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Former Soviet States Weigh Israel Ties Vs. Popular Anger

Demonstration in Nardaran denouncing Israeli military strikes on the Gaza Strip
Demonstration in Nardaran denouncing Israeli military strikes on the Gaza Strip
In Azerbaijan, Islamic activists have rallied several times since the beginning of the year against Israel's military operations in Gaza.

In one of the latest unsanctioned demonstrations, several hundred people gathered for the second time on January 5 in the village of Nardaran near Baku.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, one participant, Mustafayev Abdulla, condemned the "genocide of Palestinians by Israel. We demand that they stop this action and express our solidarity with the Palestinians."

On January 2, police broke up a demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in Baku, arresting about 20 people who later received two-week jail sentences.

Interestingly, the Azerbaijani government has yet to react to the Gaza crisis officially, much like the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, which is sticking to its foreign-policy principle of "positive neutrality." Meanwhile, the other Central Asian states, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, have issued cautious statements on the violence.

These countries' Foreign Ministries have said there was no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and called for both sides to agree to a cease-fire.

The governments of these majority Muslim states appear to be caught in a dilemma. Their governments have had close relations with Israel since their independence in 1991 that in some cases have expanded to include security cooperation.

And the last thing those governments now want is to fan domestic anti-Israeli sentiments and be seen in the West as part of an anti-Israeli coalition along with countries like Iran and Syria that are facing growing international isolation.

Muslim Fraternity

The Azerbaijani government, however, is not the only one to face domestic pressures.

Tajikistan's opposition Islamic Rebirth Party has condemned Israel's actions in Gaza. And at a meeting of about 2,000 supporters in Dushanbe on December 31, deputy party leader Muhiddin Kabiri demanded the government also condemn Israel, and allow the party to hold public protests.

"This not only the voice of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, this is voice of all Tajiks, perhaps all Central Asians, and the continuation of what our mujahid brothers in Palestine are doing," Kabiri said.

Israel's military operation in Gaza has sparked protests across the Muslim world.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, independent political observer Mars Sariev expresses concern over what he calls the politicization of Islam. "The more strongly the situation in Palestine aggravates, the more strongly Islam is politicized," he says. "There are some politicians who use Islam for their purposes. The position of [moderate] Muslims has suffered, and radical Islam grows. And this factor cannot be stopped with weapons. It is wrong."

The country's Union of Muslims is planning to rally in Bishkek on January 12. The new, unregistered, nongovernmental organization has threatened to hold "wide-scale actions" in support of the Palestinians if the international community does not stop what it calls Israel's "aggression."

"Israel, without taking into consideration [other's opinion], has sent troops into Gaza and killed some 500 innocent citizens, Arabs," union co-Chairman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, who is also the leader of the Free Kyrgyzstan Democratic Party, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"Therefore we appealed to the UN, United States, Russia, China, and the presidents of other powers. The war must be stopped immediately and Israel must pull out its troops."

Strategic Considerations

Meanwhile, Russia's Council of Muftis has condemned Israel's military operations and expressed support for the Kremlin's policy in the Middle East.

Russia, which is home to a large Muslim population and has sought closer relations with the Islamic world, has described Israel's ground offensive as a "dangerous escalation."

Moscow also dispatched its Middle East envoy, Aleksandr Saltanov, to the region to secure a cease-fire.

But Russia, too, faces a balancing act.

Russian-Israeli relations are complex. In 1947, Soviet leader Josef Stalin backed the founding of the state of Israel. During the Six-Day War in 1967, the Soviet Union broke off relations and subsequently supplied weapons to the Arab states that fought Israel.

Many say Moscow's current approach in the Middle East is based on a pragmatic quest for opportunities. Russian-Israeli relations have improved steadily over the past 15 years, as have business and cultural ties, as the Russian-speaking segment of Israel's population has exploded to 20 percent.

Meanwhile the Chechen wars and terrorist attacks in Russia have led to a strengthening of sympathy on the part of many ordinary Russians for Israel.

This improvement in relations has occurred despite Russia's continued ties with Iran and Syria and contacts with Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Friend Of My Enemy

In Georgia, meanwhile, the public's sympathies appear to be even clearer.

Dozens of students held a pro-Israel rally in Tbilisi on January 5, waving Israeli flags and banners reading "Israel has the right to defense" and "Stop terrorism."

Georgia's pro-Western government has expressed "concern" over the "deteriorating" humanitarian situation in Gaza. But it said such situation had been triggered by rocket attacks launched by Hamas against "innocent Israeli civilians."

"We have thousands of Georgian Jews living in Israel. Because of that we have a very close relationship. Then we bought arms from Israel and they helped us in preparing our army. And we understand that Israel is defending itself," says Aleksandre Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.

"And also Hamas is not popular here, especially because it's an extremist organization and also because [during] the Georgian-Russian war [in August], the Hamas leadership took very seriously the Russian side," he adds.

In the Moscow-backed Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, the Spiritual Board of Muslims condemned Israel's "new aggression" and its support for Tbilisi.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani, Georgian, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Tatar-Bashkir services contributed to this report

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