Pro-Putin Russian bikers, known for their politically incorrect expeditions, have now caused concern in Azerbaijan, after they announced plans to descend on Nagorno Karabakh on July 31, in breach of an Azerbaijan-imposed travel ban on the breakaway territory.
This is not the first time that the infamous, Kremlin-funded motorcycle club, the Night Wolves, has sparked controversy. Earlier this year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, this Russian nationalism-on-wheels tried to retrace the Soviet Army’s route to Berlin to commemorate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany.
Several European countries like Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic refused to offer passage to this new red army, both because of their controversial trajectory and for their support for pro-Russia fighters in Ukraine. Only a small group of club members made it to Germany; most of them in a rental car.
A pack of Night Wolves then headed to Georgia, much to the outrage of many Georgians angry over the continued Russian occupation of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After all, the country’s biggest bête noire, Putin, is an honorary member of the gang.
In Georgia, the group’s leader, Alexander Zaldastanov, aka Surgeon, added fuel to the fire by expressing regret that he had to use an international passport to cross from Russia to Georgia.
“What is this? I even have to fill out forms in Sevastopol, Ukraine, where I spent my childhood,” he complained to Georgian media. “It is a tragedy that we all don’t live in one country anymore.”
A series of Russian soldiers behaving badly in Tajikistan has ignited debate in that country about the presence of the Russian military base there.
The most recent incident, which appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, was a July 28 street fight in Kulyob, near a part of the Russian base, involving "seven drunken Russian soldiers who had stripped down to their underwear began dancing, singing, and 'yelling loudly' in a residential area of the city center," RFE/RL reported. Locals reportedly complained to the soldiers, who then were reinforced with other soldiers from the base, and it resulted in a brawl.
This follows recent cases involving two Russian soldiers allegedly murdering a Tajik taxi driver last fall, and another soldier badly beating a waiter in a Kulyob restaurant earlier this year.
Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division is based in three facilities around Tajikistan: near Dushanbe, Kulyob, and Qurghon-Teppa. Its roughly 7,000 troops make it Russia's foreign largest military presence. In 2012 Tajikistan agreed to extend the presence of the base until 2042 in exchange for military aid, discounts on fuel, and easier conditions for Tajikistani labor migrants to Russia.
Kyrgyzstan's president has suggested that Russia's military base in the country will have to leave at some point, perhaps in an effort to signal that even as relations with the United States suffer, he doesn't intend the country to be a Russian vassal.
"We have a long term agreement, but sooner or later in the future Kyrgyzstan will have to defend itself, without relying on the bases of brotherly friendly countries," Almazbek Atambayev said at a press conference on July 27.
He did suggest that the base's presence was still welcome today: the base's establishment "was due to threats which the republic can not withstand still today, so the decision on the opening of the base was correct and remains relevant today," he added.
But the reference to the base leaving some day recalled a somewhat stronger statement Atambayev made in 2012 when he publicly questioned whether Kyrgyzstan needed a Russian base. And it comes at a particularly geopolitically volatile time for Bishkek; last week the government canceled a key treaty with the United States in what is probably the most serious diplomatic crisis with Washington in the short history of their bilateral relations. So is Atambayev trying to show that, just because he's angry at Washington, that doesn't mean the country is automatically in Moscow's camp?
In any case, the importance of the air base, at Kant near Bishkek, has risen substantially since 2012. Russia set up the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function except as a response of sorts to the U.S. setting up its own air base in the country.
Romanian and Georgian soldiers practice clearing a room during NATO exercises in Georgia. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
NATO militaries wrapped up joint exercises in Georgia this week, as the alliance tries to strengthen its position in the Caucasus as a counterweight to Russia, and Tbilisi tries to leverage NATO's newly sharpened confrontation with Russia to achieve its long-held goal of membership in the alliance.
The exercise, Agile Spirit, involved about 250 soldiers from Bulgaria, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. It was the first NATO exercise held at the Vaziani base outside Tbilisi as a result of the decision, made at last year's NATO summit in Wales, to open a training base in Georgia. (Exercises named Agile Spirit have been held in Georgia in the past, but those were bilateral U.S.-Georgia exercises; those now have a new name. Noble Partner.)
The exercises took place in an atmosphere of heightened tension between Russia and Georgia; while the exercises were going on the former moved the border a bit in a possible attempt to provoke the latter or at least to visibly throw its weight around.
One of the more interesting story lines from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Russia was the addition of new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal.
The role of a dialogue partner is not clear, and seems to vary: Belarus had been a dialogue partner, and played an active role in the organization. President Alexander Lukashenko went to the summit earlier this month and Belarus was upgraded to an SCO observer. Turkey, meanwhile, became a dialogue partner in 2013 and since then both the SCO and Ankara, by all public appearances, seem to have completely ignored one another.
But that caveat aside, becoming part of the SCO is nevertheless a statement of some sort of geopolitical intention. Armenia's accession is not too surprising: it is Russia which is clearly interested in pushing SCO expansion in order to boost its own international status, and Yerevan is highly susceptible to Moscow's wishes.
Azerbaijan's entrance, however, is more interesting. What does Azerbaijan have to gain from being part of the SCO?
For one, the SCO's focus on weakening Western norms of human rights is clearly attractive given its accelerating feud with the United States and European countries over what Baku says is unfair criticism of its political and human rights practices.
