenger train passing through the Psyrtskha stop. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Although for Yerevan restoring the line across Georgia’s separatist Abkhazia region is a high priority, little is likely to come from the discussions, partly because of lukewarm interest on the part of Georgia and Russia, the website writes.


Armenia’s direct rail connection to its major ally and trading partner Russia has been cut since 1993 when Abkhazian separatists expelled Georgian forces from the region. Armenia would benefit most from restoring the line because its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed and its only other land route runs away from Europe into Iran. It now has to export most goods by truck into Georgia and then onward to their final destination, often Russia.


The unsettled status of Abkhazia throws up many serious obstacles to reopening the line, the director of the Caucasus Institute think tank, Alexander Iskandaryan, told a press conference 25 June. According to, Iskandaryan said “cargo security” would be a headache.


“And what would you do if your cargo were lost in Abkhazia, in the territory of an unrecognized state? What would the reaction of Georgia be in such situations? Where will the Georgian-Abkhazian customs checkpoint be situated?”


Abkhazia’s independence is recognized only by Russia and a handful of other countries.


Georgian officials said they were interested in talks on restoring the rail link, the Azerbaijan-based Trend agency reported 19 June.


Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Paata Zakareishvili said, “I have no information on this issue yet, but it has been on the agenda long ago.”


The issue is “important for several sides” but has not been given due attention, he said.


5. Soviet colleagues on the secret of Karimov’s longevity


A quarter-century after Islam Karimov came to the helm of the then-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, a foreign-based Uzbekistani website interviewed two former colleagues who worked closely with Karimov as the USSR gradually fell apart at the turn of the 1990s.


For former Belarusian head of state Stanislav Shushkevich, Karimov is “a true intellectual” and “a dictator, governing in his Eastern tyranny,” he tells


Karimov and fellow Central Asian leader Nursultan Nazarbaev each became first secretary of their respective republics’ Communist parties in June 1989, and each has led their independent states to this day.


Shushkevich, now a prominent opponent of Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was one of the troika of Soviet leaders who put their names to the 1991 Belavezha Agreement which dissolved the USSR and created the Commonwealth of Independent States.


At that time, “Karimov always stood out as having a broad outlook and deep understanding of political processes. He had [a] special kind of relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev,” Shushkevich remembers.


“I know Karimov personally and would like to say that he had a good reputation in the USSR. People respected his opinion. The secret of political longevity is knowledge and understanding of what is needed to be done for the country,” he says.


“His methods, however, are unacceptable for a civilized world,” Shushkevich adds.


Fellow Belavezha Agreement signatory, later the first president of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk tells that a proposal to transform the Soviet Union into a Swiss-style confederation, backed by Boris Yeltsin, Karimov, and others, petered out when Gorbachev failed to join them.


Karimov “understood that the USSR had collapsed much earlier than the signing of the Belavezha Accords” and “wanted to be at the forefront” of the creation of the CIS, Shushkevich says.


On the Central Asian style of ruling, Kravchuk remarks: “In the 1990s it was said that Nursultan Nazarbaev and Islam Karimov were supporters of the so-called managed democracy. But I believe that ‘managed democracy’ simply does not exist. It’s a phantom way of governance, a smoke screen. … There have been examples of the use of force and suppression of the people in Uzbekistan. And this is the result of the so-called controlled democracy.”

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director. Mane Grigoryan and Madeleine Stern are TOL editorial interns. 


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