The heads of state of the SCO member states at their 2016 summit in Tashkent. (photo: president.uz)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization's summit concluded with few concrete results and plenty of reminders that the group's members have different visions for where the would-be non-Western bloc should be heading.
At the SCO's 15th anniversary summit in Tashkent, there were plenty of vague declarations about the desirability of greater economic cooperation and stepping up the fight against terrorism, but no new initiatives as to how that might be achieved.
The concrete results of the summit were so meager that Russian President Vladimir Putin was reduced to touting the new SCO Youth Card, "which would offer students discounts on travel, accommodation, and visits to museums and other cultural and historical sites in the member countries."
The much-discussed accession of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO progressed with the signing of a memorandum of obligation. "We hope that our partners will complete these steps as soon as possible, in time for our next meeting in Kazakhstan," Putin said in his speech. Putin also pushed for Iranian membership: "We think that now that the Iranian nuclear issue has been settled and the UN sanctions lifted, there are no obstacles in the way of a positive assessment of Tehran’s membership application."
South Ossetia will keep its army, its de facto president has said, apparently ending a contentious discussion about dissolving the territory's armed forces and subsuming them into the Russian military.
However, South Ossetia's armed forces will remain heavily dependent on their Russian patrons, who are funding a rearmament program that will make Tskhinvali's military the equal of Russian units, de facto president Leonid Tibilov said in an interview with Russian news agency Sputnik.
"The process of arms and equipment modernization of the Republic of South Ossetia will be launched to reach the level of the Russian Defense Ministry's 58th Army," Tibilov said. He added that the Russian military presence in the territory will not be increased: "Regarding an increase in the number of [Russian] military, I can say that the current contingent is capable of solving the tasks, therefore the issue of an expansion… is not on the agenda," he said.
The future of South Ossetia's armed forces emerged as a controversy earlier this year after the de facto defense minister accused some members of parliament of conniving to dissolve the armed forces. The issue of the military is one of the sharpest in the negotiations between Moscow and Tskhinvali over the level of autonomy that the territory will retain.
South Ossetia broke away from Georgia as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and has been propped up by arms and money from Moscow since then. Georgia attempted an ill-fated attack to get the territory back in 2008, and Russia responded by formally recognizing the territory's independence (though very few other countries followed Moscow's lead).
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov greets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping upon the latter's arrival to Uzbekistan for the SCO summit. (photo: president.uz)
As the 15th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is set to start on Thursday in Tashkent, the group is poised to continue its growth, with two new members and five new partners. The group's purpose, however, remains unclear, with its diverse members apparently unable to agree on a consistent agenda.
The biggest headline after last year's summit was that India and Pakistan were invited to join the organization as full members, the first expansion since the group was founded. (The SCO currently consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
But on the eve of this year's summit, it's not clear what the timetable for their accession is. Their final accession should take place next year, Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said. "The process of accepting India and Pakistan into the SCO will enter the final stage and we expect that at the next summit in Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan will be finally admitted into the SCO ranks," he said.
A senior Indian diplomat suggested that the timetable may be looser and hinted that it is dependent on the desires of current member states. “We need to work out what we need to do … As far as India’s pace of accession at the SCO being a function of Russia, China and the four countries of Central Asia, I would say we see ourselves as following fairly flexible multilateralism. So we are quite happy to engage in multiple processes. We have been working with other members of SCO on several other fields,” said the diplomat, Sujata Mehta, at a press conference Wednesday.
A Bulgarian minesweeper takes part in NATO exercises in 2014. (photo: NATO)
Bulgaria's prime minister has said the country will not participate in a proposed joint NATO naval fleet in the Black Sea, slowing the momentum of a project that had thus far received broad support from NATO members and partners.
The move would “turn the Black Sea into a territory of war,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Thursday, adding that he “wants to see cruising yachts, and tourists, rather than warships.”
“To send warships as a fleet against the Russian ships exceeds the limit of what I can allow,” Borissov told reporters in Sofia on Thursday, as quoted by Bloomberg. “To deploy destroyers, aircraft carriers near Bourgas or Varna during the tourist season is unacceptable.”
The Romanian-led proposal to create a sort of joint NATO Black Sea naval force has the support of Turkey, the United States, NATO headquarters, as well as non-NATO members Georgia and Ukraine.
Bulgaria's refusal could have several causes. For one, presidential elections are coming up and Borissov may be concerned that rival, more pro-Russia parties could use the move against him, said Dimitar Bechev, a Bulgarian political scientist and fellow at Harvard's Center for European Studies. "Most of all, I think he's concerned about domestic repurcussions," Bechev said in an interview with The Bug Pit. He added that Bulgaria could likely eventually join whatever NATO naval force emerges in an "under the radar" fashion
So far, the India-Russia railway project is not a fully rail-based route, rather a rail-sea-road-rail-shipment arrangement. Goods coming by rail from Mumbai will be ferried to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf, then carried north across Iran by rail to the city of Rasht. Trucks will carry the load to the Azerbaijani border town of Astara, and then a train will carry it to Moscow, said Javid Gurbanov, chairperson of Azerbaijan Railways.
Baku says the route, part of a north-south transit corridor, will carry 5 million tons of goods annually. For a smoother shipment, Iran and Azerbaijan are negotiating the construction of a rail link between the cities of Rasht and Astara. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is due in Baku in August to discuss funding and technical matters. Azerbaijani officials say they may lend part of the estimated $900 million to Iran for the railway project.
