Can An Autocratic Nation Be A World Leader In Diplomacy?

Nazarbayev looms large in Kazakhstan
Nazarbayev looms large in Kazakhstan
Elena Chernenko

ASTANA - Earlier this month, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev rolled out his new project for cooperation between the East and West -- and it lacked neither ambition nor a healthy supply of alphabet-soup acronyms .

A person close to President Nazarbayev’s administration said this was the most audacious of Kazakhstan’s recent foreign policy projects, unveiled at at a meeting of foreign ministers of member countries of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), an international group led by Kazakhstan.

The new organization is envisioned as a way to bring together representatives of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), CICA, NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the European Union, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In other words, all organizations of the Eurasian continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, that deal with security questions.

The Kazakh government has been considering this project since 2010, but officially enscribed the project only this past August.

“In spite of their diversity, the organizations in the European and Eurasian regions take little advantage of opportunities to work together. Our idea is to fill that gap,” the source explained. “We are not talking about creating another major organization with a big secretariat.”

The authors of this new project say it is possible that it would grow into a new organization in the future, but for now they are just encouraging members to communicate more “in the field.” Kazakhstan envisions special summits, and has promised to release a calendar of potential meetings before the end of the year.

When asked how this new initiative would benefit Astana, the source close to the Kazakh government said, “It is important for Kazakhstan to have an influence in the processes that are taking place in diverse areas, without trying to take on a role of world dominance. In addition, the project will allow us to improve the country’s international image.”

Doomed to fail?

In Russia, the reaction to Kazakhstan’s new initiative was guarded. “We welcome any suggestion aimed at increasing cooperation among international organizations,” a Russian diplomatic source said. “But based on our past experiences in trying to create partnerships, I can tell you that it is not an easy task.”

The diplomat said that CSTO, a military alliance between several former Soviet states, has tried on several occasions to work with NATO on problems such as the drug trade in Afghanistan. But NATO has never been interested.

According to some experts, the Kazakh initiative is doomed to the same fate. “From a logical point of view, the idea is both necessary and modern, but it is unlikely that the initiative can be carried out. For a number of reasons, initiatives like this one never find support in the West,” said Vadim Kosyulin, a senior researcher at the Russian Center for Political Studies. Koslyulin said that in Europe and the United States, CSTO and SCO are seen as nothing more than ways to counteract the western presence in Central Asia.

“In addition, the West is convinced that CSTO and SCO belong to undemocratic regimes. And on the whole, it is more convenient for NATO to work with other countries on a bilateral basis than with a bloc,” Koslyulin said, adding, “The most important thing for the Kazakh idea to work is missing -- trust. And that lack of trust is on all sides.”

A source at NATO confirmed Koslyulin’s analysis. “We heard more about these major projects in the 1990s, when everyone wanted to cook up some kind of grand institutional soup,” the source at NATO said. “Now isn’t the time for grandiose ideas. We have to solve our current problems in a timely manner.”

The source at NATO added that Astana’s suggestion was “not bad,” but “not realistic.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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