The targets of a special forces raid in Bishkek were ISIS members planning attacks on the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan and on a celebration in the center of Bishkek marking the end of Ramadan, Kyrgyzstani security officials announced.
"The underground terrorist group was planning terror acts at a mass gathering for Orozo Ait (Eid) on July 17, and also on the territory of the air base of the Russian Ministry of Defense located in the city of Kant," Kyrgyzstan's state security service GKNB said in a statement.
The raid, in which six alleged terrorists were killed and another seven arrested, occasioned a lot of skepticism among Kyrgyzstanis, both for the fact that it took place in a heavily populated neighborhood and that the government provided no evidence that the people it targeted were in fact terrorists. ISIS is a convenient bugaboo for post-Soviet governments, though there is little evidence that the group has any designs on the region, let alone any current presence.
And the supposed targeting of the Russian base hardly adds credibility to the authorities' version of events. Russia established the base in 2003, its first new foreign military base since the fall of the Soviet Union. It had been more or less merely a geopolitical placeholder with no apparent function, but in recent years Russia has renovated it, increased the number of aircraft deployed there, and announced plans to make it the Central Asian hub of the planned joint air forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
A court in Tajikistan has sentenced an opposition activist to 13 years in jail as the authorities continue to pursue an indiscriminate campaign to stifle all dissent.
The sentencing of Maqsood Ibragimov, 37, which has so far been reported only by France-based human rights activist Nadezhda Atayeva, brings a close to an episode that highlights the extent to which the Tajik government is going to silence its critics.
Ibragimov must have thought his Russian passport and self-imposed exile status in Moscow would keep him safe, but that was not to be.
He began attracting unwanted attention after founding the "Youth for the Revival of Tajikistan" opposition movement last year.
In October, Dushanbe demanded he be handed over to face charges of extremism, which is how it characterises the political activities of staunch government critics.
That same month, Ibragimov was stabbed by an unknown assailant near his home in Moscow. It might have been worse. The handgun that was found on the site of the attack seems to have malfunctioned.
Quite how Ibragimov actually ended up in Tajikistan is subject of confused accounts.
In the latest version outlined by Atayeva on July 15, Ibragimov was confronted in January outside a prosecutor’s office in Moscow by a group of unknown people, who proceeded to confiscate his Russian passport. He was later taken to an airport and flown to Dushanbe. Atayeva said Ibragimov was tortured and forced to confess that he had returned to Tajikistan of his own will.
He had a flat in downtown New York and a castle in Burgundy, but gave it all up for a hayseed village life; most recently, in disputed Nagorno Karabakh. He is German Sterligov, the founder of Russia’s first commodity exchange, and he recently came out of his hermitage in the breakaway territory to face enemies and possibly prosecution back in Moscow.
One of post-Soviet Russia’s first millionaires, 48-year-old Sterligov, who advocates a return to the old Russian alphabet, tsarism and living off the land, earlier this month fled the blandishments of the Moscow region to set up operations in bucolic Karabakh, the longtime battlefield between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
In a July 13 press-conference, he called the accusations “a lie.”
One of his aides has linked the campaign against Sterligov in Russia to his historical opus, “From Adam to Putin,” in which he wishes that the Russian president would become a Christian. Sterligov accuses the Russian Orthodox Church of heresy.
Heads of state of SCO member countries (in the front row) and heads of partner states and organizations (behind) at the SCO summit in Ufa, Russia, July 9-10. (photo: SCO)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has wrapped up its annual summit, and while the member states seemed to have failed to advance the concrete items they had on their agenda, they nevertheless adopted an ambitious strategy aimed at deconstructing the Western-dominated world order.
The summit was held in Ufa, Russia, on July 9-10, and as expected the big news was that India and Pakistan began the accession process. Somewhat more unexpected was the announcement there will be four new "dialogue partners": Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, and Nepal. And Belarus, which had been a dialogue partner, is now a formal observer, along with Iran, Mongolia, Afghanistan.
However, the accession of India and Pakistan may not be without its bumps: Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov said that adding them to the SCO will "change the balance of power" and should be discussed further. Karimov was speaking at a joint appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tried to brush the comment off with a sort of joke, Tass reported: "Islam Abduganievich, but how will it look: President Karimov of Uzbekistan brought India and Pakistan into the SCO and created a new political world reality,' Putin answered with a smile. 'Let's talk about it.'" Uzbekistan is now the chairman of the organization and next year's summit will take place in Tashkent.
Azerbaijan's new naval base in Puta, inaugurated in June 2015. (photo: president.az)
The Caspian sea states will discuss creating a "collective security system" on the sea at a meeting in Russia this fall, a Russian military official announced.
Russia's top naval commander, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, met with naval delegations from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan last week in St. Petersburg, and afterward announced that the states discussed creating a consultative organ of all the Caspian sea navies and a collective security system, and signing an Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on the Caspian.
"During the meetings with [Admiral Chirkov] the delegations confirmed their readiness to work on these issues, and agreed to conduct the first round of corresponding consultations in Russia in October," the statement from the Russian Ministy of Defense said.
The idea of a collective security system was first publicly mooted by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu last year in Baku; Chirkov's comments suggest it is moving forward.
The notion of collective security on the Caspian is a bit odd; it wasn't explicitly mentioned which of the five states would be involved in the organization, but the goal is presumably for all of them to be. And then, on a closed sea with no other potential enemies, the idea of collective security is overkill -- from whom would they be defending themselves?