Kazakhstani naval vessel "Oral" conducts exercises on the Caspian Sea in early June 2016. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan is teaming up with German, Turkish, and Spanish firms to boost its Caspian naval forces, the Ministry of Defense has announced.
The MoD signed a memorandum of intent with the German firm Abeking & Rasmussen for the delivery of corvettes for Kazakhstan's navy. The two sides also discussed establishing a ship-building facility in Kazakhstan. "We are ready to cooperate with the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan and support the establishment of shipbuilding. Our aim - to create in Kazakhstan a modern shipbuilding enterprise, so it can compete at the global level and contribute to quality production," said Thomas Haake, sales director of Abeking & Rasmussen, according to an MoD press release.
In addition, the MoD also signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkish shipbuilder Dearsan to provide corvettes, and with the Spanish company SEAS to jointly produce naval mines in Kazakhstan. It's not clear what the relationship between all of these deals is, in particular the apparent similarity between the German and Turkish deals; none of the companies or the MoD responded to requests for clarification.
Turkmenistan looks set to deepen military ties with Russia in a rare development for a nation that has since independence pursued a rigidly isolationist foreign policy.
ITAR-Tass news agency cited a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry as saying on June 9 that Moscow would provide Turkmenistan’s armed forces with weaponry and training.
"During talks, the sides discussed relevant issues of bilateral military and military-technical cooperation, as well as problems of regional and global security," ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, speaking at the close of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Turkmenistan.
Ashgabat’s sudden change of course appears likely motivated by concern over the worsening security situation on the border with Afghanistan.
Foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT, on June 8 carried a sensational item claiming that 27 conscripts stationed on the border were killed in clashes in early May.
The website cited unnamed sources as saying that the body of one soldier was returned to his family in a sealed coffin with the explanation that he had committed suicide. When relatives opened the coffin, they found the body riddled with 17 bullet wounds, the website said.
“An ANT source in the Mary velayat said that the bodies of 20 soldiers were brought to their region, but not in zinc coffins, as it should be, but in sleeping bags,” the website said.
ANT has carried multiple reports of claimed casualties among Turkmen troops on the border, but such stories are virtually impossible to verify independently.
A sequel to the iconic Soviet comedy film “Mimino,” a must-see for anyone with an interest in the Soviet Union, is in the can, according to a Russian news report. Georgian media mogul Zurab Chigogidze has acquired the rights to continue the story which captivated Soviet citizens in 1977.
The original movie follows the adventures of Valiko Mizandari, aka Mimino (falcon), a helicopter pilot carrying people and goats around in rural Georgia. He moves to Moscow to pursue his dream of flying the big time with Aeroflot. There, Mimino befriends an Armenian truck driver Rubik Khachikian, the movie’s comic-relief-in-chief, and the two simple men from the Caucasus, speaking an accented, faulty Russian, get entrapped in various misadventures in the USSR’s top megapolis.
The banter between Mizandari and Khachikian, played to a tee by Georgian actor and singer Buba Kikabidze and the late Armenian actor Frunzik Mkrtchian, also encapsulates the eternal rivalry between Georgians and Armenians. At one point, Khachikian claims that the Armenian town of Dilijan has the second-best water in the world. “And the best one is in Yerevan, right?” asks Mizandari, annoyed. “Nope, San Francisco,” responds Khachikian. Mizandari throws a fit because Borjomi, the Georgian mineral water of Soviet fame, is snubbed in the Armenian’s aqua hall of fame.
The summit of leaders from Eurasian Economic Union member states in Astana this week brought much grumbling with it, but there are some incremental signs of progress.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev set the tone on May 31 by pointing out problems on the border with Kazakhstan.
“Despite the positive aspects of integration, including the elimination of customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the improvement of conditions for [Kyrgyz labor] migrants in Russia and other [EEU] states, I would like to note a number of problems. These are the matters of the harmonization of railway [transit] tariffs, the ban on the export of Kyrgyz potatoes to Kazakhstan, [phytosanitary-veterinary] controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the transit of goods in Russia and a number of other things,” Atambayev said in remarks cited by Sputnik news agency.
There is a lot to unpack there, and even the good news Atambayev offered needs to be qualified.
Although custom controls were indeed lifted at the Kyrgyz-Kazakhstan border, it was only for them to be replaced with more stringent inspection regimes aimed at quashing the activities of unregistered traders exploiting differences in prices for various goods in the respective countries. Lengthy waits are still the norm for motorists and it will be a long time before the EEU becomes the kind of border-free space one sees in western Europe.
Russian officials have said that they want to deploy new missiles in Belarus in response to American missile defense deployments in Romania and Poland, a new test for Minsk's precarious balancing act between Russia and the West.
The United States's new missile defense site in Romania officially became operational earlier this month, and Russians (justifiably) see the new facility as targeted towards their country. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised "strong countermeasures" to respond. There have been no official suggestions about what that might entail, but anonymous Russian officials have been saying that one measure could be to deploy Iskander-M missiles in Belarus.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Minsk on May 16 and that proposal was reportedly on the agenda. A source "close to the Russian defense ministry" told the newspaper Kommersant that deploying Iskander-Ms to Belarus would be a "logical response" to the American missile defense installation and other NATO activity close to Russia's western borders.
During Lavrov's visit, his Belarusian counterpart Uladzimer Makey criticized the American missile-defense deployment and said that Belarus and Russia agreed to discuss taking "appropriate countermeasures together."