By Paul Goble
The Internet can mobilize people around issues and this mobilization often takes the form of presenting declarations to foreign leaders or gathering signatures on petitions that allow those who are sometimes ignored to force themselves into policy discussions.
In the last few days, three such Internet-based initiatives have come out of Eurasia: a petition drive in Belarus against Russian military exercises there, an appeal to the presidents of Russia and the US to defend the indigenous population of the North against oil drilling, and a call to Washington to treat the ethnic Azerbaijanis of Iran differently than Iranians proper.
Because these appeals touch on issues central to the US-Russian relationship, they may very well have real world consequences by forcing a consideration of the views expressed in them by both Russian and American officials who might otherwise be unaware of the intensity of feelings behind them.
First, two days ago, the Youth Wing of the Belarusian Popular Front announced that it was beginning to collect signatures on a petition to demand that Minsk cancel plans for a joint military exercise with Russia later this years because of the threat it poses to Belarusian sovereignty (by24.org/2017/02/11/no_russian_military_exersises_in_belarus/ and moladz.info/stopzahad2017).
The authors are especially concerned because of reports that the exercise, known as West-2017, will involve the introduction onto Belarusian territory of massive amounts of Russian military equipment, amounts far greater than any exercise could require and thus by themselves a threat to the country’s independence.
Second, the Yamal group “Voice of the Tundra” has released an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Donald Trump asking that the two leaders protect them from the actions of oil and gas companies on the traditional national territories (nakanune.ru/news/2017/2/13/22460834/).
The appeal calls for the two to meet and make their fate one of the subjects of their joint discussion, a recommendation that takes on special meaning because of the importance of oil and gas for Putin and because Trump’s secretary of state was before assuming office deeply involved in the development of Arctic fields in Russia as head of Exxon.
And third, the Azerbaijani National Resistance Organization in Iran appealed to President Trump not to impose travel restrictions on the ethnic Azerbaijanis of Iran even if he does impose them on Iranians because they are a separate people and are oppressed by Tehran rather than being its supporters (haqqin.az/news/92436).
There are an estimated 30 plus million ethnic Azeris in Iran, some of whom are very well integrated into Iranian society but some of whom are oppressed by Iran’s Persian-first policies. They have been subject to repression and have often looked north to Baku or even to Turkey and the West for support.
What makes this appeal so interesting is that it comes at a time when Washington is tightening the screws on Iran and may thus be interested in viewing the Azerbaijani minority as a potential ally – or at least some in the ANRO group are hoping for that. The Southern Azerbaijan issue, however is both delicate and complicated.
For background on this issue, see David Nissman’s The Soviet Union And Iranian Azerbaijan: The Use Of Nationalism For Political Penetration (Westview, 1987). Cf. windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/09/window-on-eurasia-more-than-half-of.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2013/12/window-on-eurasia-is-iran-planning-to.html.